The 24 Hour Ultramarathon: A Mental Battle
“So wait…I run around this circle for the whole entire day?” Standing at the starting line of a 24 hour ultramarathon can be puzzling. Why in the world would someone run in a circle for 24 hours straight? Good question. After completing a 24-hour ultramarathon myself I still struggle with maneuvering the reasoning into words. Well, that’s because the rationality is more in line with a feeling than an actual statement. You know, that feeling that gravitates us towards our next big challenge ahead. In addition, this type of running is obviously physically exhausting. However, the physicality only comes second to the enduring mental stamina that’s required. To have the patients and the resilience to relentlessly move forward without becoming discouraged of the courses tedious nature sure is a unique strength to possess. Around and around, over and over again until the clock ticks to 24:00:00 – that’s the name of the game. So let’s first discuss what exactly a 24 hour ultra-marathon is and what to expect on race day, then we will list a few strategies to help.
The 24 Hour Ultramarathon
First, what exactly is a 24 hour ultramarathon? This type of run is a form of ultramarathon where runners compete side by side to see how many miles they can run within the 24 hour time limit. A race against the clock if you will. Typically, the race is held on a 1-3 mile loop on either pavement or trail. For the above average ultra-marathon runner, and depending on the course, I’d say a 100 mile finish is considered an excellent distance to cover although many runners tend to fall well under this mile marker and a few will surpass it. Amazingly, the world record for the 24 hour ultramarathon was set by Yiannis Kouros, commonly known as the Greek god of ultra marathon running, with a distance of 303.50 km. That’s 188.58 miles within 24 hours! Not bad for a day’s work, literally.
What To Expect
Expect a long day and an even longer night. Adverse temperatures are as common as the pain in your legs. So, find what motivates you and hold on to it tightly. One benefit of such a race is the fact that a runner will likely pass by their supplies with every loop. But don’t allow the convenience to cripple your race day performance. Too much comfort in such an enduring event can be more damaging then it is helpful. Furthermore, although it takes an unwavering amount of physical strength, at the end of the day, it’s the mental strength that guides you though an event like this and there’re different ways to play it. Here’s a few strategies that will help…
Know The Why
To have a mileage goal is great. But taking action to reach that goal is really what it’s all about. There’s power in the process. So before reaching the starting line, know your why. Why do you want to take on such a challenge and why is it so important? Personally, I’ve always been inspired by the unknown mysteries of ultrarunning. For myself, ultrarunning has been a way that a 9 to 5 working athletic dad has the opportunity to “walk on the moon”. Running a new mileage like 100 miles or longer takes your physical, mental, and spiritual self into the unknown – and you don’t need a pair of moon boots to get your there.
Change The Finish Line
During a 24 hour ultra-marathon the start line will ultimately be the place of finish and the amount of passes through the course can be ridiculously repetitive. One technique to help avoid the monotony felt during this type of run is to mentally change the finish line. Here’s how: run your first lap back to the start, for your next lap choose a new start, preferably an object around 10 feet ahead and run that lap. Then find another object 10 feet farther, then farther and farther and so on. This strategy will help eliminate the feeling of running the same lap over and over again.
Extra Long Playlist
Music is power. Music is life. Music is motivation. If you enjoy running to music, then download an extra-long playlist. Personally, I bring 3 iPods loaded with an excessively long playlist. Words inspire. This is the reason I write. Add them to an instrumental and a catchy rhyme scheme and watch those words come to life. I try to keep my playlist positive and upbeat to help counteract the unavoidable lows of an ultramarathon. Music can help keep a runner’s head in the game.
Talk With Fellow Runners
Chatting with your fellow competitors while running will help pass the time. At some point or another, I think it’s fair to say every runner enjoys at least a few words, some more than others, but a few reassuring words will always be beneficial. Personally, I’ve always admired people for their differences and although I prefer running alone, not even using a pacer, I’ve met some incredible people on the trails. During an ultramarathon, no matter our individual skill set, we all have an understanding to some degree in what the other is going through, we can all relate on some painful level.
Bring Your Support System
Family and friends welcome. For some, having support on race day can be just the boost a runner needs to keep those legs moving forward. Just seeing a familiar face after running hours alone in the woods can be a relief. Not to mention, I’ve carried my sons across multiple finish lines, moments that I will never forget.
Race Against Yourself
For most, the true race is the one against yourself. Create a mental edge by focusing on the overall mileage or timing laps. For example, note your time for one lap and try to run it faster the next time around. Push yourself to beat that real opponent, that voice deep down that screams to stop, that’s the true competition, the one from within.
Racing against another runner can drive an individual to move forward with increased effort. For most, ultramarathons are a race against ourselves but if you’re a top contender that day then racing for the top spot can keep your mind focused and your body pushing for that first place finish. I’ve been there and its funny how even after 100 miles it always comes down to the wire, the previous 90 plus miles becomes irrelevant and you’re pushing through the last few miles with an empty tank.
Loose The Watch
Loose the watch and forget the number of miles you’re on. Try to become lost in the race and just enjoy yourself. Personally, I’ve used this technique. During my last 24-hour ultramarathon I ran watch-less and never viewed the leader board until someone shouted that I’ve reached 100 miles and was in first place. I was out there for 24 hours no matter what, so my thought was solely to run the best race I possibly could and to never ever give up.
Stay In the Present
Training your mind to stay in the present is sometimes challenging. Focusing on a finish line or the end of a race is a natural tendency for most runners. It seems we pound and pound through an intense amount of stress only to reach the ultimate relief of crossing the finish line. But what if we could find relief within our run? That’s what staying in the present accomplishes. It allows us to become aware of the moment. There’s many techniques, however, morning meditation will help strengthen the mental muscle of controlling thoughts and it also transitions easily into running.
Run Different Sections
Try running the outside of the course, then the inside of the course, then some different combination. There might be grass on one side of the trail and dirt on the other. There may be different rocks to cross, different trees to run around, and different angles to cut. If you focus on the unique difference of each lap the course will not seem so mundane and will provide some variety in your tedious endeavor.
The 24-hour ultramarathon can be both physically challenging and mentally disruptive. The physical strength required is apparent but the mental strength that’s required is exceedingly essential. Think about it, since it’s a timed event, a runner may give up at any time and still technically finish. But, by putting in the maximum amount of effort and crossing that finish line dispersing every ounce of available energy on that day, the experience becomes second to none. What’s it like crossing the finish line of an ultra-marathon of 100 miles or longer? It’s like living as the star of your own movie as you reach the peak of its pivotal climax while a sudden piece of inspiring music shouts from the heavens above, all while being pumped with glorified relief and gratification that suddenly rushes through every cell of your entire body, naturally drawing you across the finish line with an unwavering amount of joy exploding from within. Or…you stagger-step, completely physically and emotionally drained with your arms out, reaching forward, looking like a zombie from The Living Dead. Either way, it’s an incredible physical accomplishment and a mental battle to be proud of.