Making it home-the mind games.

Lots of people have said
Lots of people have said “you’re daft”, “that’s crazy” or just raised a very quizical eyebrow when they’ve found out that I want to run across the desert for 6 days, averaging a marathon a day. A few people have been more helpful and asked “How are you going to do that?”- the honest answer is that I don’t actually know how, I just know that I will. I think of myself as an average runner, I haven’t got a list of 5km, 10km, half marathon or other events under my belt. I just run. I’m not going to make the cover of Men’s Health. I have ‘normal’ body fat. What I have always been quite good at is managing my mind. It doesn’t matter whether you reach your comfortable limit at 500m or 50km managing what’s going on inside your head is crititcal to getting to your goal. For me, for now, whilst I’m training that is normally getting home.  It might sound oversimplified, but I actually believe that when you get to a certain state of fitness then running just becomes about the mind. In fact whatever your fitness level running is about the mind. Think of the techniques beneath like a concertina. You might want to compress some of them, or you might want to stretch them out. If nothing else, have a tool in the back of your mind if you do ever get to that dark place where you doubt you can go on! This isn’t sports performance psychology in the true sense. I think it’s a bit more primal than that. John “Lofty” Wiseman wrote a really interesting piece about survival 25 years ago and I can’t say it any better! The human body has an amazing ability to cope with arduous situations and testing environments. People who have come through, after enduring terrible hardship under seemingly impossible conditions, are a living proof of this. Male and female, young and old, they have all had the will to live. Everyone has this basic instinct to some degree and it can be developed by training. Lofty Wiseman was a professional soldier and wrote “The SAS Survival Handbook” which I got as a Christmas present in 1986. In this book, along with specific survival techniques, it discusses layers that are important for success in surival. This had a profound effect on me, and is something that has been useful in a number of scenarios that aren’t always physical. He suggests a pyramid with the base being the will to live. The next layer up being knowledge (it breeds confidence and dispels fear). The next layer is training and the top of the pyramid is kit. So taking this out of the military context I think for running it looks like: Will to complete Training Kit  Don’t forget you can use a concertina on this. Stretch the bits that you’re not as good on, compress the bits you can breeze. For me, number one, I never doubt this. The moment I plan to go for a run, I am totally committed to it. Number two-I’m not training to be fast, I’m training to ‘enjoy’ the race. That means training hard, but not with a goal relating to time for Marathon des Sable. This mainly means training my mind, giving me knowledge and understanding as well as training my body.  Kit. I have a bit of a thing about this. I like kit, but I don’t need kit. I was brought up playing sports with equipment 25+ years old. My Dad was really strong on this, I played squash, tennis and cricket with gear he’d had as a boy. When I got good, then I got up to date equipment. When I had my own income, I rebelled against this, but the older I get the more I know where he was coming from. I always remember talking to my friends’ grandmother. In 1940, she put her family in a wheelbarrow, literally, and walked from Poland to the UK across war torn Europe. No Gore-tex, no special shoes, not even a pneumatic tyre. She pushed her two daughters when they couldn’t walk and made an extraordinary journey. Just pure, raw determination. Extraordinary actions are rarely reliant on top of the range kit.  Kit is a useful talisman for me. I don’t need the most expensive kit, I need efficient kit that I can believe in. In a way it is part of training the mind. It works, it will keep working, it lets me get on with processing the mental stuff. Kit will make you comfortable and let you stay focussed on dealing with more fundamental things. Don’t get lost on kit though, I’ve flown with balloon pilots that have to walk on to launch fields backwards, wear odd coloured socks and receive a wave from their ground crew-none of this is about their ability to pilot a balloon, but it is about relaxing themselves through familiarity. That makes them fly better. I think kit can help with this, my shoes have the Salomon Quicklace™ system. It’s quick, gets even tension and doesn’t come undone, I know all that. In itself those laces don’t make me run better. But, the process, snugging my foot in, sliding the plastic keeper up the lace, tucking the excess kevlar lace and keeper in the little pouch are all a part of my familar habit. It sounds inconsequential but it’s part of clearing my mind to deal with things when it all starts getting hard. I’ve posted before about random thoughts I have whilst running, but I realised there is a totally different way of thinking when you’re on the run home. In a way you’ve done the hard bit, it’s now just hanging in there. I nearly always have a rough idea of where halfway is in the run I’m doing, even if I don’t know where I’m going. This means, whether by time, or distance, I know when I’m heading home. Then I start thinking about different things depending on what physical condition I’m in. I’ve never finished a 3 hour plus run without some discomfort-tweaking hip flexors, a blister, a twisted ankle, bleeding bits from chafe, but I’ve never got to the point where I can’t go on. Generally, it’s about dealing with the pains you feel and making it manageable. What works for me, might not work for you, but here are my top tips: Be honest with yourself- do you really, really need to stop? Sometimes easing off is better than stopping, but you need to really know what that feels like. Chunk it-break the next part of time or distance into more manageable, achievable chunks. Even if you’re getting tunnel vision really badly then getting to the next lamp post is a step nearer to home. Think about something good- the view, family, food, sex, cars just anything that diverts your mind wholly for a few minutes. I spent a good proportion of a run recently designing my perfect garage! I have a friend who focusses on his best sexual experiences. Whatever distracts you is the thing to think about.. Lie to yourself- completely at odds with the first, but sometimes telling yourself that things aren’t that bad, not hurting, etc is a good way to get round. Self talk is a well know sports psychology technique. It really applies when you get towards your limit. Finding these in the right combination for a given situation is important. As an extreme example and not one I’d suggest reproducing, I went out to find my wall, I knew things were going to go badly wrong. It came 2 km from home. I knew the last bit of road to home well and broke them down into sections between bends, I thought alot about necking something sugary, sung bits of “Mary had a little lamb” to check how badly I was slurring AND to lie to myself that things weren’t that bad. There is one straight bit of road about 200m long, I broke that down into groups of 5 paces. I got home with more knowledge. A valuable thing to have done, though it was unpleasant! If all else fails quote Dean Karnazes always works for me-“Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must; just never give up.” Dean is THE Ultramarathon man, he’s got some other good quotes available on his website here. Don’t ever compare your limit with someone else. Know what your body is telling you, then use a technique that works for you. I saw this quote on a friends Facebook feed- “dead last is greater than did not finish, which trumps did not start”. Whatever you do, whether it is running or something else entirely. Start, acknowledge half way, hang in there and get home! And one bit I’m really, really bad at, but is really, really important-recognise that you have succeeded in what you set out to do!

One Reply to “Making it home-the mind games.”

  1. I agree with all of that. Another trick I’ve used with great success is to not focus on the end of the race, but the end of the day. A sport scientist friend told me that the human brain has a bit of “bug,” to use computer parlance. Have you ever finished an exhausting activity or race convinced you could not take another step? Certain that you could go no further? Yet, after a few minutes you start moving, and in an hour, with some food, you are a whole lot better.

    John Dowd in his great Sea Kayaking book describes how, after an exhausting day’s kayaking, as soon as you see land, and pull your kayak up the beach, you are sure you can go no further. Yet if you had to, really had to reverse your journey and do it all again, you could.

    Focussing on the end of the day, not the end of the race relieves you from this mini-panic, artificial limitation imposed by our brains and helps you achieve a lot more than you may have thought possible.

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