The Power of the Mind

AJWs TaproomEarlier this week, friend and fellow iRunFar writer Joe Uhan posted a detailed race report of his run at the Bandera 100k last weekend in Texas.

At the beginning of the piece Joe opined, “I’m convinced, that if dropping out does not cross a runner’s mind each time they race, they’re simply not running their hardest.” While I understand Joe’s point, I respectfully disagree.

In my experience, the power of positive thinking is fundamental to success in ultramarathon running. There is no denying the reality that dropping out is a fact of life in ultras, particularly at the front end of the field where runners are on the edge. However, I believe thinking about dropping out is something that we need to train ourselves not to do. While it sounds obvious, in my observation, thinking about dropping out is almost always the first step to actually dropping out. Therefore, by this logic, if we can possibly train ourselves to not even think about it, perhaps we can prevent the cycle from ever even starting.

While my days of running at the front of the pack are behind me, I do recall from some of my earlier races the tremendously draining mental games that were necessary for me to block out certain aspects of the experience to keep me focused on the task at hand. In essence, I found in those years that the less thinking I did, the better. In fact, it did not just require not thinking about dropping, it required endeavoring to not think about anything. And, reflecting back a few years, my most successful races, the 2005 Western States 100 and 2010 Vermont 100, were races in which my mind went completely blank during the last four painful hours and, as such, I was able to run harder than I ever had before.

We’re all wired differently in regard to our temperament and mental fortitude. For some, the mind/body connection is simply too strong to prevent the inevitable wandering. For others, the lack of experience makes it difficult to visualize and actualize the power to harness mental disruption. Nonetheless, regardless of temperament and training, I do believe one can ultimately force the issue and transcend the moment.

Through consistent, disciplined mental training, both on the run and in life, I believe we can exceed our expectations and overcome tremendous adversity. Indeed, in the crucible of extreme endurance sports this is, quite possibly, what it’s all about.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week
Founders Breakfast StoutThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Taproom favorite Founders Brewery in Michigan. Their Breakfast Stout is a deep, dark, coffee-toned stout that you can almost eat with a spoon. It has that classic Stout mouthfeel and a graceful aftertaste that makes drinking just one virtually impossible.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • When has allowing thoughts about DNFing led to you dropping out of a race when, in hindsight, you needn’t have?
  • How do you mentally train yourself to avoid DNFing?
  • What mental games do you play while racing to avoid thinking about DNF? To avoid dropping out even when you do think about DNFing?

There are 3 comments

  1. dougdanielpt

    I agree. Stan Beecham's "Elite Minds" yields a similar conclusion. A person that no longer has fear of failure and instead expectation of extreme success has an opportunity for greatness.

  2. ClownRunner

    At NF50 Dakota Jones ran with the flu and finished mid-pack and most followers applauded his guts and determination to finish at all costs. Olive Oil Joe had a similar debilitating flu, decided to toe the line, and just couldn't go on. I think under normal circumstances his mental fortitude would have pushed him through. Dakota probably pushed through because of his DNF in Japan. It's all just part of the modern elite ultra thing. It's no big deal. It doesn't have to be all or nothing out there on those courses. DNF's are not a Scarlet Letter any more…Mental fortitude is important, but this is the kinder/gentler era. You're too old-school AJW! :)

  3. delaneypv

    As a mid-pack runner finishing the race is the only goal I have. I don't have sponsors that would be disappointed with an 11th place finish. That is why I've resolved to finish every race barring compound fracture or bear attack.

  4. LukeDistel


    Thanks for responding to that point in Joe's column. I had similar thoughts when I read it. Maybe that's the difference between (some) elites and most normal people? For "us" it's not a job to run ultras. I assume most of us enjoy it, which is why we put so much of our body, time and money into it. Is this the mental gap between someone who has to run ultras for their career vs. the majority who do it for enjoyment? If I have to push my body to the point where I want to stop running, am I going to enjoy that? Am I at a greater risk for injury, thus hindering more "fun" I want to have in the future? Should everyone's goal be to run their "hardest" at every race? I really enjoy Joe's (semi-academic) columns, but I agree with AJW here: I'll take fun and a positive experience over walking-the-DNF-line every day of the week.

  5. RyanMcCrickerd

    At first sight of Joe's comment, it made sense to me. I can't agree with it in full, but I certainly welcome and value the mental tussle that this brings to a race. I have not read Stan Beecham's "Elite Minds", but I have absolutely no desire to replace my fear of failure for an expectation of success, whether or not this would bring me greatness.

  6. BrettSC

    I would like to respectfully agree with AJW while at the same time respectfully disagree. :)

    We all have different motivations and purposes and schedules. Finishing any race is high on my list – but I am not someone else. Someone else may be able to toe the line at another ultra in a week or two that they can't if they kill themselves at a race this week. Running down the trail and thinking 'wow I'm on the edge, this could be excellent or a spectacular blowup' could be a bad way for some people to think, but typical and correct for others. To each his own.

  7. E_C_C

    I've started exactly 1 ultra, and DNF'ed exactly 1 ultra. And I am sooooo glad I did.

    I didn't know it at the time, but my appendix was about ready to explode. A few days later, they got it out still barely in one piece, and I had a normal, uneventful, couple of weeks of recovery. Had I not stopped? If I burst the thing somewhere in the Steamboat backcountry, the possible suite of complications include a very expensive helicopter ride, months of recovery, and some nonzero probability of death.

    I could have gone on. The aid station people said all the right things ("why don't you just walk to the next aid station and see how it goes?") … I was kicking myself, too. Was I just being a wimp? Should I be telling myself "don't even think about dropping … your body can do more than your mind will allow?" I was miserable, for sure. But I'd never done 100 before, and I was pretty sure it was supposed to involve some misery. I'd also never had appendicitis before (and never will again), so everything was unknown.

    Somehow I knew that something was truly wrong, and I pulled the plug at 53 miles.

    This is a case study of 1, but it would have been within my power at the time to apply this mentality to the situation: "if I can possibly train myself to not even think about it (dropping), perhaps I can prevent the cycle from ever even starting." And if I had, I might be dead now.

    For me, constant appraisal of the perpetual decision to continue is absolutely necessary for healthy participation in an ultra, or any other risky and challenging endeavor.

    1. thelizzzard2002

      Hello E_C_C!

      good decision. Plus, I find that by running 53 miles, you actually have 'finished' an ultra! Sure, someone decided that on this day the goal was supposed to be different, but that's a great achievement!!

  8. RyanMcCrickerd

    Very well said, E_C_C. I expect that few would deny the possible "gains" of "correcting" one's self-doubt. Is that always worth it? I trust that you disagree. This doesn't necessarily affect whether we exceed our expectations and / or overcome tremendous adversity, as you mention, Bryon.

    1. E_C_C

      I'm not exactly sure what it is that I disagree with… :)

      On the one hand, my DNF is *not* what this article is about. It was a necessary DNF. Byron's call for comments clearly talks about the mental aspects of avoiding unnecessary DNFs.

      And yet, the mental process was *the same.*
      1) I allowed myself to start thinking about dropping. I clearly recall thinking, as I stumbled up Fish Creek in the dark, "this can't go on … how do I convince Mike (a buddy in the race who was keeping me moving at that point) to let me drop at the next aid?" This was almost an out-of-body conversation with myself at the time, and kind of funny in retrospect.
      2) I played lots of mental games to avoid or postpone the decision. If I had told my body to go on, it would have, and I well knew it.
      3) I finally made the decision to drop and stuck to it, in spite of reasonable suggestions to the contrary, both from myself and others. This decision was made only on the basis of the sensations available to me at the time; I had no certainty that there was a real threat to my health, no acute injury, etc.

      A positive mental approach is essential, but so is realistic and ongoing assessment. This is true whether you're running a business, going to war in Afghanistan, or trying to hoof it 100 miles in a day. I know without a doubt that it is possible for me to finish a hundred, but it wasn't that day.

      I do have a rematch with the Rabbit this coming September! :)

  9. @mrjasonroberts

    I guess I just don't see how focusing on NOT thinking about a DNF is all that different from thinking about a DNF. Either way, it's on the mind, and it's being given a kind of power. Also, I'm not convinced–unless someone is truly a zen master–that he or she can just get rid of, or erase, certain undesirable thoughts. You may allow them to pass through the mind quickly and not grow attached, but they don't just not exist. In my limited experience so far as a therapist, the thoughts and feelings that never go acknowledged are the ones with most of the power. I appreciate OOJ's honesty.

  10. Andy

    With credit to AJW, I think he's referring to the insidious thoughts and doubts that creep in from just the usual suffering — flagging energy, dead legs, nausea, etc. — not from acute and dangerous conditions. Knowing the difference is the key to avoiding DNFs, and I would hope we get better at making that discrimination with each race.

    I did DNF once due to dead legs waaaay too early in a 100. The only danger was not making the cutoffs. Still, I have no regrets. Some suffering is required, but it's still supposed to be fun, right?

  11. AtomLawrence

    In three 50ks and three 50 milers I have yet to DNF, but I have to say there have been one or two where death marching the last 10-20 miles to the finish line did not fill my heart with any overwhelming sense of accomplishment. Everyone should do what they want, but I suspect my days of finishing at any cost are behind me. Once things turn into ultrawalking, I'm done. Maybe that's a sign of impending mental weakness on my part, but my two best races were ones where I never considered DNFing…I was just having too much fun.

    1. Andy

      Wait til your first 100 — you may well be ultrawalking much of the last 10-20 but will be really glad you did. At that point in a hundo, you *are* almost "done." Still, in general, I'm with you on the death marching thing. Sometimes it's just not your day, and he who runs and walks away lives to run another day.

      1. AtomLawrence

        Indeed! For me, having completed a few 50s badly (my first one was an especially brutal course with 15,000 ft of climbing which I really had no business trying…I finished, but only after briefly passing out and then sitting in the dirt for at least an hour covered in my own sweat-mud), I no longer feel an intense drive to prove that I can finish. I want to get faster. If I ever try a hundo (which I'm sure will happen sooner or later, unfortunately), I would have the same attitude I had going into my first 50: 1. Don't die, injure myself, or get airlifted to the hospital, 2. Finish so long as I can do so without disobeying #1.

  12. D_VanderGriend

    I think AJW is on the right track. You know how many ultrarunning MO's are shared by many but words don't quite describe them right for any. I believe as a mid-packer I have experienced, and detected in the writings of many dedicated ultrarunners both elite and normal, the fundamental value in living in the moment during ultra efforts. Which is kind of like a zen state of the now. Which is kind of like not thinking.

  13. ripvanracer

    I never got caught up in the DNF I have dnf'ed a handful of races over the years because of injury, too hot, muscles cramping. They never affected my future races. I just ran my first ultra in 10 years (not counting a 50k a few years ago I dnf'ed at 18 miles!) I knew going into the race I was going to finish regardless of how long I was able to run. When my quads completely went 2/3rds into the race, I happily walked (with a little jogging)the rest of the race until I was finished and was happy with my result. I think it has more to do with your expectations going into the race whether you entertain thoughts of dnf'ing.

  14. robsargeant

    Listening to music is a strategy I use to help to distract my thoughts in tough sections of an ultra. Most of the songs are inspirational. This has helped me to stay on pace and not to focus on negative thoughts.

  15. GMack

    The psychological urge to give up in an ultra is probably similar to other difficult tasks. It mostly happens from halfway to nearly 3/4 in – either time or distance. (Not talking bad injury, just the urge to DNF.)

    In that zone, the beginning (and the energy you had) has faded and the finish seems a long way off. It helps to set that point, or zone, as a goal. Get through in good shape, have crew or an incentive waiting for you at a key aid station. Look at it as the starting point to the finish.

    Few runners psychologically give up in the last 1/4 of a race. You can ‘smell the barn’ at that point.

    I’m following the HURT 100 today and it certainly bears out in that run. Currently the mode distance for DNF’s is 60 miles. The crux there is the 4th of 5 loops.

  16. @Watoni

    I think both approaches have merit. If you are pushing yourself (in terms of speed, distance or both), you can certainly hit a bad patch (or a few of them). Knowing you can recover, that you can get through them is a source of immense strength. Sometimes it flows and you never consider giving up — other times you have to push through.

    My favorite quote was from an ultra runner and ultra cyclist on a crazy tour in the Pyrenees this summer. Only a few of us made all 100+ summits over the 10 days … but every day he smiled when asked him what the plan was, and said: "there is only one plan" by which he meant to finish, and finish as strong as possible. He made one of the cut-offs one day by only a few minutes, but damn he did!

  17. thelizzzard2002

    My favourite self-meditations during an ultra are:
    – I have nothing else to do today
    – If I was sick I'd feel much worse and I would still have to endure it
    – I imagine being in a sauna, which I love, with my muscles loosening (that wouldn't work for badwater, I guess)

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