person with white flag mental toughness for ultra marathons

3 words to help you survive your first (or any) ultra marathon

By Paul Ryan on 06 Mar 2021

You hear the voice in your head telling you to do an ultramarathon. The idea seems appealing at first and you have a moment of fantasy where you believe you can do it. Then 5 minutes later you have noted 1,000 excuses as to why you shouldn’t.

  • I’m not ready
  • I can’t run that far
  • I’m too slow
  • It will hurt too much

Let’s be honest, those excuses will turn up no matter whether it’s your first or 50th ultra. That’s why ultramarathons are so alluring. They create an overwhelming sense of self-doubt. In horse racing circles they say if you don’t wet your pants at the start of the race you haven’t put enough money on. Ultrarunning is the same – you should be scared, petrified, and going to the toilet every five minutes. It’s why they are so intoxicating. The reality of absolutely bashing yourself into oblivion and not finishing is frightening. Ahh so glamorous, the dreaded DNF. Having experienced that personally at The Hounslow Classic I can confidently say your world doesn’t end if you tap out. In fact, no one actually cares. You tried, it hurt, you don’t make it to the end, but at least you gave it a nudge.

That failure, the point I quit, occurred after every muscle in both legs had cramped for 6 hours. Maybe by neck cramped, and my back and my big toe. It sucked, I hated it, there was nothing fun about the experience so putting the nail in the coffin was an easy decision. Could I have finished? Maybe. Who cares? I didn’t.

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On reflection over the following weeks, I discovered what I really didn’t like about the day was not the pain in my body, but the thoughts in my head. I cramped early, at the 3-hour mark, after completing a section of the course I had done many times in training. It pissed me off and my head never got out of that zone. I hobbled, I got angry, I kicked the proverbial can hour after hour. At no point did I consider any other option, any other way to think about it. It hurt and I was angry and that’s the way it stayed. So naturally enough I went and saw a sports psychologist to see what strategies I could learn to deal with times of great stress and pain.

The reality is, in any ultramarathon you do, shit will hit the fan most likely. It may be just a down kinda feeling for an hour, or it might be more intense and enduring like mine was. So to help combat the inevitable “the world is ending” phase(s) of an ultra, I came up with these 3 words to call on when things go pearshaped.

Surrender – don’t fight it.

Surrender means to wave the white flag in your mind and give total acceptance to the fact you are beaten up. It’s most likely warranted for what you have just done. You feel low, maybe sad, maybe ridiculously sore. Don’t fight it. Give in to it totally and be an observer. Then you can laugh at yourself “check you out you silly hobbled old sad man”. Doing that can provide some relief. You can take an inventory. “What actually hurts?” “everything” “thanks that was a quick audit. Pick one part an explain it to me”

And on you go. Bring attention to the kicking you’re getting gives you a distance from it and then helps you start to strategize what to do about it. Usually slow down and eat is a good place to start.

Common Humanity – everyone is fighting their own demons

At Hounslow everyone else looked fresh and I looked like the only one suffering. What a fool I was. If you have run 34kms (only halfway) which includes 2,200m of climbing and descending you are going to hurt. Everyone is. So know this “we are all in it together”. Look at the other runners around you and accept they are in pain at some level. If they look better than you feel they are most likely better at dealing with it. Be like them. Don’t stay in your bubble. Whoever is around you will be fighting their own demons so you have something in common. Knowing this brings some relief, you’re surrounded by like-minded dickheads who like to suffer. Have fun with that.

Impermanence – it’s all temporary.

No emotional or physical state will stay the same. Not in life and not in an ultramarathon. Things change. Just plod on. Don’t celebrate the highs too much, and don’t beat yourself up in the lows too much. Try and stay neutral about them both.

I feel good. So what?

I feel bad. So what?

Stay out of the extremes.

I have been reading David Clark’s book “Out there, a story of ultra recovery”. His experience in his first crack at the Leadville 100 sums it up perfectly. He was a broken man at halfway and had lost the will to fight, he’d given up. Then he made the decision he wouldn’t quit in an aid station, he would quit when he collapsed on the mountain. So he got started again and tried to destroy himself. What happened next was incredible. He surged and he found a new life. The calories he’d consumed kicked in. He moved into a whole new experience he would have missed if he quit at halfway. There are times to quit (to be safe to yourself and others – think rescue teams). Though you may be dealing with an impermanent situation – if you survive for another hour away you can break through and find the good stuff. That’s what ultras are about.

So there you have it. 3 words I do my best to call on when things get ugly, and I hope you go out there and do that ultra you have always wanted to. And I hope you doubt yourself so much you wet your pants (almost).

I hope it hurts and I hope you find a way through to experience a whole new level of you.

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Paul Ryan

Paul Ryan

Passionate about trail running and wanting to open the door so others can enjoy the experiences it provides as a sport. A mid packer on a good day, I also share some stories on experiences I have had in different events and learnings along the way.

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