It was kilometre 106 of a hundred-miler trail race in the unforgiving heat of relentless coulees. I was watching Todd run toward me, his teeth clenched. I could see his quad muscles spasming with each step and I wondered, “How is he still running?”. He stopped for ice and fuel, then continued on without hesitation, running hours faster than the 100-km time he did last year. The only PROBLEM was that he still had sixty more kilometres to go this year, and that was about when Todd’s body blew up. I watched him go into a very dark place. I couldn’t get inside his head to help. He was in agony. It was ugly. This is when most runners quit, but Todd didn’t. It took him another 12 hours and a great deal of suffering but he finished.
When we talk about mental toughness, this is what it looks like in a race. Suffering. No amount of physical training will get one through that darkness unless you are prepared to suffer.
Here’s the conundrum: How do you build mental toughness before you’re in the middle of your A race and deep inside the pain cave? Like many of you, I know nothing about racing for one hundred kilometres and especially nothing about racing for one hundred miles. But, I do know a lot about mental toughness. Why? Because I’ve had many opportunities to be resilient through circumstances out of my control. Every moment that we are faced with a situation where we can give up or keep going, we are faced with an opportunity to build mental toughness. This blog explores one thing you can do to mentally prepare for a hard race, gleaned from my life and learned while washing the feet (literally) of those stronger than me:
Why do many athletes do the same races over and over again? It’s not just for the next PB, although that’s probably what we say. We are genetically hard-wired to be as efficient as possible. Our neural pathways work faster with familiar patterns, finding the path of least resistance. Maybe it’s a Darwin survival thing or By Design. Either way, it helps us not only survive but also thrive. A familiar race means that we know what to expect, we know how to train, we know how to fuel.
Mental toughness, on the other hand, means continuing on when the outcome is uncertain. Unpredictable situations and unknown territory strip us of our comfort zone, forcing us to ignore our body, to move beyond muscle memory and the perfect training program and “what I’ve always done”.
I once crewed for someone whose body was rejecting his go-to fuel. No matter which flavour I mixed or in what consistency, it wasn’t working. And it was all we had. He’d never used anything else. In the middle of a tortuous bout of diarrhea and vomiting, this frustrated athlete dumped out the fuel and filled his bottles with water instead. It was a very hot day on an exposed 100-km course. His decision made no sense, except that he knew what was certain was no longer working, and he was willing to embrace uncertainty. That decision saved his race. He fully recovered and finished strong.
If you’re not sure how to embrace uncertainty, do things that make you uncomfortable. That might be a run on a dark night with no headlamp. What if I fall? But, my darling, what if you fly? Kidding, couldn’t resist. You won’t fly, you’ll get hurt, so suck it up, get back up, and keep going. I once did a Superman flying trip in the middle of a big race, landed so hard that I was sure I’d bruised my lungs. Nobody was around to care and the finish line was not in the middle of those woods, so I sucked it up, got back up, and finished strong. It took me all of ten minutes to forget about the pain as I refocused on making up time. Do something that might make you fall, with those who won’t care.
Other ways to embrace uncertainty: If you’re a data geek, leave your device at home for a training run and refuse to map your route or time when you get back. But I won’t know my pace or intensity! My strava streak will be broken! All true. Be okay with being unsure. Maybe you choose to join the crazy quicky-quicks on their adventure run instead of sticking with the mid-packers. I can’t keep up! Are you lost? Keep going. Or sign up for an activity that you don’t think you can complete, like an obstacle course race – I can’t do monkey bars! – or rock climbing – I’m scared of heights!
Find opportunities to embrace uncertainty and you will become a more resilient athlete.