On my last ultra, I was at registration and heard a runner talking about getting to the mid-way point. ‘So many runners pull out here,’ he said. ‘It’s just too comfortable.’
This is as much a mental trap as it is a physical challenge during a long race. Checkpoints – particularly mid-way aid stations – can be very comfortable indeed. Often indoors, away from the rain and cold, many also have hot food, hot drinks, chairs, and a drop bag with all your stuff in it. You get in, get some food inside you, sit down for a bit, warm up… then don’t want to leave. When you’ve been on your feet for 12 hours, this isn’t a minor challenge. It can be a recipe for a pull-out and DNF.
As with all prep, the best thing you can do is to practise strategies for scenarios you have identified ahead of time as being potentially problematic. So how can you prepare for the mental battle to not just stay in an aid station? Practise leaving one.
When you’re doing training runs near to home, set up a ‘checkpoint’ in your house. When I do this I try to replicate as closely as I can the look of an aid station – think bowls or tubs of sweets, crisps, Jaffa cakes etc, and jugs of water/electrolyte drink that you can use to top up your bottles.
Go out for a nice long run – say an hour and a half or so, even better if this is in the freezing cold or rain – and then arrive back at your place and treat it like the godsend of an aid station that it is. Do everything that you might conceivably do at a halfway aid station. Top up your bottles. Have a cup of tea. Eat some sweets and crisps. Take your shoes off and put up your feet for a bit.
Then wait here for at least 20 minutes doing something nice and relaxing. Read a book, scroll through stuff on your phone, watch a bit of TV. Just sit on your arse and wait.
Then you pop your shoes back on (or change them if you’d normally change your shoes at the halfway mark), put your pack back on, and get out and finish your run.
There, easy? It’s a lot harder than it sounds. As many runners will know to their cost, getting really comfy at an aid station can totally sap your will to get back out and start hammering your legs again. Add in a bit of nasty weather, and the stiffness that will have started to creep into your legs after 20 minutes of sitting around, and it takes a strong will to make you get out the door again. It becomes very easy to justify to yourself why it’s ok for you to stay. The first time I tried this, I never got out for the second part of my run. But I did the next time.
This is why it’s worth practising. Once you’re used to the feeling of getting too comfy, you’ll be able to recognise it much more easily during your race and use the experience of having pushed through this in your training to get back out onto the course.
You can also use a simulated checkpoint to practise ways to prevent yourself from getting too comfortable if you want. Don’t sit down. Keep your phone out of your hand. Visualise yourself getting a cup of tea, some pasta, changing your socks and shoes, then stepping out of the door again.
As a bonus exercise for other long runs, simulated checkpoints in your house are also great for practising whizzing through a checkpoint really quickly. Get in, top up your bottles, grab some pretzels, turn around, walk out of the door again. Spend no more than 15 seconds standing still at the table. It’s a good way to stop yourself from faffing at the smaller aid stations.
So that’s it! Go for a long run, come home, make yourself too comfy, push through the comfiness, get running again. A really simple exercise to help you in your races. And you get to eat Jaffa cakes. Bonus!