Once I became interested in running an ultra race, I read everything I could find on the subject. I became a frequent visitor to websites like IRunFar.com and trailandultrarunning.com. A simple Google search brings up races, blogs, race reports and training plans to cover just about any race or distance out there. There are ultra running email listservs for questions, comments, and whatever seems to cross your mind.
But what is not there, what is utterly lacking, is the mental preparation aspect. Few, if any, training plans or articles cover how to prepare yourself for those points when the race just plain sucks. Nausea, cramps, diarrhea, confusion, pain, and lack of will are just a few of the more common occurrences. Geoff Roes’s report on his Iditarod run talks about how he was overcome by emotion and broke down in tears at an aid station.
During a recent event, I came to an isolated section of trail and my demons took over. I started beating myself up for being so selfish to leave my family for hours upon hours for training, just to do it again when the event came. Over those 5 – 8 miles, I have never come so close to dropping out of a race. I wasn’t tired; physically I could go on, but mentally, I just desperately wanted to go home.
This stuff happens. If it has not happen to you yet, it will. Just like I know it will eventually rain, at some point you are going to be suffering though, battling the voices in your head, and fighting like hell not to tear off your race number and take the DNF.
So how to prepare:
The Long Run: Yup, you guessed it. The best gauge of whether or not you have it, whether or not something works, is the long run. Find a course with similar landscape and hit it for hours. My training runs tend to be 7 or 8 hours. Keep going when you’re tired. Keep going when your legs and back ache. Keep going until all you want to do is go home. Then go further. Sounds obvious, eh? Reality is that many runners quit when things stop being easy. Over a hundred mile event, everyone thinks of quitting at some point.
Run when you don’t have it in you. If you’re training for a 50 or a 100, you are already training all the time. Mentally you have to prepare yourself for those times when everything falls apart. It all comes and goes. Things will be great for a while, then something will will hurt, or you will be sick. Don’t worry. Don’t let it eat you. It will not last. In a few miles you’ll feel differently. Maybe worse, maybe better, but what you’re feeling now isn’t worth the mental space to worry about it. If your mind says that right now is the worst time to run; GO FOR A RUN.
Train When it Sucks. We’ve all had it. After working all day, or the daylight hours have gotten away from you, it’s later than you want it to be. Maybe cold and rainy, or sunny and hot, that’s when you need to get out the door and log some miles. You’ll feel right as rain within a mile or two. But it’s the practice of going that you need to reinforce. It’s just like leaving the aid station; you have find your ”get up and go” and get up and go.
Solo Long Runs. We are social creatures by nature. We share our grief and our sorrows and feel better in the end because of it. During races, you’ll find yourself running alone more often than not. Once, during the Bethel Hill Moonlight Boogie 50 Mile, it had been so long since I had seen another runner, that I jokingly asked myself if the race had been cancelled and no one told me. If you normally run with a buddy or a group, at least twice a month, plan to run your long runs by yourself. It will build your confidence and you will learn how to motivate yourself to keep moving when you don’t think you can go on.
Stomach problems. To simulate gastrointestinal distress, eat a big meal and go for a 10 mile run. I unintentionally stumbled upon this one. I wanted to spend some time with the family after work before heading out for a run. My wife’s cooking is too good to pass up. I went for my run and had to deal with stomach problems over the next hour and a half. But I did learn that no matter how bad I felt, it was temporary. One mile I would feel the urge to dash into the bushes, the next I’d be fine, only to repeat it again a few miles later.
Run at different times of the day. It’s easy to get into habits with your running. We all run when it’s convenient. I work a full time day job. On weekdays, I normally run in the evening, but one day a week I get up at 4:15 AM and put in 10 miles. Few ultras start at times that match your running schedule. Varying training helps you to become familiar with what it will take to keep going on race day.
Run doubles. Running doubles means to run multiple times within a 24 hour period. This is pretty easy to accomplish if you wake up early to run. Run 10 miles late in the evening, then get up before dawn the next day and slog out another 10. Lots of running plans add this to the weekend long run; for example, 7 hour run on Sat and a 2 hour run on Sunday. This works too. The point is to log miles when you’re at your most drained.
Get yourself a Mantra: Get yourself a saying that you can use every time things look tough. During training runs, I’ve used “if it was easy, anyone could do it,” and, “this is a <Insert Race Name> mile.” During races, when looking up at a climb where everyone else moans, I say “now THAT is some quality up. I paid for that up,” or “gimme some more of that up“. A buddy of mine talks to the flags used to mark the trail. He calls them confidence flags, and seeing them means he can finish the race.
Lastly, Don’t Quit. Don’t quit during training. Don’t cut your miles short because you’re tired or hungry or want to sit down. Don’t quit when you’ve fallen behind schedule. Don’t stop when all you can think of is getting home. At a 100 race last year, it was 80+ degrees in November when I saw a guy collapse into a chair at mile 40, shivering. I thought he was done. No way they’d let him go and no way he’d hold it together over the last 60. His race looked over. Well guess what? I have a photo of him holding the buckle at the finish line. He walked the last 60 miles. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever give up. Let the sweepers pull you off.
The more running I do at the long distances, the more that I think I’m only training when it sucks. If I come back from a run and feel like a million bucks, it was just a pleasure run. But when I am miles away from the car, hands on knees looking up at another hill, wondering why I am doing this, and questioning if I still have enough in me to get home, I know I am logging quality training time.
Perhaps the reason there isn’t a lot out there is because there isn’t a lot one can do about it. I’m not so sure. While I added the items listed above into my training, I still have my demons. Maybe there are more tips. If you have some, please post a comment. I’d love to see them.