Train to keep your mental edge on race day.
By Adam Campbell
Photos by Dave McColm
The physical effort required to train for and complete an ultra-marathon is daunting. You’ll spend a lot of time on the road, treadmill or trail, preparing for your race. Regardless of your running surface, you’ll also spend a lot of time alone with your thoughts. What you do with that time will impact your performance come race day and will also affect your attitude and emotions about your performance. Here are a few pointers to help you direct some of your mental energy.
The single most important part of choosing which ultra-marathon to race is inspiration. An ultra of any distance will challenge you, so you have to want to be out there testing yourself. This extends
as much to your preparation as it does to the race itself, so pick an event that inspires you.
This inspiration acts as your accountability, reminding you daily that you need to train, while at the same time, keeping you excited in the long months building up to the race. It will also allow you to have an answer when you inevitably ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” at some point during the race.
Races can be put into several categories:
- Runcations: An excuse to travel and tackle a new trail;
- Dream events: Races you have heard about and always wanted to do;
- Championship events: Races to test yourself against world-class fields, or top level competition; and
- Local events: Hassle-free races in your backyard.
Knowing which category your race fits into will impact your attitude and approach. It is important to know what it is about the event that excites you and what your motivator is, since that will be your frame of reference for your training and during the race. If you are on a holiday, or at a dream event, you’ll have a different mental approach than if you are there purely to race, to set a personal best, or to see how far you can run.
After inspiration, it is time to start creating a narrative for the race. Get to know the course you will be racing by reviewing maps, elevation profiles, race results, reading first hand accounts, such as blog posts, or seeking out people who have done it before. When you have an idea of what the race will be like, picture it while you are training. Get out to see the course if you can, but if you can’t, get creative. For instance, name your hilliest training route after a peak that you’ll be running up during a mountain race so when you are running it in training, you can picture yourself on that peak during the race. As the months go by and the training miles build up, you’ll begin to create a memory bank of these training runs — your race narrative — that you can tap into during the race.
Have a race plan and race according to your plan, but expect the unexpected. Too many people expect a perfect day and, more often than not, they are disappointed. Great days take care of themselves, but you have to train to manage those inevitable rough patches and surprises that will happen when you are on your feet for hours on end. That’s when you can tap into your race narrative to remind yourself that you have struggled and coped before. It won’t necessarily make the situation easier, but it will make the uncomfortable familiar, allowing you to accept the discomfort and to relish the challenge in a perverse way, reminding you that this is what you signed up for.
It is important to remember your energy levels and caloric intake control your emotions. Multiple Ironman Hawaii winner Dave Scott coined a useful mantra for any ultra event: “When you feel good, eat. When you feel bad, eat.” Mood swings in either direction can be a great indicator that you are running low on fuel, so monitor your thoughts and your emotions carefully throughout the day, because they can tell you a lot about your physical state.
Most importantly, treat the race as a celebration of the months of hard work and effort that you have put in. It is your choice to be out there, so appreciate the fact you finally have an opportunity to express your fitness. Take time to look around and soak in the fact you are on the course living and experiencing your inspiration.
Once you have finished the race, let loose. Celebrate your achievement with your family, friends and supporters. Share stories, send them race reports and, most importantly, thank them. You’ll feel better for it and they are more likely to help you indulge your passion in the future.
After you are over the emotion of finishing the race, no matter how it panned out, take time to evaluate your performance. Like all endurance races, ultra-marathons are a process of trial and error, and experimentation. The failed experiments are as much a part of the process as the combination that ultimately works. So think about whether you enjoyed it and want to do another, what you learned from the race and your preparation and what you might want to change for next time. Then, start the experiment all over again.
Adam Campbell is an elite trail and ultra-runner and the reigning Canadian 50-Mile champion. When he isn’t muddy, he is an articling student at a Vancouver law firm.