Taking On New Distance
By Imei Hsu
Recently, I finished reading Catra Corbett’s book, “Reborn on the Run.” Catra shares how she came back from addiction into a life of ultrarunning when she decided to run a single mile. At the time, running a mile was the hardest physical effort she had ever done, and the next day, she did it again. And the next day. And the next. The rest is history. Catra is known for taking on epic ultramarathon races in the 100 mile, 200 mile, and longer distance events, 425 mile John Muir Trail (FTK 2018). In early May 2019, she was running a 200-mile course in Bishop, CA over the next few days.
For the rest of us normal humans, taking on a longer distance, whether in training for a single event, checking off a bucket-list item, or preparing for a move into longer distance races adds in another dimension besides cardio fitness, power, or speed: mental toughness. In short, taking on a longer distance often requires you to ask yourself how willing you are to suffer. If you’re willing to choose your level of suffering, it will be easier to take on a new distance in running. Every distance of running begs the question, “How much are you willing to suffer?” Your answer, in part, helps determines your goal and results. Yet it is your choice, and that makes all the difference. It’s your choice on how much suffering you are willing to put in.
Next, you need to build an, “I can do this!” attitude in your mental toughness. What does this look and sound like? Here are three areas that will help you develop mental toughness as you prepare to bump up to longer races.
Just Getting out the door
- Preparing your schedule, gear, food and water before you need them (no excuses)
- Lacing up, even when you don’t emotionally feel like it (no excuses)
- Doing research on the kind of training and mileage plan that fits your needs and goals (no excuses, you know what you’re getting into)
- Prioritizing your running and associated training (weight lifting, stretching, recovery) over time wasting activities, entertainment, procrastination (again, no excuses)
Just getting out the door can be hard when you’re facing longer amounts of running time, harder workouts, and the ominous long run on the weekend. Tip: since your brain often serves as a Little Excuse Maker, identify your typical excuses that keep you from getting out the door, and write down what it will take to push through each excuse until you find yourself on the other side of the front door, laced up, and ready to run.
If you aren’t willing to take the time to do the things that get you out the door and on your training runs, it’s not likely you will achieve what you want when you take on a new running distance race or training goal. Or, you will do them, but without good preparation, you’ll suffer even more. Believe me, I’ve been there and done that!
Friends ask me all the time, “How do you run by yourself for hours?” They know I don’t listen to tunes when I’m running, and often my distances and training needs have me running by myself. The secret to running longer than you ever have before:
- Add just a little bit more distance every weekend from the weekend before. If on one weekend you ran 5 miles on your long run, the following weekend you will try running 6-7 miles, and listen to your body, your breathing, the comfort of your stride, and whether or not you are sore, if anything hurts, or if you felt you needed to walk a lot.
- If you can, run somewhere pretty. Mix it up a bit. If you run flat streets all the time, try running some soft dirt with rolling hills. Just as you get a little bored of your normal routes, try somewhere different.
- Learn to run with whatever you need to keep you happy on your person. Unlike races, which have food and water every few miles, try running with a hydration belt or hydration vest. Eat and drink at regular intervals, testing what your body needs to keep moving forward without disturbing your gut. Train like your race, and understand that the longer distance your race or event is, the more likely your gut unhappy (blood circulation to the gut is shunted away to your large muscles during exercise).
- Depending on your training and racing goals, you may want to try walk/run intervals, which allow most people to go longer distances with less injuries. A great reference point is the work of Jeff Galloway (The Galloway Method), with starting points at five seconds of running to up to two minutes of walking, and then eventually working into 1-2 miles of running with a walk break of 30 seconds (the time it takes to walk by a long aid station in a road race).
- It’s a good idea to set up a training run that mimics your race or event conditions on everything short of the full distance. You do not need to run 13.1 miles to be able to cover 13.1 miles in a half marathon race, just as you do not need to run several marathon-distance trainings before running your first marathon race. However, you should get your body used to covering a significant portion of that distance under similar conditions as the race, and much of that is preparing both body AND mind to accept that you absolutely are going to complete what you set out to do. This is a great mindset for those who know that the goal isn’t to be first your Age Group, yet have goals for a steady pace and a strong finish without injury.
- When running road races, use the pacers that may be provided. As part of the Snohomish Running Company races, pacers provide encouragement and pacing for the finish time you select for yourself. When you are training by yourself, work on knowing your comfort level with a steady pace you can hold for the majority of the race distance, so that even if you fall behind, you know what it feels like to catch up and fall back into the steady pace at which you have trained. With or without the pacer, you will understand how to run long, and the pacer will simply act as a visual guide to help you cruise to the finish line exactly as you imagined it.
I have been known for coaching and coaxing myself through tough, long endurance races in bad weather conditions (very cold, very hot) and challenging terrain (high elevation, 8000 feet elevation gain, technical trail, desert). Everyone -- even the elite racers! -- hit moments when they think they can’t hang in there. The longer the race, the more likely you’ll experience what people call, “a dark moment,” when the mind-body wants to quit. Here are a few tips I’ve gathered from races in the past four years:
- Simple mantras do help. “Relentless forward progress”, “Shut up, Legs, and Run!”, and, “Run until your done,” are some of mine.
- Take your mind off of what you fear --”I might not finish!” -- and put it on something simple you can control. For me, it’s often my breathing and my cadence, so I’ll start counting breaths or foot steps, counting off 100 as I keep moving forward. I won’t stop until I get to 100, and even then, I’ll often just start over and say, “OK, let’s try another 100.” The mind can be tricked! I’ve tricked myself into running another five miles before needing to take a walk break. That’s a big deal when you hit Mile 40, Mile 50, and Mile 60 of an ultramarathon. It’s a SUPER BIG DEAL when you are in the last kilometers of a 10K, 15K, 21K and 42K, and all you need to do is tell your mind to will your body to keep moving. “Just run to that tree on the corner,” is sometimes all you need to coax yourself forward, and then you look at the next tree down the road and do it again. And again. And again!
- When the last few miles feel like the longest, you need mental toughness. It isn’t the distance. It’s the fatigue and crying muscles, the heat or the cold, or whatever your mind is whining about. It will find something to complain about. Mental toughness says, “I didn’t come this far to quit. Let’s see what I can do with these last miles!” and give it go.
- Mental toughness means the race or event isn’t over until it’s over. Not having a good day? That’s fine. If you can still run, then run. Weather tanked out on you and you’re miserable? That’s also fine. If you can still run, then run. Dropped your gels, not “feeling it”, people passing you by? That’s OK. Run your own race, your own pace.
Tip: Mental toughness isn’t useful if you are severely injured or experiencing a medical crisis; in these cases, get to a race official and get yourself transported to medical or back to the start in order to take care of yourself.
Whatever race distance you decide you’d like to try, I hope you’ll take your fear and excitement with you on every step of the journey -- just start the journey with a single step. As an ambassador for Snohomish Running Company, I hope you’ll choose one of our races to take on a new distance, and enjoy an environment of support, fun, and accomplishment. Wear your medals proudly (I recommend wearing them the entire day of the race) and feel free to use the hashtag,”SnohomishRunningCompany” so we can celebrate your accomplishments.