Mental Toughness

A big aspect of running is mental, particularly when you start venturing into marathon distances and beyond. You can do all sorts of training, but come race day it still takes a certain amount of courage.

I seem to be hitting this mental block lately. Back in January I psyched myself out and bailed on a run with an awesome group of people. I have yet to return to attempt it again.

This year, I’ve had a few races that started out with big climbs. Physically, I’ve done what I needed to do. I’ve hiked them at a comfortable pace for me, and allowed the most of the race field to pass me by and pull ahead (I’m a slow hiker. My hiking skills need work, too). But I’ve struggled mentally during these climbs.

It’s this crazy, self-doubt type of struggle. It’s not that I don’t think I’m capable of the challenge. It’s more that I go into complete panic mode about the task at hand. And it gets completely out of hand. My heart rate rises and sometimes I get dizzy – and I know it’s not from my effort level. It’s from those feelings of panic and anxiety that I let take over.

Let me explain how out of control it gets. It manifest itself in the physical ways I described above. But I’ve also felt these feelings so strongly that I have contemplated turning around and walking back to the starting line – dropping out less than 1-2 miles into a race that I’m capable of completing, simply because I’m nervous. I don’t know what the deal is, nor do I know why this has been getting so out of control. But so far, I’ve managed it.

I felt these feelings very strongly during the first climb at Terrapin. Then at Hungry Mother, I felt it during the first climb and during the second set of climbs. But by the time we got to the biggest climb at mile 10, I had settled in and was focused on the work at hand. Somewhere during that race a mental shift occurred, but I’m not sure how I got there.

Yeti 50 Miler is looming. Although I won’t face any panic-inducing climbs at Yeti, I think the sheer distance of the race may bring on some nerves, fear, and even panic.

But I think some of that is healthy, as long as it’s on a manageable level. If you’re not at least a little nervous at the start of an ultra you’re either in denial or you’re insane. And fear, as long as it’s not out of control, just shows you have a healthy respect for what you’re doing. Right? Right.

All of the training that goes into preparing for a long distance race is physically necessary, but it also helps you work on the mental aspect. You prepare mentally, so that the fear and/or anxiety you feel on race day is manageable. It doesn’t take over.

I also think if you continue to step out of your comfort zone, it will get better. My theory is that each time you face that fear, you train your brain to understand it a bit better. And then next time you face something that scary, it’s not as bad.

I’ve been working on tools to get a handle on these mental challenges. Fifty miles is a long way. As I was out running 20 miles this past weekend, I realized 20 miles is what I will need to do after running 30 miles. That’s a lot, and I can’t quite wrap my head around it.

Fifty miles is, like, way down the trail.

But like I said, I’m working on it. Hopefully come race day I’ll be prepared. In the meantime, if you’ve got any tips on how you endure when the going gets tough, I’m all ears.

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