As I worked with a client to develop a training block for the first four months of this year, she considered a 50k in March and said, “I’m just going to run it for fun.”
I hear that phrase all the time, and I understand the sentiment behind it. It’s expressed partly to lower expectations and self-pressure, and partly to give oneself permission to participate in a race with relatively easy effort and save one’s real effort for a later race. It sounds like a harmless approach to an enjoyable training run. And sometimes, it is.
Don’t get me wrong, I try to have as much fun as I can mid-ultra. I high-five strangers along the route and crack jokes at aid stations. Keeping a sense of humor is a deliberate strategy to get through rough patches.
But, running “just for fun” won’t cut the mustard in an ultra. Almost every ultramarathon stops being fun and starts feeling increasingly uncomfortable around the midway point. If you’re doing it primarily for enjoyment, then it’s logical to drop out when the pleasure evaporates and you’re left with sore feet and a sour stomach.
Anyone who plans their training and race-day execution for an ultra should dig much deeper than “fun” to discover reasons and rewards for committing to this arduous, nonessential activity. Ask yourself: why devote so many hours, week after week, to prepare for something that eats up half a day or longer, and can feel downright miserable at times? What motivates you?
I try to make a list of motivators for every big race, and encourage my clients to do the same. The list is broken into two categories: “extrinsic” (external rewards, like the proverbial carrot) and “intrinsic” (internal, intangible psychological drivers mostly tied to ego). The intrinsic motivators tend to be more meaningful but the gratification of an extrinsic motivator helps, too.
At the beginning of winter, I set a New Year’s goal to finish a 100-miler in January. I knew it would be difficult to train during cold, snowy months around the holidays when I normally take time off from structured training, so I made the following list to help motivate my training and get me through race day.
- The destination and weekend away. Excited to go somewhere and explore a new place.
- The people. Excited to reconnect with the community.
- The buckle! I love my buckle collection. Each one feels like a superhero badge.
- My pacer – it’ll be good to spend time together. I can’t drop out because I don’t want to let him down.
- Time off. Afterward, I’ll get to enjoy more cross training in February.
- This is practice for a summer 100 that I care more about. I need the practice and confidence that I can go through the night and finish the distance.
- Redemption for a DNF at a 2018 100-miler. Need to get that monkey off my back.
- The mystery, drama, epiphanies and lessons waiting to be uncovered. I know something interesting will happen along the way.
- The cycle of pleasure/pain/pleasure that builds resiliency. The tough times make the good stretches feel better.
- The feeling in the last few miles, finding the wherewithal to run again, then the relief of crossing the finish.
- Feeling pride and staying young by acting young. It’s special to be a woman over 50 running 100s. It makes me believe I can handle anything.
- I want to be a good role model as a coach and practice what I preach.
- I want a fresh start to a new year after a depressing and limiting 2020.
- I never know if this may be my last 100-miler or last day on earth. Make the most of now.
Boy, I am glad I made that list. I needed to fall back on it when the going got tough during the Coldwater Rumble 100 near Phoenix. I repeatedly rolled it over in my head and squeezed strength out of it, as if sucking on a hard candy and drawing energy from that bit of sweetness.
When my core temperature overheated in the midday desert sun, and then my jaw shivered uncontrollably from catching a nighttime chill, I remembered the bullet-point motivators. When every aid station food option triggered a gag reflex, and every step on rocky terrain shot a twinge of pain up my foot, I focused on each internal driver on that list.
That 100-miler had moments of levity that made me laugh – like at mile 80 when I needed gloves and realized I had packed two left-handed ones – but generally speaking, it most definitely was not fun. That’s OK, I had other reasons to run, and it was worth it.