6 Mental Strategies To Help You Complete An Ultra Marathon

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They say you run the first 50 miles of an ultra marathon with your body and the second 50 miles with your mind. What an exceptionally accurate presumption. I say this from experience. When the pain in your legs is unbearable and the blisters on your feet are abnormal and the chaffing on your body is torturous, it’s mental strength that will carry you through the midnight trails of darkness and over the well-earned finish line of relief. I’ve been 30 miles from a finish line and it felt like a walk in the park, and conversely, I’ve been a mile from the finish line and it felt like an eternity. The control of our emotions and the level of our mental stamina dictate the variance between the two experiences. As aid on the big day, here you will find 6 mental strategies that will help you complete an ultra marathon. Our mind is our greatest strength and it’s the key to unlock greatness, greatness within ourselves, and greatness on race day.

Find An Object

When running such long and taxing distances by foot, the mental challenges can become the most difficult of all. Can you imagine having 99 miles to go in any type of race let alone one completed by running? It’s tough to comprehend such a challenge. At times, we can become stuck in a mental rut fixated on the finish line causing us to lose a grip on the present. One known mental exercise to help shift your focus back to the “now” is finding an object in the distance and running to it. Then, find one further and run to that. Then, further, further, and so on until finding your groove again. By reaching each new check point it will provide a small victory and each small victory will help remove the fixation of the ultimate finish line bringing your focus back to the present and back to the race.

Break It Up

An ultra marathon can be overwhelming at times. Reasons to quit are always available, but, good news, so are reasons to finish. To help minimalize the overwhelmness of an ultra marathon some runners find it useful to break the race up by aid station. In this way, the race will be only be as far as the next aid station ahead, nothing shorter and nothing longer. By implementing this strategy, each small achievement will eventually grow into one giant … GIANT success. Isn’t this true for our dreams in life? What’s most important is each small achievement, the small actions we take each day towards our goals. When we set big goals and take action, it shapes us into the person who is capable of achieving them. So, at this point as we reach a new goal, being the over achievers that we are as runners, we are most likely already choosing our next challenge. After every race, I think to myself “never again!” Until the next day then I find myself thinking “what’s next!?”

Make A List

“Why am I doing this?” “What’s the point?” “Who in their right mind would do this to themselves?” These are just a few of the questions one may ask while running deep into the painful moments of an ultra marathon. There will be ups and there will be downs. When actively riding on this emotional rollercoaster it may be beneficial to develop a small list of reasons in which you decided to take on such a challenge in the first place. Naturally, you will try to talk yourself out of finishing, it’s fight or flight at its finest. I can’t tell you how many excuses I’ve blocked out during the 70 ultra distances I’ve ran thus far. An excuse is just that, an excuse. How we feel from a particular experience is only determined by the meaning we give it. With a list of your “whys” generated before the struggle begins, it will provide the kryptonite to slay the air-filled excuses developed during your run and keep you moving forward down the trails to the finish line in a positive state of mind.

Know Your Mantra 

Develop your own personal mantra. I would say the most famous in the ultra world is “Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must; just never give up.” Continuous forward motion is essential during an ultra marathon. Just ask anyone who has been defeated by the mantra “beware of the chair”. The idea is to find your own mantra, one close to your heart, and bring it out when the going gets tough because as an ultra marathon runner the tough gets going. It’s always down to “one more mile, one more step, one more inch”. Like our physical strength, our mental strength needs a constant work out to develop and grow; positive mantras will help in the process.

Next Day Blues

As the pain sets in and the doubt takes a chop at our legs, to help, try visualizing the following day. Sometimes it feels like a race will never end but in time they always do. Regardless of the outcome, tomorrow is definitive. The only difference will be how much of yourself was left on the course. Therefore, as you think back on the day, and you gave every ounce of your being, there will be zero regret and only satisfaction. In that moment when I feel weak I find the strength, when I feel tired I find the energy, and when I feel doubtful I find the courage. Courage is not when you know you can achieve a goal, it’s when you’re unsure or afraid and you push forward anyway. It is when you have faith in yourself and faith in the unknown. So that next day when you’re sitting and reflecting on the race, the pain in your legs will feel a little more soothed and the blisters on your feet will feel a little more relieved. Because if you have given your all you can, then, smile, lay down with zero regret, and reflect on your astonishing race day performance efforts.


Loose The Watch

A few years ago, I was traveling towards the beach for a summer vacation on the east coast of the United States. On the car ride there, I was dropped off 37 miles from my destination. At the time, this was my longest attempted distance for a training run. Ultra running was still new to me and everything was going well until around the 28th mile. All of a sudden, I began to lose it! My eyes became glued to my watch and every minute seemed like an eternity until I eventually began to walk. It now reminds me of the time I rode 100 miles on a stationary bike or when I spent 6 hours on a Stair Master. A slave to the digital countdown of time. Enough was enough. I took off the GPS watch attached to my wrist and launched it as far as my arm could throw it. You see, I learned something about myself that day. That day I learned that monitoring my time, splits, and pace while running did not motivate me–actually, it did the exact opposite. For me personally, checking my pace over and over again added an extra weight on my shoulders which in turn beat me down mentally. Losing the watch helps me keep my mind in the present and to continue moving forward without monitoring where I’m headed and how far I’ve came. Ultimately, there’s never been a finish line but a continuous journey to travel.

A Final Thought

Running deep into the night when our legs are shot, our stomach is torn, and our mind is exhausted is a familiar position during an ultra marathon. Nevertheless, it’s essential to keep moving our feet forward despite the struggle and well, let’s face it, despite common sense. If we keep moving forward when the body gives up and our mental strength is the driving force, and if we can dig deep enough and push ourselves far enough, we may be fortunate enough to have a taste, a small taste of our unlimited abilities and our astronomical potential, both physically and MENTALLY.

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