There are countless struggles that ultra-running brings to life. The physical demands, mental battles, and psychological barriers faced on any given training or racing day is unimaginable. So many components are involved in succeeding…but really not so much. Sure, we can’t control the weather…and let’s face it, that affects all racers. Can’t control who shows up…or how many bathrooms are on course. But do all those things matter? I thought so but then when I thought more about it…it’s not all those variables that’s creating success or failure, it’s me. I sat back and really started to evaluate my training vs racing … what were the differences between succeeding and failing … what limits did I really need to overcome. Here’s my top 5…
5. Acceptance…it’s gonna hurt
It really doesn’t matter what distance you run…it always hurts in the last 1⁄3 of the race. Seriously…even in the 5k the last one mile push can bring about a different type of pain. I realized this phenomenon after the 2015 Ice Age 50 miler around mile 40. I remember sitting in 2nd place and trying so desperately to catch the leader, but in actuality my whole body ached and I felt like I was breaking at every joint. My legs said ‘no’ simply because my mind said an even stronger ‘NO.’ But I train for these distances?! It hit me. Most of ultra-running is accepting the element of pain. Since then I have mastered the art of the final 1⁄3. The wheels turn on and I tell myself, ‘this sucks but it’s the final section, you’re there with every fast step forward.’ (It does help to have your coach on your shoulder too 😁 ).
4. Hills & Heights…my personal hell
This may not top every ultra-runners top five list, but living in the Midwest is a huge hinderance for me. I can’t perform at my peak with racers that get backyard mountains to play around in everyday. My jungle gym consists of a treadmill, city mile flats, and rolling horse/ski trails. So, after the 50 mile championships I realized I needed to suck it up and get on some hills…I found the tallest WI hills I could. It’s all I do now. Prior to ultra-running, road racing was mastering the backsides of Boston and getting through the wind tunnels of NY. Now the challenge has become climbing thousands of feet of mountain side for miles at a time. Don’t fall off is all I tell myself. My inner clutz shines only in the mountains when it counts!
No one wants to admit it but improper fueling will ruin a runner of any distance. Sadly, no one wants to belly up and eat enough or believe that carbohydrates fuel the body. It took me a solid year to master my nutrition and it includes eating and drinking by mile 1 and then continuing mile after mile. “What?! You eat that much?! Yes, yes I do. And I ask people why they don’t…and likely excuses come out (these are for real!)…my body can’t handle it, I don’t eat carbs, they only have sugar at aid stations, I’m trying to be like Zach Bitter only eating fat, I’m trying to lose weight….so I ask them if they enjoy bonking and most people don’t even realize they bonked because of fueling. Your body is like car needing gasoline to run properly. Giving the human body carbohydrate equals a running machine, giving it nothing or things that are not proven to fuel is like clogging the engine. Muscle wastes at altitude and carb burn rates go up 25-70% …EAT. I mastered that art a long time ago after bonking in the marathon a couple of times because I wanted to believe my body could run on nothing….during, after, and in between races. Taking care of my engine has improved my running immensely and warded off injury…strong bones, powerful muscles, and fuel in the tank go a very long way.
Think about the biggest, most important race you just did or have coming up. Nervous? Maybe not if you’re casually running, but if you are attempting a personal best or win, nerves take over like aliens!! I’ll paint a typical runners race morning…wake up and pace around. Go to the bathroom 26 times. Check heart rate at start…196. Start 2 minutes faster than pace and slowly lose even a steady pace by the half way point. Seem familiar? Stress hormones, most people recognize Cortisol as the main culprit, can ruin a runners day. And you probably don’t even know it!! Letting the stress of race day go is tough but very possible! First, I’ll play dietitian…cut the caffeine in everyday life and race morning… it keeps stress hormones elevated. Sure, include it in the second half of your race. And breath. Realize everyone showing up is racing…keep it to yourself; run for you. Once you start running your best versus the best of the guy next to you, your racing will improve (and potty breaks will be less than 10!). And finally, recognize you have 40+ miles to go…play it smart, you’ll catch up. I see it in every race – at mile 10 the top 5 looks very different from the top 5 at mile 45.
1. Body Image
It’s incredible how a slight lack in body acceptance and image can impact ones sport to the point of failure. There are still countless people who say to me, ‘you’re a runner? you don’t look like a runner.’ Followed by (shocked voice), ‘you can run a 3 hour marathon?!’ It’s not easy to accept ones body when comments regarding ones image continue to flood everyday conversation. I remember reading Emelie Forsberg’s blog on body and mind…her main point is simply how runners struggle to accept natural body weight. We all do. Trust me, I get it! I’m not a typical runner build, but remember, I was not born a runner, I was made into one – and accepted my body for what it is. Once you accept your body as it is…a powerhouse capable of anything, it starts to work that way. Letting go of all the ‘get leaner’…‘lose the next 5lbs’ crap will save you in your next race. Be yourself, be your body, be your own power. It works. People can judge but at the end of the day, you win when you can let it all go and let your body function at its peak performance.
By changing the way I think about racing, myself, and the demands in training, I have become a stronger and more powerful ultra-runner and woman. That’s what makes this important…that’s a reason to keep running. These struggles will always be there, but managing them is the key. Cheers!