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.