Mental Resilience

If you are just starting on your Ultra Marathon journey we will introduce the concept of mental resilience gradually, in conjunction with your fitness improvements.

Ultra Running

To be an Ultra Runner or Ultra Walker able to complete ultra long-distance marathons you require the ability and desire to develop 2 key attributes:

  1. The Physical ability which equates to 20% of what is required and
  2. The Mental resilience which constitutes the remaining 80% of what is required

Quite remarkable, when you consider the perceived fitness levels required to run such long distances. So why is it weighted so heavily? Why is mental resilience so critical?

Mental resilience:

Psychological resilience is the ability to successfully cope with a crisis and to return to pre-crisis status quickly. Resilience exists when the person uses:

“mental processes and behaviours in promoting personal assets and protecting self from the potential negative effects of stressors”. In simpler terms, psychological resilience exists in people who develop psychological and behavioural capabilities that allow them to remain calm during crises/chaos and to move on from the incident without long-term negative consequences.

So, therefore:

Resilience is generally thought of as a “positive adaptation” after a stressful or adverse situation. When a person is “bombarded by daily stress, it disrupts their internal and external sense of balance, presenting challenges as well as opportunities”.

*Curtesy Wikipedia

The above statements are interesting when one thinks about the psychological resilience required to complete Ultra Marathons. The 80%.

One could argue that if we are physically prepared, all that remains is the mental strength and physiological resilience required to finish ultra distance races. The question arises if our physical training plan is clear, what is the resilience training plan? 

For ultra distance runners the cost of participating is the pain. It is an inevitable part of running for 50, 100, 200+ miles over rugged, mountain terrain- often a combination of wet and cold or hot. Pain is the small admission price you pay. But, one has to compare what is gained. The opportunity to fulfill life-affirming challenges. Pain, it is the cost of taking part in one of life’s greatest adventures.

Accepting that something is going to hurt, but at the same time, it is going to reward you beyond measure-a difficult concept? So mental resilience is a critical part of your success in ultra running.

Preparing physically for long distance running is a subject well understood. But how do you prepare mentally?

“Pain, it only hurts and your mind is more important than your muscle group” Scott Jurek Ultra Running legend 

As humans we are constantly on the move, always trying to get to the next place, the next start line. We excitedly arrived at the start of each race anticipating a new challenge. Then the moment that it challenges us, we just can’t wait for the whole experience to end. “when is this ever going to end, this is torment” (a dear friend once said to me @mile 35 on the Dartmoor 50, after 3,000 meters of climbing) this is echoed often during races, more so on the longer events, running well in to the night with changeable terrain and weather conditions. “Well, it could end now,” I said. “Or, it could end when you have finished with me” He finished and was delighted. He has gone on to compete in many more events with me and we laugh regularly about the “this is torment” statement. 

It’s what you signed up for when you got the credit card out and booked the race. It’s what you wanted. Why then when the race gets difficult, do you want it to end? Ultimately, you want to be on the finish line in a pool of sweat, feeling amazing, cow bells ringing with people jumping and cheering, with the experience behind you. With another huge successfully completed race.

During the most intense moments of a race, in the eye of the storm, in the heart of the challenge, you want to be anywhere else but in the here an now. 

“If not here, where would you rather be?”

You are huffing and puffing and your heart is slamming in your chest, you are climbing, upwards and upwards further, higher and higher, and your quads are burning. You’re questioning yourself –  if you can hang on, if you can survive. This is living, you are inexplicably joined to the earth. Your feet merge into the ground and your visual and other senses are on full alert. At this moment you are at one with nature, you are in your element. A strong and powerful human, testing yourself to the outer ranges and limits of your physical and mental capabilities. 

Can you think of anything else that could be more exciting and have more potential to change you and help you grow than this very moment that you are experiencing?  

So, this is the place you wanted to be, and you have actually made it to that destination and is it really is as tough as you thought?. It really is an amazing feeling. How can you leave, why would you want to? 

These tough times will test your mental resolve, your body will be suffering and your mind will turn to protect it, the Gremlin is emerging telling you to stop it moving. The Gremlin wants to be fed. And, just like in the 1984 film they start innocently enough. 

Whatever you do, do not stop. Take care to remove other thoughts, such as the bill to pay, the car to service, the promotion or job you didn’t get, the self-assessment submission (reminds me must submit it) it can all wait. You are here and it is now. Keep on moving, because this is what you signed up for. It’s the very reason you are here. Moments when time stood still, rare moments of clarity, even rebirth. Do not miss them.  

During an ultra pain and discomfort is different. Possibly, the rain is coming down, your hot wet, you’re struggling up a never, ever, ever ending hill in the pitch darkness, in the fog straining your eyes trying to find the flickering marker flags so you don’t go off the edge of a mountain. Or you’re just starting out and you don’t feel yourself, your kit isn’t right, your trail shoes feel tight, your stomach isn’t quite right and the thought of stopping is already creeping into your mind. 

If this occurs  (and it will at some time) remember this, ask yourself this very important question.

“Where would you rather be?”

Option 1) You could be in the pub with a pint of cider, sounds nice, or on the sofa flicking through your social media accounts checking for like’s.

Option 2) At the finish line completely elated with a huge smile on your face, with a humongous sense of personal worth and achievement that cannot be conveyed to anyone who hasn’t been there exhausted after an ultra 50, 100 or even 200 mile race, totally amazed at what you have just achieved? if its Option 2) then there is no choice, only one direction. Keep on moving forward. One step at a time.

“Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must: just never give up.” Dean Karnazes 

DNF “Did Not Finnish” 

DNF’s Due to Injury

The dreaded DNF, there are a number of them, in every race. If you get hurt or injured whilst racing the smart runner will stop. It is a wise and insightful choice to pull up, stop and live to run another day. It takes a very canny and smart runner to understand that if they keep moving forward it is going backward. Pain from long distance running is very different from being injured. Only you will know the difference, and it is very important to know your body, its important through your training to understand pain from long distance running to pain felt via an injury. I fell and was injured on a training run recently. I pulled out. It was the smart step to take. I hope I am wise enough to do this if it occurs in a race.

DNF’s Not due to Injury

There are other reasons for a DNF. And they don’t come from a specific injury. Quite often they can come from the naturally occurring source of pain created by the long distances and extreme conditions. They can occur as a result of the pain you inevitably experience as an ultra runner, but in themselves are not the reason to DNF. They come from the runner, the runner who slowly, articulately and skilfully, talking themselves out of the race. They just don’t want to be there anymore, and they tell themselves whatever is necessary to end the experience. 

For many runners, however, they just don’t want to continue on the trail anymore. They stop, and the thought of being at the finish line feeling euphoric is no longer with them. They often rush back to the pickup point, rush home, justify stopping to others, “it just wasn’t my day, I felt tired, my head was in the wrong place, I was worried about that self-assessment, those car tyres, the promotion”  then they almost immediately get the credit card out and sign up to the next start line. 

For me getting to the finish line of an Ultra is like reading a really, really long novel. There is a beginning, a middle and an end. There are also a lot of chapters in between. You have to stick with it, the chapters you may have found challenging or demanding to stay with could be the vital words. When we compare this to ultra running and certain chapters that make you want to give up and stop, can be the most important, the most insightful.  

If you feed the gremlin in your mind, it will grow and very happily eat and eat then convince you the only option is to stop moving. There is a real risk that you will miss the very moment you have worked so hard for. I look back on past races and picture them in my mind as if it was happening right now. Wonderful moments spent on the trails that will stay with me for my whole life, moments of clarity often gifted to me at my lowest points. Low points that have led to my proudest moments and greatest rewards. 

“You could write a song about some kind of emotional problem you are having, but it would not be a good song, in my eyes, until it went through a period of sensitivity to a moment of clarity. Without that moment of clarity to contribute to the song, it’s just complaining.” Joni Mitchel 

Always try and maintain perspective, pause, step back, look at how much you have achieved. At the very moment where you want to stop, and the  gremlin is being fed and is growing, think “this it is what I signed up for, this is my test, this is what I wanted” There will be key reference points in the journey that marks you out, that changes you. Use them and you will grow beyond your imagination. 

With the above in mind, here is my advice on how to develop the mental resilience for ultra marathon races:

Where you started, and why you are here

There is a reason you started this. Park runs, 5, 10k marathons are not enough. The explorer in you is looking for something else. 

There are as many reasons people take on these events as events themselves. A firm favourite is you wanted test yourself, push your limits. See if you could do it. Congratulations you are, its here and now.  

If the Gremlin is hungry and looking for food, its hilly, hard hot cold wet, and your in that dark place, I recommend you shout this out to the top of your voice, “I am here, I have arrived, I am lucky, I am alive, I am not giving up”  you will be amazed how this can make you feel. Especially if you are alone. Remind yourself that you are a strong human you can do this.

There are so many people that will never be able to experience this moment. You are very fortunate to be here and you shouldn’t want to be anywhere else.  Then following this victory over your mind and situation savour it, log it, and keep on moving. You are on the way to greatness and a greater understanding of the wonders of ultra running.

Be humble run with gratitude

Gratefulness is my most prevailing feeling when I am running and especially when I am on 50 mile + events. I am doing something I love, and will be forever grateful. To witness the rising sun over a mountain, to see stags running with the hinds. To run through the night to see the sun set, the moonlit sky and the sun rise again is truly remarkable. We have trained and planned for these events and should be proud to be part of it. 

Many people will never see a mountain let alone climb it. With our world shrinking how many people can say they have ran in ancient natural woodland. Hold on to these thoughts and images as they serve to remind you why you do this. 

We are entrepreneurs and creators of our own destiny, the originators of our dreams. We are strong human beings, we are adventurers. Not only have we had the courage to make that 1st step and start training, we have earned the right to be here. 

Being humble is a trait that runs throughout the ultra running community. 

Being humble doesn’t mean to think less of yourself, it actually simply means to think of yourself less. You can have strong self-esteem but not brag or make a big deal of yourself to others. 

Taking part in ultra’s can teach you to understand your worth far more and in a more enlightening way. Humility is the quality of being humble and means putting the needs of another person before your own, and thinking of others before yourself. You will be faced with many situations on ultra events when you have the opportunity to exercise this skill.  You are always welcome at Ultras. The elite athletes talk to you, ask you how you are, are you looking forward to the adventure they give you support. They care about you, even if like me at the time I looked ridiculous in my running gear (still do) 

In the 2018 “Race to the Tower” a 50 mile trail run through the beautiful Cotswold’s Mary Menon was ahead of Greg price with a comfortable lead. Mary made and error and went in the wrong direction. Greg stopped, called her back and waited for her. She took the lead again and Greg finished 1 second behind her. How many other solo sports would you see that?

The ability to respond to trepidation, the unexpected, anxiety, anger and frustration with humility and gratitude is the number one thing that can progress your advancement in ultra running. Greg may never have that chance again to do something with such grace, Mary was in the lead and he waited with humility.  I remind myself often that I might not ever get the opportunity to see this stag again, or feel the sunrise on my face as I ascend to the top of the mountain or to run under a star lit sky. 

If you can use this skill, when the gremlin appears, the urge to feed it can be dealt with. All you need to do is step back for a moment and remind yourself that you love what you are doing, you are humble and gratitude will win. Gremlin safely returned to cute and fluffy. We are doing what we love. 

Never feed the Gremlin

We often approach races expecting the low points, the terrible time which will test every part of our mental resolve. “its going to be tough, we are going in to some dark places, will we get through it?” a friend once asked me in the van on the way to an event. The Gremlin popped its head out of the glove box. I was full of cold and now I had the gremlin on my lap. Great. 

Not all races are like that. Sometimes things can go well and events pass with just fun and adventure. If you anticipate hitting the lows, the gremlin is out of the box already. 

If you have equipped yourself and prepared well, are fit, it could be your most supreme race to date, a wild and wonderful adventure.  

If you anticipate hitting very low points then the above is being fed. And, the moment that fear creeps in,  “is that a blister, I feel sick, I am distracted, I am alone (for hours)” before you know it, the gremlin is well fed and then: 

You now have a far more challenging situation than you did before the feeding commenced. 

Hit that Gremlin and remove it immediately. 

When it appears squash it. Always try and do it the moment it appears do not give it air time, mind time. Like many things in life it is a hurdle that you are more than able to overcome. 

You are a physically prepared, you are a powerful human being, you have trained, you are well equipped and deserve this place on earth. A place in one of the possible greatest adventures of all time. 

My closing thoughts are so. Learning to control the Gremlin as a result of ultra running has been the greatest gift one could ever receive. Albeit, this was discovered late in my life. But, because of ultra running I am more grateful than ever, as without it I may not have discovered it at all. 

Be free, run strong, live long and go the distance 

Thanks to:

  • David Bidler – The distance project (gave me the ideas how to structure this section) 
  • Wikipedia research 
  • Scott Jurek, Dean  Karnazes, Joni Mitchel quotes  
  • Gremlins 1984 by Joe Dante and released by Warner Bros