Embracing Misery

AJWs TaproomEarlier this week I received an email from one of the athletes I am working with in his run up to Western States in June. In his email he asked a perfectly reasonable question, “What is the reason for doing speedwork, tempo runs, and hill repeats when training for long ultras like Western States?”

In my response I simply sent along several resources, some of which are from this very website, to support the physical and physiological benefits of such work. In general, my training program has, for years, focused on tempo runs, speed workouts, and hill-repeat sessions to complement long, race-specific endurance workouts. It’s been a good formula for me and I think for others, as well.

As I have reflected on the response, however, and thought more holistically about the idea behind such workouts, I realize that, for me, in addition to the physiological benefits of these workouts, I have learned much more from the mental and emotional impact of these training sessions.

You see, for me, after a couple decades running ultras, it is the mental and emotional wear and tear that most intrigues me. While we all go into 100-mile races hoping for the best, the truth is, over the 14 to 48 hours it takes us to complete these things, we often go into a state of prolonged misery. It’s just part of the deal. And, I believe that accepting and even embracing that misery is essential to success and, particularly, longevity in the sport.

In my experience, there is really no substitute for running 100 miles. There is no way to mimic the pain and suffering that is likely to ensue in a race that length in any other way than to simply do it. However, hard training, through prolonged tempo runs, intervals on the track, and intense hill repeats (both up and down), train the mind and the heart to withstand the mental anguish that inevitably ensues around mile 78 of a 100 miler. Tasting blood in the mouth, feeling your arms go numb, and accepting the virtual piano on your back during lap three of a mile repeat simply hardens your head. And, suffice it to say, the most successful 100-mile runners I know are very hard-headed, regardless of how fast or slow they are.

The formula, of course, is not a simple one. Many of us take to the sport to enjoy the beauty and serenity of nature. To share in the joy of the outdoors with others and perhaps enjoy long, leisurely runs in the mountains with friends. That’s all good. However, to hone in on what it takes to be fully prepared for what 100 miles will throw your way, you must do more. And, in the end, isn’t the desire to do more what brought us to the sport in the first place?

Bottoms up!

Abita Brewing Company Purple HazeAJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Abita Brewing Company in Abita Springs, Louisiana. Their Purple Haze lager is a fruit beer (they add raspberries) that really tastes complex and full in spite of the fruit. So many fruit beers are dominated by the fruit that it is refreshing to find one that is balanced, complex, and fun to drink.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • How does your everyday training routine contribute to your mental headspace during races of significant difficulty? Do you find that you are more readily able to ‘suffer’ in a race when you’ve suffered quite a bit with your training?
  • Has there ever been a time when the mental challenges of your training did not help translate to a strong mental performance on race day? If so, can you describe what happened?

There are 11 comments

  1. ClownRunner

    The Lung-searing, lactic acid generating, blister popping, "prolonged misery" pace is not a place for the faint of heart! I prefer the 48-hour pace, with many naps included….

  2. wMichaelOwen

    While many of us start running 100's because we enjoy nature and being outdoors with like-minded people, each of us also has a place in our heart that loves that misery at the end of a 100, and loves to embrace it!

        1. Bryon of iRunFar

          Is there a more beautiful 100 mile course in the US? If so, I've not seen it. As it stands, I hope to be in 30-hour shape and go out at 33-35 hour pace to maximize my enjoyment of the splendid setting and company!

  3. Volker65

    Hi Andy, some good thoughts._I think its much more easier to run the 100 mile pace if I can run 10 or 20 kms as fast as possible for me._For example is a 6 min. per km pace easier if I am sure I can run a 4 min. per km pace for lets say 30 kms._My best marathon time was 2:42, and there is a lot of speedwork necessary for that, you know that of course._I´m dreaming of running Western State in a view years. Running longer races than marathon will be the next aims, and I think I must keep on doing speedwork, hill repeats , long hours on my race bike and my functional training works. All this will help me mentally , too, I hope, and of course all the long runs._best wishes for all from Germany_Volker

  4. northacrosseurope

    Plus, of course, speed work can be fun! Just watch kids playing tag in a school playground, chasing around after one another for short intense bursts.

    I've always thought that kids understand running perfectly, without thinking about it for a second.

  5. senelly

    Good post AJW! I would add that "pain in inevitable but suffering is optional" in life in general, as well as the running part of it. So sayeth ultrarunner Alfred Bogenhuber (and probably a bunch of others). As a coach, I taught that. I also recommended that runners embrace the moment… each and every one, and minimize any stuff that distracted, like earbud music, etc. Pain / discomfort avoidance is waaaaay overrated.

  6. @TEMrunner

    The idea that runners embrace misery/suffering is interesting, and I'd say hard to argue with. It's pushing through that pain and coming out on the other side of it that is so rewarding. I agree that hard workouts make me feel more prepared for race, from a mental standpoint just as much as physically.

    p.s. I'm not an ultrarunner, just a regular distance runner so I have no idea what 100 miles feels like

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