Saturday, July 30, 2016

Mental Toughness: Some Questions

During this morning's run, I was reflecting a bit on mental toughness as it pertains to running and racing.  I thought I'd post some of my questions here, to prompt further reflection and discussion.  I don't have any answers, but I'd love to hear the opinions of other runners, as well as other questions people might have on the topic.

Mental Toughness in Daily Training

  • Surely there is merit in making ourselves do hard things, when all we really want to do is lie on the couch and watch Game of Thrones.  But is it important to practice mental toughness on every run, in order to have it at key times (during races) when you need it?  Or is it more important, long-term, to skip or cut short a run when you're "not feeling it," to avoid burnout and keep your mental game fresh and ready for your next race?
Arya running the Kings Landing 100M (an old-school race with no chip timing or aid stations)
  • Do you have to keep proving to yourself that you have mental toughness?  Is it something you have to practice constantly?  Or once you've proved to yourself that you can push yourself beyond perceived limits, can you proceed with the confidence that you'll always have it, without having to practice it day in and day out?
Dependence of Mental Toughness on our Reason for Running
  • Is it possible to have the mental toughness required for ultrarunning without having a really good reason for being out there in the first place?  And what counts as a "really good reason"?  If your reason for suffering through an ultra is a selfless one, like running for those who can't, or offering up your suffering for an intention, does that give you greater mental fortitude than those who run for a more selfish reason, like personal pride?  Or can those self-centered reasons be just as powerful a driving force?  (Confession: my reasons are mostly self-centered.)
  • Does consciously exploring our personal reasons for competing in ultramarathons increase the strength of our mental toughness?  Or can unconscious, unexplored motivations be just as powerful?
  • If I enjoy racing, and I do it often, will I one day end up like Forrest Gump, with my passion for ultrarunning -- the lifeforce behind whatever mental toughness I have in races -- suddenly and inexplicably gone for good?  Or should I not worry about this, and continue sucking the marrow out of every race opportunity I have, as long as my passion outweighs the pain?

Thinking through these questions reminded me of the reason I started this blog, with the title "Running as Prayer."  My prayer for running has always been:

Let my every footstep be a prayer
of praise and thanksgiving to God.

Sometimes, it literally comes down to forcing myself to take one more footstep.  And then another.  And another.  Along with lots of prayer.  That has always gotten me to the finish line.  I guess prayer is part of my mental toughness equation, along with my pride and the feelings of positive reinforcement I've gotten from previous ultras.  What makes up your mental toughness equation?

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Fossil Valley 9-Hour Race: What does it mean to "finish" a timed race?

I remember reading an Ultrarunning Magazine article where Gary Cantrell discussed his race, Big Backyard Ultra.  Here's the description of the race from

The concept is simple. 
At 0700 hours on Saturday, October 15, we will start a race around the 4.166667 mile Big Trail. 
The time limit will be one hour.
At 0800 hours, we will begin another race around the trail.
We will do the same at 0900, 1000, and so on, 
every hour, on the hour,
until only one runner can complete a race within the time limit.
Any runner not in the starting corral for any race, is not eligible to continue.
No late starts!
If no single runner can complete a race at the end, 
there will be no winner.

As I recall the article, it lamented the fact that runners tend to quit before they absolutely cannot go any further.  Some quit because they are just tired or sore and want to be done.  Some quit because they have a preconceived goal of how many miles they want to hit, and once they hit that, they feel like they've accomplished what they came for.  But almost no one quits because they literally can't take one more step.  In fact, I think Cantrell said that letting yourself slow down to the point where you're "timed out" is basically the same as quitting.  

I thought about this idea a lot during my race this weekend: what counts as "quitting" or "giving up" in a timed race?  Is not giving your absolute hardest effort essentially the same as DNFing when it's a timed race?  

I started off the Fossil Valley 9-hour race pushing pretty hard, especially given the heat, humidity, tough nature of the course, and length of time we'd be out there.  Eventually I let up a bit, still running everything but the hardest inclines, but not pushing the pace, in an effort to keep my heart rate down and save something for later.  

As I ran, I kept doing the math in my head: Was I on track to finish 17 loops, like Anabel did last year for the win?  I thought so, but only if I kept my pace consistent and didn't have positive splits.  Looking at my Strava, I was very consistent; each loop was between 31 and 36 minutes (the 36-minute loop included a porta potty stop).  

When I finally got to loop 16, as the sun rose and I ditched my headlamp, I knew the timing would be very tight.  It was about 6:25am, so I'd only have 34 minutes to finish the loop if I wanted to go for a 17th loop.  (You cannot start a new loop after 7am.)  I figured the 16th loop would take me 35 minutes; after all, I was exhausted, hot, and really over running 2.67-mile loops all night.  Honestly, I very much hoped I wouldn't make it back to the start/finish before 7am; the last thing I wanted to do was go out for one more loop -- especially since I was in 2nd place by a ways and wouldn't have any affect on my place by doing extra work out there.  

But then I thought again about what Cantrell's point.  Was I a quitter?  Have I ever quit in a race?  Why would I start now, even when there is not chance of winning?  Is that really the only reason I race: to win?  Or is it that in racing, in pushing myself and testing my limits, I learn more about myself, I become a stronger person, and I define my character?

I ran loop 16 in 31:33, as hard as I could at that point, after 8.5 hours of running through the night.  When I got to the final straightaway at the end of loop 16, I ran as fast as I could, still secretly hoping I wouldn't make it before 7am, but leaving it up to God.  As I approached the start/finish area, David Hanenburg, the race director, yelled at me, "You've got 45 seconds!  Are you going?"  I hurriedly asked if I was still in 2nd place -- I was clearly still undecided whether it was worth it to go.  But David repeated, "45 seconds if you want to go!"  So without filling my water bottle or grabbing any nutrition, I took off, yelling, "I'm going!" as I punched my fist in the air.  The runners and spectators sitting all around the start/finish cheered, and off I went.

As soon as I turned the corner and was in the woods by myself again, I popped what felt like the 20th Montana Huckleberry Hammer gel I'd eaten that night.   Since I had thought loop 16 would be my last, I had stopped eating awhile ago.  I was also out of water, and maybe a bit dehydrated; after eating about 2/3 of the gel packet, I started retching.  My utterance at that time, "F--- this sh-t!"  reveals that despite my heroics in taking off for a lost-cause 17th loop that wouldn't affect my podium standings, I was still not happy to be out there.  But I did still have some Tailwind, and I had my friend Joe waiting for me to finish, so I carried on as fast as I could.  Loop 17 took me 34 minutes, meaning I still ran all of it except those two killer hills.  

When I finished, I did feel a contentment that I gave it my all; I fought to the finish.  I think I feel happier now than I would have felt if I'd just quit after loop 16, before the full 9 hours had expired.  But what does this teach me about myself?  Maybe that I'm very prideful when it comes to risking labeling myself as a quitter.  Maybe that I get a weird pleasure out of pushing myself as far as I can go, and I get positive reinforcement from not giving up.  Maybe that I like to be the underdog and fight for a lost cause.  I'm not really sure.

One thing I do know, is that I need a break from running.  I've raced 3 ultras in 5 weeks, and I've pushed hard at all of them.  That also means that I've pulled 3 all-nighters in 5 weeks, because they were all night races.  I'm feeling a bit burned out and unmotivated.  I told myself during the race that my reward for pushing so hard could be not running all this week.  Isn't that sad, that a runner's reward to herself would be not having to run?  That's definitely a sign that I need a few days off.  Maybe it's a good time to learn how to play Pokemon Go?  

Me and Katie pre-race (Katie ran the 6-hour race and won!)

Monday, July 18, 2016

Muleshoe Bend Recap in Verse

Muleshoe Bend was super fun, as are all the Captn Karl's races. I decided to record my memories of this year's race in verse:

My goals for the race were simple and few
To have fun and smile, sub-7:30 would do.
Wearing my TROT gear, just back from 10k feet,
Hoping I hadn't lost acclimation to heat.

I started to sweat when I shut the car door.
Once the sun sets, humidity will rise more.
To Rockhopper Central I strolled with all of my gear,
And also took photos with TROT mates, who were near.

When the race started, I shuffled in mid-pack,
Struggling with my Achilles, the heat, and calf cramps.
As people ran past, I reminded myself, Be patient:
This isn't a race to the first aid station.

I kept on, no bladder but two bottles instead,
Half to throw down my throat, half to squirt on my head.
Eating every half hour, waffles and gels in the woods,
Taking winding turns and picking up my pace as I could.

Excitement abounded between my music and other features:
Though my iPod buds failed me, I saw many creatures.
A scorpion, a fox, and many small spiders;
A rattlesnake crossed my path, didn't hide there.

Coming into each station, the volunteers were so kind,
But I rejected their sponge bath offers so fine.
One thing I did take up at the suggestion
Was Stefan's to pace me the last 9-mile section.

Running with him, and Ed Brown at times,
Was so fun and made the miles fly by.
Through the one starry section and the many in the trees,
His encouraging words and tips set me at ease.

And when we finally arrived at the finish line,
Chatting with Chris and Brad about mullets at 2am felt just fine.
To chill and chat in the tent as the generator seemed to break,
And watch Joe and Stefan hold up the inflatable was great.

And then, alas, it was time to head --
A three-plus hour drive to Fort Worth before bed.
At 4 in the morning, I left Muleshoe Bend;
Fortunately, 2 more Capn Karl's before this summer ends!