As we all navigate the Corona Virus lockdown, there’s a lot we can learn from ultra challenges.
By Roger Burlinson
The day after we were all told unequivocally to stay at home and dramatically curtail our day to day lives, I had a strong sense of deja vu. But I’d never been in a situation anything like this, none of us had. So how could I be having feelings and a sense of purpose that was so familiar? “It’s that last 30k isn’t it…” I thought.
The last 30k of my 2019 non-stop completion of the South Downs Way (100 miles) had been really hard. At the time, I’d not so much felt that it was an insurmountable challenge but just that it would be a long slow path to the end, that would be hard to stay motivated and that would hurt… a lot! Ultimately though, it was my only option, so I just kept going. What else can you do?
This was new territory for me. On the two long ultra’s I’d done prior to 2019, I’d sailed through and finished strongly. On the shorter ones, I’d had a similar experience but then, of course, I’d yet to find my limit and was always ‘within distance’, so although they had been hard and I’d pushed myself, I’d never fully reached the point where I had to dig deep.
When I say “sailed through”, I don’t mean that they came easy but that I’d always paced to my plan, I’d been meticulous with my process and had a sense that the 100k distance was in me. 100 miles is a different ball game though and on the South Downs, I had no idea whether that extra 60k really was in me.
So that was it. That was why I was having deja vu. Once I’d made the connection – this is just a test – all the negative thoughts started to feel less dominant. Yes, there were things at stake here that made enduring 160km seem like walking the dog but it wasn’t that all the issues around the virus, the lockdown and the impact this would have on us all vanished, it was just that I knew how to approach the situation and how to moderate its impact on me.
That might sound a little selfish, to think of your own wellbeing but, just as they always tell you on airlines – put your own life vest on before helping others. I knew that preserving my own state of mind and being able to navigate everything this crazy time would bring, would be of value to others – not least my elderly father who was now, officially, vulnerable and who I’d need to help and support even more. If you’re in a good place, you can help others. If you’re in a mess, you’re the one who needs help and that’s a drain on others.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that what got me through the last 30k of that South Downs walk, was exactly what had got me through the first 130k. It was exactly what had got me through Race to the Stones, my own New Forest ultra and all the other shorter ultras and marathon distance Sport Walking challenges I’d completed. It was a way of seeing things, an acceptance of discomfort and fatigue, an understanding that to grow and become stronger, you have to be vulnerable and to find your way to overcome that vulnerability.
It was about embracing the unknown and accepting, whole heartedly, whatever came your way. Not trying to avoid it or stop it, which uses energy. You have to go with it and then use the energy of the moment to steer the situation back towards an outcome you want – a bit like how an Aikido master uses the energy of an opponent against him.
The acceptance that whatever happens in that moment is your new reality and that you cannot avoid it but, instead, must shape it to your advantage, is a critical part of what it takes to complete an ultra. No denial, no avoidance, no pretending things are not as they are. It’s the only way.
Self belief is also obviously a factor but self belief isn’t something you’re born with, it’s learned behaviour. It comes from surviving situations and learning from them. You can’t have the self belief that you can survive a specific test until you’ve got through it. You can only fall back on your belief in yourself that has grown out of your general experience.
Your general self belief is your safety net that lets you embrace adversity in the moment. You don’t know if you can survive 100 miles but your previous experience assures you that you have the qualities that make it possible and that’s all you need. The rest is about how you adapt to a fluid situation, how you respond to difficulty, how well you stick to your process and how well you preserve your mental energy by not falling into a stress state when things don’t go to plan.
It makes me think of that classic term – ‘the arrogance of youth’ – which is, of course, completely misleading. The young brain doesn’t have the ability to process consequence until about 25, so it’s not so much arrogance as blissful ignorance. Ignorance of what might happen because they aren’t processing all the potential consequences. They’re assessing risk based on what they see in front of them, not variants of what might be.
In a way, the kind of self belief we need for Sport Walking and tackling ultras in particular, is a little like melding a young person’s ignorance with an older person’s experience. It’s seeing the challenge for what it actually is (as the young do) but using your experience to assess possible outcomes realistically (as the old do). It’s really just about having clarity because you have to be able to choose options that give you the best chance of achieving your goal, not just what is perhaps the safest or easiest thing to do.
Sometimes in a challenge, there are no good options. There are only bad ones: It starts raining heavily and there’s no sign of it letting up for ages. Bad all round – you’re going to get wet, you’re going to get cold, your gear & supplies might get soaked. But what choices in this instant do you really have?
Well, you can either stop and wait for the rain to pass, potentially not achieving your goal. You can drop out completely because the rain is so bad, definitely not achieving your goal or you can cover yourself and your gear as best you can and just cary on. No good options. All bad scenarios but the right choice is to press on and see what happens.
So how can we nurture that underlying self belief that will equip us to best deal with challenges on an ultra and which can also help us through this pandemic? Well, I hate to repeat myself but it all comes down to adopting the methods of athletes. They don’t simply throw themselves into a challenge, whether that be running 100 metres or 100 miles. They create structure, train themselves to perform and build a process that they can follow, which will gradually fill up their ‘self belief tank’.
Build your process
Process is the one thing that all athletes fall back on time after time, both to succeed and also to rebuild when things don’t go to plan. While you would also follow a process during your challenge, I’m talking about the process you’d follow in your daily training or life and that can be defined as: what you need to do on a day to day basis, to get you where you need to be in order to perform.
When you reach the performance bit, that’s where you hit the ‘outside of your control’ wall and whether you’re able to get over it depends completely on how well you’re able to execute your performance (the ‘in challenge process’) and how well you’re able to withstand the pressure mentally.
But athletes know that success or failure is not the point. Yes they all want to win but know they can’t always do that because sometimes your best is outdone by someone else’s best and that’s completely outside of your control. So they focus instead on what they can control which is how well they perform. If they perform at their best and they’re beaten then, although it will still hurt, they know there’s nothing more they could have done.
Process is what gets them to this point and process is what can help you not just survive your ultra but thrive in it. Start by identifying what it is about trail walking and walking in general that you love and then make that the centre of everything you do. If you get lots of what you love when you’re embedding a process, then you’ll be happier to add in the other things you like less because you’ll know that they’re facilitating the thing that really matters to you. Your process has to be something you feel motivated to do, not just a list of training chores you hate but know you must do.
Next, establish your overall goal – not just a specific event but what it is you want long term from doing this. Is it simply to feel fulfilled and tested physically in your walking or do you want something more – adventure, travel, to be a long distance specialist? Where do you see yourself in 10 years time – not like some kind of career path but what would you like to be the situation, if you could have complete control over everything?
Finally, what type of challenges or events are you likely to want to take on and how will preparation for these need to adapt from your everyday activity? Building a successful process that can get you through an individual ultra is all about looking ahead into the future because your process has to be attainable on a day to day basis. There’s no point building a process that would work for Mo Farah if you’ve only got an hour free every other day! This is not about whether your process is viable to achieve an ultra goal, this is about your process being viable for your life.
I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here about what you might and might not include in it but think about and build in your regular walking and other sporting activities that you might use to support it (like I mentioned in the previous post). Think about challenge goals and lay them out in a timeline – when would you want to attempt them and how long would you need to prepare. Then, look at the supporting factors like diet, rest, head space etc. Look at what you need to change to make your day to day walking and other training more effective (if you’re fuelling on burgers and chips you’re undoing all the gains you make out on the trials). View your process as a whole – training, rest, fuel, hydration, strength, flexibility, mindset, outlook.
We will be doing some work on these things in future blogs but you can gain a lot by simply reading about other endurance athletes’ lives and training processes. I’d recommend sticking to long distance athletes though, rather than those whose sports required strength or explosive speed, except where you’re simply looking for general inspiration.
Develop your ultra mindset for everyday life
If you think that you can only develop an ultra mindset when you’re actually doing or training for ultras you’re wrong. Sure, when you do your first ultra you have that massive jolt of realisation about your true potential and it’s incredibly powerful but that’s essentially just the reward from everything that’s gone before.
Building the right mindset is something you should work on every single day. For starters, you can emulate some of the approaches we’ve already discussed here. You can deliberately seek out challenging situations in your day to day walking – if you’ve planned a training walk for instance and the weather’s bad, go anyway.
Wear heavier duty waterproofs than you might take on a challenge event, so you stay drier during training but stick to your plan and go. This is not about whether your waterproofs perform, whether you get wet, it is about teaching yourself that rain is not a problem, not a barrier, it’s simply a different kind of weather and you just wear a different kind of clothing.
You go with it, accept it, embrace it and use its energy to power your successful outcome – you completed your planned training session. OK, so you got wet but you didn’t die! Yes you were miserable but you felt great when you got back home – kerching! You learnt that rain is just a state of mind and so you can bank that one knowing you’ve made progress, you’ve added to your armoury and have made progress in building your ultra mindset.
It’s also really important to think about any of the things you might encounter in an ultra that you’re fearful of or that you don’t like. Then, it’s really important that you actively seek out ways to experience them in training, regularly. This is not just so that you have experience of them when the challenge itself comes but so that you can try out different coping mechanisms in training, rather than trying to figure out a way to cope in the challenge itself.
Most importantly, it’s about reducing the impact they have on you, so that they’re no longer a big deal. Things that might fit into this category are – steep hills, crossing fields of cows, walking at night etc. There are a whole load of things that different folk might feel uncomfortable with, so it’s essential to actively seek these things out and face them in your training because you sure as hell don’t want to face them unprepared in your challenge!
Many people are afraid of walking alone on trails at night and think that this will be the hardest part of their ultra experience. The reality is that you’re afraid of what you can’t see, that sounds are amplified in the quiet of the countryside, that you amplify the threat posed by that sound because you can’t see what’s making it. None of what you fear is actually going to come true, it’s all just mind games.
Of course, telling someone that has no benefit at all, you have to reach that conclusion by yourself, by deliberately exposing yourself to it – going out at night and working through the different scenarios. Then, most importantly, working out which coping mechanisms help you personally.
For me, my initial discomfort on trails at night came from having to walk back home from the train station after dark when I was a school kid. I lived in a small village near a mainline commuter station for London. There was a great footpath that tracked right alongside the railway line from my side of the village to where the station was and it was about a mile and a half to get there.
In winter, by the time I’d travelled from school which as about 15 miles away, my walk home was in the dark. At that age and with a furtive imagination, approaching the first section which had woodland right next to it was like one of those classic horror film sequences when a protagonist enters the haunted house for the first time. Now you’d think that because I did it every day that I would have developed a coping mechanism for it and you’re be right, I did. I walked along the road instead! It took twice as long and was another couple of miles but it worked and I coped!
You see I was too young to figure out what I needed to overcome this fear, so I would try and avoid that path if I possibly could and only use it when absolutely necessary. This meant that on those occasions when I did need to use it, I was petrified the whole way and heaven help me if light from the sparks of a passing train would illuminate the silhouette of a commuter in front of me on the path!
My solution? Well, in a way, it wasn’t my solution. Scouts taught me to manage the fear of trails at night with all the night hikes we used to do. I then carried this forward and added in a component that’s really important to me in general life – music. As I mentioned a moment ago, sound is one of the things that is the most disconcerting about being on the trail at night. You hear a rustling in the bushes and have no way of knowing what it is, so you imagine the worst. If you turn to look and your head torch illuminates only undergrowth, that means the thing making the noise isn’t visible to you. That’s even worse!
Music works in two ways for me. It blocks out sound and gives me something uplifting, to turn this particular time on the trail into a fun experience, not just a period to be endured. I can quite often be seen (it’s dark, you can’t see anything – Ed) dancing along, maybe waving my hands around in the air to a particularly joyous Jazz Funk classic.
I could be happily skipping along to Basement Jaxx or something like that, looking more like I’m in a conga line than doing an ultra and Freddy Kruger could be right on my shoulder, I wouldn’t care! Now, everyone’s different but the essential thing with this specific technique is not to think that what you need is motivation. What you need is joyous distraction – happy tunes that make you sing, dance or just feel alive.
That might be Dolly Parton, it might be Motorhead, it doesn’t matter, just choose tracks that aren’t about giving you drive and oomph but that are about putting a smile on your face and taking you to a different place. You could listen to sad ballads and cry your way through the night if you want, it really doesn’t matter, as long as it takes your mind off of that crazy axe wielding maniac coming up the trail behind you (don’t worry, it’s just a fallow deer).
So, bit of a diversion into night time coping mechanisms but to develop your ultra mindset overall, practice these things in your day to day walks, deliberately seek out things you don’t like as often as you can and find your coping mechanism, to make them easier for you to deal with.
It’s challenging – that’s the point!
Finally, if you find either your challenge or your everyday training difficult, from a mental perspective, that’s OK. Always remember that challenges are supposed to be difficult, that’s why they’re called challenges – you’re supposed to be in bits at the end (but you don’t have to be, if you prepare well). Always remember, it’s what you go through that will determine how positive the impact is!
If you aren’t tested then you’re not growing. Discomfort, whether physical or mental is the essential route to self discovery – you’ll never know what you’re capable of if you don’t experience discomfort. The more challenging something is to you personally, the bigger the reward and the more powerful the change in your outlook and approach to life. You don’t succeed in an ultra challenge by managing to avoid all the difficulties along the way, you succeed because you overcome them.
And that my friends, is the biggest take away we can get from these crazy, scary, unprecedented times we’re living through. If we face all the challenges, accept the reality of our present existence and look to our underlying self belief, then whatever happens during this time we can find a way to deal with it, overcome it and become better. If you can apply the things you need to succeed in an ultra, even if succeeding for you is simply to get to the end and collapse in a sobbing pile on the timing mat, then you can get through anything.
For me, out on that trail last year, having had no sleep for over 30 hours and still with 20km to go, all there was to do was focus on keeping my momentum up, not getting hopeful, not getting disheartened, just placing one foot in front of the other and accepting the hurt from each step. Not thinking about the finish line but simply enduring.
It’s not something we ordinarily do in our daily lives is it – endure – but it’s something we can actually be very good at, if we give ourselves permission.