The Will to Keep Going

On the psychology of ultrarunning.

By on October 12, 2018 | 15 comments

AJW's TaproomIt was the middle of the night last Friday night. I was sitting at the 37-mile aid station of the Grindstone 100 Mile, crewing a few of my friends, when one of the aid-station workers came up to me.

“AJW, see that guy over there talking to his girlfriend, he wants to drop out. Maybe you should go over and talk to him.”

I looked across the aid station and saw a young-looking guy sitting slump shouldered in a chair, shaking his head, and talking to his crew. I got up and walked over and asked him how he was doing.

“I am just not feeling it today. I am not having any fun and I am not looking forward to another 64 miles of this.”

I could hear the despair and frustration in his voice. I could see the disappointment in his eyes. In that moment, I knew he was done.

I tried to give him a pep talk. I talked to him about how when the sun rose, he would get a second wind and how hope and optimism would win the day if he let it. I tried everything in my bag of tricks, even a little guilt trip. Nothing worked. A few minutes later, he walked up to the aid-station captain, turned in his bib number, and walked off into the darkness.

In the days since Grindstone, I’ve thought long and hard about this young man. Certainly, we all DNF for our own reasons and I have no reason to judge this one. However, I can’t help but think about why this happened and what could have been done to prevent it. Why did he simply lose the will to keep going? How did it get to the point where he felt his only choice was to drop out?

It seems to me, after spending years in the sport, that the mental training required to succeed in an ultramarathon takes deliberate practice over months and years. To finish a 100-mile race, the athlete must be prepared to face some demons, and many times those demons will be telling you to quit. Certainly, serious injury or illness can derail a race but simply stopping because you lose the will to continue can be prevented. It just takes work, hard work.

Back in May at a running camp in Colorado, I was asked to provide the campers with the one piece of advice I would give to runners attempting to succeed in ultras. My answer was simple, for every one minute spent training the body, spend two minutes training the mind. I have to believe that if the young man at Grindstone had done that, if he had envisioned himself in the despair of facing a DNF in the days and weeks leading up to the event, he may have been equipped to exorcise those demons and forge on. Here’s hoping that the next time this happens to him, he will do just that.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Port City Brewing Company in Alexandria, Virginia. Their Porter is one of the finest Porters I have tasted. Rich in malt and chocolate, this is a fresh take on this classic variety. As the days get shorter and the autumn chill sweeps in, this is a great beer to tuck away with on a nice, cool evening.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Can you talk about the times where your mind has been a leading part of why you either succeeded or didn’t in your ultrarunning goals?
  • Is there a parallel to this running concept in life, situations where your mind becomes the chief controller during a challenge and the ultimate reason for your success or failure?
Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.