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My Top 3 Ultra Marathon Tips [Mental Hacks]

Written By George Callahan

Apr 10, 2019

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My Three Tips and Tricks for ultra marathoners

The top three Tips and Tricks I used in the beginning of my ultra marathon running journey, the three Mind Hacks that led me to my first 100 mile finish, my first 50 mile victory, and conquering my first mountain ultra marathon aren’t exactly what you’re expecting.

I’m not here to talk to you about discipline, consistency, or motivation.

Running late at night and cold showers aren’t tools in my arsenal.

Podcasts aren’t my thing and I don’t have any audio book recommendations to tune into during your long runs.

I do, however, want to tell you how I finished my first 100 mile race with very poor training. To clarify, in the six weeks leading up to my first 100 mile ultra marathon, I ran seven times; none of those seven were over 5 miles. In addition to this trepidation, my first 100 mile run was only my fourth run over 20 miles.

The first ultra marathon I won was a North Carolina beach race, the Light 2 Light 50. Without racing for 6 months and without doing a single speed training session, I came in first place at this admittedly small, local race. My pace was 10:02 per mile.

And when my first mountain ultra marathon rolled around a month after Light 2 Light 50, I battled slick snow and freezing conditions all the way to the finish line. With a 55% completion rate and 8,000 feet of climbing in precarious conditions, I was thrilled to finish. Interestingly enough, I didn’t do one hill-speed session or train with much of any elevation change leading up to the race.

I was prepared for these races. Unless, of course, you looked at my training log.

 

Ultra marathon mindset

Toeing the line for races like these is intimidating.

Any ultra marathon, honestly, invokes a sense of fear and wonder in a runner. Most races have elements and experiences completely unique to that individual race, challenges that can’t be replicated in training. Every runner listening to the race director’s countdown agrees: “Anything can happen out there.”

For example, after a successful opening to 2019, I DNF’d my second 100 mile race at the Umstead 100 in Raleigh, North Carolina.

This is an ultra marathon! Ultra marathoners don’t sign up for these races because they’re predictable and tame; we run these races out of a sense of wonder for our world, and our bodies and minds.

Wonder for our world, and for our bodies and minds, is the ultra marathon mindset.

What am I capable of?

What’s on top of that ‘mountain?’

Who can I bring with me?

Where is the limit, and how can I explore the world beyond this limit?

The answer to these questions, and all the others constituting the ultra marathon mindset, lie down the Wicked Trail and up the mountain of your goals. The Wicked Trail winds through deep valleys, over roots and rocks, and across frigid streams. The nights are black and the days hot. When this trail starts up the mountain of your goals, fear and doubt fill the air. The mountain is rugged, the fog thick.

Prepare. Arm your mind and strengthen your resolve.

The three ultra marathon Tips and Tricks I used to conquer those ‘mountains,’ and will continue to use as I climb the Wicked Trail, are One Breath of Air, Patience, and Decisiveness.

Tip #1: One Breath of Air

One Breath of Air is fundamental to ultra marathon running; this is the most important section in this reflection.

To start, a huge piece of this ultra marathon mindset puzzle is within you.

All of your hopes and dreams, your wildest ambitions and most profound daydreams, the talents and skills and experiences you possess, the unique character perfected over years and years and years: all of these are within you

All of these are ‘potential.’

Your hopes and dreams and wildest ambitions and most profound daydreams, and your talents and skills and experiences that make you unique –there really is no one just like you– comprise your potential.

We’ve defined potential!

I challenge you embrace this definition and the responsibility that comes along with it.

Your first Mental Hack!

 

Potential

People naturally fear their potential. Instinct tells them to stay with the pack and go where others go. Food, water, and safety are found within culture; people gather where resources abound.

One’s own unique character, your potential, is frightening; it challenges the sacred order of routine and begs adventure on one’s own terms.

“Live your dream,” unique character cries out. “Draw from the well of your experiences and skills and talents to live on your own terms.”

“Shed your potential and commit to our routine, our survival,” culture counters. “Your experiences and skills and talents aren’t of much use here; we don’t have room for your hopes and dreams and wildest ambitions and profound daydreams.”

Your unique character is wise; culture is afraid, those living in it are unfulfilled. Use your potential, your hopes and dreams and ambitions and daydreams and your experiences and skills and talents.

Draw from the well.

Take a deep breath and explore these things.

That’s all it takes: an introspective deep breath.

 

One breath of air

With the proper mindset, one of a deep yearning to engage your potential and pursue your goals, a person can do anything on just one breath of air.

It all comes down to your focus, your mindset, where your thoughts lie.

Stop. Breath.

No seriously, take a deep breath.

That right there is all you need to fulfill, to explore, to realize those profound daydreams.

It’s all you need to accomplish what you desire.

One breath of air.

Comprehending the power of your potential, your unique character, and acknowledging the influence it can have on your path in life is essential to running an ultra marathon.

For example, physical fatigue and mental deterioration late into a race will crumble strong, experienced runners. Wind and rain will crush a first-timer. Rocks and roots, unexpected technical terrain, will wear on the unprepared.

When the Moment of Quit arrives, use this Mental Hack!

Take a deep breath [deeper than that!] and repeat: I am still breathing. My lungs are full of air. I am strong and uniquely qualified to keep going. My potential brought me here and will carry me across the finish line.

I failed to take an introspective deep breath at Umstead; I did not acknowledge my potential and use it to qualify me for forward progress.

Do you remember the definition of potential?

Your hopes and dreams and wildest ambitions and most profound daydreams, and your talents and skills and experiences that make you unique –there really is no one just like you– comprise your potential.

Your potential is everything you are. You are here and your lungs are full of air. Take another deep breath. This experience will add to your potential and aid in building your indomitable will.

Ultra Marathon Tips and Tricks | Mental Hacks

Tip #2: Patience

Patience is the most neglected facet of mental toughness. It lies in the corner, begging attention from from one who has adopted impatience. Impatience dismantles goals, obstructs progress; many claim it with a laugh, never realizing the damage being done.

Do you practice patience

Patience, for the ultra marathon runner, isn’t just about training. Gradually increasing mileage, stretching for minutes of your time, and learning to ‘love the grind’ are wonderful (although, you should stretch more), but they fall so short of meaningful practices of patience.

Ultra marathon tip #2 revolves around an intentionally patient life and building the mindset, ahead of race day, incapable of quitting.

 

Patience and the Wicked Trail

Remember before, under Ultra Marathon Mindset, when we talked about this Wicked Trail? The one that winds through dense forest and deep valleys, and climbs the steep mountain of your goal? This path to fulfillment?

The role of patience in ultra running becomes clear when a person arrives at the base of this mountain, the mountain of your goal.

Perhaps your goal is finishing a 50k, or maybe the finish line of a western 100 mile mountain race. When you select this goal, this mountain to climb, the fog clears; you can see the route ahead. It’s a long and winding Wicked Trail. It starts out as a steady climb littered with roots and rocks. Near the peak, however, you can just make out how gnarly the terrain becomes and how adverse the weather looks.

That peak is far away. Your goal is far away.

Have patience, start climbing. Put in the miles and hours on your feet. When you settle at the end of each day, remember to gaze at the peak; keep it in sight. With patience, chip away at that mountain every day, never letting your eyes come off the distant peak, your goal, lest you forget what the journey leads to.

The closer you get to your goal, the more challenging the climb becomes. When race day comes and you prepare to summit the peak of your goal, rugged terrain and blisters and wind will work against you.

Have patience. The adversity lasts a long time.

 

Patience In Practice

I consider myself patient. Perhaps you do, as well.

Still, the role of patience in ultra marathon running demands our attention; find areas of your life where you lack patience.

I identified two areas of impatience in my life that require attention and allow habitual practice.

Cowboy

Walking my dog or taking him to the park, or especially when I run with Cowboy, I found that I often rush him in haste to finish my run, or get along with my day. I am adamantly reminding myself that when he’s with me, the time is his.

This is practicing patience!

The rehearsed haste unnecessarily compounds stress by inviting stress in. I find reasons to rush him or hurry him along rather than enjoying the time; it actually makes me enjoy it much less!

I now purposefully take Cowboy out at unexpected times and leave my phone behind; sitting in the grass with him or sweating on a quick jog, I smile and remind myself that this is his time, and he wants me to enjoy it with him.

Acknowledging the impatience, here, is important.

Planks

This is an unusual one; we don’t normally equate exercise in the moment with patience. Remember, though, that I said Have patience. The adversity lasts a long time. Your physical training, in the smallest moments of fatigue, is preparing you for that final peak summit, when the terrain will turn rugged and blisters and wind will work against you.

Patience is required long-term in fitness and health, but can also be intensely practiced in individual exercise moments.

Have patience in your planks, or other static exercises. It’s easy to try and distract the mind with phones and music during static exercises because our hands are often free; I challenge you to breathe in the discomfort and picture your peak of accomplishment, your goal. Have patience in this plank, Go Farther, as the adversity later on will require it ten-fold.

Planks ought to be practiced daily, distraction-free, for this reason alone. Sure, reap the benefits of a strong core; just don’t miss the huge opportunity of patience. Wait out this discomfort; wait longer than you want.

Ultra Marathon Tips and Tricks | Runner Posing
Ultra Marathon Tips and Tricks | Runner Posing

Tip #3: Decisiveness

The final tip for ultra marathon runners, the final Mind Hack to stimulate your thoughtfulness, is decisiveness. Making decisions is a lost practice. Decision making is a skill, after all. From minute decisions all the way to the big leagues, it takes practice to develop sound decision-making skills.

Decision-making plays a huge part in mental toughness development, and therefore in the pursuit of ultra marathon running.

Deciding what? you might wonder. What decisions affect ultra marathon mindset, the reaching of my goal?

You decide to train and to eat well, you decide to pursue challenge; you see the peak of your goal and you march on.

On the surface your decision-making is astute.

It is not, however, which decision is made that is paramount to developing this practice; how long it takes to decide is primary. Deciding without hesitation is skillful. Taking unnecessary time to decide is incompetence.

Minute decisions, those of seeming unimportance, present an opportunity to develop good habit. Picking an outfit, deciding whether to have pasta or chicken for dinner, choosing where one will meet friends, deciding on a movie; these seemingly inconsequential decisions are extremely important. It does mattertell yourself.

Why does it matter?

 

small decisions matter most

Consider these situations: quitting smoking, joining an exercise group, pursuing self-employment, leaving an unhealthy relationship.

Pretty big decisions, right?

If one cannot skillfully navigate small decisions, how can one expect to cross the ocean of unknown presented by these?

Okay, but why does timeliness equate expert navigation in decision-making?

The realization that small, unimportant decisions are not focused on items of importance is paramount. An outfit doesn’t matter. What’s eaten for dinner doesn’t matter. Which movie is chosen does not matter. You lose time with the important when you spend time deciding between the unimportant.

What is important?

That which your gaze is fixed upon, your goal, the peak.

Compound the time spent making unimportant decisions. You’re on the mountain, climbing the Wicked Trail toward the peak, preparing for your opportunity to summit.

Open your pack and lay out your belongings. What will you wear today, on your journey? Which piece of fruit will you eat as you hike up the mountain? Where will you stop next to rest?

Weigh your options. Examine the possibilities.

Or just start hiking, climbing the mountain of your goal.

Does it matter which trail you run today?

Will it matter if you take a salad or smoothie to work today?

Can you decide to re-wear an outfit?

Will your movie choice or dinner debate contribute to your climb, your pursuit of more?

You lose time with the important, your goal, when you spend time deciding on things that do not impact your pursuit. Timeliness in decision-making is the easiest of the three ultra marathon tips and tricks, Mind Hacks, to implement because of the dozens of decisions you and I make every single day.

Take time and look at small, daily decisions. Which is unimportant? Which takes more time than it ought?

 

Ultra Marathon Tips and Tricks: Final Thoughts

These ultra marathon tips and tricks are meant to provoke thoughtfulness in your training and daily activity. Be relentless in training, yes, and run toward discomfort. Bleed and sweat for your desire, run the Wicked Trail.

Just keep in mind intentional thinking and training. Identify your unique potential and say it out loud. Call on it when adversity rises up. I am still breathing. My lungs are full of air. I am strong and uniquely qualified to keep going. My potential brought me here and will carry me across the finish line. Choose a few areas of your life, within individual training moments or across the spectrum of your day, where impatience creeps in. Stay your desire for entertainment during these times; turn the music down, the podcast off, and close your eyes, envisioning that which you desire. Similarly, shut down impatience with genuine enjoyment of slow-moving times and inefficiency; your mind is hardening to negativity. Finally, practice decision-making with the intention of remaining loyal to your mountain, your goal. Don’t let the habituation of mindless debate surrounding trivial matters distract you from the ultra marathon.

Welcome to the Wicked Trail

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FREE Comfort Is A Lie Sticker!

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