How to prepare your mind to meet the challenges of a self-supported stage race
Written by: Sarah Lavender Smith
I had zero experience stage racing when I registered for the inaugural Grand to Grand Ultra in 2012, on assignment for Trail Runner magazine. I did, however, have a decent amount of experience as an ultra-distance trail runner, and through ultras I began to develop what’s arguably the most important trait to finish a self-supported stage race: mental toughness.
My mental preparation, as much or more than physical readiness, enabled me to earn podium finishes (2nd or 3rd place female) at the Grand to Grand Ultra twice, in 2012 and 2014, and at the 2017 Mauna to Mauna Ultra. I’m also a coach who’s trained several clients to successfully finish the G2G and other self-supported stage races.
What follows is an excerpt from my 2017 book The Trail Runner’s Companion: A Step-by-Step Guide to Trail Running and Racing, from 5Ks to Ultras, which I hope will help you train and then finish every stage of the G2G or M2M. My book contains a great deal of practical advice about all aspects of ultra-distance trail running—from gear to nutrition, to structuring your training block, to troubleshooting common problems—so I hope you’ll consider getting a copy through this link.
I look forward to meeting many of you in Kanab this September as I return to the G2G for a third time!
Excerpted from The Trail Runner’s Companion:
The well-known ultrarunner and author Dean Karnazes once noted about the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run: “There’s a famous saying that you run the first 50 miles with your legs, and the next 50 miles with your mind.”
No doubt, ultrarunning and stage racing take “mental toughness.” But what does it really mean to be “mentally tough” or to run “with your mind”? It means using certain psychological coping skills and behaviors to increase your tolerance for the physical challenges and discomforts of ultrarunning and stage racing.
Inevitably, during an ultra, you’ll experience low points sparked by physical factors such as muscle fatigue, joint pain, low energy, dehydration, digestion problems or blisters. Your psychological response largely determines whether you will keep going in the face of adversity. Will you become grumpy, feel sorry for yourself and focus on how much “this sucks”? If so, then a normal response will be to stop, to make those feelings go away.
Alternatively, if you cultivate the habit of deliberately responding more positively to adversity, then you are more likely to keep going, and whatever is causing you discomfort is more likely to improve. Examples of positive responses involve problem-solving (“what can I do to make this feel better?”), acceptance (“I know this is part of the nature of endurance sports and what I signed up for”), gratitude (“I’m lucky I have the good health to experience this and glad I can view this scenery”) and humor (“I’m getting my money’s worth by going so slowly”).
Above all, finishing an ultramarathon requires desire and determination. Before I attempted my first 100-mile race, my friend Jennifer O’Connor—a 100-mile veteran—told me, “You have to really, really want to finish. Otherwise, there will be every rational reason in the world to quit, and you will give in and quit.” She’s right.
One common logic trap that leads to a DNF (“Did Not Finish”) goes like this: You are midway through an ultra-distance route, and you are tired and uncomfortable. The run stopped being fun several miles ago. You think to yourself, “I’m satisfied with what I’ve accomplished so far, and I’m glad I got to experience this event, but I will feel so much better if I call it a day now. It’s just not my day; I’ll save myself to run well at another race.” Suddenly, dropping out seems like a win-win situation that makes all the sense in the world.
After you quit and the relief of resting wears off, however, you’re almost guaranteed to experience regret. Eventually it’ll sink in that you failed the main test of the ultramarathon—the one that’s the essence of ultrarunning—which is persevering through fatigue and discomfort. Running an ultramarathon is supposed to be difficult and tiring at times. Pushing through those tough times ultimately is what makes the experience so rewarding.
Part of your ultra-distance and stage-race training, therefore, should include mental training to recognize and deal with those moments when your mind argues with you to quit. Practice the following strategies during all your training runs so they come naturally to you on race day.
Make up a mantra: At some point during a long training run or race, your mind may buzz with negativity. You’ll ruminate on things that went wrong in the earlier miles, or anxiously worry about the miles to come. You may even mentally compose a short story to use on your social media platforms that justifies all your excuses for dropping out or finishing far off your goal. It’s important to catch yourself in that negative frame of mind, and to refocus on running the best you can under the circumstances, or else you’ll continue a downward spiral that dooms your performance. An easy and effective way to quiet the negative buzz in your head, and improve your running, is to repeat a mantra in rhythm with your stride. A mantra can be any catchy phrase that makes you feel better and self-coaches you to improve your forward motion. One of my favorites to repeat in the early miles of a race, for example, is “relax, no stress.” In my head, I say each syllable (“re-lax, no-stress”) as my foot hits the ground, which helps me run well and avoid starting the race with a too-fast pace. Other mantras I recommend include, “so far, so good” and “be smart, be strong.”
Break it down: “Take it aid station to aid station” is a tried-and-true nugget of advice among ultrarunners. It means to break the Herculean task of an ultra into achievable segments. When you are midway through an ultra and struggling, don’t focus on all of the miles remaining; focus instead on getting to the next checkpoint, period. If even getting to the checkpoint feels too daunting, then focus on getting to the next course-marking ribbon. On a larger scale, plan to break your race into chunks and mentally “hit the reset button”—that is, try to feel fresh and positive—at the start of each new phase.
Bring it on: Instead of fearing or dreading a tough segment of an ultra—such as a hard climb to a summit, or a technically tricky stretch of singletrack—fortify your resolve with a “bring it on!” toughness and enthusiasm. Embrace the challenge and congratulate yourself on attempting it. Have faith that you are tougher and can endure more than you think. I developed this habit during the Grand to Grand Ultra multiday race. Anytime I faced an extraordinarily difficult stretch—such as climbing up a vermillion cliff, or bushwhacking through prickly dense vegetation—I forced myself to say out loud, “Yahoo! I’m earning my ultra credentials today. Bring it on!” This habit pushed away self-doubt and self-pity that threatened the ability to persevere.
Accept the suck: “The suck” during an ultra-distance trail run or stage race might involve slipping in mud, suffering in cold rain, going off course, cramping from an extra-high effort level, or throwing up what you ate. At those moments, resolve not to complain and not to feel sorry for yourself. Instead, accept the mishaps and discomforts as part of the ultrarunning process, and view them as signs you’re digging deep and pushing your limits. Tell yourself, “I know it’s temporary, and I can handle it!” Focus on what you are doing well, what doesn’t hurt, and what you can do to improve the situation.
Fake it ’til you make it: Even when—or, especially when—you feel horrible during an ultra, pretend that you feel fine and strong. Smile and behave toward others as if you are doing great. Most of the time, this behavior actually makes you feel and run genuinely better. When I enter an aid station feeling worn out, and a volunteer asks how I’m feeling, I’ll say something absurdly false, such as, “Fresh as a daisy!” This silly, upbeat response—along with the positive reaction from the people around me—always cheers me up.
Promise to treat yourself to something: If you are not feeling intrinsically motivated during a long run, then develop an extrinsic motivator—a reward if and only if you finish. This could be an extra day off, an hour-long massage or a whole pizza, whatever “carrot” keeps you going.
Don’t be a whiner; avoid them: Negativity is contagious. If you’re running near people who are complaining, then get away from them before they bring you down. Ultrarunner and race director John Trent learned this lesson at the Western States Endurance Run. Running with his good friend Scott Mills, they found themselves stuck behind an unrelenting complainer. “Everything out of this man’s mouth was how badly he was feeling, how the day was going to heck in a hand basket, how the aid stations were crap and how he hated running,” John told me. “After about two miles of this nonsense, Scott tapped me and said, ‘Follow me.’ We managed to run around the guy and get ahead. Then Scott said something I’ve never forgotten: ‘You train too hard and too long to have a negative personality ruin your race like that. Avoid all negative personalities in any important race you run. If you don’t, their negativity becomes your negativity.’”