Perhaps the most important component of a solid ultrarunner, the mental processes that are required during a successful ultra-marathon cannot be underestimated - you can be amazingly fit and well-prepared physically, but if the mind isn't willing that won't help you in the slightest (I know - I've been there). Conversely, you can be underprepared for a myriad of reasons, yet with a strong will and the ability to problem solve your way out of issues, you can have a super successful run.
Now I'm no psychologist, far from it, but I think there are some basic concepts every runner can work on to better enable them to actively guide the brain towards a positive outcome.
KNOW THE "WHY?"
Having a reason to run is a powerful motivator. Most people take up a challenge for a reason, and this reason is an amazing driver during an ultra: ask yourself why it is you've chosen to take on the challenge, and then use that answer to spur you on.
Perhaps you want to set an example for your kids; you have had a long-term aim to run 50km; you want to summit a particular mountain - whatever it may be. When it gets tough (and it will get tough), you then need simply to reflect on your why - "I'm setting an amazing example for my kids here, lets ride out this tough patch and show them what perseverance can do".
This applies in both training and during ultimate goal itself - don't want to get out of bed in the morning to train? Reflect on your why.
HAVE A MANTRA
Ultrarunning isn't all vomit and rainbows.
I used this line last week in this blog, and it applies again here too - ultrarunning isn't all joy and amazingness, but it isn't all suffering either. Accept the fact that things will be uncomfortable - and acknowledge that feeling when it inevitably arrives - and you can then take solace in the fact that the rainbows will come again too.
Developing a mantra that means something to you can give you a focus that enables you to better ride out the low times. My ultra running mantra is "Enjoy when you can, endure when you must". This pretty much sums it up for me - I take the good times and really drink those moments in, and then I do what I can to get through the lows (knowing that the low will pass eventually).
If you find yourself getting lost in a low point, think about your mantra and drag yourself through. Literally if you have to.
FOCUS ON THE PROCESS
Sometimes the mantras and "whys?" aren't enough, and occasionally they can actually be a distraction.
For example, say you are really struggling on a long climb, and your guts have gone south on you. In such situations, drawing on emotions may actually make you feel worse as these emotions feed your downward spiral. In such instances, process-based thinking may actually help you recover better out of these moments, and where the skill of problem-solving becomes your best friend:
"OK - I'm feeling like sh!t here. What's the problem? How can I start fixing it? What are the steps to feeling better?"
You don't have to know the full process manual, but focus on a few key steps that give you some control over how the next section of your run progresses:
"OK. My gut is really playing up here. I'm going to start by slowing down for the next 15mins, alternating a run/walk every 2mins. I'm also going to try and sip my way through this bottle of nutrition during that time. I'll reassess at 15mins and come up with my next plan of attack".
Easy, step-based processes are key.
Focus on form, focus on nutrition, focus on checkpoint-to-checkpoint running. There are plenty of ways to approach this, but you just need to break it down to smaller pieces that you can then control. If you feel in control, or at least convince yourself you are, you usually will be.
There's an excellent discussion on this topic in the book "The Ultra Mindset" - well worth a read.
Making a commitment is a powerful thing. If you promise a friend that you'll drop them to the airport, generally you'll follow through and drop them to the airport (you're not a great friend if you drop the ball here). The same applies to running - if you make a commitment it's harder to avoid the alternative.
Commitments can be personal and specific to you, but it needs to be strong enough that there's a feeling of obligation to yourself - you can't make this easy or you haven't really committed. Alternatively, you might make the commitment public which provides a spotlight to either enjoy your success or highlight your miss. This doesn't have to be a public post online declaring you plan to go sub-14hrs at Ultra Trail Australia, but you may tell a group of friends of your plan and ask them to help keep you focussed.
You can get specific with this too, by getting your support crew committed to your task also - "Don't let me stop unless I'm physically unable to go on".
GET COMFORTABLE BEING UNCOMFORTABLE
The challenge of ultra-running is riding out the inevitable lows. Problem-solving is perhaps the ultimate skill to master here: Ann Trason, ultrarunning guru, reckons she wasn't the most naturally-gifted runner out there, but puts her successes (and there have been plenty) down to a strong ability to problem-solve her way out of trouble.
The key with problem-solving though is the ability to do it under stress. I can sit at my dining room table and talk about my escape plan when a fire starts in my house, but it's another thing to put that plan into action when the reality is happening. Fight or flight is real, and you need to be prepared to choose fight no matter how appealing the flight response may seem.
This is where getting comfortable suffering becomes important. If you can tolerate being uncomfortable - pushing extra hard on a long downhill, forcing a strong power-hike when your quads are screaming at you to stop, maintaining a rapid cadence when all you want to do is plod along - you can then problem-solve a solution to issues when they arise (and they will arise) using all of the above techniques.
But you need to be used to doing this under stress. The low times (by definition) are when things are hurting or are going outside your plan, and your thought processes aren't always logical when this is happening. Get comfortable being uncomfortable, and then force yourself to make positive choices. I make this a focus in training during particular sessions, and I always try and vary up the type of "uncomfortableness" (probably not a real word) to target what I'm likely to face during my goal:
Have a flat road ultra coming up where you will be running at a high turnover and elevated effort? Do sessions that force you to maintain this when your body wants to slow down, and force your body to choose to maintain intensity.
Have a super hilly ultra where you will be ascending 900+ stairs with 99km in your legs? Do sessions that force you to power up stairs when they are already fatigued, and force your body to choose to maintain intensity.
Get comfortable being uncomfortable, and then use this to add composure and logic to your problem-solving.
Well, that's it. I've now given you the basic outline of what you need to build your Ultra Body. Use what you find useful, ignore what doesn't resonate with you, and build your own toolkit of skills and processes to allow you to be the best ultra-running version of you possible.
See you out there - Juddy