The Will to Keep Going

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?

There are 15 comments

  1. chris mcgovern

    it is so interesting to me that the athlete tends to gravitate towards the physical….more controllable ? more tangible than the mental? When it is quite possible (understatement) the mental side of things is greatly more important that the physical preparation…yet in general, so little time is spent on it. I like your Ratio of 1:2

  2. Jeff

    To further AJW’s story, that runner came in to the aid station with another runner who also insisted on dropping, I think their negative energy had fed off one another, but the aid station crew was able to get some calories in the other runner and eventually he took off into the night. I saw him come down the mountain the next morning 30 miles later after the turnaround back to the same aid stationw here he tried to drop the night before. With the light of day, a smile on his face and a pair heavily blistered feet and he thanked the aid station volunteer for not letting him drop. The proverbial yin to the yang of his friend the night before.

  3. Aaron

    Our sport is truly a tough one on multiple levels, physical and mental. Three weeks ago at the Georgia Jewel 35 mile ultramarathon, at mile 20, I had felt terrible for a couple of hours and just two climbing miles out of the aide station I felt so bad, so sick and so tired I found a rock and sat down. I felt like throwing up, I knew I was dehydrated and my muscles were taxed. Sitting on that rock I realized two downhill miles to the aide station and it would all be over. I could finally stop feeling so terrible. The other direction would be hours more pain and suffering, but I would be moving to the end. That other direction would also be the toughest part of the course, with boulders and rocks and long remote climbing sections. I weighed my decision and the state of my body, stood up and headed towards the finish line. This is what makes our sport so hard, knowing when your mentally and physically ready to toss in the towel at any distance (especially if your a slow runner). You have to know your self and accept somedays you need to turn and head to the aide station instead of the finish line. Knowing when is the hard part.

  4. John Vanderpot

    Loosely related to this, sort of: since the summer I’ve been thinking how few activities in this life require the sustained mental focus that ultrarunning does, especially when it comes to the 100M — name another thing we do where you’ve got to keep your head in the game for what, in my case, plus-30 consecutive hours?

    Aren’t young people’s attention spans supposed to be down to something like 8 seconds, and goldfish come in at 7?


    1. Amir

      “Ultra endurance sports are unique in that they’re the only physical endeavor that humans undertake with the sole purpose, or at least the expectation, of suffering for extended stretches of time on a scale of hours and sometimes days.”

  5. Harry Mattison

    Very true Andy! So how do we train our minds for ultrarunning?

    I read before my first 100 and got some good ideas about boosting my mental energy and positivity. I also find gratitude to be a powerful source of motivation to keep going – just like Grindstone RD Clark Zealand reminded us in the pre-race briefing when he talked about his autistic son, the challenges that he has, and the gift we have to toe the line for a long and crazy ramble in the woods. Similarly, a friend tells the story of his grandfather who was so glad when he was healthy enough to be able to walk down the driveway to his mailbox.

    Boring workouts also might have a beneficial impact. If I can enjoy the monotony of 3 hours of stadium stairs, it will be all the better to be on the trails where nature can bring a new vista, clump of amazing mushrooms, or something new around every corner.

    What techniques do others have?

  6. Rob

    I was thinking about the mental training aspect today on my long run. I’ve got a park about four tenths of a mile from my house and in order to cover 24 miles I had planned I had to pass the entrance/exit 3 times. The first time I thought “I’ve done 10 miles, I can bail now and just get my long run in Saturday or Sunday morning, when it’s going to be even cooler.” The second time I was close to 20 miles, and of course I thought “20 miles is pretty good for a long run, who cares if I miss my mileage goal by 4 miles, that’s still a good training week.” The last time around (on a shorter loop) I was right at 23 miles and could either head back to my house, or take a slightly longer route to get in the 24 I had planned, and pushed through (actually having to run past my house to get that final tenth of a mile). In the scheme of things those extra four miles or that extra tenth of mile won’t make me any fitter, but hopefully it’ll give me that extra mental edge to keep going when I take on my first hundred at the end of November.

  7. Atlee B.

    I was at that CTS Memorial Day camp in CO. Best investment I ever made and distinctly remember your point about mental training. It’s huge. Especially at 2 am when everything hurts and continued effort seem pointless. Thanks for sharing the wisdom. I will put it to good use leading up to Tunnel Hill here in a few more weeks.

  8. AT

    My 1st road marathon was a full fledged disaster after mile 17. Severe cramping in my legs and amongst heavy humidity, I was broken in half. I limped, and painfully shuffled the last 9 miles to the finish. 1 hr past my goal time. There was no emergency reason to drop, the pain was very taxing but I played mental tricks with myself to get to the finish. Upon finishing and feeling pretty dehydrated, I took care of myself under the Medic’s eyes and was cleared to leave an hour later with my family. It was a life changing moment and something I am forever grateful for. Embracing the demons is half the battle!

  9. Sue

    Same thing happened to me in my first hundred attempt. Coming in to the start/finish at mile 75 with a wicked quad cramp. Rolled it, massaged it, no go. Went out to try the out and back that would bring me back by the start /finish- still not happening. I had two 12.5 mile laps to go, and 10 hours to do it, but I just could not. Had someone else’s coach just about yelling at me to get back out there, but my mind had given up. Two years later, I came back with the attitude that only compound fracture or arterial spray would keep me from finishing (and both are very unlikely at Umstead), and I did it. Like the old saying says, If you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.

  10. Brad Patterson

    Great column, AJW! Can you give tangible examples of methods to use to train our minds when you say ” for every one minute spent training the body, spend two minutes training the mind.” Thanks!

  11. Tom James

    Great article AJW. Thank you! Hope your hips are recovering well. Running during the nighttime portion of an ultra requires a lot of mental toughness. You can only see the small patch of trail that is illuminated by your head torch and it feels like the environment has closed-in around you. Training at night and getting used to the potential monotony and lack of vistas probably helps. Regarding daytime mental training – when training alone I often use my car as an ‘aid station’ for long efforts. Returning to my car (and the potential for an early exit!) and then running away from the car again is also good mental training I believe.

  12. Stuart Cohen

    AJW, I’m curious what’s in your “bag of tricks” for convincing runners not to quit, particularly in the type of situation where you haven’t previously met the person. I’ve volunteered and captained at aid stations several times over the past few years, and it’s a perpetual challenge working to prevent runners from quitting when it’s mainly a psychological issue. I certainly have my own methods, but it’s always tough to tell what will work. Do you have any previous articles or resources on different strategies? If not maybe it’d be a good future topic!

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