Lessons from a 100km ultra marathon6 min read
Last year I competed in my debut 100km trail ultra marathon at Blackall 100 on the Sunshine Coast, QLD. It was a race I’d set as my major goal for the year, with much of training and other race focus for the year being directed around performing my best at this race. Normally with my goal races I write a race review and recap the race. However, I haven’t felt the need to recap this race and have been thinking about this race and what I’ve learnt as the races go longer.
Overall my training had gone well and I arrived at the race feeling fit and ready. I had a goal for this race of under 13 hours, which I thought would be achievable if I ran well and focused on my pacing and nutrition. I was able to achieve this goal and finished in 12 hours 54 minutes for a very satisfying result.
This tells a very small part of the story of a 100km ultra marathon and the roller coaster of physical and mental trials and tribulations throughout the day. There were some lessons to learn from the day that I will take to future races.
The longer the race becomes the more the battle becomes mental than physical. This lesson becomes abundantly clearer as I race longer races. This race was a rollercoaster both mentally and physically and when experiencing the more difficult moments staying mentally strong becomes important. It is very easy to let self doubt in when its difficult and you’ve got a long way to go. My focus during these times is always to narrow focus in the moment and concentrate on what I can control at the time. Difficult moments will pass, but it’s easy to let this self doubt creep in and it can quickly derail your race if this happens.
In this race I didn’t nail my mental focus, at times I let the difficult times get to me and lost focus or let negative emotions in when I should be blocking them out. As the sun was going down in the afternoon, I’d just left checkpoint 5 at 82km and had a difficult stretch of hilly terrain till the next checkpoint at 92Km. I was hiking a steep hilly section with my legs painful and cramping when I saw a snake on the side of the fire trail. My negative mental thoughts saying ‘I hope this snake bites me, and I can limp back to checkpoint 5 and tap out.’ Now clearly I didn’t want to be bitten by a snake and end up in a nearby hospital, but at this time the mind had me thinking it was as good as the decision to keep running. Thankfully the snake was happy to mind his own business and I kept going. This 10km stretch of the course was very difficult physically and my mental instability at the time only made it more difficult.
During this period I focussed on how far I had to go, doing calculations on how long I had left to run and letting myself get down on myself. If I had narrowed my focus and stayed in the moment, concentrated only on the next step the difficult periods are likely over quicker.
There were difficult periods during this race where I believe I handled well and got through them quicker. This is a lesson for future races and something I’ll practise during long runs. Stay in the moment and focus on the present. One step at a time, blocking out self doubt when it presents itself.
You can always give more
Each time throughout a race a difficult presents itself you are being asked a question. Can you give more? When these questions present themselves through physical pain and mental doubts we must answer these questions to continue to continue to give our best effort.
There were times in this race when these questions presented and my immediate answer was no. I can’t continue to give my best effort, and therefore I didn’t. I let the pain overcome me and slowed, or walked for a period of time. But after a short period you believe you can continue and increase the effort.
Once again, by narrowing our focus and focussing on just what we can control we can continue. From this you learn that you can give more. It won’t be easy, in fact it’ll be very difficult, but it will be worth the effort.
Running teaches you that you can give more. You can focus on the here and now and put in the effort one step at a time. The lesson here is you can always give more. You can keep giving your best effort and if you do it will get easier. The bad moments during long races don’t last forever, they ebb and flow and before you know you’ll feel better physically and mentally.
As described earlier the 82km – 92km section in this race was very difficult and I let myself down mentally. But it didn’t last forever, by the time I got to the checkpoint at 92km the sun had set, my headlamp was lighting the way for the last 8km. I knew this section had easier terrain and I stayed in the moment and ran well. the physical pain was still there, but my mental focus and my willingness to give my best effort made the difference and I passed runners during this section for a satisfying finish to my race.
You can always give more. You can look inward and deal with what you have in front of you. You’ll get through it and the next section might not be as tough. This is true in long distance running and every aspect of life. You can and must always give more. Keep going. It’ll be worth the effort.
The Satisfaction of Achievement
When we dig deep enough and push ourselves far enough out of our comfort zones we get a taste of what we actually capable of. This means pushing the body and mind much further than we may have thought possible and then even further.
There is a great self satisfaction in setting big goals and achieving them. We can’t all be an Olympic champion standing on the dias with a gold medal round our neck as our nations anthem is being played. But we can achieve the same level of satisfaction by setting a big goal, something that will challenge us to do things that at some stage in our lives we thought impossible.
It doesn’t have to be 100km, but if you set yourself a seriously scary goals and achieve them, you’ll develop a resume of achievement that’ll give you long lasting satisfaction. Not only that, you’ll get confidence and willingness to push yourself further into the future.
Running 100km was a goal I had wanted for some time. The covid race cancellations delayed this for a year or two. As an experienced runner I knew I wanted this goal and I was confident I could achieve my race goals. But waking up on race day I had nerves that I had rarely experienced. I believe these happen when you bite off a big goal, one that scares you enough.
Running a 100km ultra marathon has given me the long lasting satisfaction I need to motivate me to take on bigger challenges. Whatever the goal may be for you go for it. Bite off more than you can chew. And chew like crazy. It’ll be worth the effort.