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November 28, 2008 - Erik Brown
Distance running is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical. OK, I stole that pearl of wisdom from Yogi Berra, but it holds true for our sport too.
In his best selling book, The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey observed that all things are created twice. “There’s a mental or first creation, and a physical or second creation to all things.” Covey used the analogy of building a home to make his point. He said, “You have to make sure that the blueprint, the first creation, is really what you want, that you’ve thought everything through. Then you put it into bricks and mortar. You begin with the end in mind.”
In my October 22nd post I wrote about the training I did to prepare myself for the second or physical creation of my 50 mile ultramarathon. As I trained, I worked on the mental creation. At first that led to quite a bit of self-doubt. Frankly, I was worried that I just wouldn’t be able to hack it for 50 miles. After all, I had run six regular marathons and had pretty much the same experience each time: I “hit the wall” at about 20 miles, had nausea at the finish line, followed by severe leg cramps and an unhappy spouse. So, how was I possibly going to go nearly twice as far?
The answer to that question wasn’t all that complicated, but looking back now I can see that even though I was a “veteran marathoner” and a former XC coach, I still had a lot to learn to about being a successful distance runner. Thankfully, I found my answers by doing some reading, heeding the expert advice offered by my “coach”, and learning from past experiences. The result was that my ultra-day in the Rothrock State Forest was nearly perfect. The secret to my success boiled down to three obvious things:
1.) Training, training, training – see my October 22nd post.
2.) Disciplined re-fueling during the race – I’ll have more to say about this in my next post(s) and...
3.) A positive attitude!
Consider this. If you randomly selected a group of people and asked them to lay out a training schedule to prepare for a 50 mile run, most of them would probably plead ignorance. You’d get a similar result if you asked that group to talk about re-fueling during an ultramarathon. Even a group of experienced runners might struggle with those topics if they hadn’t previously run an ultra. Of course, that’s not a surprise. Training for and re-fueling during an ultramarathon requires a certain amount of specialized knowledge.
But, who doesn’t know what is meant by a positive attitude? Those two words form a concept so simple that even a child could explain it. Yet, anyone who’s ever run a race longer than 200 meters knows exactly what happens shortly after the starter’s gun is fired. The brain begins to protest. “Slow down!” “Why are we doing this?” “Stop!” In short order, the brain becomes like a fidgety child in the back seat of the family car on a long trip. “How much further is it?” “Are we there yet?” During a marathon, the brain alternates between fidgety child mode and skillful negotiator mode. “Let’s just walk to the next utility pole. No, not that pole, the next one!” Things quickly go from bad to worse when the body begins to hurt. The more your body hurts, the more the brain complains. The more the brain complains, the more you notice the pain. It can become a vicious cycle of physical pain and mental exhaustion.
I knew that maintaining a positive attitude throughout the entire 50 miles of the Tussey Mountainback was going to be critical to having a successful race. I had to keep my brain preoccupied with pleasant thoughts for as much of the day as possible.
I also know myself. One of my most obvious faults is that when I get nervous, tired or hungry, I get cranky. You can see how that could become an issue while running an ultra. So, I actually spent a great deal of time before the race thinking about what I should and shouldn’t think about during the race. You high school runners might want to go back and read that last sentence again.
I made a short list of mental do’s and don’ts for the race. Here is what I came up with:
I employed all of these positive attitude tactics during the race, along with a disciplined approach to re-fueling, and they really worked like a charm. I still felt all of the pain and fatigue that you would expect - those were unavoidable, but I never got discouraged.