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Thursday, September 4, 2014

Endurance Running: The Mental Aspect

When running in an endurance race, the first half is completely different than the second half.  Although the distance may be the same, the harsh reality is that you are in an entirely different world.  Even elite runners get tired and slow down as the race progresses (and of course, when I speak of endurance races, I'm talking about 50-100 miles).  The fact is that in a 100 mile race, 50 miles in, you're halfway there in distance, but in time, you're not quite there.  Not are you physically tired, but your mind has also used its energy during that time.  Physically, we can train and become capable of running the distance, but most people who attempt at a longer race fails to think about the mental aspect.

Imagine how I felt at a 24 hour race.  It's past 1:00am and I've been running for 17 hours.  I'm almost at 100 miles but I still have about 7 more hours to continue my run.  It's a tough situation.  I want to keep going, but I'm so tired.  The sun's gone, the music isn't giving me the adrenaline rush, and every voice in my head seemed to say that I should stop because I've done enough.  My enemy in this situation isn't the course.  It's the fact that I start believing that I've 'done enough' and that it's okay.  Complacency and satisfaction is the greatest adversary in the middle of any endurance race.  If you feel as if you've done enough, then you incapacitate yourself and begin slowing down.

As I begin to believe in what I'm saying because I'm physically tired, I slow down and my minutes per miles becomes slower and slower, and each step I take becomes even more fatiguing, feeding the complacency that has been filling in my mind.  Now I'm trapped and think constantly about how tired I am and how much I've already done, and that it was okay to stop.  It's one thing to have something formidable to face you that you have to overcome, but when you fall into the trap of being satisfied with how much you've done, you have a hard road ahead of you.

To me, I believe that it's important to prepare various tactics to prevent yourself from falling into that trap.  The biggest thing for me is that goal.  With your eyes on the prize, and taking steps towards making that goal happen, it prevents you from being satisfied with how much you've done thus far, because you aren't done.  You still have the rest of the race.  Having a solid goal to focus on will definitely help, but it's not enough.  Part of having that goal is being able to look back at the training you've done, and understand that the training you've put into yourself has led you to today.  Every mile you ran, every mountain you've climbed, every trail you've gone on, you've gone through all the hardships to get to this point. With that kind of understanding, you can bring out more, because you start believing in your training when things get tough.  That you know you are capable of getting through it because of the past.  The past is what gets you to the present, and helps you get to the future.  Use it.  Another method I use is to have little phrases you tell yourself, so that you can hear the encouragement.  Words carry a lot of power.  It can change anything, and in saying it out loud, you think it, you hear it, you process it even further, and you become encouraged.  You know you are capable, and are able to take that extra step per minute and when you feel like it's over, the encouragement you give yourself is erased with your own words of encouragement.  The final thing I do is to listen to music.  Sometimes, people like me think too much, and the overthinking drains your mind so that you have nothing left to continue on.  In having music to distract you, you don't waste energy and focus on enjoying the experience instead of thinking about every step you're taking.

Of course, there are more things that you can do to help yourself, but I guess there's one more thing that I would like to add.  It's to listen to others, and encourage the other runners around you.  The community in ultramarathon running is phenomenal, and whether you're at an aid station or running alongside another individual, you will be surrounded by those that will cheer you on.  So to me, it's very important that you take encouragement from others, thank them, and give it to another.  It's this kind of community that helps me push harder, run longer, and believe in myself as I run.

So what can you do now before the race?

One thing I 'like' to do is to go on the terrain that I dislike and do it over and over again.  I really dislike hills, and hill repeats are the worst thing I can do to myself, because once I get up to the top, I have to go back down, and doing this for about an hour really pushes me too much.  For example, this past Tuesday, I went up and down a 224 meter  hill 17 times... not fun at all.  Running 5 miles up uphill and downhill is definitely not my type of training, but I wanted two things from that day.  The first is getting used to running up and down because the 100 miler I'm going to be running in is in the mountains, so there will be a fair share of those uphills and downhills.  The second was more important.  It was so that I could build myself up, a character building exercise.  Forcing to do the things I dislike, and pressing on despite how tired I was of the uphills and downhills, I am able to grow and continue despite the mental obstacles that were in my way.  If it was just purely physical, then I honestly believe it would be easy to get through, but because it was mental, I had to conquer it.  Having run a few ultramarathons, I know I am physically capable of running 5 miles up and down hills, but mentally, I'm not where I need to be, so I train not so that I can physically get through, but to mentally defeat myself, so that I have full control over myself.

During the hill repeats, I would encourage myself, and I had the fortune of having the Johnson baseball team do a couple hills with me too, so having that sort of encouragement, I was able to get through and accomplish so much more.  With that training under my belt, during my future race, I will be able to look back and know that I have what it takes to accomplish this race, that I am mentally capable of handling this, that this distance and this elevation change is nothing I can't handle... that it's possible.  With that hope, I can push on, and when you run your race, you too can have faith that the path you had in the past will give you the strength to push through today, so that tomorrow, you can look back and say that you did the best you could.