How to run an ultramarathon by harnessing the power of your mind.
In May I decided I needed to have a serious word with myself. After a debaucherous winter, a haphazard training plan coupled with a less than virtuous wine habit it was time to commence training. So I exhaled and ran straight into a bush of nettles.
I needed to train my mind. ‘For where the mind goes the body will follow’, and to cope with endurance you need to keep your head strong and run full throttle into the fire. Not an orthodox training plan I know. I laughed to myself and thought, ‘I need a new hobby!’
The Trail Verbier St Bernard
Two months later at the start of the bizarre yet perversely popular 61km 4000m TVSB I knew I could make the decision then and there whether to win or lose the battle. Regardless of the discomfort or suffering, I had to make up my mind up to relentlessly go on. Then I had to convince myself and believe at the subconscious level. Rational or delusional? Or a fight between the two?
Pain is an abstract and subjective phenomenon. Few things have inherent feeling. It’s not the actual pain that matters but rather your perception of it. So in essence you have the potential to create your own placebo by reframing the pain! I knew the theory, I just needed to execute it.
‘The mind is its own place and in itself can make heaven of hell, a hell of heaven’ John Milton
Psychology in sport is a fascinating subject and there is no doubt that self doubt has a self fulfilling conclusion. But how do you scientifically quantify belief? Terms such as confidence, belief, fear, pain, fortitude, tenacity are impossible to measure in the traditional sense but these are the very attributes that can give you the edge in endurance. But how do you incorporate these into your training plan? You don’t. You develop these by training, by suffering and by living slightly out of your zone of cotton wool comfort.
‘Thresholds don’t exist in terms of our bodies. Our speed and strength depend on our body but the real thresholds, those that make us give up or continue to struggle, those that enable us to fulfil our dreams, depend not on our bodies but on our minds and the hunger we feel to turn dreams into reality.’ Killian Jornet
After a relatively easy 30km with a climb to 2698m I felt ok and then the second climb hit me like brick wall and then the 3rd like a boulder in the face. From Loutier it’s 1000m vertical over 5km, akin to swimming against the tide you feel like your progress is in a state of diminishing returns. The relentless climb, the midday sun, a stitch, blisters, sweat, aching knees, dehydration and confusion. Pain proliferated from every cell like an effervescent tab multiplying in magnitude to the end of every nerve. I said to myself ‘if you stop once then you will stop twice, so don’t stop’. So I plodded on, ignoring physical deterioration and with an irrational optimism that goes way beyond logical justification I continued numbly to place one foot in front of the other. You can only have one internal dialogue at one time so if it’s positive it will by default cut out the negative.
In this day and age it’s so easy to pop a pill for any mild psychological unease. But suffering is a powerful tonic for the soul. The mind and body are not separate entities but inextricably linked with a perpetual bi directional relationship. So put down the anti depressants, put on your trainers, run, jump and see how you feel. I am not dissolving the need for physical training; just arguing that without training the mind this is a reductionist method and therefore futile. You can have trained the body to the text book, wear all the gear but without a strong head you are only half the man you could be.
Like a moving meditation, the trails will immerse the whole of your being and then spit you to the floor. Alone for 12 hrs with your thoughts, doubts and fears. A welcome digital detox and also an opportunity to look inwards at all the resolve you possess. A mountain ultra is a literal and metaphorical journey through life’s ups and downs. It’s an acute reminder about the impermanence of feelings. You can suffer during and then feel strong at the finish. The final 5km involves a steep descent; alone in the forest, my head torch glimmering as I ran into the dark opaque night. Shivering I picked up my pace and as I sprinted across the finish line. Again I laughed to myself and thought, ‘this is madness, I need to get a new hobby.’ Yet a euphoric elation followed. It’s a bizarre addiction and appeals to so many human spirits. For
‘when you come out of the storm you will not be the same person who walked in. That’s what the storm is about’
Endurance is a relative term. Regardless of whether you are embarking on your first 5km or 100km only by harnessing the power of your mind will you unleash your full potential. By understanding that it is not the feelings that matter but rather your interpretation of these feelings you can propel your own performance. I encourage you to be aware of your thoughts and the capacity they possess. Make up your mind to believe in yourself and plunge head first into your own journey.
‘Only those that risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go’ T.S.Elliot