I recently paced my good friend, veteran ultrarunner, and coaching and leadership guru Jacob Rydman toward his first 200-mile finish at the 2023 Tahoe 200 Mile.
It was a profound experience. Century legend Karl Meltzer is known for saying, “One hundred miles isn’t that far,” but let me tell you, 200 miles is, indeed, really far.
This isn’t necessarily an article about 200 milers, how to finish them, or other pearls of ultra-endurance success. Rather, it’s wisdom I picked up about the importance of mindset. This is an article about how both execution and expectation impact our ability to finish these incredible challenges, and how we can use that to sustain us when they test us the hardest.
Serendipitously, just prior to the race, I heard about an equation for happiness. Based on their work, “Engineering Happiness,” authors Manel Baucells and Rakesh Sarin — both engineers, economists, and decision analysts — developed their best possible mathematical explanation for happiness: Happiness = Reality – Expectation.
Through empirical research, what Baucells and Sarin seemed to find was that happiness wasn’t based on any objective performance metric alone. In fact, they found that even the same person could feel happier with, say, a 20-hour ultra finish, yet somehow less happy with an 18-hour finish at the same event.
How is this possible? The answer lies in the dynamic of another variable, expectation.
Thus, this equation is formulated by research evidence based on people’s expectations of certain events, what actually happened, and how the difference between the two ultimately led to the degree of perceived happiness. So, it seems that the key to subjective success — happiness and satisfaction — lies in how well we optimize both expectation and the real outcome.
I take this a step further: the expectation-reality dynamic is a calculus that dictates our willingness to finish. When we’re in the thick of performance, how might that expectation-reality dynamic dictate our willingness to endure pain and suffering in order to go the full distance? In other words, is the race outcome — the finish and what that might provide us — worth the cost? It’s a mental and physical calculus that our brain constantly computes with each forward step: Is this worth it?
To make these experiences truly worth it requires an optimization of both preparation and mindset.
Let’s break down the two key variables.
The reality of a run is its outcome, our objective time and placing and our subjective experience. This experiential outcome possesses both internal and external factors, some in our control, some not.
- Fitness and health — how prepared we are
- Planning and execution — nutrition, hydration, pacing, running form, and more
- Responsiveness — energy, mood, and our ability to absorb the effort and push through pain
- Course dynamics — terrain, trail, and other environmental conditions
These factors largely determine the objective outcome. How fast do we run? What place do we finish? Some of these outcomes we can control; many we cannot. And these factors may play out differently, even at the same race under very similar conditions.
But since happiness and satisfaction — both after the fact, as well as during the run itself — lie in the difference between reality and expectation, it is the relative “size” of the latter — expectation — that will determine our satisfaction with the outcome, and our willingness to endure when things get most challenging.
Just as reality has internal and external dimensions, so, too, does expectation:
- Perceived fitness — how I understand my ability to run fast and perform relatively well
- Perceived Experience — the degree to which I think I have the ability to execute well
- Expected distance — if the distance seems far or not
- Perceived course dynamics — does the terrain, weather, and more seem difficult or easy for me
- Expected competition — where we think we will be amongst the competition
As such, when we have high perceived fitness and experience, and we rate the event as a low challenge, our expectations are highest. And when we have low perceived fitness and experience, and we think the challenge will be high, our expectations are lowest.
The Expectation-Reality Dynamic
Given these factors, it should now seem possible that Runner A might somehow be less happy with an 18-hour Western States 100 finish than they were when they finished the same race in 20 hours.
If, for example, Runner A is extremely fit, has run several fast 100-mile races before, and has trained and paced on the Western States 100 course previously, then they might approach the event with very high expectations, perhaps a 17-hour or even faster goal. So, when they finish in 18 hours, their relative happiness — reality minus expectation — could be surprisingly low.
But what if we flashed forward a few years. Perhaps the same Runner A endured a series of health issues. They now regain good but suboptimal fitness and health and, despite the odds, another entry into the Western States 100. This new scenario might present vastly different metrics. Runner A may have very low expectations due to lower perceived fitness and a higher perceived race difficulty. As such, a 20-hour finish might produce more happiness because of this expectation-reality dynamic.
As compelling as this equation may be to explain a reflective feeling of an event, post-race, I contend this equation may be even more useful in helping us to endure a run’s most trying moments in real time.
I believe our brains run this same expectation-reality calculus continuously during the course of endurance event. We think not simply, Can I safely finish this event, but more, Is this current amount of pain worth enduring in order to finish?
Included in their book, Baucells and Sarin outline a simple experiment that highlights the relative power of expectation versus reality. They fill three glasses with water: one hot, one cold, and one at a temperature equidistant between the two extremes. People were instructed to first dunk a finger into either the hot or cold water, and then into the medium water.
Those who first dunked their finger in the hot water perceived the medium water as cooler than those who first dunked the finger in the cold water who conversely perceived the medium water as warmer. Perception is dictated by expectation.
This, too, occurs, during endurance events. When we anticipate an event will be extremely challenging, this lowers the expectation of ease. Thus, if we anticipate an event to be extraordinarily hard, and our experience does not meet that expectation — it is simply medium-hard — it may actually feel less painful than it does to someone whose expectation was higher while both executing the event in precisely the same way.
I commonly see this phenomenon in the physical therapy clinic. A soft tissue treatment technique that is known to be painful — say, a lateral glute massage — will be rated as less painful if it is preceded by another different, but more intensely painful, treatment technique.
“How does this feel?” I ask. The patient answers, “Pretty sore, but not as bad as what you just did!”
Expectation sets the standard: not just for happiness, but for tolerance.
Newness and Respect Tempers Expectation and Raises Happiness Potential
Previous pain may set expectation of ease to be low, but what about novel, brand-new experiences? New, formidable challenges have the ability to massively reset expectations. Marathons are far. Fast marathons are painful. So what might a 100 miler feel like to a new ultrarunner?
Often, such fear of the unknown does a great job of lowering expectations of ease, and — paradoxically — improving finishing outcomes. For if a runner perceives a given event as extremely difficult, they are often more likely to be extremely prepared and have very low expectations for both ease and high performance.
Indeed, this might partly explain why one of the strongest factors of finishing the Western States 100 is having never run it. Sure, there are other factors, such as scarcity, or the idea that we may never have the opportunity to run the event again. But fear of the unknown — the lore of the punishingly steep canyons and oppressive heat — that scares a runner into maximum preparation and minimizes their expectations.
So, not only are finishing expectations low and preparation high, when a runner finds themselves suffering mid-race, their very low expectations for comfort and quickness and their strong preparation may result in a favorable mathematic that allows us to endure to the finish.
Familiarity Breeds High Expectation, and Not Necessarily Improved Outcomes
For runners with increasing experience in ultra-distance races, experience is a double-edged sword. While we may develop and sharpen skills to better execute the distance, terrain, and other challenges, we often increase our expectations — and at a magnitude disproportionate to skill development.
When we ran that first 100 miler, we were terrified, but we were cautious, executed well, suffered moderately, and per the equation, had a great time. Perhaps we run a few more with both similar fear and improved execution.
Should one’s experience play out as such, what invariably happens is this:
- Skill and ability increase
- Expectations increase
Should these both grow at the same rate, happiness stays constant. But often, expectations grow much faster than ability. This is especially true if perceived difficulty and perceived pain substantially decrease. This might occur when weather and course conditions are moderate, and we otherwise avoid major challenges.
After a few non-complicated 100-mile finishes, our fear of the distance might plummet. And, logically, our performance expectations increase. In such a case, our overall expectations are substantially larger.
Thus, it may not only take a much larger performance outcome to be similarly happy, such a situation might also threaten our ability to finish.
Should we expect only a modest amount of pain and discomfort, being cast into the throes of extreme duress — blisters, cramping, blown quads, oppressive heat, freezing cold, dehydration, bonking — could be an insurmountable force that flips the will to continue into a full stop.
When accustomed to cool water, even medium-warm water can feel oppressively hot.
This conjures an endurance-suffering version of the Dunning-Kruger effect. When we have just enough experience — but not that much — we tend to:
- overestimate our abilities
- underestimate the potential for suffering
It’s that combination that leads not only to dissatisfaction, but an unwillingness to continue in the face of moderate adversity. And it is the same adversity that, with tempered expectation, might otherwise be endurable.
Managing expectations, therefore, may require a great deal of experience, not simply enduring basic elements of the race, but the time spent dealing with those difficult problems. Only then can we temper expectations accordingly.
Longer Events Might Actually Feel Easier
The happiness equation might also explain both the perceived happiness of increasingly longer endurance events. After enduring the familiar pain of road marathons, people dip their toes into ultras. Both the increasing mileage and often more demanding terrain significantly temper expectation. And while runners almost always run, per mile, slower on trails than roads, they often enjoy the steep, rugged, hot, or cold ultra over their ambient road race. Moderate outcomes minus low expectations.
This math holds true with increasing distance. Expectations for ease get lower with the increasing distance. Yet, with increasing distance, simply finishing some of these formidable events is a tremendous accomplishment: reality is greater and greater.
I experienced this first hand at the Tahoe 200 Mile in the following ways:
- Performance and comfort expectations were incredibly low. Jake didn’t know how long a 200-mile race should take him, so his mindset was to just keep moving until the distance was covered.
- Performance reality was high. Simply covering 100 miles, for Jake, was tremendous. Every step beyond that was filled with joy and gratitude.
As such, in spite of the enormous challenge, it might have been easier for Jake to cover that distance than a familiar 100 miler, let alone a road marathon. The enormity, plus the unfamiliarity, maximized the perceived outcome and minimized expectations.
So, when he finished? Pure joy!
The Happiness and Performance Equation
How, then, do we take this information and parlay it, not only into a post-race happiness, but to help us endure the moments that make these experiences seem both insufferable and utterly meaningful? Let’s return to the equation of Happiness = Reality – Expectation.
- Be Prepared — Maximize physical and mental training and preparation
- Execute Well — Execute the elements of pacing, nutrition, hydration, and other essential strategies
- Anticipate Greatness with Dynamic Goals — Minimizing expectations does not mean having no goals or expectations for success. It is important to have goals, but dynamic objectives that adjust to the conditions at hand. Rigid goals can pin expectations too high; dynamic goals set the table for the best and most valuable outcome.
- Prepare for the Worst — Another profound nugget came from a recent “Tim Ferriss Show” podcast with entrepreneur, investor, and author Richard Koch. In it, Koch discussed what he called toxic beliefs, or inaccurate and dangerous beliefs we carry that can threaten our wellbeing. Chief among them is that life will be easy.
Life is seldom easy. Ultra-endurance events, by definition, are hardly ever easy.
Maintaining a respect for the event — and all the possible ways that we can suffer — may be the key to not only managing expectations, but adequately preparing for those elements of suffering.
As such, every time we cross a starting line, we should be physically and mentally prepared for the worst-case scenario. The preparation will help us instrumentally survive; the mindset will allow us to endure, and then provide a nourishing portion of gratitude when those catastrophes do not happen!
The Tahoe 200 Mile experience was profound for me, because it transformed both my performance expectations and capacity to endure in ultramarathons. Seeing Jake cover 200 miles, and me hiking with him for 42 miles, with only two short breaks, redefined my mindset.
After that experience, the notion of “walking it in” over the final 20 miles of a 100 miler — which I personally failed to do at last year’s Run Rabbit Run 100 Mile — seems perfectly doable. Why not? It’s not that hard, and walking it in isn’t that slow.
Moreover, such an experience profoundly expands the realm of potential suffering: what we can endure, but also what we can adequately prepare for, if we only acknowledge and accept those challenges.
Prepare more, expect less, and experience more happiness.
Call for Comments
- Do you think you’ve mastered the happiness equation?
- Or do overly high expectations sometimes get in the way of your running happiness?