The Mysterious World of Mental Training

AJW writes about mentally training for the difficult parts of ultramarathon racing.

By on November 2, 2018 | 20 comments

AJW's TaproomOne of the most poignant memories I have of running the Western States 100 was during the 2013 race when I came upon my good friend Bryon Powell sitting on a rock off the side of the trail at mile 31. That year, Bryon took off from the starting line on a mission and for the first 20 or so miles ran within striking distance of the leaders. When I encountered him, he was in a bit of a low point.

“How’s it going, Bryon?” I asked.

“Okay, just trying to regroup,” he grunted back.

“C’mon with me, let’s run this downhill together.” And with that, Bryon hopped off the rock and we headed down the sweeping fire road toward the Little Bald Mountain Aid Station.

About five minutes later, Bryon said something I’ll never forget, “AJW, can you give me a grit transplant?”

Bryon and I had talked for years about the importance of grit in ultrarunning and I had already written extensively on the subject here on iRunFar and so I was a little surprised by Bryon’s comment. I replied, “Well, for me, grit is the key to success in these things.”

We ran along in silence for a few more minutes, enjoying the scenery and our company, but I could tell something was a little bit off about Bryon. After we stopped at the Millers Defeat Aid Station, I asked Bryon if he wanted to jump in with me for the next section and he just smiled and waved me on.

In the years since then, of course, Bryon has built up a significant reserve of grit as his strong finishes at the Hardrock 100 and other races attest, and I have to believe that there was something about that experience in 2013 that fueled him. Keep in mind, Bryon was already a highly experienced ultrarunner at the time with several top finishes at high-level races. It’s not that Bryon didn’t have the experience to deal with adversity at Western States that day, it’s just that the reserves weren’t there and eventually, albeit a full 48 miles after I left him, he dropped from the race.

Mental training is, from my perspective, one of the keys to success in long ultramarathons and it must be undertaken with deliberate intention. In my view, one aspect of appropriate mental training is frequently overlooked: we must practice being miserable.

There are no two ways about this one. At some point, and perhaps at many points during a long ultra, you will feel miserable. You will likely be in pain and want to stop. The only way to prepare for this is to practice being miserable, and not just in running but in the rest of your life as well. Here are some techniques that work:

  1. In the heat of summer, don’t turn on the air conditioning in your car or house. Many people do this while preparing for races in the heat but it can be good to do for any event in any conditions. Being in a hot, stuffy, confined environment is not pleasant and it will mimic some of what you will feel in an ultra.
  2. Run in clothes and with gear that are uncomfortable, too tight, and not appropriate for running. Load your pack with too much stuff, fill your bottles with warm water, and wear a shirt that intentionally leaves your shoulders uncovered so that the pack straps rub on your exposed skin. You are likely to experience some or all of these things in a race and they will wear you down mentally if you haven’t experienced them before.
  3. Before a long run six weeks or so ahead of your race, soak your shoes and socks in water and then put them on. After that, walk through a dusty, dirty section of trail and coat your feet with grit. After that, run 20 miles. During the run, pay attention to how your feet feel and where they hurt. Paying attention to foot pain in training will allow you to build a tolerance for it which will, in turn, allow you to ignore it in the race.
  4. In your daily life, practice making important decisions when you are fatigued because that’s what you’ll need to do in a race. Some athletes I know intentionally deprive themselves of sleep and then strive to live as normally as possible on as little sleep as possible for as long as possible. This can mimic the kind of conditions faced in a long ultra and allow you to keep a moderately clear head on race day because you’ve already rehearsed the situation.
  5. In the months leading up to the race, intentionally deprive yourself of some of life’s basic necessities once or twice a week. Some things to consider depriving yourself of are food, transportation, shelter, sugary drinks, alcohol, or your cell phone. Living without something that you use on a daily basis and that offers convenience and comfort will train your brain to deal with not having things when you want them and allow you to practice maintaining willpower.
  6. Finally, once a week or so, go for a training run at a time of day when you don’t want to run. This might be in the middle of the night, after a big lunch, or even instead of dinner. Running when you don’t want to in training will teach your brain that it’s okay to run then, which is certainly something you’ll experience in a long ultra.

So, back to Bryon and the 2013 Western States. As I look back now on that day five years ago, it is clear to me that the experience, as well as several others outside of running, have built up Bryon’s reserves of mental strength. Perhaps he used some of the techniques described above; I am not sure. But what I do know is that he took each new ultra experience he had as a way to grow and evolve, not only as a runner but as a business owner, friend, and person. That is one of the great gifts of our sport!

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Everyone knows Bryon’s favorite beer is Yuengling Lager, which has been reviewed here in the Taproom before. But Yuengling also makes a great classic Black & Tan that is modeled after the traditional British half and half. That is our beer of the week this week in honor of Bryon. The Black & Tan combines Yuengling’s Dark Brewed Porter with their Premium Beer to produce a subtly balanced, wonderfully drinkable beer. It’s particularly quaffable on a crisp autumn evening.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Can you share a story about a particular running experience which instilled in you a lot of grit and tolerance for the tough times? What happened and how did you learn from it?
  • What about in life? Do life circumstances sometimes require a lot of grit? Do you have a story about something that happened in life that required toughness or that you used toughness to get through?

AJW and Bryon running together during the 2013 Western States 100. Photo: Michael Lebowitz

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.