I am not a good racer, and never really have been. When I was in High School, I always ran stupidly and at the first sign of pain or discomfort, I would back off. When I started running again in my early 30’s after more than a decade of sedentary life, my mental toughness was even below the low level I had when I was younger.
When I ran my first marathon, I trained hard and did quite well, breaking 3 hours. I trained some more and eventually got my PR down to 2:49 and thought I could get even better. But every time I would shoot for a PR, something would happen between my ears. At mile 15 my leg might start to cramp. At mile 17 I might felt tired. At mile 21 my ankle started giving me grief. In all cases, I would back off and roll in with race time closer to 3:10 rather than 2:50. I stopped telling people I was shooting for a sub 2:55 at races because I was tired of coming up with excuses as to why I failed in those goals, which was happening all the time it seemed.
I have read zillions of articles and books talking about how to get through such issues, using mantras like ‘keep moving’, thinking about how Chuck Norris never ran a marathon, focusing on just getting to the next tree on the trail. Not one of those thing ever worked for me. No matter what I tried, my mind could never be fooled. I could not ‘block out’ anything. The more I tried to block out the pain in my calf, the more my calf hurt and made me want to quit outright.
I have never DNF’d a race in my life (with one small exception, a 50 mile race where I dropped to the 50K distance but I was really really sick so I should have not even started) because if I know that if I DNF once, especially in a Hundo. it will be tragic for my running career. Now obviously, if I fall and break an ankle in a race, I am gonna drop out, I am not that dumb. What I mean is a race where my body is able to finish, but my mind tricks me into stopping.
Nobody’s body wants to run a 100 mile race, and we have to overcome the body rebelling everytime we attempt that distance. When you stop because of stomach issues, cramps, tiredness, you are giving into your brain telling you what it always tells you after a long duration of physical exertion. Please stop, it’s time for a break.
Why is a DNF so bad? Well, for me it is because I know how my mind works. Let’s say I am at mile 75 of a 100 mile race and I have been running for well over 10 hours and my body is beaten down and tired. My mind is also tired, trying to stay focused. I come to an aid station and sit down. This is what my brain has been telling me to do for hours. Sit down, take a nap, have a nice bowl of soup and curl up with a good book. Just stop, it’s been a long day already. Blah blah blah. As I sit, my legs and body cramp up and any pain I was suffering gets worse. My body protests more and next thing you know I choose to not continue.
My body instantly is happy as it knows it gets to go into recovery mode. I eat lots of delicious food and don’t have to worry about expending any energy anytime soon. Yes, I am disappointed about not finishing the 100 mile race, but lots of people DNF, right?. My friends will give me words like ‘You’re in inspiration for just trying!’ or ‘You did more than I could ever do!’ or equally reassuring words to blunt the magnitude of my failure.
Fast forward to the next Hundo. Sure enough, at mile 75, my body will again be tired, my body sore. This happens at this point of every Hundo, and I know that. But now, my brain, who remember is trying to get me to stop, has some new ammunition. “Remember that last race? You felt really bad at this same point? You stopped then, why not stop now? Remember how great it felt to sit in that chair and relax?”
That memory of giving up will come back into focus and it will be very hard memory to refute. Remember, I am a mental weakling when it comes to racing and I know it. If I had the memory of a previous DNF I would have to fight that very hard at the end of every Hundo I ever do. I could not handle that and I would wilt more often than not. That is why I absolutely must do everything in my power to never DNF.
The closest I ever came was the 2012 Winter Beast of Burden in Lockport, NY. I had run this race the year previous and finished 2nd overall so I was prepared for the cold, snow, and dark that is the hallmark traits of this race. My second time around was not so good, but it started out great.
I passed the 50 mile mark at 7:41, a mere 3 minutes out of 2nd place. Then the sun went down and my brain decided to go to sleep, literally. While I won’t go into detail here as to what happened, I just want to mention what happened at mile 75. I had walked most of miles 50-75 and it was horribly dejecting. I was dead tired and it was already very late, past 11:30pm. I came into the mile 75 aid station which was warm, and had friendly aid stations workers, unlike outside the tent which was well below freezing, snowing, and windy. I knew I had to get out of there quick or I was going to DNF, like many before me already had. I sat and changed my shoes and had a bit to eat. After only about 2 minutes I got up to make my way back into the snow and as I stood, I almost passed out, I was that weak. I knew not to tell anyone because they might try really hard to convince me of stopping. I decided to quietly sit for just 2 more minutes resting and then I got up very slowly, turned off my brain, and went back out into the cold wind. Every ounce of my soul and body wanted to quit, but I was on auto-pilot now. I just had to get back out on that trail and start moving again and let muscle memory do the work. Don’t think, because if you do, you will stop. I am mentally weak when it comes to racing, so I removed the weak link, I stopped thinking about how I felt and just moved. I finished the race in over 21 hours, my worst ever 100 mile time, but I learned a whole lot, especially about how to mentally train.
‘Train as your fight’ is a familiar mantra, stolen from military leaders. Basically it comes down to prepping everything you can before a race such that there are no surprises on race day. Most of the preparation is obvious and long known. What your stomach can handle during hot days. What clothes you should be wearing depending on the conditions. What shoes to wear and how often to change them. What to carry with you and what to have access to in your drop bags. That’s all important and I had figured out all that stuff a while ago but I knew I needed to work the hard parts. Training differently made my weaknesses (little mental toughness) less tragic. Play to your strengths, and minimize or nullify your weaknesses, that is the key to success. I am sure someone famous said that at some point in history. They say that ultrarunning is 10% physical and 90% mental. I successfully changed those figures to my advantage not because I wanted to or because I like training hard. I changed the system because I had too.
In 2012, I managed to focus my training and built my body up such that on race day, I could turn my brain off and use it only as a notepad for doing no more than thinking about what I had to do at the next aid station. There were no feelings going on in my head at all, which meant there was never any mental discussion of DNF’ing whatsoever. Sure, I hurt and was tired, but nobody was listening to my body complaining. It was more like a hard-nosed and heartless coach that when you complain they say “Whatever. Get back out there and try harder!”
After my personal disaster that was a 21:02 at the Beast of Burden, I came back and did a 16:59 and 15:27 to round out my 100 milers for 2012, in both cases without trying that hard, meaning I had more to give in both cases. It seems my methods actually work. I have high hopes for my 2013 season, but I promise, I am not thinking about it too much,.