There are three main things that can mess up when you’re ultra running.
The first thing that can go wrong is your feet. Blistered, bruised and battered feet can literally stop you dead in your tracks. Adventure racers seemed to have masterd footcare and take great pleasure in sharing their wisdom about how to keep feet fit and healthy. My feet are usually fine: smothering them in Vaseline or sudocream the night before a race seems to soften them up nicely. I also make sure my shoes are well worn in and, after much trial and error, have found that the Inov-8 Roclite 315s don’t give me any foot hassle.
Moving on up the line, if your feet are fine, it could well be your stomach that does you in. Eating and drinking during ultra races needs be regular to keep energy levels high and to prevent the phenomenon of bonking. As a rule of thumb, I eat once an hour and try to drink 500ml of water with that. If it’s a fast 4-6 hour race, gels keep me going. Anything longer than that, then I’ll take proper food – bars, nuts, chocolate, sandwiches etc.
Thankfully, my stomach is also usually fine. Which just leaves us with the third element that can bring your race to a sudden halt – your head. Thoughts of failure, of negativity, of hopelessness, of worry – these can grate and nag you into submission and ultimate drop-out. And this is where my greatest weakness lies. I can find myself happily bouncing along the course… and then something happens. On an ordinary race, it could be that I’m not running as well as I hoped, and I imagine people shaking their heads and wondering what happened me out there. “Better drop-out so no one knows how unfit I am”, my head will start suggesting. Or any sort of twinge in a muscle and my mind will start racing. “What if it’s pulled and torn, and that you’ll never be able to run ever again?” will be the exaggerated thought process my mind will suggest-and-believe in one simple step. Or on a race demanding navigation, it could be a wrong turn somewhere or a bad route choice and my head will start the haunting, “You’re lost now. Why did you even start the race when if you are going to make mistakes like this? Everyone will finish in front of you. The mist will come down and you’ll never make it back”.
It’s all irrational. I know it is. But it’s crazy how believable it all is when you are out there and you’re tired and hungry and stressed and pushing yourself to the ultimate limit. It’s only when I’m back at home, on the comfort of my sofa that I realise how ridiculous it all sounds.
I can’t stop those thoughts. I’ve tried and failed. However I believe I can control them. When I am back home and well rested and fed, I remember those thoughts and try to have a good giggle at their folly. I talk with other people and they too confirm them as ridiculous. In doing so, when I find myself again in those irrational moments, I find it easier to remind myself of reality. “You’ll be fine. That’s really silly. Have a chocolate and you’ll be grand. You are doing really well. You’re not lost at all – what you’re looking for is just over there. Everyone’s suffering, not just yourself. This isn’t frightening – nope, it’s fun”.
So if you see me out there on a run, don’t necessarily believe I’m having it easy. My mind could be racing, my stomach may be churning and my feet could be finished – it’s just that I’m trying to tell myself that I’m actually having a really great time!
Want to read more about long distance mountain running in Ireland? Check out my book, “Mud, Sweat and Tears”.