Since the onset of the panemic, I have often joked about ultra runners being more prepared than the normal American. The funny thing about jokes is that there is always a morsel of truth hidden in them. Now seems like a good time to elaborate.
Ultra runners have been holding dress rehearsal for social distancing and lockdowns our entire ultra careers. Most of us prefer to run alone, as far away from people as we can get. Those of us that enjoy running with others are still OK going solo. You’ll find us on a trail as deep into nature as we can get. Some of us have complained about not having races to run. Most of us have found other ways to stay active and motivated in the mean time. All of us are sad that we can’t race, because races are the ONE place we enjoy being around other people!
In order to be successful in ultra marathons, we must become comfortable being uncomfortable. A good part of a successful ultra marathoner’s training is spent on developing mental toughness – training our minds to will ourselves to continue when we otherwise feel that we can’t. We have experienced the highs and lows of the ultra marathon and understand that pain now doesn’t mean pain forever. The flip side of that coin is that we know that things can be going great and go South VERY quickly. The mental training we have done and our experience in racing ultras has prepared us to deal with the discomfort that a pandemic causes with it’s complete disruption of our lives.
Ultra marathoners understand that anything worthwhile takes time and effort. Ultra marathons DO NOT fit in with our society of instant gratification. We don’t wake up one day and say, “I think I’ll run a 100 miler this weekend.” We train for months – many of us working toward longer distances for years – knowing that spending time and effort in preparation will get us to the finish line. We understand that this pandemic is like a 100 miler. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. It’s going to hurt like hell. We will ride a roller coaster of highs and lows, but with every low there will be another high. We won’t give up. We can’t give up. We will keep working toward the goal of things being back to “normal” again.
We accept things as they are, not as we want them to be – the ultra marathon gives you no other choice. When you find yourself at mile 80 on top of a mountain with shredded quads – NO ONE IS COMING TO RESCUE YOU. We know that we have to get ourselves down the mountain on our own two feet, and no amount of whining and throwing tantrums will change that fact. Personally, I accepted in March that this would be at least an 18 month – 2 year ordeal (HOPEFULLY!!). Accepting that reality has helped me deal with ongoing anxiety about what may or may not happen. We just have to hang in there, put our heads down and grind this out….like a long mountain climb.
(Edited after original post) Thanks to Edie for pointing this one out: Ultra runners are masters at pivoting when things aren’t going to plan. Nothing goes as planned in an ultra….ever. If you can’t adjust on the fly without total emotional upheaval, then you won’t finish. Even worse, you could be setting yourself up for serious trouble.
Alright ultra runners – how else are we better prepared for a pandemic?? Let me know what I failed to include!!
Over the past year, I attempted to write numerous posts regarding the mental side of running. I see so many people struggling in the same way that I did and have a strong feeling that I need to share my story so that others know there is hope. This time last year, I was in the throes of a depression that would only get worse before it got better. I think there is a lot of truth to the old saying that you have to hit bottom before you can make your way back to the top. I wanted to share what I was going through even then, but it was so difficult that I couldn’t find words to put onto a page. After I navigated my way out, finding words to describe my journey was still too difficult.
In the midst of it all, I was a MESS. I had zero self confidence. I compared myself to others and, in my mind, always fell short. I believed that I had no talent and no chance of ever being able to compete in this sport, regardless of how hard I worked. Receiving compliments from other runners made me feel like a big fraud. I stopped posting as much about running on social media because I couldn’t handle compliments and felt as if somehow I was misrepresenting myself. I mean, if people had known the truth, they certainly wouldn’t be calling me a “badass”. All this negativity started bleeding into my day-to-day life and I contemplated quitting running altogether However, there was still a tiny spark within me that loved running and being a runner and wouldn’t give up on the possibility of what I “could” be.
At the end of May, I ran one of my biggest mental disaster races to date, but it was the catalyst that I needed to start making a change. I picked up a copy of “The Happy Runner” by David and Megan Roche. In the book, they describe what a happy runner looks like and with sadness, I recognized a former version of myself. I wondered how I allowed myself to get to this point. I was so far off base that it seemed like I was completely out of the park. But….there was hope. I had been a happy runner once and I could be a happy runner again. The book challenged readers to answer questions including: Three affirmations, Why do I run at all?, Why do I run each day?, Why am I racing at all?, Why do I have long-term goals?, and to come up with some short-term and long-term crazy, seemingly out-of-reach goals.
I couldn’t answer the questions. I definitely couldn’t come up with affirmations or big, crazy goals. But I wrote the questions down and continued reading the book. I re-read chapters in hopes that keeping those questions in the forefront of my mind would help me find those elusive answers that I was seeking. In order to do something, I decided to focus on being consistent and talking nicely to myself. To me, consistency meant completing every scheduled workout that I could manage. I also aimed for consistency within each workout, which gave birth to a new mantra “don’t kill it; be consistent”. I needed to complete workouts without the pressure of performance. Training shouldn’t be about performance, anyway. Training is about getting the body primed to perform. I had lost sight of that fact. As far as talking nicely to myself, that took a little bit of work that required self-awareness. Slowly, I became aware of my negative thoughts. Being able to recognize those negative thoughts was the precursor to stopping them which was, in turn, the precursor to replacing them with affirmations. Simply focusing on consistency and self-talk began to empower me and resulted in finding joy again in the simple act of running.
As my attitude improved, so did my hopefulness about running. I still wasn’t in a place to dream big, but I had finally made it to the starting block. I went back to the book to refocus my brain in hopes of finally finding answers to some of the questions. By the time I left for Ouray 50 at the end of July, I had answers to all of the questions, except the big, crazy dream.
Ouray went really well. I didn’t finish but that was OK. I made huge improvements in my mountain running and made it farther than I had the year before. I still didn’t see myself as competitive in the trail and ultra scene, but I was becoming OK with just being the best I could be, whatever that looked like.
I had a great warm-up for Pinhoti at Sky Island 50k in September and my best race to date at Pinhoti 100. I didn’t just finish Pinhoti, I raced it. The race was a huge turning point for me as one of my biggest goals was to race a 100, not just finish. My finishing time and place didn’t matter to me that much all because I had accomplished that goal!
Pinhoti dealt me a setback, though, in the form of tendonitis in both ankles. The left ankle was ANGRY. It took a good 6-8 weeks to work it all out. I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t mentally tested during this time, but I managed to keep myself in a good place. Having a coach as amazing as Greg helped a ton. He is so creative and used this block of time to focus on building strength for GDR, so I was able to continue my workouts but with less running volume to give the ankle some time to settle down.
A week into the second phase of GDR training had me at the start line of Ouachita Swichbacks 50k. I loved the course, but the rocks gave me all kinds of hell. This race exposed weakness in my right ankle. I did not handle the stress of the race well at all and was in a negative space much of the last half. I had reverted to my old habits of focusing on performance rather than the joy of running and I suffered for it. After the race, I struggled mentally. My brain wanted to stay in that place telling me that I wouldn’t be strong enough by the time GDR rolled around and I questioned my ability to even finish my next race at Cross Timbers.
Despite all the negativity I was fighting within, I continued to chip away at my training, keeping the same focus from last summer: consistency and talking nicely to myself. I started adding another layer of mental muscle when I began reading “It Takes What It Takes” by Trevor Moawad. I had learned of him in late December and pre-ordered his book which was released in early February. His approach was the perfect continuation in my mental conditioning and the timing was perfect.
The ankle was improving, but I knew Cross Timbers 50k would be real test. Well, last Saturday, my ankle was put to the test AND IT PASSED! In addition, I paced myself just right, calories and hydration were on point, and my mental approach was spot on. I have never been more satisfied with a race result. I just happened to come in 1st Female, but my satisfaction has nothing to do with that and everything to do with the way I ran the actual race. I used a strategy that Moawad suggested, which was not saying any negative thought out loud, and I truly believe it helped.
Through this process since Pinhoti, I have achieved yet another goal: “Be a STRONG, CONSISTENT, HAPPY and GRATEFUL runner.”
“Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the will to continue that counts.” ~Churchill
I’ve tried to come up with words for this race and I just don’t have them. Maybe they will come later; maybe they won’t come at all. Everything I try to say just sounds like one big excuse. Everything I try to say sounds really negative and that isn’t the way I usually approach things. However, I’m going to keep on writing here, negativity and all, because I feel like being raw and honest is the only thing that will get me off this ledge that I’ve been perched on the last couple of days.
I went in knowing a lot of things – knowing that I didn’t have time to sufficiently train, knowing that I wanted to use whatever I got out there as training for Ouray – but when the DNF actually came, none of those things actually mattered. Our emotions rarely consult with our intellect.
This isn’t my first DNF, but it stings the most.
I’ve struggled in the past few days. As ultra runners, we talk a lot about attempting things that are out of our comfort zone and embracing the prospect of failure, but our actions don’t always match our words. Mine did. But now that the “failure” happened, I’m stuck in a negative mental loop.
Did I over-reach?
Will I ever be strong enough?
Am I foolishly chasing something that I can never achieve?
These questions have haunted me and are still haunting me. I keep trying to redirect my brain to the positives:
My climbing is stronger.
My downhill is WAY BETTER than at Cactus Rose
My footwork and agility have come a long way.
I HAVE IMPROVED.
PC: Trail Racing Over Texas/AJ Stasulli
I enjoyed most of my time out there, even during the suffering. Climbing anything, but especially mountains, puts a sparkle in my eye and a spring in my step. Running in the middle of the night is, hands down, my favorite thing in ultra running. I think the thing that is most difficult for me right now is that I keep questioning my decision to attempt Ouray again. Is it really within my reach? Will I ever be strong enough to gut out a finish on that course?
I need to get my mind right again. I’m not exactly sure how to do that. But, for now, I’m going to allow myself to feel defeated. I’m going to allow myself to feel upset. I’ll lick my wounds and visualize rising strong like a phoenix from its fire. Hopefully, when my pity party is over, I’ll be ready to unleash hell on the trails again.
In the mean time, I’ll be focusing on this. Even though Lone Star was far from Barkley Marathons, this quote from Laz gets me in the feels:
“you all know about the comfort zone. that’s where most ultras take place. running ultras is all about staying in the comfort zone. all our strategies revolve around staying in the comfort zone. all our advice is about staying in the comfort zone.
“walk every uphill”
“dont take any chances”
for all the talk about exploring human potential, and seeking our limits, ultrarunners tend to play it safe. they line up “challenges” they know they can finish. and run them carefully well within their “limits”. we believe that success is never failing.
at the barkley success is about over-reaching our abilities, and living to tell about it. sometimes success is getting your ass out alive.” ~Lazarus Lake
“Success isn’t how far you got, but the distance you traveled from where you started.” ~Steve Prefontaine
This time last year, I was 2 months out from Brazos Bend 100. I was training for Boston Marathon. Yet all I could think about was getting out to El Paso to run Lone Star 100 in the Franklin Mountains. At the time, it seemed like a pipe dream, one that would never come to fruition. I didn’t think I could EVER pull it off because it is firmly in the middle of club volleyball season. I didn’t feel that I would ever become strong enough to even consider running a race as difficult as Lone Star. Heck, at the time, I thought Cactus Rose 100 would forever be out of my reach.
Here I am, one year later, getting ready to hop on a plane at the end of the week and tackle this beast. I’m not in the most optimal shape. Training hasn’t been perfect. Did I do everything I could to be prepared for this race? Nope. But did I do everything I could to be prepared for this race, while still retaining a shred of sanity? Yes.
I have a hard time juggling training and life when we aren’t in club volleyball season, so training for and running a big race during club is quite an undertaking. Even though the season is still early, the demands on my time have been substantial. Add to the mix the fact that I took on additional duties at work in January and it’s a small miracle that I even survived.
I am going into this race with a lot of doubt. Training breeds confidence and I felt like I started taper the second week in January, because, volleyball tournaments. However, with some reflection I have started redirecting my doubt to three main truths:
This race is training for Ouray. Period. I knew when I registered that making cutoff would be difficult. At the time, I acknowledged that every mile and every foot of vertical gain that I am able to get will be good training in the bank. There is no other place in Texas that I can get this kind of training. So, even if I don’t finish; even if I don’t make cutoff, I will still have been successful.
I’ve come so far in just a year. Really, in less than a year, because I didn’t get into any “real” trail training until after Boston last April. I am hard on myself and focus a lot on my weaknesses and how far I have to go. In recent days, reflecting on how far I’ve come has been rewarding and also confidence-boosting.
I find joy on the trails, whether it is in training or racing. Regardless of the outcome, I will be out there getting some of that coveted dirt and vert. I’m looking most forward to seeing a couple of sunrises and a sunset out there in the mountains.
I can’t close without giving thanks to a few people. Without a support system in place, I couldn’t consider any type of success in this sport. My husband, Bobby, has been a great support in this training cycle. Alli is always understanding of my need to get out on the trails on our off weekends. And my good volleyball mom friend, Marcy, for being a surrogate mother to Alli this weekend while I’m off playing in the mountains. Love you all!!
I’m ready. Franklin Mountains, give me all you’ve got!!