It takes a lot of nerve to sign up for a race and step up to a start line. And what takes nerve, can create the feeling of being nervous. Those feelings come from a response in the nervous system—it’s fight or flight: freeze or run. We are built with this response, and it is important to allow yourself to feel this way. These feelings mean you care about being alive (in a dangerous circumstance) or running a race.
“Nerves and butterflies are fine – they are a physical sign that you are mentally ready and eager. You have to put the butterflies into formation, that’s the trick.” – Steve Bull
Before a race, we have (usually) done the hard work. We trained as best we could, given the circumstances we were oﬀered. We got enough sleep, ate well, consumed enough water and tried to remain positive. However, we still think about everything that we “coulda, shoulda, woulda” in the past and what “mighta” happen in the future. The beauty of races is the unknown, and the unknown is scary and comes with a host of emotional, physical and mental reactions.
What’s even more beautiful is the sport of ultrarunning. Why? Ultrarunning is the time in which huge unknowns and incredible self-reliance is amplified. We are stripped down, worn out, vulnerable and deeply committed—while usually surrounded by incredible scenery, of course.
Once you’re at the start line, your toolbox of mantras and problem-solving techniques gets put on the workbench and your mind begins rapidly checking oﬀ the pre-run to-do list. Thoughts of wild, unlikely scenarios spiral, and even looking ahead to what our post-race meal will be can all become too much. Instead of releasing our ability to control and sink in, we shrivel up, worry, doubt and fear.
My biggest tip for you, at any given moment, when you feel your heart rate rise at the sheer thought of what lies ahead, say to yourself, “Be here now.” I often personalize it and say, “Lucy, be here now,” to make sure I pay attention.
What can I do now as I stand here watching the start clock tick down? Use the bathroom? Tie my shoelaces? Hug my support team? Pretend to warm up? When I start racing, what about when I’m watching the mileage on my watch tick over slowly and fatigue sets in. Eat a gel? Sip some water?
Dunk my hat in the creek? Walk a little?
The only moment you can control is right now, and the only things you can control in the “now” are your eﬀort and your attitude.
Focus your eﬀort on what you can do, focus your attitude on positive thoughts. That negative self-talk never goes away, but you have the power and the ability to say, “Yes, I am nervous. But I am also excited, stoked, proud, lucky, eager and ready.”
Choose your vocabulary and take a deep breath to come back to your body and what you need to do—now.
The truth is, your body knows what to do, because we are wired to look for the risks. You’ve put in the training and strengthened your mental ability to reassure yourself that you are doing what you love. Those butterflies are actually just beautiful animals preparing you to spread your own wings and fly.