It’s universally understood that there’s nothing easy about running and racing ultra distances of 31 to 100-plus miles, and that there are lots of components necessary for the successful completion of the task. Weather, proper hydration, fueling, the right pieces of gear at the right moment, pacers, to say nothing of the training miles required, all factor into whether or not one makes it across the finish line as planned—and even then we can’t be sure. One hundred miles of trails or roads can be a long row to hoe, but the most difficult distance to master is often the six inches in our heads.
The mastery of that headspace is more important to cultivate than the training miles that we put in in pursuit of ultra glory. If we come up short, we sometimes think that had we trained more, or harder, then maybe our outcome might have been better, when what really mattered was our mental and psychological approach to the task. If we don’t intentionally work on strengthening the mind, preparing it for the seeds of doubt that may come, then we won’t be able to tap into that resource when we need it most: when physical strength seems to have failed us. If we believe, in our heads and hearts, that it’ll be okay, then overcoming most obstacles is very possible. Even if we’re undertrained but have a pretty solid command of that cranial space, we can often will ourselves to success and conquer those seemingly insurmountable miles. On the other hand, you can feel yourself to be physically ready for the deed, but then that one thing rears its ugly head, that thing you didn’t expect or plan on, and your race is suddenly hanging on a thread. If you’ve got a handle on the cranial six inches, then you’ve got a very reasonable shot at overcoming the inevitable setbacks over 100 miles.
When I look back at almost all of my DNFs, the most consistent theme that I see is lack of mental control. Rarely have I been so injured or sick that I couldn’t have stayed the course. I just decided on that day to water the seeds of doubt and despair, and threw in the towel. In some instances dropping is the right thing to do for your safety and health, and that’s a big part of the mind game. The challenge is knowing when you’re being a wimp and not giving it your all mentally as opposed to when you really are in way over your head. It’s often a fine line that has to be walked, and it’s something to be worked on as a part of training just as much as training runs or hill repeats.
We may think that with the miles and miles of training runs that we’re putting in that we’re also conditioning the mind for the task that ahead, but often those training miles are mindless miles of joy and not really the mental preparation and callousing necessary for race day. So get on it, work on the six inches between your ears first and foremost. The other 99-plus miles will follow.
I once dragged a bad leg for 50 miles of the Mother Road 100 in Oklahoma, when every fiber of my being screamed, “quit.” I paid the price afterward, but my mind won out and I eked out a finish. I’ve also dropped from Wasatch 100 while in relatively good shape because I was off the sub 24-hour pace at 38 miles into the event and didn’t think I could get it back, but if I’d stayed the course, anything might have been possible—such as winning the elusive Crimson Cheetah, or at least earning a respectable finish. I let myself believe that all that I was there for was that Cheetah buckle and it was out of reach. I couldn’t get my mind right, and now that opportunity is lost to the ages. What takes place in those six inches between our ears can propel us to success when everything seems questionable.