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June 23, 2015 Comments (0) All Posts

Beat The Running Demons Inside Your Head

Breaking free of extrinsic motivation and rediscovering a love for the mountains

As a runner I tend to over-think things. Too much time too myself out on training runs, I guess. I get hung up on things like, have I done enough training? Have I done the key sessions? Am I setting good times on benchmark routes? If the answer is ‘no’ to any of these questions, I lose confidence and doubts begin to creep into my brain.

Add racing into the mix, and the questions get louder and the doubts get stronger. That’s no problem when things are going well; I thrive off confidence born out of positive reinforcement. But when things don’t work out as planned, it can be hard to break out of a negative cycle. One bad training session leads to a bad race, which leads to another bad session and so on…

That’s been the story of my season so far in 2015. A few bad sessions brought me into my first big race of the season at Flower Scar (UK), where I had a mediocre run. Suddenly the demons were chattering in my head. Poor races followed at Ras Y Moelwyn, Three Peaks and Duddon, all three interspersed with bursts of intensive training. I was finding myself struggling, and judging myself harshly on the results. It’s no fun running in such spectacular surroundings if all you’re thinking about is how you can’t keep up with the guy in front.

Extrinsic motivation (behaviour that is driven by external rewards such as money, fame, grades, and praise) can be a powerful force for the positive. During a good vein of form, positive reinforcement makes every race feel like a pleasure and one great result leads naturally into another, and another. But equally, it can be a destructive force that can blind you as to why you are toeing the line in the first place – (hopefully) because you love running and racing for its own sake. It’s not easy to break out of that negative cycle and get back that basic enjoyment in what you’re doing.

Oli Johnson

Chasing down Gareth on yet another spectacular Welsh mountain ridge. Photo by Andy Milton

Intrinsic motivation – making it a personal challenge, not a battle with the results list

The recent V3K Ultra, aka the Welsh 3000s and part of the UK Skyrunning series, was my way to do just that. Okay, so it’s a competitive race, but it’s also a classic mountain route ticking off 15 Welsh summits over 3,000ft in height. This has been on my bucket-list for a long time. It’s also the first time I’ve ever raced further than the marathon distance and, coupled with the amount of ascent and technical terrain, it also qualified as my first ultra (total distance 55km and elevation gain of 13,000ft). That made it into a personal challenge rather than a battle with the results list. In other words, it was all about intrinsic motivation (behaviour driven by internal rewards)… to finish strongly and in one piece.

Things didn’t begin well. A bad journey over on the Friday night and a big fail in finding a coffee at 3.30am in Llandudno meant that I was not feeling my best when the race started at 5am. But two of us quickly gapped the rest of the field – myself and local lad Gareth Wyn Hughes, who clearly knew the route well. That was good news for me. Although I have raced in North Wales quite a bit, much of the route would be new to me, including the gnarliest, most treacherous sections around Crib Gogh, the Glyders and Tryfan.

Snowdon, the highest summit in Wales, was eerily deserted at 6am, quite a contrast from the usual crowds. We were greeted by a spectacular light that made the surrounding summits look dream-like and distant. Dancing along the knife-edge ridge of Crib Gogh in the early morning haze was something I won’t forget in a hurry. I was gapped on the descent as Gareth took a smarter line, but I was still feeling good and worked hard up the next big climb to Elidir Fawr.

We were back together again by the summit and would remain that way for the rest of the race… on through the jagged rocks of the Glyders, up Tryfan and down into the aid station at Ogwyn to refuel on vegan snacks (the event is organised on a vegan basis with some of the best mid and post-race food I have ever tasted).

Oli Johnson

A steep and technical descent. Both me and Gareth were wearing X-TALON 212 footwear. Photo by Andy Milton

Drinking in the landscape and laying the demons to rest

Things got hard on the final big climb to Ole Wen. The demons started chattering again… there’s still 25km to go; you might not make it; Gareth’s going to make a break; you’ll soon get caught from behind. But once on the ridge we started moving well again and the negative thoughts faded away as the mist rolled in. By this point Gareth and I had been matching each other pace-for-pace for several hours and the decision to finish together was an obvious one. The last few summits came and went. We pushed each other along at a good pace on the final 10km descent into Rowen to finish in 7:34:11, knocking 45 minutes off the previous best time in this race.

This ranks as one of the most memorable days I have spent in the mountains. After several months of punishing myself in training and racing for sub-par performances, the longer distance and time in the mountains gave me a chance to drink in the landscape and make it into a personal challenge that was all in my own head.

I finished the race with battered muscles and a tired body (certainly ready for that coffee!) but with a lightness that I haven’t felt for some time. Thanks to the organising team and volunteers for putting on such a spectacular and demanding event. Next up for me is the Saunders Mountain Marathon (July 4/5), before getting ready for the main challenge of the summer, the Transalpine-Run, which I am racing with fellow inov-8 runner Rhys Findlay-Robinson. There will be plenty of demons to confront over that eight-day journey over some of Europe’s most challenging trails, but for the time being at least, they are beaten.

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