Social media can suck you into loads of daft little alleys of rubbish, like quizzes to fill in to tell you which Avenger you are (Thor, natch). I got sucked into a social media wormhole the other week when an ad promised to tell me my family motto (this ended up being pretty disappointing, something like ‘Happy In Winter’. Yawn). It got me googling my partner’s motto as well though, which is way, way cooler: Know Thyself And Learn To Suffer. After I sulked for a bit about not getting the cool motto, it got me thinking that this is actually remarkably good advice for anyone going into an ultra.
I know a fair few people who have pulled out of races because on the day they were not prepared for how much it would suck. Hell, I came close a few times to pulling out of my first ultra because the mental anguish felt like too much to suffer. So how can we learn to suffer? And is it even advisable? Do we need to suffer?
A few people I’ve chatted to about this have come out with the answer that, no, we don’t need to suffer, it’s all in the mind, visualise yourself doing well and if you go in with a positive mindset you can accomplish anything. There are two components to this ghastly little homily: the visualisation, which can be genuinely useful to some people; and the ‘Just Be Positive’ bollocks.
Just concentrating on the positive has always seemed like ridiculously bad advice to me. When you’re 20 hours into a race with hours still to go and your feet are mashed and your quads are screaming and you haven’t slept for more than a day, saying ‘It’s fine!’ to yourself does not cut it. Yes, you need to have some perspective, and you’re not about to keel over and die because your feet hurt, but it doesn’t matter if suffering is all in the mind (newsflash: it’s not. Your feet really do hurt) – it’s still suffering. You need a plan, you need to have anticipated suffering in advice, and you need to know how to suffer and not stop.
Experience really helps with this. If you’ve done at least one race, you’ll know full well that you are going to have to suffer. The trick is to remember into the future that things sucking is very much part and parcel of the experience of racing. It can be tempting to run one race, push through the awful bits, then ride on a wave of endorphins past the finish line and remember just the bits where you felt awesome and got given a medal.
An easy step one is to sit down and think about your racing experience, honestly and deeply, and write down all the stuff you can remember sucking. The cramps; the trots; the anxiety of being around crowds of runners who all seem better than you; the heatstroke; the cold; the pain in your feet; the wet; the blisters; the chafing; the wish for it all to end; the times you questioned why you’d even started; the bits where you told yourself you were a fraud… ALL of that. Because it will only increase as you step up your distance.
If you haven’t yet run a race, then think back to your long training runs or your interval sessions. If it helps, go into a training session prepared for this. Use your phone camera and take pictures of yourself at low points, when you’re fatigued, bored, frustrated and in pain. Yay! You can then use these to flip through in the future to remind yourself that, yes, you can and will suffer. And that’s a good thing, because it means you have practice of suffering. Knowing that you have experienced hardship in the past helps you to deal with the suffering you have to face in the future.
The next thing to do is to think about the things you have coming up in your next race that you can predict will make you suffer; anticipate them; and write down some strategies for dealing with them. These will be individual for each person. I have a cast-iron stomach and can chomp just about anything during a race, but my friend Nick has huge problems with nausea when he races and gets really concerned about his nutrition. I get feverishly obsessed with cut-off times and thoughts of being a failure, but I know runners who go into races not even knowing the cut-offs, who feel surprised that I’m even bothered about this at all. My feet almost never blister, which causes my mate Dave pangs of envy as he gets monster blisters, but I get arch pain sometimes which can turn from an annoyance to an all-consuming obsession when I’ve been on my feet for hours.
Think through your race – the terrain, the checkpoints, the weather, your physical quirks, your kit, your mental quirks, your nutrition and hydration – and write down everything you can anticipate becoming a cause of suffering. There is a twofold purpose to this. Firstly, if you can anticipate a problem in advance then you can deal with it in advance.
If you can only stomach peanut butter when you’re running and the aid stations at your race just have gels and jelly babies, then make a note to take your own peanut butter, for crying out loud! If your feet blister badly then take two or three pairs of dry socks in ziploc bags in your pack or in drop bags, have breaks to dry out your feet, and smother your feet in Vaseline or Nok. You might prepare answers to your internal moans for if you’re feeling low mentally (see my post Stopping Destructive Self-Talk for more of this), or prepare an audio file to listen to on your phone to help you with specific causes of mental or physical anguish. If you have a coach or other person in your life who you look up to and respect, asking them to record these audio files for you is a great idea. Research pain management techniques, plan to get great sleep the week before the race… The list goes on. You can’t do this for every cause of suffering but you’ll be able to for some.
For all the rest of it, I find that just anticipating the suffering helps. Knowing that you’re going to have a hard time sometimes during the race is useful as it allows you to mentally prepare for the awfulness, and it doesn’t come as a massive surprise when it happens. I recently read an awesome book called The Brave Athlete by Simon Marshall and Lesley Paterson (which I highly recommend that everyone buys and reads – it’s enormously interesting and very practical). They call this process of anticipation ‘feedforward’ and say that neuroscientists recommend it as it helps you brace for all possible outcomes. I felt really vindicated to read this as I’m a borderline obsessive planner when it comes to my racing and always thought that the ‘It’ll Be Alright On The Night’/suck-it-and-see approach sounded like nonsense. Of course you do have to run the actual race at some point, but it helps to have anticipated as much bad stuff as possible, as well as the good!
So, in summary, as it says in the motto – Know Thyself (draw on your experience and knowledge of your training, racing, body, mind and emotions) and Learn To Suffer (take that experience and build it into a plan for your race and a way to identify your weaknesses before they take you by surprise). You’ll definitely suffer. Anyone running an ultra will suffer. But suffering is not the end of the world, and can build you up stronger than you ever were before.