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Nine Bizarre Tips to Help You Finish an Ultramarathon

Posted by on Aug 2, 2012 | 6 Comments

Running long distances can be difficult because you eventually hit a point where you will want to stop. If the distance is long enough, no amount of willpower or determination will get you to the finish line. However, there are a few tricks that can be used to help increase the odds.

Trick #1: Expect the pain. Ultras hurt. Acknowledging and expecting the pain is a good first step. It’s also useful to know the pain is temporary. Most pains experienced during a race go away during the race. If not, they go away shortly after finishing. Before you start, write out a list of all the things that may hurt. The physical act of writing does something psychologically to make the experience more real. Forewarning leads to greater manageability.

Trick #2: Learn to discriminate between “this is normal long-distance running pain” and “I’m hurt” pain. This is difficult because it’s usually learned with experience. In the moment, most forms of pain feel like you’re doing permanent damage to your body. After a little experience, you begin to understand what different types of pain signal. For example, I know the soles of my feet are going to hurt really bad in an ultra. That’s just one of the pains that goes away shortly after finishing, so I can ignore it during the race. At Bighorn this year, I had a sharp, shooting knee pain. It was unfamiliar and may have been a sign of injury. Instead of just “gutting it out”, I changed my gait. Here’s a more detailed description of learning pain discrimination.

Trick #3: Learn to enjoy the pain. Pain is a bodily process. All bodily processes are subject to classical conditioning. You know the people that develop weird fetishes? The process that was used to develop that fetish can be used to develop a “fetish” to pain. Yes, you can turn yourself into a certified masochist. The trick is to associate pain with something pleasurable.

What works best?

Sex.

Specifically,we want to associate pain with the flood of positive neurotransmitters released at orgasm. One method would be to repeatedly get a little action (or fly solo) on really long runs. Since there may be inherent danger (i.e.- indecent exposure… we have a lot of prudish municipalities here in the U.S.), I’d recommend using a process called higher-order conditioning. We’re essentially going to associate the pleasures of orgasm with a neutral stimulus so the neutral stimulus causes some of the same reaction. We’ll then apply the neutral stimulus when we experience pain in long distance runs. Eventually the pain of the run itself will trigger the pleasurable response… and we begin to enjoy the pain. I give the dirty details here.

Trick #4: Manage the lows. People don’t quit ultras when they’re feeling good. They quit when they feel like shit. In long races, there are many things that will make you feel like shit. Pain is one. Hunger, cold, heat, dehydration, trashed muscles, chafing, blisters, sleep deprivation, darkness, malfunctioning equipment, gylcogen depletion, and loneliness are some other things that can contribute to lows. Knowing what causes each of these and how to correct them can help minimize their effect. The goal is to fix problems before they become too bad or compound with other problems. All of us can overcome one issue. Two… not a problem. It’s when a lot of problems pile up that we run into problems. Each problem gives us a reason to quit, and the more reasons we compile the more we persuade ourselves we can’t go on. This problem is amplified if we hit the lows going into an aid station where we can drop from the race.

This is basically what happened to Shelly and I at Grand Mesa this last weekend. We were managing our lows nicely, then hit a situation where several new problems sprung up at the same time. The result? We decided to drop at about mile 60. Had we been better prepared, we probably could have salvaged the race.

Use training to practice this by purposely inducing specific lows. Run when tired, cold, and hungry, then try fixing the problems during the training run. By doing this repeatedly, you’ve be in a much better position to survive the lows during a race.

Trick #5: Shorten the race. Most beginning ultrarunners have a tendency to think of the number of miles remaining. If that number is big, it can seem insurmountable. At mile 55 of a hundo, thinking you still have 45 miles to go seriously blows, especially if you’re in the middle of a low. Breaking the race down to shorter races from aid station to aid station can help. Psychologically, it’s much easier running several three-to-eight mile races than 45 miles.

Again, use training runs as practice. Set up a loop, then run it repeatedly. I used to do this with a three mile loop that I’d run 10 times. In the middle of each loop, I’d only focus on finishing that loop. After a few such training runs, shortening the perception of the distances became easy.

Trick #6: Surround yourself with positive people. This includes your crew, your pacers(s), and other runners. You do not want to be around people that complain, point out the negative, or remind you that you’re suffering. I’ve made the mistake of inviting negative people as crew members, and it didn’t turn out well. Over the years, I’ve learned to be very selective of those I choose to be around in races (and life in general). I have about ten good friends I’d trust as crew members or pacers because I know their negative personality will never contribute to me failing. All of them like to have fun, dick around, and don’t take anything too seriously. That’s exactly what I need when I’m suffering.

Other runners on the course can be a problem, too. If I ever run with another runner and they start complaining, I either speed up or slow down. They have almost as much power to ruin a run as a bad crew or pacer.

It’s fairly easy to figure out if someone isn’t crewing material. If you use Facebook or other social media, lots of complaining posts are a red flag. Training runs can also be used. Take them on a difficult run. I’d suggest running on a hot day with limited water, or running in cold rain. If they complain a lot, you don’t want them on your crew.

Trick #7: Surround yourself with people that know what they’re doing and know you as a runner. My crew and pacers tend to be the runners I train with at least occasionally. I know they know me well enough to recognize when I’m having problems, what is causing the problems, and how to fix the problems. They’re also experienced ultrarunners. They know what they’re doing because they’ve been there themselves. This experience is absolutely invaluable. You’re going to experience some bad things, especially in 100 milers. Having a calm crew that isn’t going to freak out, can diagnose what’s wrong, and take the appropriate action will keep you in a race. If I couldn’t have at least one experienced crew member and/or pacer, I’d opt to go alone.

I see a lot of inexperienced crew members or pacers making really, really bad decisions. For example, a common mistake is to feed a runner salt if they’re covered in dried salt. If the body is expelling excess salt, the last thing the runner needs is more. Experience is invaluable.

Trick #8:When things get bad, change something. Maybe change your shoes, socks, shirt, or ditch your water bottles for a hydration pack. sometimes I even do something silly like brushing my teeth. The slight change in routine or stimuli can have a rejuvenation effect, which may help resurrect you from a low.

Trick #9: Speed up. This one is counter-intuitive. When we’re in pain, fatigued, and feel like we’ve rolled down a very large, rocky hill, we tend to slow down. Walk even. Sometimes we’ll feel better if we speed up. This is a trick I learned from my friends Jesse Scott and Jeremiah Cataldo. The change in gait activates muscles a little differently, helps stretch us out, and shaves a little time off our finishes.

There you have it- nine tips to help you get to the finish line of your next ultra. Most of them can be practiced in training, which will make them even more effective.

What about you? For my ultrarunner readers- do you have additional tips to share? Leave a comment!

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6 Comments

  1. Nicole W
    August 3, 2012

    Good stuff, thanks!

  2. Jeff
    August 3, 2012

    Great tips. I especially like the one about speeding up. I have done this in the past and you’re right, it does work!

  3. Fri, Aug 3 | UltraRunnerPodcast.com
    August 3, 2012

    [...] Nine awesome tips to help you finish an ultra…great stuff for newbies and veterans alike. [...]

  4. Richard
    August 3, 2012

    Think about something else.

    If you focus on how far you have to go, how much your arse cheeks are chafing or even how much your looking forward to a little ‘relief’ when you get the chance, running a long way can be really, really crappy and you’ll end up fixating on the things bothering you.

    I think about projects I’m working on, what I plan to do at the weekend, creative ways to avoid odd jobs around the house, etc.

    Either that or I sit down and have a sandwich.

    • Richard
      August 3, 2012

      …how much YOU’RE looking forward…

      D’oh.

  5. Rob Y
    August 2, 2012

    Trick #10: Sequester Yourself.

    When you step out your front door on your way to the race you MUST leave your “baggage” behind. Proper training for and running a 100 mile race is a very taxing challenge both in terms of physical and mental energy; it takes extreme focus and patience to persevere. Therefore, I advise folks to “sequester” themselves when it’s “GO Time”. That is, forget about the responsibilities and stresses of your everyday life: work, family, etc… and ONLY focus on that next step that takes you closer to the finish. You waste mental energy during the event by thinking about your baggage, don’t do it! All too often when things aren’t going so well in the race it’s too easy to start thinking about your baggage and once your concentration goes down that alley it can become a dark, downward spiral of invented excuses and rationalization about why you need to quit (I’ve seen this before and experienced it myself!).

    Along these lines make sure you don’t set yourself up for failure either. For example: Plan a buffer day on either side of your race if possible; nothing worse than getting to your event later than expected because of travel issues; worse is scheduling travel home too close to your anticipated race finish time! Don’t do it!

    When you leave home, your 100 mile race needs to be your only thought, your top priority! You put in the many miles and hours of training; blood, sweat and tears! Don’t sabotage yourself with mental baggage and poor planning!

    Remember that IF you quit, you’ll have to wait another very long YEAR plus cover the mileage you already have in the race just to get back to where you dropped! That doesn’t include all the training you’ll have to do in between! Don’t waste your attempt!