“Ultramarathon running? What in the world did I get myself into?”
This common thought creeps into the mind of many first time ultrarunners– as well as those who attempt a longer ultra distance.
On race day, eventually, things become challenging…
And then…they become more challenging.
And then…even more challenging.
At some point, you realize the vastness of your commitment. You’re now in the race…whether you like it or not. So, you either cope with the physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion, or deal with the pain of regret from a DNF.
Although our struggles are inevitable, know this: self-sabotaging thoughts and physical hardships will pass. Soon you’ll learn how these adversities are part of a much larger pattern.
You will benefit significantly by recognizing the consistency of the up-and-downs. Simply put, as you advance through the race, you will have a higher chance of reaching the finish line.
I say this because as you experience the up-and-downs you now know things will get better. Instead of giving up…you give more. You accept your circumstances, take inspired action, and make it through the miles while handling each issue as they come.
The Ultramarathon Pattern
So what “pattern” am I referring to?
Well, when running your first ultramarathon, or a longer one, there is a very distinct pattern. Especially when running distances like 100 and 200 miles in length.
Over time, you’ll find race day generally breaks down into three stages:
Please note, these stages are not knowledge pulled from a textbook in a university library. Instead, I’m writing from my miles and miles of ultramarathon experience.
After running over 100 ultramarathon distances, some as long as 200 miles, you sure notice patterns. Simply put, my knowledge is experiential. And in my opinion, that’s the realist wisdom one can find.
After reading about each stage, here’s my advice: step back and perceive the pattern from a greater whole. Do this, and you’ll relieve much unnecessary suffering on race day.
You discover that no matter how bad your situation becomes, there is always a way out. And the path is never external… it’s internal, it’s in you, and forever available to all.
Understand this, and you will not only weather the storm…but you’ll come out the other side a much better runner because of it.
Even more, by recognizing this pattern, your outlook becomes more subjective in nature. Now, you find it much easier to detach from your thoughts and run in the present moment. No longer are you the center of the universe, but instead, just one tiny step of its cosmic dance. One small strand of a universal web.
You are no longer the doer, nor are you the thinker, rather, the observer. That means no more performance required. You are free to relax into a groove and simply move.
Can you feel the freedom in that?
I sure can.
You reach an infinite space of peace and harmony, flowing through every stride, as opposed to pushing forward. From here, you gain incredible clarity no matter how foggy your mind becomes from exhaustion on race day.
There are no more problems, just inevitable adversities and difficulties for learning great lessons.
Struggles will come and go like the waves of a coastal shore. However, instead of the break knocking you down, it will lift you up and guide you forward. The flow will feel like the current of a river, transcending your suffering into love.
This is a very bright kind of darkness. Finding peace in pain is very possible once you recognize this ultramarathon pattern on race day.
And that’s why I’m here, writing to you. Providing a small piece to your ultramarathon puzzle. Better yet, I’m simply a friendly guide along your path, pointing to a hidden road. A road not drawn on your map. One I stumbled upon long ago.
If you’re up for the read, I will now walk you through each stage of the ultramarathon pattern. After briefly explaining each step, I will provide some of my own experiences to help you better prepare.
Soon you’ll completely recognize each stage offering limited distractions from the present moment as you relax into a peaceful place internally. A place where no limitations exist, leaving you an open space to reach extraordinary distances.
Simply put, instead of giving up, you will give more.
But it all starts at stage one…
Please note: I am not a certified health physician and do not claim to be one. I’m only sharing the methods that worked for me. Remember, sometimes when you push the limits, the limits push back. So proceed with caution and never forget that safety comes first.
Stage 1: Structure
Most of us leave the starting line of an ultramarathon with a solid game plan.
Am I right?
We measure fuel, pack our drop-bags, and systematize our hydration needs based on the number of aid stations.
We organize the entire day and discuss the details with our crew. And in a perfect world, everything goes according to plan.
But there’s only one problem…
Our world is far from perfect, and we tend to learn this lesson the hard way. Meaning, on race day, we learn through trial and error, using ourselves as test subjects.
So, at first, race day is orderly. There’s structure. Everything goes according to plan.
But then what happens? If you have experience on the trails, well…you know…
Especially during your first 100 miler, it’s only a matter of time until your whole entire world is ROCKED.
Yes, this holds true for your physical preparation like what you eat or the anti-chafing product you apply. However, this goes for the mental side as well.
Of course, most will experience a bit of fear, nervousness, and excitement. These emotions are all different notes on the same cord. Yet, generally speaking, especially newer ultrarunners, you explode with enthusiasm. If controlled, these emotions will serve you for the entire race. But if unchecked, you could find yourself in great trouble.
As I like to say: A wandering mind can be a dangerous mind on race day, but with a little direction, it can be the most powerful tool you have.
Consider what happens. You are setting sail on a new journey, trekking down a path of unimaginable depths. Leaping straight off the cliff of control. Free-falling into the abyss of the great unknown, without a parachute on!
This is the great uncertainty of an ultramarathon. I think you’ll feel it at the beginning of your first 100-mile race or longer…at least to some degree.
But as the race continues, eventually, our struggles force us to descend from enthusiasm. We pass through enjoyment, and unless we plant our feet firmly into the ground of acceptance, we trap ourselves inside a very dark pit of self-doubt and hopelessness.
Simply put, as structure becomes destruction, practice TOTAL ACCEPTANCE. Do this willingly. Acceptance is the foundation for your new construction. Remember, when disorder arises, it’s only a small portion of a much larger pattern. Find appreciation for what goes right and strength in what goes wrong.
And as structure becomes destruction, you keep on running…
Example of Structure
It was my first 100-mile ultramarathon. I laced up my shoes, hardly able to comprehend the distance that lay ahead.
I was experiencing a whole new level of uncertainty, worrying about things like…
“Will my fueling strategy scale to 100 miles?”
“Can I run through the night without sleep?”
“Will my body be able to manage the chaffing past 100k?”
“What if I give up? My family is here, sharing a whole lot of time and energy with me. What if I let them down?”
Here’s what you learn: regardless of how much thought you give to your anxieties, nothing changes. The fact is you won’t know how your body responds to a new distance until you run it.
So don’t waste your energy on those kinds of thoughts.
Personally, my body reacted much differently over 50 miles than 50k; 100 miles than 50 miles; 200 miles than 100 miles.
During my first 100-mile race, I did what most runners do: packed my bags, organized by aid station, and tried to stay in control.
And things went well, until…they didn’t go well.
Eventually, after structure, you’ll enter into destruction. From order to disorder. In other words, your race day strategy falls apart to some degree. It’s in the depths of uncertainty where you learn what an ultramarathon is all about.
As the saying goes…
“A marathon is about how you perform when everything goes RIGHT, an ultramarathon is about how you perform when everything goes WRONG.” ~unknown
Here’s some advice…
Stay proactive and try this: Show up to race day with a full heart, empty of expectations and identification. Leave the starting line with an urgent longing for finding freedom, and allow the finish line to be your liberation.
Next, we’ll enter destruction…
Stage 2: Destruction
At some point on race day, you find yourself running down a long path with high spirits. You think to yourself, “This isn’t that bad. No way it’s going to be as hard as everyone makes it out to be.”
And then it happens…
You start feeling a little discomfort.
Maybe it’s a small amount of chafing between your legs. Or you feel a bit sick to your stomach. Or develop a small blister under your foot. Or that sunburn starts to settle in.
Here’s a good one: The fog in your mind thickens, and you forget to grab your fuel at the aid station. Or there was no chance of rain, yet, suddenly, you’re blasted by a storm and have no jacket.
Can you tell I’ve been there many times before?
And the downward spiral begins…
Chafing, nausea, sunburn, dehydration, cramps, blisters, exhaustion, sleep deprivation, freezing temperatures.
Suddenly all your plans fly out the window, and so does your confidence. There’s no more structure, no more order to your race. You lose control, which creates an enormous level of unnecessary suffering.
In this situation, you must find order in the disorder if you want to make it through. Find comfort in being uncomfortable. Light in the darkness. Love in your suffering.
Sometimes, one doesn’t come without the other…
Think about it. Without time, we could never know the present moment. Without the ego, we could never find the true self. And without the resistance from the distance, we could never find our strength from within. The strength we need to weather the storm on race day.
Sometimes we need to stumble into a valley in order to develop the drive, determination, and dedication for climbing the peak of our dreams.
At times we must travel through the darkness and grapple with our shadows to find meaning in the miles and purpose in our pace.
You become familiar with the outside of your comfort zone, and you keep on running…
Example of Destruction
During my first 100-mile race, it started with a little chafing between my legs…
Slowly developing into intense pain with every step.
Finally, it felt as if I had razor blades down my pants. The pain was severe with every stride.
Next, a thunderstorm hit…and it hit HARD. After running for hours in a downpour, the rain stopped. But now, my heavy wet clothes rubbed against my sunburnt skin. OUCH!
Eventually, the sun set, and the temperature plummeted. I was wet, cold, and tired beyond belief.
WARNING: when running straight through a 24-hour or 100-mile race, the night can get ugly. For myself, sleep deprivation sets in between 12:00pm to 3:00am.
I’ve fallen asleep while running, staying on my feet, going in and out of a sleep state.
I’ve also fallen flat on my face!
Anyway, to make matters worse, my amateur fueling strategy caught up with me. After consuming gels and sports drinks for an entire day, my stomach became very upset. I was nauseous. New to ultramarathon running, I had no tricks up my sleeves…no Plan B
Any kind of order was gone entirely. I was running through destruction, trying to find structure. That is, the order I was familiar with most.
I wanted to give up…badly.
Thankfully, something inside of me was hungry. My dedication to finishing was significantly higher than giving up. So I kept moving forward.
I had faith.
You see, ultra running can guide you through the paradoxical pathways of emptying into fulfillment. It’s in nothingness where you’ll feel everything. It’s in weakness where you’ll find your true strength.
Because It’s not about how much force you can exert to push forward. Instead, it’s about how much courage you have to express your innermost being.
Remember, you have to let go in order to fly high. Not even gravity can hold down a person of great faith.
And through your faithful action, construction takes place…
Stage 3: Construction
When you are dealing with total disorder during a race, you’ll likely want to move back to stage one. You’ll have a desire to put the broken pieces back together and return to what’s most familiar.
But guess what?
Your strategy isn’t working, because, well, it doesn’t work. At least not for your current situation. This is experiential knowledge only learned from first-hand ultramarathon mileage.
Chances are, returning to stage one will no longer be available. Trying to find the same structure will only dig you deeper into destruction. Whereas moving on toward phase three will feel like a breakthrough and lift you higher.
Stage three is construction, it’s reorder, and it takes instinct, intuition, and faith to arrive. You are developing a new race strategy on the fly. Or should I say, on the run.
Maybe you decide to spend a little extra time at the next aid station to change clothes, warm-up, and shift your focus.
Maybe you sacrifice speed to hold extra food, baby powder, and a rain jacket.
Or you learn the magic of vegetable broth and ginger chews for an upset stomach. You find a new way to fuel, which prevents yourself from throwing up.
(I know, it’s complicated to rationalize an irrational act like running 24-hours half-naked through the woods with an intense focus on preventing yourself from throwing up on your shoes!)
You realize you’ve been over-complicating the process entirely. Running can be so much simpler. Instead of exerting tremendous energy to do so much, you just are. You allow yourself to be and relax into the present moment, only focusing on one step at a time.
As I like to say: Running an ultramarathon can be so much more than moving your feet forward, and it can be just that, moving your feet forward.
Maybe you decide to start walking the hills. Or increase fluid consumption at aid stations.
You start drinking coffee to help combat sleep deprivation and hallucinations throughout the night.
Eventually you put a plan in place…a much simpler one. No, not easy, simple…
Through destruction, you discover the inspiration for construction. It’s your salvation. The old you dies as you become a new runner, experiencing yourself, again, for the first time. And this transcendent experience makes you feel light, even when your legs should feel heavy from exhaustion.
You no longer run to the finish line…it feels like levitation.
You learn to have faith through your struggles and the diligence to see it through. Your running will never be the same because of it…
…and neither will you.
Example of Construction
In times of destruction, it takes intuition, faith, and a little creativity to rebuild into anew.
It was in absolute disorder where I’ve come up with some of the best solutions to really big problems. That is, issues that are known to commonly lead to a DNF and the answers I still use to this day.
Here are some examples…
Problem 1: Chafing
Structure: Apply lubrication when necessary.
Destruction: Rain and friction create extreme chafing through the night.
Construction: Ran while dumping a bag of cornstarch down my pants.
New Strategy: Use anti-chafing lubrication along with diaper rash cream. Change clothes periodically and proactively through the race. Apply baby powder when necessary.
Problem 2: Fueling
Structure: Fuel with gels and sports drink through the entire race.
Destruction: Extreme nausea.
Construction: Drastically reduce sugar, increase protein+fat, and fuel with vegetable broth, almond butter, and a little coffee throughout the night.
New Strategy: Became a fat-adapted runner. Eat all-natural (very little processed foods, if any).
I offer my entire program in The Fat Adapted Running Formula: A Step-By-Step Guide To Becoming A Fat Adapted Runner.
You can listen to the audiobook version by clicking here.
Problem 3: Mental Exhaustion
Structure: Push through to the finish line.
Destruction: Every mile felt like the same mile, driving me insane.
Construction: Practice total acceptance, gratitude, and finding the present moment.
New Strategy: I learned it takes an acceptance of our not-knowing within the shallow waters of our knowing to discover the deepest knowing of truth. Instead of pushing forward, I let go. I found my true strength in my weakness; a full-kind-of-wholeness. I learned to run from the inside-out rather than the outside-in.
I expand on this practice in my new book Mindful Ultramarathon Running: Train Longer, Stronger, and Faster With Less Effort.
Problem 4: Injury
Structure: Train 5-6 Days per week to reach ultra distances.
Destruction: Wear and tear, pain and injury.
Construction: Reduce training days and place a heavy emphasis on recovery.
New Strategy: Developed a system for running only ONE day per week. I’ve run as far as the 100-mile ultramarathon by running only one day per week.
I offer the entire program in A Runner’s Secret: One Run Will Get It Done.
I also offer training programs for running only two days per week…among other exercises. This program can be found in my new book Mindful Ultramarathon Running: Train To Run Longer, Stronger, and Faster With Less Effort.
These are only a few examples, and certainly not all. It’s not as much about the destination as it is about appreciation and finding what works best for you.
If you keep moving forward and adapting to your circumstances, you’ll always find a way. You’ll align with a one-way track to the finish line where you reach that transcendent experience. And let me tell you my friend… it can change your life forever.
TAKE THESE FINAL WORDS WITH YOU…
Now you understand the three stages of a long ultramarathon. As you prepare to take a leap into the unknown, remember the pattern.
Never forget: don’t ignore your fear on race day, instead, embrace it. Remember… It’s in great times of uncertainty where our faith strengthens the most.
Ultra running has taught me how to keep moving forward, no matter how broken I feel, and to have faith that grace will always pick up the pieces.
Even more so, running an ultramarathon teaches us that it takes breaking down to reconstruct ourselves. Meaning, we must hurt before we heal. This deep knowing is what strengthens our faith through suffering. The knowing that it takes the death of our old self to be reborn into anew.
Because here’s the ultimate secret: Ultra running will teach you how to handle suffering, and suffering will show you how to love, and love is all that we need in this life.
Love is the source, our everlasting freedom, and our ultimate goal. Faith gives us the courage to proceed, and hope helps us willingly continue running through the valleys of even the darkest of shadows without any kind of resolution or closure.
…a familiar feeling you have or will experience on the starting line of your first 100-mile race.
Love is beyond space and time. When you run with your heart, what limitations do you have? Here, the vastness of the 100-mile race vanishes. The distance dissolves away into infinity as you move from a place of total perfection.
And you keep on running…
As I like to say: One day I woke up. The distance became shapeless. Forms of measurement faded away in their relativity as I ran from a space of infinite gratitude.
Because at the end of the day, running an ultramarathon is just that: a journey between two decided upon points in time and space.
Still, it’s undoubtedly one of the toughest challenges you’ll ever face.
It’s far more mental than it is physical.
So… Do you want some internal training?
Do you think running an ultramarathon is the toughest feat?
Try returning love for hate. That’s the ultimate challenge and the most needed one in our existence. If you can do this, then you will be well prepared for the distance that lies ahead.
When you run with love, it’s more than running, it’s more than you and I. And when it’s all said and done…we are born to run. It’s in our nature to do so. There is no separation, it’s just the way we live our lives.
As you run through each stage on race day, may you find meaning from the miles and a purpose in your pace.
On race day, remember these words: The same voice that is speaking the universe into creation is the same one that’s calling your name right now.
Let go and run from that flow. Run forward and let your spirit free!
Do this, and I’ll see you at the finish line!
Remember…It takes courage to enter into pain, and love to transcend out of it—a decision you make with every single stride.
And if you are looking to start your new mindful ultramarathon practice then grab a copy of ‘Mindful Ultramarathon Running: Train to Run Longer, Stronger, and Faster With Less Effort‘ below…
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