We’ve all heard the cliché about how running is ‘all in the mind’. At first glance this doesn’t appear true because we all know to our cost that the body is involved. At a deeper level though this does ring true for long distance runners. Mastering the mindset of distance running is critical in order to enjoy success, which I take to be achieving your potential.
Comrades particularly is very much a mindset race, where well trained and disciplined mind can beat a fit body. Having the ability to run and being well trained won’t count for much if you don’t get the head game sorted. Comrades will bite you if you don’t make good decisions, if you panic, and if you can’t handle the hurt locker. Here’s my guide to mastering the mindset.
All training and racing is a continuum of wise decision making.
The Training Mindset.
The mindset of distance racing starts long before race day. All training and racing is a continuum of wise decision making:
Setting inspirational goals and having the benefit of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is essential. Without a clear vision of what you want to achieve you won’t be motivated to push through the dark cold mornings of winter or the searing heat of summer training. When you are tired you’ll give into feelings of laziness and longing for comfort. If you don’t sacrifice for what you want, what you want becomes the sacrifice. Get the goal in place first and be driven towards it from that moment onwards. For some it may just be a finish, for others a coveted silver medal, and for others overcoming adversity and triumphing over adverse circumstances.
If you don’t sacrifice for what you want, what you want becomes the sacrifice.
Thankfully Comrades is an inspirational run, and if you are privileged enough to have done it before you’ll know just how much it gets under your skin and provides you with all the inspiration you need. The mere mention of Comrades makes the hair on my body stand on end, there is nothing that comes near it in terms of inspiration for me. First timers will know what I’m talking about at the end of the race (or perhaps the next morning!).
The most common mistake is the base unscientific assumption that in order to run fast long-distance races you must smash yourself practising to run fast over long distances.
Being smart in training will determine whether or not you achieve your potential. If you don’t train enough or over train, you’ll end up in a similar position. The most common mistake is the base unscientific assumption that in order to run fast long-distance races you must smash yourself practising to run fast over long distances. Smart training saves getting hurt for race day: train when you train so that you can race when you race. Fordyce’s maxim is “better underdone that overcooked”. I’ve seen plenty of people run their best Comrades in training and fade away quickly on the day due to being burned out.
Training smart doesn’t mean that you don’t train hard, but it does mean that you train in a disciplined way, maximising your chances of achieving. Smart trainers also recognise that rest is an active part of training. For many runners rest is a swear word, even worse than people asking you how your ‘jogging’ is going. Ultimately if you don’t understand your body and train smart you’ll pay the price. You’ll do good but doing great is the goal. (Read more on this here).
Comrades training that doesn’t involve sufficient rest isn’t smart and you’ll be found out in the second half. Remember that most of the 56km of hill running in 2019 will be completed before halfway. If you have burned yourself in training with little recovery you will struggle, especially if you have run and injudicious first half. It’s easy to run fast when you are fresh, but 90km is a long way and you’ll need something for the second half.
The Racing Mindset:
The key change of pace in the first half of any endurance event that you need to achieve is running slower, hardly ever faster. If you find yourself needing to run faster in the second half of an endurance race it is usually because you have run too fast in the first half. This is where older runners appear to have the edge over younger runners. If you are content enough to allow others around you to rush off whilst you keep a disciplined pace, you will invariably pass most of those who disappeared from your view earlier on.
If you have done your homework prior to a race and have a confident idea of what your potential finish time can be you can set an average pace per/km and settle into the run. This is a critical mindset to master and requires the most application at the start of a race in the moments after the gun has gone. If you aren’t disciplined the first few km’s will go by with you stealing way too much time and paying the price later on.
Knowing what you are capable of in terms of a best possible time is critical. If you set out too fast in Comrades, you will run into trouble. You have no choice but to respect Comrades, failing to do so will be painful. Crashing and burning on that long road from Durban to Pietermaritzburg will turn your day into a painful ordeal.
Remember that you will feel bullet proof standing at the start line and easily lured into thinking you can sustain a cracking pace. The Comrades uphill requires very smart startegic thinking due to the concentration of elevation in the first 45km.
The Middle Miles
Learn to be relentless, not just physically but mentally.
The middle miles of a race is that point you get to where you are a long way from the start and a long way from the finish. There is nothing to do but keep your pace and cadence and settle in for the middle miles. In a marathon this for me is usually from 21km – 33km. In Comrades this is between 20km-40km and 50km-70km. During this phase it is very easy to lose concentration and subsequently to lose form and effort. Your body starts hurting and a million reasons pop up as to why you shouldn’t maintain the rage.
Holding your head here is a discipline that takes time to learn and requires mental toughness. This is where the strong intrinsic motivation and inspirational goal setting comes into play. Comrades involves many hours of simply running efficiently, one good stride after another. Keeping your head and pushing through the hard, hot, tough km’s during these sections of the race is hard but absolutely critical. Learn to be relentless, not just physically but mentally.
The Hurt Locker
Hurt is the price you have agreed you are going to pay to achieve your goals and now is when you make the payment.
Endurance races hurt, especially when you are racing for your best possible time. Wrapping your head around the hurt aspect needs to happen well before the race. Coming to at least an intellectual acceptance that you are going to hurt is important.Comrades should scare you, especially if you are planning on giving it a good hard crack at a good time. I’m so scared it makes me start sitting on the toilet from a few days out.
When that hurt first starts the initial alarm needs to be countered with the settled agreement you have with yourself that you are prepared to hurt. Once the hurt starts it doesn’t stop, but it can get more manageable, depending on your mindset. Again, visionary goal setting and strong intrinsic motivation comes into play. Hurt is the price you have agreed you are going to pay to achieve your goals and now is when you make the payment. Comrades feels great until halfway. At the start of the race you are one of the fittest beasts on the planet. You’ve trained for months and your body is primed to perform. It’s easy to run on a high in the first half and fail to take into account the second half.
Mastering the art of getting into the hurt locker and not allowing yourself to open the door until it is all over takes time to perfect. Once you are able to do that you are now able to push through new barriers of pain and panic threshold. Your body can continue to deliver the output required despite the rising fatigue, cramp and pain.
In Comrades the glory of achievement cannot be experienced without embracing the discipline of suffering.
It is a strange sport that we do, in that suffering is very much a part of the experience. The willingness to suffer is of course critical, as is learning to embrace the suffering. In Comrades the glory of achievement cannot be experienced without embracing the discipline of suffering. By all means train your body but also train your mind. Become good at what stops others who are not prepared to pay the price and endure the suffering.
In a marathon you can bet that the 33km mark is where you will find the hurt locker the most challenging. This is the 1km out of the 42.2km that will usually determine the outcome. A strong mindset here will help you survive and push on to the finish. Many a marathoner have their dreams dashed between 33km-34km. Unwise decisions in training will come back to haunt you in this stretch of 1000m. I’ve seen time and time again that this is the point where people who race when they train get found out.
In Comrades the real hurt locker starts for me at about 55km and ramps up with each few km’s. If you are good at the hurt locker but unwise in your training, you will still get found out. The runner’s mindset is a continuum of wise decisions. One bad link in the chain can result in disappointment.
Become good at what stops others who are not prepared to pay the price andr endure the suffering.
No Panic Stations
The fight against the alarming signals your body sends to you constantly in an endurance event can stop you in your tracks. A strong, informed mindset here is critical. If you have done the training and are conditioned enough to take on your particular challenge, science must trump the feelings of alarm.
My tough point in any sub 3 marathon is usually the 18km mark when my legs start sending my worrying signals about fatigue and pain. I counter this by embracing the fact that the pain has set in, but also the fact that the pain won’t slow me down, it will just make the effort harder from a pain threshold point of view.
In Comrades running through half way is my barometer. If the legs are still relatively fresh and cramp free I’m in for a good day, but extreme pain is only a matter of a few km’s away as the punishing climb up Inchanga awaits followed by the harsh downhill and the unforgiving Harrison Flats. Beyond lies the relentless descent to the bottom of Little Pollies (Klein Mpusheni) and then the brutal climb up the dreaded Polly Shortts. The new finish at Scotsville takes in some difficult roller coaster hills as you make your way through the industrial area into Scotsville.
Science tells you that if you’ve done the work required you can continue at the pace required. Of course your legs hurt, you’ve been running on them for a considerable period of time at a considerable speed! Muscles are supposed to hurt, but that doesn’t mean you have to slow down or be defeated. It just means that it’s going to cost you. We wouldn’t want it any other way would we?
A strong mindset should not mean that you do dangerous things to your body. On any given day your body may respond in a range of different ways. Every now and then you may need to make a decision to make a tactical withdrawal, and live to fight another day. Too many runners have caused themselves considerable damage by not withdrawing and listening to their body. This makes the runners mindset a complex set of considerations when things are not going well.
I have run in a Comrades where 2 runners have died. No race is worth your life, and there is no shame in pulling out. We all need to work out whether that desire to pull out is simply a matter of mental and emotional weakness or if it is our bodies telling us we need to stop. I admire any runner who pulls out of a race they have spent months preparing for and gone to considerable expense to enter.
There isn’t a race where I don’t feel like chucking the towel in. It is an angst I have to push through continually, particularly when the suffering is at its apex. Knowing what is really going on is critical. By keeping your nutrition and hydration up, you’ll help ensure that your mind stays sharp and can discern between fatigue and something more serious.
Feed The Beast
Plenty of runners have been undone by poor execution of a nutrition and hydration plan, nor not having a plan at all. This is an important aspect of your mindset. Apart from the necessary nutrition, hydration and electrolyte replacement for your body, a well-executed plan keeps your mind alert and helps you in the continuum of good decision making.
Being careless about a plan and its execution has the potential to ruin your race and it could may well damage your health and without being melodramatic it’s valid to say that it can lead to your death. The fitter we get the easier it is to underestimate just how much stress we place our bodies under when we train and race. Don’t take your body for granted and remember that you are not bullet proof, as much as may feel that way.
Make sure you have a tried and tested plan that you have perfected in your long training runs, and stick to it like clock work. Once every feed is completed memorise your next feed time. Keep a mental track of how much hydration you are taking on board every hour, and the balance between water and electrolytes. This is one of the factors in your control so do a great job at it and you’ll spare yourself a lot of drama and possibly trauma.
In an endurance run like Comrades you will go through peaks and troughs, you must expect that. When you are in a trough don’t panic. Push through responsibly and you will soon find yourself on a peak or at least flat ground. You may feel terrible at 40km but on top of the world at 60km. You need to trust that when you are at your lowest it won’t necessarily stay that way. Too many people chuck the towel in before they are truly done. Keep pushing forward, no matter how slow, and in time you will find things changing. (If you are seriously ill then don’t push through, seek medical help as a first priority). Just remember that how you feel in any given moment will not be how you feel all the time.
The Finish Line
The one sentence I tell myself during my lowest times in Comrades is “there will be a tonight”. My tradition is to have a long, deep, hot soaking bath after the race where I can relax and reflect on a momentous day. It’s one of the most enjoyable aspects of Comrades for me: back in the bosom of my family, safe from the arduous hills, and gratified to have finished another Comrades. If you keep moving forward the finish line will come. A strong visualisation of the finish line and its significance to you will help propel you in training and help sustain you on the day. I spend many hours visualising all aspects of the race in training. It keeps me inspired and focussed during the toughest training days.
In summary, if you have done the work in training, no matter how rough things get you have what it takes to finish. Don’t doubt yourself and don’t panic. It’s supposed to be hard, which is why you are one of the very few select band of brothers and sisters on the planet who have taken this extreme challenge on. If it wasn’t such an epic challenge the finishing medal wouldn’t be so prized and the memories wouldn’t be so cherished.