"Don't Stop" - Developing an Ultra Mind

When I talk to people who haven't been exposed to ultra running, or even marathons, one of the most common questions I get asked is “How on earth do you run that far?”. My answer has evolved over time, but the core part is “You just don't stop!”. Most people think that's a bit trite, but it really is that simple... And that hard!

Don't Stop means that you have trained sufficiently for the distance that you're running so that your body is physically capable of “going the distance”. Mostly this is fine – I reckon that anyone could run a marathon – physically, that is. It's just a question of how long it would take them but worst case I reckon anyone could walk that far as long as they just didn't stop. We'll blog more about training for the distance later!

Don't Stop also means that you fuel and refuel your body sufficiently. Fluid, nutrition, electrolytes, minerals – the body has to be able to keep going. Depending on the distance and person, this might mean just using the fuel stores in the body prior to the start. A fit, younger person, could probably run a marathon without refuelling other than fluids during the race, but probably beyond that, you need to be refuelling. There's a lot of discussion and views on this point but that might be a topic for another blog too!

Don't Stop additionally means you have the necessary equipment to keep going. Clothing for whatever weather you face, and lighting for if/when you're running in the dark. This one is pretty easy but sometimes gets forgotten!

But Don't Stop primarily means you've trained your mind to keep going. It's what pushes (or pulls!) you out the door when it's dark and cold, when it's snowing or raining, or when your day's been tough but you go anyway. Back in 1994 I was probably at my fittest – I did the Coast to Coast (solo) with a mountain run time under 4hrs and finished my sixth marathon (Christchurch) a few months later in 2 ¾ hr – but I couldn't have run an ultra then. My mind wasn't open to it.

I trained my mind a little more with the martial art of Kendo and also rather surprisingly with the dental hygienist! She was scrubbing plaque off my teeth & gums saying that I really needed to floss. My answer that "I'm trying" got a unique response. She stopped and said "Try and touch your nose". So I did, but her response was "No - you ACTUALLY touched your nose. TRY and touch your nose"! So I got the point and strained my finger a few millimetres away from my nose until she started the drill cleaner thingy again and carried on. So that left an impression and a few weeks later at a Kendo tournament I used that story with some of the team who had said they'd try and do their best - the rallying cry of "Touch Your Nose" (as opposed to "Try and touch...") became our spur to Actually do our best. "Try and..." vs "Touch" - it was "Don't Stop" backwards. (Yoda would say "Do, or Do Not -there is no Try.")

I finally entered my first ultra almost 20 years after the Coast to Coast, after months of hounding by a work colleague who knew I had trained enough for it, but I still didn't consider I could - until one of my training runs where I was chugging along enjoying the scenery on the Port Hills and suddenly realised what I was doing, and how far I'd come, and I knew then that I could do 50km. And I did. The rest was a gradual progression of increasing distances and opening my mind to other possibilities. I still catch myself though – during the 360 Degrees of Pain run around the 135km Christchurch 360 Trail, when we got to the Waimakariri River and I looked to the Port Hills sooooo far away and had a moment like “OMG They're sooo far away!” but you promptly tell yourself that it's just distance that you'll cover in time – and you've set aside the time to do it so no problem - just keep going!

I also had that during my 100 mile run at the Great Naseby Water Race. Somewhere before dawn while I was mostly walking around the 10km laps in about 2hr apiece, I got to 110km and suddenly knew that I was going to finish. It was still 50km away but in my mind there was no reason I couldn't finish so it was just a matter of time. A (slow) mental extrapolation then informed me that I only had just over a full working day to go to finish! To which my mind replied that if I knew I could finish, then I didn't have to actually keep going for that long and keep Steph waiting in the cold, and etc etc. So I had this wee battle between two different parts of my mind about whether I should keep going or stop. Ultimately the wee fact dawned on me that knowing I could finish and ACTUALLY finishing were two entirely different things! And since I (and Steph, and everyone else) had set aside the time, well, I had to keep going and do it. So I did. Don't Stop!

After that I learned to turn that “OMG it's sooo far away!” thought into a positive. It's especially easy when running the curving path of the Christchurch Port Hills Summit Rd trail – it's a glorious view no matter which way you are going and you can see way off in front of you how far you have to go, and behind you how far you've come. I turn the thought from “OMG it's sooo far” into “Wow! Isn't it amazing how far I/we can go and experience all this beauty while doing it.”

And it's no coincidence that from the furthest points of the Krayzie K's loops, you can see the rest of the course. You get to put this mindset into practice during the race - “Wow – look how far I've come!”. :-)

Speaking of which .... loops . . .

No, that's a blog for another day!

Photo credits: Stephanie Berry, George McNeur

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