I recently participated in a 12-hour endurance race where the goal was to run around a 500-meter track as many times as possible from the hours of 7pm to 7am. My initial goal was to hit an official ultramarathon distance of at least a 50k (about 32 miles). Well, 12 hours later I ended up completing almost 46 miles and I learned A LOT about existing in the pain cave.
Before I get started, I feel the need to mention the fact that there are certain situations where you need to seriously think about your health and overall well-being. If you find yourself in position during a race where you are light headed, have a throbbing headache, suffering from dehydration, heat exhaustion, hypothermia, cannot stop vomiting or have serious orthopedic pain, you may need to take the DNF and there is NOTHING to be ashamed of. Yes, the disappointment is severe. You may have spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours preparing for this race. But your health must ALWAYS come first.
The purpose of this article is to help equip you with the knowledge to avoid a DNF, so let's get to it!
First things first, obviously you need to be sure you are physically prepared for whatever event you are hoping to conquer. Let’s imagine you are training for your first Spartan Beast. We know that race is typically 13-15 miles long. Have you successfully run at least 11 miles? If so, how long did that take you and how did you feel? Can you imagine completing that distance PLUS incorporating an additional 30 obstacles to that run? Have you prepared yourself for the terrain you will encounter? For example, if you are running the Big Bear Beast you better be incorporating A LOT of hill training into your regimen.
You also have to be prepared for cramping (salt tablets), hydration (nuun, liquid IV, tailwind nutrition), nutrition (gels, bars), and first aid (bandaids, body glide).
Now that you are physically and nutritionally prepared, let’s talk mental strategy.
Imagine you are on mile 7 of 15 of that Beast. Things are starting to go sideways. Even though you had your nutrition and hydration prepared, your body is revolting. Your calves are cramping, you can’t catch your breath and you feel sick to your stomach. Welcome to the pain cave. When you hit this point, you have two choices; you can quit or you can dig deep and persevere. We need to mentally preparing for this moment BEFORE it happens.
During your training, you need to begin pushing yourself the point of discomfort and then you need to keep going. You have to push yourself to hit that extra mile, even when your legs are quivering and you feel like you can’t go another step. Live in that moment. Take mental notes of how you feel and remember the feeling of pushing through that pain. Know that you can do anything as long as you believe in the abilities that you have trained so hard to develop.
You need to embrace the pain and make a decision to associate or disassociate. To associate means you start focusing more on your running technique and race strategy. To disassociate means you start thinking about your favorite motivational quote, or what you plan on doing once the race is over. Whichever route you decide to take, be sure to embrace it and imagine that everyone you see on the course is suffering the same as you, some may be suffering even more. Yet, nonetheless, they are continuing to put one foot in front of the other. And so are you!
I read a quote before my 12-hour race that I focused on during the hardest moments, “you’ve got to learn to stay in the suffering. It’s not always about fighting through it, it’s about existing in it”. Once you take your brain off the pain, focus on your breathing and try to relax. Remind yourself that this time will pass whether you give up or continue and unless you are seriously injured, you will be seriously disappointed at this time tomorrow if you decided to give in to the discomfort and give up.
By building your strategic “tool belt” you will have a variety of options to help you live through the most uncomfortable moments of a race. Just like building yourself up to be physically strong enough to withstand the race, you need to build up your mental toughness as well. You need to tell yourself that you will not give in to the pain. You will continue moving forward, even if you are crawling, you will cross that finish line. As the old saying goes, “pain is temporary, pride lasts forever”.