inov-8 ambassador and UK Athletics Coach Damian Hall has completed 40+ ultramarathon races and ultra-distance challenges, and hasn’t yet DNFed* (Did Not Finish). Here he shares his mental tips and tricks…
Ultra-running isn’t so much about the size of your muscles (which is a good job, because I haven’t really got any). But rather, the size of your mental strength. I’ve been running ultramarathons since 2012, including the 268-mile Spine Race (x2), 105-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (x4), Britain’s three classic 24-hour fell-running rounds (including the recent Paddy Buckley), plus three Fastest Known Times, and haven’t yet quit during one. If I’m honest though, I have thought about it at least twice.
Once, during my second Spine Race, I was concerned about long-term injury. But when medics reassured me – and equally importantly, I had a good feed and a kip – I continued. The other time, during the South Wales Traverse, I think I just needed some fresh batteries for my Petzl headtorch. And a Tunnock’s (my favourite chocolate wafer bar). Ultimately I’ve never had a good enough reason to DNF.
I will DNF some day. In fact it’s bound to happen now I’ve started banging on about it – pride before a fall and all that. And I don’t believe in the “Die before DNF” mentality. I’ve seen people stubbornly complete ultras with physical issues that subsequently plagued them for years. There’s no shame in a DNF. Just make sure it’s for a reason you will be happy with for years to come.
I read a lot about the sport, voraciously listen to podcasts and chew the ears off experts, but I’m not big on sports-science psychobabble. These are the things that work for me (so far)…
1. Scare yourself
Do the stuff that excites and scares you. Doing races to collect points or qualify for other races is a tricky one, because you may not be invested enough in that event and may not care enough when the chips are down. I’ve often heard people reason they DNFed because, “I didn’t care that much about the race.” So do the races you care about. The ones that scare you. If you’re invested in them, both emotionally and in your training, you’re more likely to finish them.
2. Prepare mentally
Ultra-running is 90 per cent mental, yet how much deliberate mental training do we do? The good news is, a lot of our training doubles as mental training: intervals, hill reps, long hurty runs, bonks, those 4am alarms, extra press-ups and so on. So test yourself sometimes; do an extra rep or hold that plank 10 seconds longer to remind yourself you’re mentally tough. Also, on race day I want to feel as relaxed and happy as possible. Which might mean resolving work or relationship issues beforehand, but also blocking off time for myself to watch a film or read a book. You don’t want to be on the start line mentally tired or stressed about something. That long dark night will probably unpick it.
3. Not so great expectations
Your goals are a huge factor in how well you will perceive you are doing – and therefore how well you will do (although it’s almost always relative). It’s good to be ambitious. But aspirations can easily backfire if they’re too set in stone. At my first UTMB (Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc) I ran for several hours with Robbie Britton, who aspired to be in the top-10. I finished in the top-30 and he would have too, significantly better than his previous finish. But that wouldn’t have matched his expectations and he admits that mismatch helped lead him to a DNF.
It’s not always easy to do, but being able to adapt your goals during a race is a key ultra-running skill. In truth, most people don’t remember exactly how well you did. I was being publicly credited with a top-10 at UTMB before I’d managed it. UK Athletics preaches ‘process not outcome:’ concentrate on the present moment, enjoying it and doing that well, and that is likely to lead to your most deserved outcome – rather than obsessing over a placing or time goal and not enjoying how to get there. You enjoy running long distances, right? Concentrate on that. Do that well, and good things will happen.
4. Know your why
Okay, it is life-coach psychobabble, but there’s something in it. Why are you doing this race? What do you hope to get out of it? Us parents have an unfair advantage here. I find thinking of my kids during a race hugely motivating. Running has many obvious metaphors for life that I want to illustrate them. I also want them to be proud of me. They’re not. They still call me Pooh Head. Raising money for charity, as Nicky Spinks and Ranulph Fiennes always do, can be a huge motivator too. Also think of people who would love to be running but can’t. Or perhaps loved ones who are struggling or no longer with us. Run it for them. Has anyone ever suggested you’re not capable of doing something? Run it for them too.
5. Be prepared to suffer
Even if training has been full of Strava Segment CRs, ultramarathons are hard, and you should go into a race being mentally prepared to suffer. Remember, you signed up for it, you paid money for it and you bragged about it on Facebook. You want people to think you’re tough. So be tough. I read too many King Arthur and Robin Hood stories when I was young, which means I have a pathetically simple desire to be some kind of hero. Ultra-running is my chance to play at being that hero (although real heroes tend to wear things like NHS uniforms rather than graphene-infused daps). Running long distances can do strange things to your mind and I sometimes fall into a fantasy world. But it helps get me through.
6. Low mood = eat food
Whenever I think of something negative in a race, or I trip, or start faffing with kit, I try to remember to eat and drink. Usually I’ve just let my fuelling slip.
7. Play the ratios
When things start to go wrong – you’ve picked the wrong shoes, you went off course for a bit, they haven’t got the lemon drizzle-flavoured flapjacks at the check points – instead of obsessing over that, think of all the things that are going well. The weather’s perfect, the scenery’s skill, you’re pacing it like the fastest tortoise, you’ve taken some great selfies. Four out of five things are going so well. That’s a good ratio. Besides, not everything will go as planned. That’s just ultra-running. The best ultra-runners are problem solvers, they’re adaptable. And they remain positive for as long as possible.
8. Thinking socially
Want to quit, huh? So how are you going to explain it on Facebook? I always announce the race I’m about to do on social media. It’s less about a humble brag (honest) and more about making myself accountable. If I DNFed, how would I justify it publicly? It needs to be a good reason that I’ll be happy with for years to come. Start to compose that DNF tweet. Does it stack up? Right. Crack on then.
9. Be kind to yourself
We can get so caught up in a race, how difficult it feels and how badly we’re doing against our painstakingly crafted spreadsheet that it can get a bit much. Remember to be kind to yourself sometimes. Give yourself a break. You’re a good person. You’re doing just fine.
10. Break it down
It’s become a cliche, but the classic approach to getting through an ultramarathon is to break it up into bite-sized chunks, checkpoint to checkpoint, even a mile at a time. That approach definitely works. Try to stay in the moment. And remember, it never always gets worse.
11. Smile, you idiot
Smile at other runners, thank the volunteers, high-five the children. The simple smile is proven to be a performance enhancer. It’s meant to be fun after all. Well, mostly.
* Assuming missing a control in a mountain marathon doesn’t count as a DNF. In mitigation it was 4am in a January Lake District blizzard and I’d been many hours without tea.
Damian Hall’s ultra-running kit list
Depending on the terrain, Damian switches between his graphene-grip options for ultra-running races and challenges. For hard-packed trail races like last year’s UTMB (when he placed 5th) and the recent Eiger Ultra (when he placed 7th), Damian wears the TERRAULTRA G 260. When the terrain is softer, like on his recent record-breaking run of the Paddy Buckley Round, Damian opts for the MUDCLAW G 260 with its super-aggressive outsole.
His favourite vest pack is the RACE ULTRA PRO 5, which provides enough storage space and options for carrying all mandatory race kit, hydration bottles and poles. Damian switches to the RACE ULTRA PRO 2IN1 VEST, with its 10-litre compartment option, when he needs to carry more kit.
His preferred waterproof jacket is the popular STORMSHELL, which is super-light but packed with all the protection features needed for ultra races and challenges on the trails and in the mountains.