There’s a lot that goes into training for your first 100-miler, or any 100-miler—it doesn’t matter if it’s your fifth or your 50th. You’ve been grinding for months, or maybe years, in the name of the big 1-0-0.
A 100-mile race will uproot all of your weaknesses and throw them in your face without a hint of mercy. The course will take everything from you while owing you nothing in return, which is why it pays to put yourself through such rigorous training and armor yourself for battle.
But there is such a thing as overdoing it. All too often, 100-mile hopefuls burn themselves out with too much time on their feet before they ever get to the starting line. These are the runners who find themselves so overwhelmed by the distance ahead that they lose heart, focus and confidence in their ability to finish.
They might have done everything “right” in the physical realm and ticked off every box on their training plan. However, an ultramarathon isn’t just a test of physical endurance; it’s also one of mental endurance. In the build-up to my first 100-mile race at the Leadville 100, I prepared myself to ace both tests. Here are three exercises that strengthened my brain so I could show up ready to tackle the distance on all fronts.
One hundred miles is a long way to go, and too long to fathom all at once. Don’t try to swallow it in one big gulp—digest the distance in the form of bite-sized pieces where 100 becomes 10 sets of 10 miles. Each of those sets becomes 10 sets of 1 mile. It’s not about finishing 100 miles; it’s about finishing each section and watching the miles fall away as you get closer to the finish line.
Practice breaking down each run into small bites. Whatever feels 100% doable is the money. If that’s 10 miles or 1 mile, that’s great. All you have to do is finish the bite. Then the next one, and the next—just chew one at a time. Allow this skill to come more naturally by incorporating it into your everyday life. Divide annoying chores, work assignments, hard conversations and other difficult tasks into basic components and chip away at them bit by bit. Train your brain to see a daunting task as nothing more than a series of manageable steps.
From there, the challenge becomes actually staying present in the moment to keep the next chunk from creeping in before it’s due. That’s where concentration training comes in handy. In this age of rapid-fire everything, you can’t expect your brain to stay focused on one thing at a time without training it to do so.
Start with this simple, on-trail concentration drill. Think of it like a Fartlek exercise (varied speed and intensity). Pick an object in the distance, such as a distinctive tree or telephone pole. Instead of sprinting, put your mind to work and try to limit your focus to that object alone. Stare it down like you’re on the hunt and study it in detail as you get closer until you’re close enough to identify small details. Capture as much detail as you can in the fleeting time you have before your steps carry you away. Take note of how easily your attention drifts. Can you maintain unwavering focus right up until you pass it by? As you run past, repeat the drill with another object up ahead. Work toward gradually improving the tenacity of your focus each time, as well as the intricacy of your chosen focal point.
The previous exercise involves a bit of visualization, but you can do more with your mind’s eye than recreating something that already exists. Take it further to visualize yourself doing the dang thing with grace, confidence and—dare I say it—ease. There’s no fooling ourselves that running this kind of race is “easy” in any sense of the word. But creating a mental image dripping with carefree enthusiasm can decrease how hard running feels in the moment. Though the objective difficulty remains, anything to lower your perception of effort will have a positive impact on your subjective experience.
Picture yourself eating hills for breakfast, sending it on every descent and crossing the finish line like the champ you are. Engage all of your senses: How do your shoes feel? What does your gel taste like? How does the air smell? Don’t skimp on the details; they’re what make the image realistic. Visualize it until you believe it. And if you never quite do, that’s okay too. The seed still gets planted. Settle back and watch it grow.