It’s so easy to do. You arrive at a race, full of excitement and looking forward to your day. The first 20 miles are a breeze.
Then it starts getting less comfortable. Your feet hurt. Your glutes feel like they weigh two stone each. You’re sure that crunchiness in your sock is one of your toenails floating free. Maybe you haven’t trained enough after all? You definitely haven’t trained enough. This is hopeless. You’ll never make the checkpoint cut-off. Isn’t it better if you just quit now?
During my first ultra, a 50-miler along the Thames Path, this kind of destructive self-talk was my constant companion. I’d carefully made a pace plan but with the bogginess and slipperiness of the course, and absolute impossibility of actually running a lot of it, my pacing plan went out of the window and I felt like I wasn’t fit enough to finish the race. The checkpoint cut-off times were pretty tight, and I became obsessed with them, feverishly clock-watching as I dragged myself across field after field of sucking mud.
Alongside the obsession with cut-off times, I came up with excuse after excuse for why I should just stop running and pull out of the race. I hadn’t trained enough. I wasn’t ready. My kit wasn’t right. I was too slow and would never make the cut-offs. I was too cold. I had run a really long way and there was no shame in pulling out.
These excuses, battering me mentally, were the worst thing I had to deal with over the whole race, far worse than the physical challenges of finishing (which I did, in a very comfortable time, and feeling really strong at the end). Constantly having to fend off the temptation to pull out meant that I didn’t enjoy a lot of the race as much as I could have done, and added a huge mental load to the physical strain of running the course.
So how could I learn from this experience for next time? I decided that I had to condition myself to respond to negative self-talk with a set, positive response which put my mind back on track to run the race.
In order to do this, I wrote out every excuse that had crossed my mind while I was running as to why I should pull out of the race.
I then wrote responses to these excuses which negated them and gave me positive things that I could do to get my mind back on track.
I then dedicated 10 minutes every day to reading through these excuses and responses, and learning them off by heart before my next race. That way, they would become instinctive, and I would not have to run with the huge mental load that I had run with on my first ultra.
The difference that this made to my next race was astonishing. The race I was doing was far, far harder than my first 50-miler – a race called The Oner, in which I had to run 82 miles in 24 hours over a tough course with 10,000 feet of ascent. Despite the course being uber-tough, and over 50% of the starters ending up DNFing, I never once thought of pulling out of the race. When things were tough, the words of my responses that I had learnt would come to me, and I would carry on with a clear mind.
The biggest test was towards the end of the race when I timed out at the last checkpoint, and was met by one of the organisers who said I could continue if I could still run. In my first ultra I’m pretty sure I’d have given up, but with the mental prep I had done this was now not even an option in my mind, and my immediate response was, ‘I can run’. And I did. Of the 5 women who finished out of 10 starters, I finished 5th, and was entirely proud of myself for doing so.
This exercise is an easy one to do and really reduced my mental load for racing, so I’d really recommend to anyone to have a go at it. I have pasted my excuses and responses below so you can get an idea of the sorts of things you might write. I hope these are helpful, and you all run amazing races!
I’m so slow, I’ll never make the cut-offs! I should pull out.
Try and keep your pace as close as possible to the ‘ideal’ that you have trained to. This is much faster than it needs to be though so you have hours of leeway. Try your hardest through the whole race and if the organisers pull you out so be it, but don’t be the one to quit.
I’m really cold! I should pull out.
Put on an extra layer. Pick up the pace, even if you don’t feel like it. It’ll warm you up. You are not too cold. It’s April with lows of 8 degrees – you’ve been running all through the winter in much lower temperatures. You’re just under a lot of physical and mental strain and you’re trying to find excuses. You have loads of clothes. You’ll be fine.
My legs are so tired! I can’t go on! I should pull out.
Your legs will be tired. You’re spending a long time on them. Just remember that this is normal. Eat a few sweets, drink some water, make sure you’re eating little and often. Keep to your planned pace as close as possible, and find things to distract you – talking to people, listening to an audiobook, listening to music, calling a friend etc etc. Use the downs and the flats as much as possible to get your pace up but don’t worry if there are short times when you have to rest and walk. But you can totally go on, you know that you’ll have second, third, fourth winds. You’ve done this before and you know how it goes. When you’re feeling low just bear in mind that it won’t continue until the end of the race. Push through it and you’ll get much better.
There’s no shame in pulling out. I gave it a go and it was just too hard. Hardly anybody knows I’m doing this, and the people who do will understand. I should pull out.
You thought exactly the same on the Thames Trot and you were fine. You know you’ll be super disappointed if you pull out, and no amount of making excuses will change that to yourself. It doesn’t matter what other people think – you’ll be disappointed with yourself if you don’t carry on. You’ve trained like a bastard, your kit is all good, you’re in great shape to finish this race. It’s all in your head and you have dealt with it before. Have a jelly baby, stick on some music, or talk to someone and make it about them. Help somebody else, give them encouragement, and you’ll feel so much better. It’s a great distraction.
I think I’ve overreached and I’m getting The Fatigue! I should pull out.
No you haven’t. You’ve been pacing yourself really carefully. You’re just tired and emotional. Suck it up and get it done, you daft twat.