Patience And The Ultramarathoner

A discussion about the importance of patience in trail and ultrarunning.

By on March 3, 2015 | Comments

Good things, like race finishes, PRs, and victories, come to those who wait. Ultramarathoners often overlook how crucial patience is to maintaining a consistent and healthy running routine and, ultimately, to race-day success. However, there are numerous examples of what happens when ego, wishful thinking, and adrenaline consume our running. Cases in point include:

  • Staggering to a finish line with cramps, nausea, and fatigue because we pushed the pace and effort too early.
  • Earning a DNF by starting an event without proper training and preparation.
  • Sidelining ourselves because we increased our running volume and intensity too quickly.
  • Prolonging our recovery time and squandering productive training by running through or returning prematurely from a significant injury.

We wait in line at the grocery store. We wait in traffic jams. We wait for our paychecks. We wait for food to be served at a restaurant. We wait for our family and friends when they are late. Why, then, can’t we do the same when it comes to our training and racing?

Unfortunately, our sport is cruel. Achievement is coldly based on time and place at the end of each workout or race. “I was 42nd place.” “I finished the 100 mile in 24 hours and one minute.” “My pace for the workout wasn’t as fast as my training partner’s.” We constantly compare ourselves to current and past competitors, the clocks at the finish line, and the watches on our wrists. We covet first place and we strive to be the fastest. This kind of pressure makes it difficult to develop patience. Aren’t we losing ground if we’re not training or racing hard all the time?

This kind of thinking gets us into trouble. Let’s face it, glaciers move faster than the time it takes our bodies to adapt to new stresses. For most, simply presenting the science behind physiological adaptation, or the process of how our body recovers and rebuilds after hard workouts, doesn’t inspire discipline. Luckily for us, self-control is a trait that can be honed in other tangible ways. Nurture your ultra-resolve by embracing these concepts:

  • Understand the time frame. Training for your best ultra can take years. In the 1600-meter run, patience means waiting a minute. However, an ultramarathon demands hours. Stay present and focus on the ‘now’ and what you must do immediately, like hydrating, eating, and monitoring your effort, instead of thinking about the finish line.
  • Consistency and experience instill composure. ‘One and done’ assaults in our sport rarely lead to a fair assessment of one’s abilities. The ultramarathon learning curve is huge. There will be some inevitable rough patches along the way, but commit to at least two years of uninterrupted structured ultra training and racing to build a proper foundation.
  • Practice self-restraint in training. Workouts, like well-executed fast-finish long runs and progression runs, teach us how to distribute our effort incrementally over long distances. Done frequently, these controlled runs become instinctual on race day.
  • Mold your steadfastness outside of running. Purposely expose yourself to new situations in which you must use restraint and don’t have complete control. Examples might include budgeting and planning for an overseas trip, learning a foreign language, fostering new relationships, or building a new start-up company. As a result, you’ll be able to better cope with the stresses of training and racing setbacks.
  • Calling upon your patience is an arduous internal struggle but is achievable. My very good friend Chris Martinez, race director of Moab’s Red Hot 55k and now two years sober, has struggled with self-control for over 20 years. “When I’m impatient it’s because I fear losing something I have or not getting something I don’t have,” says Martinez. “When my anxiety rises I simply must remind myself to have gratitude for what I possess presently. If I accept that then I’m exactly where I need to be and I’m a much more focused and relaxed individual as a result.”

Why ruin the best book you’ve ever read by skipping the middle chapters and going straight to the end? The indisputable truth is this: It takes years to build the fitness and skills necessary to complete an ultramarathon, however, we can lose it all instantly with one hasty decision. There is no magic bullet or shortcut to the finish line. Patience, a critical virtue for the ultrarunner, will prevent self-sabotage and ensure a future of rewarding finishes.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you find patience to be a difficult or easy character trait to nurture?
  • When was the last time you exerted just the right amount of patience with your training or your racing? Can you describe what happened and the outcome that resulted?
  • Do you struggle with having enough patience for the journey that is trail and ultrarunning? If so, where does your impatience arise? In your training? In your racing? In your desire to see and do more?
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Ian Torrence

Ian Torrence has more than 12 years of experience coaching runners of all levels. Ian has completed more than 220 ultramarathons, with 50+ wins, since his first ultra finish at the 1994 JFK 50 Mile. Ian and his wife, Emily, are online coaches at Sundog Running. Information about his coaching services can be found at