Ultra Running Tips - Mental Stuff

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Jan 1st marks the start of the Ultramarathon season. It goes on till the 31st December. I and lots of others are getting straight in there, the first being in a weeks time. It is great to see so many new events popping up all over the place and great to see lots of fresh faces ready to take on the ultras.

Here is a list of things that I found have helped me get through these events over the years. It is an ever increasing list that grows as I do. This is what gets me through the longer stuff but could work for anyone I hope. In no particular order.

This article is owned by Binks

Jan 1st marks the start of the Ultramarathon season. It goes on till the 31st December. I and lots of others are getting straight in there, the first being in a weeks time. It is great to see so many new events popping up all over the place and great to see lots of fresh faces ready to take on the ultras.
Here is a list of things that I found have helped me get through these events over the years. It is an ever increasing list that grows as I do. This is what gets me through the longer stuff but could work for anyone I hope. In no particular order.
Try not to extrapolate, i.e. thinking "I feel this bad after X miles so I'm going to feel this more worse after Y miles". Long distance running is a roller coaster of ups and downs and the longer you go the bigger the ups and the bigger the downs. You may feel shit now but your body is an amazing thing and a combination of positive thinking, progress and all the chemicals your body will produce may mean you feel ecstatic a few miles later. My first GUCR I could barely walk just after before 100 miles. Later on I ran miles 120-130 like I was gunning a 10k. I can't really explain it but I know it happens.
Don't take every little set back personally. When you are exhausted it is common to feel paranoid that things are happening because the world is conspiring against you. If a gate is stuck or a stile is wonky or a dog gets in your way. These things will happen and it is important to just shrug or even laugh them off. In the MDS while I was close to collapse and walking over the rocky terrain I kept tripping on the rocks. At some point I got so angry I picked up one of the offending rocks, shouted at it and threw it away. Anger like this is counter-productive.
Similarly, celebrate a little when these little things go right. Like when someone holds a gate open for you or people spot you and get out of the way, or when a part of the path is not muddy or when the sun goes behind a cloud on a hot day.
EAT. In my experience the biggest reason for dropping out of ultras because of not eating. It really doesn't matter (within reason) what you eat just make sure you eat.
On the subject of food I find that eating more "normal" food is beneficial. I will load on mashed potato and pork chops with gravy. During a run I will eat cake, crisps, biscuits, sweets, sausage rolls, sandwiches, pepparamis and even a Subway. Eat whatever the hell you like, JUST EAT.
No one is going to judge you for squatting in the bushes. If you need to go then go, don't suffer too long holding it in. Everyone does it.
Try not to stress about the distance that you are covering or what your garmin may be saying. Particularly the really long runs. Sometimes you feel like you have run for miles yet you have barely covered one, sometimes your view of time is distorted by the tiredness, sometimes the distances advertised in the race are wrong.
BEWARE OF THE CHAIR - The most common warning I see in the really long ultras. Don't sit down at the checkpoints if you can avoid it, you get cold, stiff and sleepy. It can be a real effort to get up and waste energy (not to mention time) getting going again, time and energy you could have spent doing another mile. I sat in a lot of chairs in the GUCR and Spartathlon, believe me you never feel rested more for sitting in a chair for 10 minutes.
Organise fresh clothes if at all possible. They feel great when put on and the smell of freshly laundered clothes can be uplifting when you have spent hours smelling of sweat, piss and dirt.
Try to pay attention to your running form at regular intervals. I used to use mile markers in marathons to remind me to check that my head is up and shoulders relaxed etc. Perhaps do it every half an hour or so or every time you see a bridge or regular feature.
Be respectful to other runners feelings. There will be times when you overtake another who looks a mess, try not to look too smug or comfortable as you do. No one likes getting flown past by a runner who looks like they are not even making an effort.
Similarly don't contaminate someone else's race with your own suffering. When you are on a roll you don't want to hear someone moaning about how bad their race is going. Remember you could be having the worst race of your life but be right next to someone who is having their best.
Geese are the spawn of the devil. Don't go near them especially in spring when they have young.
Think OUTSIDE of yourself. When going through a rough patch then stop thinking in the 1st person and start thinking in the 3rd. Imagine that you are one of your friends and talking about your race as they see it. Say only nice things obviously
Play games with the above. When I thought I was going to die in the desert I decided to stage my own funeral in my head, imagining who would turn up and what they would say. Who would get the most pissed? Who would miss you the most. Starting writing your biography (sic) or the speech given about you when you win the Nobel Prize for Ultrarunning. Remember, keep it all in the third person.
Ignore the cancerous voices that may pop into your head that may talk of disappointment. I get this sometimes, the frowning of letting someone down. You are only doing this for yourself.
Think back to times when you were suffering as much as you may be now and remember how you got through them. Key moments like this for me were; Jurassic Coast challenge in 2008 - on the third day I could barely walk before the start but managed to run the hilly 30 miles of that day, Rotherham 2008 - The weather was Baltic, everyone around me was suffering from hypothermia and the checkpoints were indoors. It was the hardest thing in the world stepping out of those checkpoints and into the rain. I knew that in 5 minutes time it would be fine again.
SUPPORTERS BEWARE - of asking too many questions. A question is a request for information from someone's head, when that head feels tired and battered a question can feel like someone delving their hand into their brain and pulling things out. You wouldn't want that done to you would you?
Also, think back to the times when you were not nearly the runner you are now. Everyone started somewhere, perhaps a 4 mile run on a treadmill seemed like an effort a few years back. Keep in mind just how far you have come over the years. I remember when 4 miles on a treadmill would make me weak at the knees, I remember the fear of my first marathon. In Greece I passed the marathon stage of the Spartathlon in 3.47, that was my marathon pb in Berlin just 4 years earlier. The glowing feeling of progress propelled me all the way to 50 miles
My marathon PB is still from a race I did the day after a 24 mile fell race. The point here being that sometimes things just don't make any sense.
DRINK lots and drink early. If you don't drink early you will reach a point where you can't catch up. Don't be fooled into thinking that you don't need water on the cold days.
Beware of the dangers of over-thinking. You are a long distance runner and hence are likely to be much brighter than the population at large. Hopefully this has worked out well for you in other aspects of your life but it could actually work against you here. Relying on your brain too much can be hazardous. You have probably heard the old cliché of "it's all in the mind" a million times and this has a lot of truth in it, however relying on your brain to make calculations and objective decisions can be futile sometimes. Don't waste considerable energy thinking too much, try to switch off. Forrest Gump never looked in trouble did he?
Many people will never understand why you would do a thing like this. Don't waste too much effort trying to explain what they will never understand, even in your head. I will never understand why people sit in their living rooms and get excited by z-list celebrities cooking for other z-list celebrities. I don't really want them to try to explain this.
Do not underestimate the slow sapping power that the sun has. I got spanked on both days of the GUCR last year and really suffered. Wear a good hat and sun cream, have some on you if you are doing a very long run. If you are run/walking then run in the sun and walk in the shade, spending as little time as possible exposed and giving you longer to recover where it's cool.
Don't waste too much energy avoiding water and mud in the wet times. If it rains you are going to get wet, accept in, embrace it, love it.
If you are being supported remember that your support crews are learning too and may make mistakes.
Remember that the fact they are here with you means
Write about your experiences, if only for yourself. I love reading back about races I've almost forgotten. I love looking back at how different I was when I started out running distance, when a marathon would terrify me. Put it on a blog and allow others to learn about what you have done, it does not matter if only your Mum reads it.
Planning isn't for everyone. You'll get told by any running magazine you pick up (which I recently heard described as cooking mags with porn on the front) that planning is the key to success and those that do not plan are consigned to failure. This simply isn't so. I am not saying you should not try and think ahead but too much worrying about every detail in advanced can be counter-productive. There are a million things that can happen, you are much better just accepting that stuff is going to happen and you'll have to deal with it. Worrying is another symptom of the high IQ's that runners suffer, switch it off, think like Gump.
Having a phone with a list of numbers you can send updates to can help. The return messages can be uplifting.
PROTECT YOUR HEAD. Sun hat when it's hot, fleecy hat when it's cold, hood when it rains. Your head will be going through enough without you beating it up more with the elements.
Take on PROTEIN. Not normally required for shorter races but it is needed for long distance.
When you are scrambling along some trail in the middle of the night, soaking wet, cold, exhausted and in need of sleep think of those people sat at home by a warm fire, watching TV and eating pizza. You may think you are suffering but they are suffering even more, the advantage you have is that at least you know it.
There are experience that make us who we are and how we behave. Falling off bikes, having our hearts broken or losing a job, they have all made you what you are. DNFing is just the same, it hurts like hell, it WILL happen at some stage and will make you feel small and worthless. Take it on the chin and learn from it for it will make you stronger. Remember DNF beats DNS.
But try not to DNF
The crippling lows and euphoric highs are why I do this. You have to go a long way to feel at your lowest but in the same race and after that you can feel the greatest you ever have. Every low point you have you can use as a learning experience, a reference point to help you deal with it when it happens again
As I grow old I'll forget things. I'll forget the least important things first, like what my pin number is or the name of my grand-daughters boyfriend, I'll then forget the unimportant things like how fast I could ever run 26.2 miles on a road or how I felt when running some 80% wava race or whatever. But I'll never forget the time I was running through the Canadian forests when 3 hours elapsed in 10 minutes because I was having so much fun. I'll never forget the top of that sand dune in the night in the Sahara when I looked around and could see nothing but stars, that moment I was the only person on Earth. I'll never forget staggering through a crowded street in Sparta to the adulation of runners and people of the town who had no idea who I was but know what I did. And the last thing I'll forget will be the turnaround I enjoyed in my first GUCR, I went from crawling to running, then from running to running quite fast. Then from running quite fast to being all of a sudden overwhelmed and having to hold onto some railings while I burst into tears. I thought at the time that the emotion was due to me realising that I was going to finish the race, but it was more than that. It was the moment in my life where I realised that I could do anything. Anything is what I intend to do and so should you.

Recent Updates User Comments
Jan 2016 drj No edits - but just thanks and good stuff - having been conquered by the glumps in the past some great advice - partiuclarly the live in the moment and not look forward (exptrapolating).
Jan 2015 SebastianVargas No edits. Just to say thank you, excellent article.
Jan 2014 sarabop No edits. Just wanna say this is inspiring stuff. Thank you, from a wannabe ultra runner.
Dec 2013 Carpathius No edits. More thank yous. Lots of 'em.
Apr 2013 jog-on No Edits - another wanna be Ultra runner who really enjoyed the article :)
Feb 2013 Pixxy No edits. Would just like to thank you for a great article. Having run many marathons over the past 30 years I have been contemplating trying my hand at ultra running. Last year I completed an Iron Distance Triathlon which made me realise that although I may be getting slower with age my stamina is still there. Your article has given me lots of very good information. Thanks.
Nov 2012 LBM No edits Binks. Just like to say thanks for some great content. Very helpful and inspiring! I embark on my first GUCR in 2013 and only my second Ultra (first was only 36m), so a massive step for me, but I can't wait! I'll be running the 36 mile course as training many times before next May and may yet book the Country to Capital.
Aug 2012 nevvy no edits - just a awesome reality of what you can achieve
Jul 2012 videoman68 SO MUCH good advice here... Just added a few spaces as I wanted it to be clear for all to read :)
May 2012 Ambling Andrew No changes but just want to say Thank You. A brilliant article. I have felt just like it on long walks. Ambling Andrew.
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