It’s All in the Mind

An essay about the psychological aspect of ultrarunning.

By on June 8, 2018 | 7 comments

AJW's TaproomThis is the time of year when I am often approached by newer runners interested in training and racing secrets. Most of the time, these are well-meaning folks who find themselves in the midst of training for a big summer race and are feeling a bit in over their heads. In a mild state of panic, these runners are simply seeking a little reassurance that everything will be okay. And, the truth is, everything will, indeed, be okay. Yet, when I reflect on my earlier running career, I realize that most of the time that everything’s-gonna’-be-okay attitude is more a mind game than anything and it brings me back to the importance of training the mind as much as the body.

In my experience, both participating in and in spectating ultramarathons, I have seen many people more than adequately prepared physically for the challenge but, for whatever reason, these same people were unprepared mentally. In observing these people, it is often some version of a lack of will or motivation that thwarts their effort and leaves them wondering why,

“My legs felt great. It’s just that for some reason I just lost the will to run,” said a friend of mine several years ago at the Dusty Corners (mile 38) aid station at the Western States 100.

This is a refrain I’ve heard often over the years from countless physically capable runners. It can be a debilitating refrain yet one that I believe can be avoided and even defeated. It just takes practice.

Developing mental fortitude takes time and conscious effort. Sure, there are some people who are simply born with more persistence and resilience than others but I also know for a fact that these critical skills can be learned and developed through deliberate practice and direct experience. The problem is, many of us who get caught up in the physical preparation for a big race neglect the mental preparation. We simply forget to mind our minds. And when that happens, all the physical training in the world simply flies out the window.

Going into a big ultra, it is essential for us to prepare our minds for the inevitable pain and suffering that awaits us. Regardless of physical prowess, sensible pacing, and rock-star support, at some point along the way we are going to be stretched to the limits of our working minds, we are going to confront the demons of the DNF, and we are going to need to fight our mind’s desire to seek comfort. In order to understand this feeling, it helps to have experienced it before and overcome it. However, if that has not happened, it is essential for the successful runner to face that obstacle head on and have the will to bring it down. Essentially, it requires coming to grips with the inevitability of hopelessness and pushing beyond it.

That, ultimately, is one of running’s greatest lessons. Even if you’ve never had any interest in running a race, if you are a long-distance runner, you’ve inevitably faced some kind of inner demon calling on you to stop, or hit the snooze button and stay in bed, or just decide you’ve had enough. And yet the daily grind of running, that pull that gets us out the door every morning, can provide a powerful mental toolkit for success. The discipline, focus, and deliberate practice of a life on the run makes us powerful and strong physically but even more so, mentally, it makes us complete, and provides us with the means to just keep moving on. Most of the time, that is all we need to do.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Lagunitas Brewing Company in Petaluma, California. A long-time Taproom favorite, Lagunitas has recently begun distributing nationally their popular Undercover Investigation Shut-Down IPA. This beer, originally created during a government shutdown several years ago, gained a cult following among beer aficionados over the years and is now, once and for all, available across the country.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Does your mind ever beat your body?
  • How do you convince your mind to do the very hardest things you want to do in life and in running?
  • What is to be gained—or lost—out of pushing the mind quite hard?
Andy Jones-Wilkins
Andy Jones-Wilkins finished in the top 10 men at the Western States 100 7-straight times. He's sponsored by Patagonia and Drymax socks and is iRunFar's editorialist.