Mental Approaches to Ultramarathons

When iRunFar chief Bryon Powell asked if I wanted to respond to a reader query about mental strategy during long ultras, I immediately wondered if I was the best writer for the job.
After all, I’ve never come close to winning an ultra, and I’ve never completed a 100 mile race. I don’t have the desire to pursue either.

But after giving the topic more thought, I started to think that I just might bring something to the table. As an incredibly stubborn and eternally optimistic individual, I believe I’ve got mental game.

Bryon Powell Western States 2006

How do you avoid thinking, "What am I doing out here?"

I’ve been a competitive athlete my entire life and I’m well accustomed to pain. I played soccer in high school and tennis throughout high school and college. Currently, I practice and race with a Seattle crew team. I’m used to coaches and coxswains encouraging me, teaching me, yelling at me, pushing me, and making me a better athlete. When I’m on my own, I often hear their words in my head.

I’m also not a distance running newbie. I ran cross country for two years in college, took up marathoning about a decade ago, and tried out ultras a few years back. While I’ve decided I prefer the 50K distance to anything much longer, I’m running the White River 50 Miler in Washington’s Cascade Mountains in late July. It will be my third time on the course. I’m also preparing for the TransRockies Run, a six day stage in Colorado in August. I’ve suffered plenty running on the roads and trails, and I have discovered mental tricks that help me out.

Here, then, are a few mental techniques that help me when sports start hurting. I think they apply to any distance of trail run, be it your first 50K or your umpteenth 100 miler. Perhaps you already employ one or more of these, or perhaps you know one of my strategies won’t work for you. I hope, however, that at least one of you may come away with a new idea for mental coping.

You Are Lucky
I begin with this strategy because I use it most frequently and believe it produces the most empowering results. When I’m not enjoying myself during a long run, I turn it around by reminding myself that I am so, so fortunate to be out there.

So many individuals will never have the chance to explore the remote mountains, meadows, ridges, and lakes that we see during ultras. Some are physically unfit, others saddled with injuries, and others grappling with life circumstances that make distance running impossible.

While at the gym the other day, a pregnant trainer came up to me and said, “I am so jealous by how hard you can work out right now.” I hadn’t been particularly excited about going to spin class that afternoon, but her words made me remember how lucky I am.

During your worst moments of any ultra, tell yourself these words: “I am lucky. I paid money to do this. I am in one of the most beautiful places on earth, and I’m one of the fortunate few able to experience it.”

It works for me.

Break Down the Numbers
Looking at the numbers during an ultra can either provide a sudden boost or instant frustration. To assure it’s the former, I turn the numbers into something positive. I try to never, ever look at a mile marker and think, “I’ve only come this far?” Inevitably, that mental process makes me feel discouraged and weary. Instead, I say, “Only seven more miles to the next aid station!” or “I’ve already finished one-third of the race!”

I think of a rowing coach who always said something along the lines of, “You’ve got 500 meters left in your race piece. That’s less than two minutes. You can do anything for two minutes!” In an ultra, that translates for me as, “Only six miles to go. You can do anything for six miles.”

I break down the race into manageable bits, but look at my progress in a positive way.

Reward
Exercise is all about reward, in my book. I think about the slice of watermelon waiting for me at the next aid station, or the hamburger I’ll get to devour at the finish line. If my stomach isn’t feeling so hot, I’ll change it up to “Only 10 more miles till I get to change my socks” or even “20 more minutes and I’ll get a burst of energy from the Gu in my pocket.” Looking forward to the next small thing on a long run helps keep me going.

Distract
When all else fails, I try to forget that I’m running. I do many of my races with my running partner, Caroline, and we spend hours catching up on work, family, rowing (me), triathlons (Caroline), and any other topic of conversation we can think of. If I don’t feel like talking, I listen to music on my iPod. A favorite song perks me up right away and makes me forget about the long, laborious trail ahead.

Call for Comments
I’d love to hear your responses to this article. I think we can learn from each other. What works for you? When you want nothing more than to collapse by the side of the trail, what gets you to the finish line?

Heidi Dietrich is a writer, journalist and trail runner living in Seattle, Washington. Learn more about her writing at www.heidiseattle.com.

There are 29 comments

  1. Sarah

    Great tips! During my first marathon I hit the 20 mile mark and just wanted to curl up in a ball and take a nap, but I thought about how I would beat myself up afterwards if I made it this far and didn't complete the last 10k, so I sucked it up and pushed on. I didn't get the time I had hoped for, but I can now call myself a marathoner!

  2. Jason D.

    You forgot "cry and sob and beg for the hurting to stop." ;)

    Thanks for the write-up. I think being grateful (i.e. "You Are Lucky") is a excellent way to reframe the situation. That said, it's also one of the most challenging (for me anyway). Getting some perspective is always tough when the pain and suffering conspire to really focus your attention inward.

    I've also found that it can help to remember another challenge you faced when the going gets tough. Being able to think "well, it sure was rough when I had to ________ but I got through it" can help one success build on another.

  3. Rob

    The gratefulness factor is a powerful one for me. I start to think of the permanently injured soldiers, people with disabilities, etc. who are not

    able to run, and I start thanking God that I have two legs that still work.

    No room for slacking or complaining in that mode.

  4. Joe Constantino

    Excellent points. I like to think about how many people have made sacrifices for me to be at the race, and more importantly what I would tell my boys if I drop.

    1. Heidi Dietrich

      That's a great one. It's important to think of what people in your life put up with to allow you to participate in these events. I'll add that to the bag!

  5. Tamara

    Mental tunes I tell myself:

    Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming … I mean running.

    If I keep running I will finish sooner.

    Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.

  6. Greg

    I went from basically couch to 50 miler and I was woefully undertrained. I tend to have a backwards mental approach: I try to run angry. That is, I attempt to release all the stresses. I remind myself of those who doubted me as a child or those who question whether I will succeed. This got me through some dark times in the 50 miler. Now I will punish myself with a 100 miler in Nov. (likely undertrained).

  7. Adam

    Great post! I'm no expert, but I like the simple math approach: a 50k is just three 10-milers (and change), or 6 fivers, etc. It's a variation on the "just make it to the next landmark" theme, but it keeps the total distance in sight. Only 2 more five milers to go!

  8. Coleen

    I like to use the reward system.. if I make it to mile 40 I get to turn on my Ipod…at mile 50 there are special homemade cookies waiting for me.. mile 60 gets a 5 hour energy and maybe a pacer. And of course I just tell myself how lucky I am that I get to spend all day (and maybe all night and the next day) running in the woods with friends and I don't have to do any dishes or answer phone calls or emails or clean the house or any of the day to day stuff I hate to do… all I have to do is put one foot in front of the other.

  9. Simon

    The thing I do is prepare for it. I treat it like I'm dealing with a chronic liar who tells you the same lies over and over and I prepare my responses ahead of time to those lies. I know it's going to happen and I know that it isn't true, that it is just my mind messing with me. So before a race/run I actually mentally go through what happens during a low in my head – the lies my mind will tell me and countering the lies with the truth – with all the things I love about running/finishing etc. So then, when that low hits me, the first thing I think is "there you are, you lying piece of crap" and "yeah, heard that one before". And I don't have to think about how to respond because I've already prepared – and my arguments are better than the ridiculous crap my mind tries to pull. I win every time.

  10. Cole

    Pacing people at 100's is a great way to learn more about this. You see your runner as they fatigue, eat, drink, fall apart, recover, etc. After a while you gain a better understanding of how blood sugar and the depths of night (among other things) affect mood and speed, eventually you can even see this when it's happening to you – but that's the hardest part. It's also the best. Essentially pacing is a way to learn to see your situation objectively, as if from the outside so you can take care of yourself more effectively.

    Then there are other times when you just make deals. You want to quit really badly so here's the deal: you WILL quit, it's decided. But not until the NEXT aid station. That's the deal, just one more THEN you can quit.

    If you're having trouble getting that trick to work you can try this: look around at the other people in the aid station. Such carnage! It's really fascinating to see some of the battered carcasses stumbling around this place – but they're LEAVING! If I felt half as bad as that guy looks I'd shoot myself right now, and that woman's feet – she's trying to put socks back on, now lacing her shoes, and… she's on her way. She'll be confined to Crocs until late fall at best. How bad do you feel now? Get going!

    Lastly, you can employ Mark Twight's mantra and just keep reminding yourself that "it doesn't have to be fun to be fun." It becomes clearer when you're out there…

  11. Jess Mullen

    I remind myself that feelings always change. I go thru many peaks and valleys in every race so I know that how I feel will change.

    I like the "I am Lucky" idea too. I also break races down to aid stations. I only think about getting to the next aid station and strategize optimizing my performance for that stretch (hill climbs, fast downhill, slow down for the heat of midday, etc).

    And the one that works when all else fails is reminding myself how I have felt when I have stopped. I ALWAYS regret stopping. It has NEVER been worth it to me (now if I broke an ankle or something that would be different). This quickly gets my head back in the game because there's nothing worse than the weeks after a DNF – a mind full of regret, regret, regret. Short term pain, long term glory!

  12. tite

    The more and longer I run, the more I am convinced that I can run so far thanks to my YOGA practice, more than to my training. Running: a form of YOGA IN ACTION. Do you agree?

  13. jamiepang: Blog » Blog Archive » Snippets To Share

    […] Mental Approaches to Ultras To associate or disassociate? iPod or no iPod? What goes on in your mind when your sanity is literally being pounded to smithereens in the course of an ultra? I’ve not run any to contribute my thoughts here but I sure can point you to a short post in IRF where you can get some ideas. I like the first point in the post. […]

  14. HollyV

    Thanks for the reminders! Another thing that I try to keep in mind when the going gets tough is that the rough spots don't last forever. That second (or third or fourth) wind WILL come, so just keep plugging until it does.

    Re: gratitude. Last fall my aunt fell suddenly ill with a mysterious infection and ended up having to have both of her legs amputated at the knee. She later ended up passing away in the hospital. For months I thought of her every time I ran, and I was so thankful just to be able to run, and to have my health, and to run in memory of her.

    Re: White River. I'm going too! It'll be my firt 50-miler. Maybe I will see you there!

  15. Mike Hall

    I force myself to smile and laugh; sometimes spread my arms real wide and act like I'm flying; I always try to run into every aid stations with a big ol' smile and thank the volunteers (they feed off this and in return give me a lift). I also say try and think about what I can learn from a bad moment; sometimes that takes my mind off of it. Great article.

    Mud & Cheers,

    Mike

  16. Allen

    I really like this approach. I have become pretty meticulous in my preparations and approach to ultras but never pre-planned my mental arguments. Great stuff.

  17. Allen

    Thanks for sharing these tips. I am fairly new to ultras and am always looking to learn from those who have more experience. Some of these I have employed, but I have never taken the approach of "I'm lucky"… I like that.

    My most common mental practice is tied to my faith in God and a verse in the Bible from Romans chapter 1 verse 20. It simply states that the physical things of this world can teach us spiritual things. I always try to make an application to my spiritual life from what I am experiencing in my physical. That occupies a lot of my mental game and makes even the pain, mud, miles, blisters, hunger, mistakes etc. a very positive experience and a moment for personal growth.

  18. erockalot

    That reminds me of my first marathon.

    True story: My longest training run was 18. When I got to mile 22 of the race, my left quad was cramping and had a knot. Consequently, my right leg grew tired from compensating.

    I don't know why, but I decided to name my legs. I called the left "Knot" and the right "Tired". And this is the funny part, I started to call their names to summon them for the next step.

    I laughed when I realized the strength of that particular accidental cadence (Knot, Tired, Knot, Tired).

    It was a great lift for the last 4 miles.

  19. Bob Holzhauer

    Wow, been away from Byron's blog too long. I've done a couple of long runs in the past few months – a 100k in May and a 100 mile section of Tom's Run in the first week of June. The best advice I can give is to not to focus on the finish line, but get into what you are doing. Breathe, feel the trail, most of all, stay alert and don't zone out. Live in the moment, either visualize and put the pain in a mental box to be retrieved at the finish, or embrace how bad you feel and fight back, mentally. Either way, knowing your crew and volunteers are waiting at the next aid station is always a mental boost. At certain stops I preposition a treat for myself, or if schedules permit, a family member! A sip of cold coke is always nice. A hug and a "you can do it" from someone that cares is like a turbocharger.

  20. Dan

    I know it's often disdained by purists, but my iPod/iPhone gets me through many a super long run, whether that be race day or long runs prior.

    I'm all for enjoying my surroundings and the experience and solitude; in fact, 80% of my runs are like this. But when I need distraction, nothing does it like a podcast.

  21. John

    Resurrecting this post–great write-up! I’d like to touch on Heidi’s bullet points and throw my two cents in (sorry for the verbosity).
    1. Lucky: Absolutely. Most people don’t know what they are capable of until they try it. Anyone who spends most of the day (or longer) on their feet has amazing diligence, if not athletic prowess. My last 50 miler was wrought with unknowable turmoil. I’d signed up for it seven months before, and it was to be the hardest physical challenge I’ve ever done to myself; a major goal of learning & self-reflection. The week before the race, at the end of a 125mi bike ride (the Death Ride), one of my best friend’s mom (who I’d known for ~25 years) died suddenly hiking on the Western States trail, probably from atherosclerosis that had built up for years unchecked. Her celebration of life was quickly scheduled for the day of my race. Things just got real. Not knowing how to progress, wanting to be there for my friend & his family (but also wanting to run), I asked for his opinion: he said to do the race, that his mom would want me to. I did, thought of her the whole day, and made the pain of 50 miles very humbling. Point is, go do it. You never know the unforeseeable hypothetical circumstances that disallow you from ever running again.
    2 & 4. Numbers & distraction: Agreed.
    3. Reward: For me, beer is gospel.
    If I may, 5. Embrace it. Whenever I’m out there running all-day distances, invariably the question, “What am I doing out here?” is on my mind. A lot. Actually, it’s more like, “What the f*ck am I doing?” I allow myself the (possibly incessant) ponderance because, at the end, I will know the answer to that hours-long rhetorical question, which is the amazing transcendence that distance running provides for me. Sorry for babbling.

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