I should probably start out by saying I don’t meditate or practice mindfulness in my day to day life. I have no formal or even informal training. Frankly, this isn’t a topic that I’m really all that well versed in really. I’m much closer to someone who’s read a couple random internet articles than someone who’s taken part in a weekend retreat. So with this as a disclaimer, take the rest of this as my interpretation of how I apply the concept of mindfulness to ultras.
Relatively early on in my ultra career I noticed a connection between my mind and body when running races. This is most pronounced with nutrition. Being low on calories will inevitably lead to a deterioration of your attitude. This is where the “why am I putting myself through this?” comes in. It’s a case of the physical leading the mental. No one wants to be in that place so my focus for years was on keeping a steady flow of calories moving through my stomach to avoid that.
Independently of this, I noticed that some of the most enjoyable portions of races are when I enter a flow state. This is when I’m not really thinking about anything but just moving from point to point. Overnight in hundreds are probably the best examples of this for me. It’s always difficult to remember what happened as time just seems to fly by. Thankfully the miles fly by as well.
So my goal is to create that flow state as often as possible in races. I’m currently using these three strategies:
- Being present
- Positive thinking
A flow state is really all about being present. You’re not thinking about the past and not worrying about what’s to come. You’re just moving in the moment. My breakthrough happened last December at Devil Dog. Historically, I’ve had my main Garmin screen set up to show total miles, total time, average pace, and total ascent. During the early portions of the race, I was tracking my average pace and I started to get frustrated as it crept up. My ah-ha moment was when I realized that I was unconsciously extrapolating this going forward. So my focus was not on the present, but the next 80+ miles. Not good. I changed my watch to just show the time of day and it completely changed my mental state.
So all those data fields end up being unhelpful for me when I’m racing. Elapsed distance just reminds me how much further I have to run. Total time tells me I’ve been working for a loooong time already. And total elevation is likewise a reminder of all the effort I’ve put in.
This isn’t to say I’m going to start racing without my watch. The horror. I still like to get my mile splits as I run along. This is a good check for me as to how I’m doing. While it will also tell me what mile I’m on, I typically don’t even notice that. Just what my last pace was. It ends up being good input for how I’m doing in the present.
And if it’s a bad split? I’ve gotten consistently better over the years of accepting things as they come. When I started out in ultras, I used to get frustrated when things didn’t go my way. When things started hurting before they should. Or I was slower into aid stations than I thought I would be. Frustrations would slowly bleed over to negative thoughts and a poor attitude. At this point, I’m resigned to never run a perfect race. So as problems and issues arise, I’m much better at acknowledging them, mitigating them if possible, and just accepting them and moving on if not.
Case in point. My hamstrings started getting very tight about 10 miles into Greenbrier. They weren’t really slowing my pace appreciably and they didn’t hurt too bad, but it was most assuredly noticeable. Several years ago, I would start wondering what they were going to be like at 20 miles – at 50 – or how much worse they would end up getting. Now I just acknowledge they’re a little sore, rub them a little bit, and focus my attention on something else.
This is where positive thinking comes in. Even though I’ve got a problem, once I’ve done what I can for it, I turn my attention to something more upbeat. Like how well I’m moving or how pretty the scenery is or just how incredible it is that I can even toe the line at an ultra. It really is amazing what a glass half full mentality can do for you when things start getting difficult.
Mindfulness during my races is more about making the experience more enjoyable than boosting my performance. While I do believe that if you feel good you’ll move good, it’s more about having honest to goodness type 1 fun out on the trails (or roads depending on the race). And not just in the beginning, but throughout the course of the entire race. I spend way too much time training, the last thing I want is to get stuck in a bad place for hours upon hours at a time. Been there, done that, no thanks. These three strategies allow me to do that. I have fewer bad moments now and when they arrive, I’m able to deal with them quickly and get back to having fun. And at the end of the day, that’s what I’m out there trying to do.
I guess I’ll close by saying that this is all much harder in practice. It sounds easy not to think about the next forty miles until you’re 60 miles into a race and that’s all your brain can focus on. How do you accept it when you trip and jack your knee up halfway through a race you’ve spent the last 6 months training for? And good luck finding something positive in hour five of a downpour. But if ultras were easy, you probably wouldn’t be doing them in the first place. Hopefully you can take something away from my approach to make things a little more fun the next time you pin on a bib.