By Rachel Watkins
Five years ago, two important aspects of my life converged: my career path as a clinical psychologist, and my long-time passion for running. A year into graduate school, I faced the decision of choosing a topic for my dissertation – an original research project I would complete for my doctorate degree. Still unsure of my clinical interests at the time, I opted for something I had long been curious about: ultrarunning. I wanted to explore the psychological side of ultrarunning; that “90% mental” behind the old adage.
Much of the existing research on ultrarunning involves either retrospective interviews or analysis of physiological responses. But I wanted to know what was happening in the moment and within the mind. My goal was to assess their psychological processes, how these related to willpower, and how they influenced their ability to persevere.
A quick overview of the methodology: I had six male participants, four of whom took part in the 2016 Santa Barbara 100, and two in the 2016 Angeles Crest 100. Each provided data in the form of digital recordings made over the course of their race, and these were followed up by post-race interviews. Every 10 miles during their race, participants responded to the following: 1) Describe what is happening for you mentally; 2) How is this related to your ability to continue the race?; and 3) What else are you experiencing?
As both a novice ultrarunner and the researcher, it was fascinating to listen to these recordings. What I was first struck by was how participants described a shared range of experiences, feelings, attitudes, and aches and pains, suggesting a quality of consistency and universality for the mental experiences of ultrarunning. Furthermore, many participants appeared to have difficulty “accessing” more mental aspects of their experience (despite the questions), often beginning with, or defaulting to, what they were feeling physically. During interviews, some participants confirmed that assessing the state of their mind was less familiar to them during races, although they ultimately found it helpful. This suggests that despite an awareness of the potential importance and utility of the mind in the context of ultrarunning, actively assessing or considering its processes may be underutilized by ultrarunners.
My analysis of the recordings resulted in four categories: cognitive strategies, attitudes, social support, and emotional states.
Cognitive strategies represent intentional, mental methods used to achieve a particular goal, including assessing and attending to physical cues, “chunking” (breaking it up), mantras, and setting multiple goals. Of note are the different forms “chunking” took; not simply by mileage, but also types of terrain, night or day, and aid stations. Unsurprisingly, there was also a pretty direct link between physical state and mental state.
Attitudes are defined as intentional and settled ways of thinking about something, with confidence, positivity, acceptance/normalization, anticipation, and gratitude most prevalent. All participants indicated the importance of “setting a tone” for their race, and while they also acknowledged that it often falters, it serves as a mental foundation for how they want to think about and experience the race, and is typically cultivated during training.
The category of social support represents the effect that the presence of others – whether family, pacers, other runners, or crews – had on participants. In fact, the one participant who ended up with a DNF did not have a crew, pacers, or family present, and stated after his race that this contributed in part to the outcome of his race.
The final category of emotional states was more experiential than intentional, capturing the despair, frustration, hope, and happiness that many participants fluctuated between, and which either promoted or impeded their perseverance. Of note in this category was the temporary nature of emotions; a veritable “rollercoaster,” in which it may be most effective to learn how to ride it.
Several other elements of the data proved of interest. Perhaps partly due to their stressful nature, ultramarathons appear to have the potential to bring about personal reflections, revelations, and introspection. More than one participant spoke of this, with references to “emotional changes,” vulnerability to shifting emotional states as a result of extended time spent with self and the stressful circumstances, and an “ego strip” with opportunities for deeper introspection.
While this study is limited in scope, I’m hopeful that it will serve as a catalyst for further research as the sport of ultrarunning continues to grow. For ultrarunners, it may inform mental preparation for a race as well as promote greater self awareness and understanding of one’s mental processes while ultrarunning.