can you think your way through an ultra marathon?
Updated: Apr 25, 2018
As cliché as it is to suggest that all kinds of physical challenges can be overcome by the power of the mind that’s exactly what I am going to do. And I’m going to tell you how to do it!
Just moments before I set off on my Christmas break, Columbia Sportswear dropped a bombshell on me and my fellow Director of Toughness, Faith Briggs.
On February 1st, just six weeks from now, I’d have to run 33k through the Andes mountain range at the height of the Chile & Argentina summer. What’s more, I’d have to get up the following day and do it again, before completing the grueling schedule of torture by doing it all again on the third and final day. 100 kilometers and over 20,000 feet of vertical gain all crammed into three days of trail running, oh and it’s a race!
I can’t say for sure but I’d go as far as suggesting that running that kind of distance is a fairly daunting task for even an accomplished trail runner. Let alone a complete novice. Sure, I ran all the time when I played rugby, but I ran one hundred meters not one hundred thousand meters!
I know the clue is in the title, but that’s how many meters are in a hundred Kilometers.
One Hundred... Thousand meters!
Given the nature of my job, it wasn’t really something I could just politely decline to participate in, for the record, I tried. So I set about planning how I was going to tackle this challenge placed upon me. With the first two weeks written off, I’d have 4 weeks to prepare, almost two more of which would be spent trekking through the Yukon in temperatures of -30 degrees.
Not exactly ideal running conditions.
With all that out of the way I’d have just two weeks to prepare. Where do you start? Well, let me tell you how I prepared myself for this challenge.
Put on your trainers and go outside.
Before I could create a training plan, I needed to know how far I could run. I started slow. It took me around 14 minutes to run a mile on a fairly flat road. I went on to complete 2 more miles that day settling into a fairly comfortable 10-14 minute per mile pace. It wasn’t fast but I had found a pace that I was comfortable at. I wasn’t short of breath, I wasn’t tired, I was just bored.
The next day armed with some music I set off with the aim of going further than I had the day before. I knew I could run 3 miles so I decided to run exactly three miles away from home before turning back and attempting the same route home. Sure enough I ran 3 miles and then turned back.
Around mile four, I wanted to stop.
I was more tired than the day before and I had already done what I said I would do so it wasn’t a failure, was it? I told myself that I had already run these miles on the way out.
They weren’t difficult then and they are the same now. Sure enough that got me home with 6 miles under my belt.
Now I realize that this isn’t ground breaking stuff. But that’s how I continued for a few days each time adding one more mile or even half a mile to my initial run away from home. The repetition of these statements got me home every time. In a week I went from 3 miles to completing my first 10 mile run. I hadn’t given a second thought to how I was feeling or even how fast I was going.
Run smarter, not harder.
Once I broke down the miles I ran, running seemed easier. To run 6 miles, I’d run 3 miles out and 3 miles back. So running 4 miles out wouldn’t be hard. Once I turned around I knew I had run those exact steps before and they hadn’t been difficult so I could easily run them again. I knew this method wouldn’t last forever but what I realized was that I had found a comfortable pace.
I hadn’t even considered trying to run faster. It wasn’t about speed it was about distance, and after only a week I had established a comfortable running speed and style that I felt I could keep doing all day. It wasn’t fast so I wasn’t out of breath, it wasn’t powerful so I didn’t get tired. It was just comfortable.
Up the anti.
My fellow Director of Toughness, Faith Briggs, and I headed to Joshua tree state park to do some more training. This time I wouldn’t be able to run away and then turn back. We ran in a loop. It was 6.2 miles per loop with an elevation gain of around 1500 feet per loop.
It wasn’t easy.
Almost immediately I started to feel tired. It had been my plan to complete two loops for a total of 12.4 miles and my longest ever run but I was struggling on just mile 3. I took a moment to consider what was happening (yes, I stopped running). I realized that I had run 3 miles on an uneven trail at a 6-7 minute per mile pace. The change of scenery, excitement or something had caused me to forget everything I had learned.
Okay, I was halfway into the loop. Even if I turned back now I’d have the same distance to cover just to get back so might as well complete the loop. I settled in and soon finished the loop at my ‘comfortable’ pace and set about loop number two. When I returned from the second loop I knew I had run further than I ever had before and doing it at my comfortable speed meant that I still felt fine-ish.
With 12.4 miles behind me I only needed to run a little more than half a mile to have achieved half marathon distance. A significant milestone for anyone! I set off on lap 3, so easily trotting along that I actually missed my cue and by the time I realized I was on mile 14. Telling myself various stories (lies) about how easily I was chewing up the miles I decided to continue and before I knew it my boring, all day, comfortable pace had seen me through a third loop and 18.6 miles.
Now if I ran another mile out and back I’d have clocked up 20 miles and of course, I could do a mile. It was a mile I had done three times already that day and it was easy then so it’d be easy now! I was absolutely broken. Emotionally and physically.
I felt relief. For the first time I believed I could actually do this.
It didn’t matter how fast or how hard the course in Argentina was. I had just run 20 miles here so I could run 20 miles there and that’s all I needed to know.
This ‘mind over matter’ approach isn’t without it’s flaws, we all have our limits.
The following day my legs felt like they didn’t belong to me and as I taught myself how to walk again. Knowing that I’d have to run that distance again on three consecutive days wasn’t far from my thoughts. But I knew it was possible.
With that in mind I packed my trainers along with a training diary totaling a mere 58 miles and headed for Argentina.
I went on to complete El Cruce in 72nd out of 500 in the Elite category. Telling myself whatever I need to tell myself at the time to get it done. Greeted at the finish line by friends and strangers alike applauding my achievement.
Later that evening we returned to the finish line to be interviewed by Columbia Sportswear on our achievement. The finish line was still there but the music had stopped and the crowds had gone home. Before we could start reflecting on what we had achieved the few remaining officials at the finish line began to applaud. As I looked to the finishing post I saw a lady in her 50’s aided by crutches passing through the finishing arch.
My first thought was how incredibly strong she had been to hurt herself and continue the race on crutches but I was wrong. This lady had started the race with her crutches. She suffered from a disease which had cost her both of her legs and left her in permanent pain. She had completed El Cruce not to be the fastest or for the cheer of the crowd but because she could. She, despite having prosthetic legs and enduring crippling pain had completed 100km through the mountains just like the rest of us.
It got me thinking more deeply about my experience and how I had mentally forced myself to the finish line. While I will never know exactly what she told herself to get through the race I do know that she told herself something, and whatever it was, it worked. You see there are no rules for being mentally tough.
Get a grip of whatever you need to see you through and hold on to it. However long it may take or however hard it may be, if you refuse to give up you cannot be beaten.
Images - Cam McLeod