If you watch the trailer on the about page somewhere around 1:40 the race director says, “There’s a point around mile 40 where it doesn’t matter it’s all mental.” If you’ve ran an ultra-marathon before you know how true this is. If not, I’m not sure I can explain it. You can train for a year leading up to a long race, but if you aren’t mentally prepared you’re sunk. So how does a beginner train for that? How often, if ever, during your training do you find yourself questioning whether or not you can continue?
You will often hear marathon runners talk about “hitting the wall.” This is the one thing that scared the crap out of me leading up to my first marathon last December. I have a friend who spends a LOT of time running. He finishes half marathons in 1:15 or less and often wins races. He’s one of these people that you watch run and it seems so effortless like they aren’t even trying and moving so quickly. A month or so before my first marathon I ran into him running in the neighborhood. We stopped and talked and he asked me if I was ready for the race. I told him that I thought I was, and I asked him for any advice he had. He proceeded to tell me that he had never completed a marathon. He had tried once and crashed around mile 18 and did not finish. This is when I started getting really scared. An accomplished runner like this guy DNFs a marathon? What was I getting myself into? Things got really bad when I found this video:
Here you see some elite athletes, “Iron Women” if you will completely out of gas and destroyed yet they have the will power to cross that finish line. I got so scared that this is what I was going to look like around miles 18 to 26. My solution was to approach the race like it was a weightlifting PR. When staring at a loaded bar sitting on the floor it really helps to get yourself good and angry, fired up and ready to go! There is no way you can fail. You’re going to show that bar who is boss. It doesn’t always work, but most of the time it does. I would show miles 18 to 26 who was boss. I was going to own it. I would do my best to keep myself at that mental level where nothing could stop me. It was tough, but I got through it.
Around mile 19 I started to break down a little, but it wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling. I realized that I had actually been training for this moment without even knowing it. I train at a gym called Faction Strength and Conditioning here in Memphis. In addition to my strength and endurance training, I also do Crossfit there. The best example I think I can give you is a Crossfit workout called “Murph.” This is a Crossfit “WOD” that is named after Navy Lieutenant Michael Murphy who was killed in Afghanistan in 2005. It consists of a 1 Mile run followed by 100 pullups, 200 Pushups, 300 Squats and a final 1 Mile run. Halfway through a workout like this I’m wondering if I’ll finish. When it’s over I wonder if I’ll be able to pick myself up off the floor. In Crossfit gyms all over the world these feelings are very well known. We might not realize it, but we’re training for that moment in life when you just don’t think you can move forward any longer. Guess what? You can move forward no matter what. Even if you’re crawling on the ground, you can move forward. So, around mile 25(ish) there was a pacer sneaking up behind me about to pass. I told myself that this was my competitor. This guy was my loaded barbell on the ground that I was going to destroy! I will not let that guy beat me! I got pissed off at that guy. I don’t even know who he was but I think he must have been the 3:50 pacer because I finished just before him and my time was 3:50.
At the Ouachita 50 it really hit me. About mile 46 it was twice as bad as my marathon. I broke down and even started to get a little emotional. I couldn’t believe I had made it this far, and I was starting to think I might not make it all the way. There was pain. There was fatigue. There were thoughts of defeat. I was too tired to even get angry and there weren’t any other runners around to get mad at. I reminded myself that I had been in this situation before. Only two miles left in the race. This is cake. Two miles is easy. After all, I’m still standing, still moving forward. I hadn’t fallen on the ground yet. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other and you will get there. When I crossed the finish line, all of those feelings went away. I was able to mentally overcome those final miles that tried to destroy me. Even when I couldn’t muster up any motivation I somehow convinced myself to keep going. I felt like a warrior. That’s why it’s worth it.
What’s the point of all this rambling? We need to train, but just going through the motions isn’t going to get you across that finish line in a long race. We need to regularly push ourselves to a point that we don’t think we can go any further. Then we need to go further! It’s a hard lesson to learn, but when you think you’ve given everything there is still more in there to give. Mentally preparing yourself is just as important as physically preparing yourself.
-Lift Heavy Run Long