The mental game is everything in a 100 mile ultra marathon. I've done enough 100's to know that it is usually the mental piece that leads to a DNF or a poor performance or alternately, that leads to success & other positive outcomes. Here are several proven (by me of course) strategies for maximizing your mental potential in the Queen of Ultras, the 100 mile race:
1. Just make it to the Next Aid Station: Forget about thinking of a 100 miler in terms of 100 miles. Instead think only about getting to the next aid station. Chances are that as bad as you feel at any given moment you will admit that you can make it to the next aid station. This rule is all about staying present where you are and not letting your fears take over. It's very hard for the mind to grasp 100 miles, or even having another 30 miles to go when you've just done 70 miles, but it's as simple as putting one foot in front of the other.
2. Remember it's #2 Kind of Fun: In other words, it's the kind of fun that you will look back on and say, "Gee that was so much fun! I'm so glad I finished that race!" Despite being miserable as hell for 80 miles. As odd as this sounds, it's true that you will most likely look back on your experience with a certain fondness and a new appreciation for what your body is capable of. This rule is courtesy Richard K. who kindly explained to me the difference between Fun #1 and Fun #2 (Fun #1 is fun at the time of the event like having a beer with your buddies, in case you were wondering).
3. Have a Bad Memory: Or rather a selective memory. It's important not to stress out about your perceived shortcomings, especially ones that are based on past experiences. Be gentle with yourself about past DNF's and poor performances. In fact, just forget about them as negative events and instead mine them for the gems that they are. My first 100 miler was a pretty big disaster at least according to my goals at the time but I learned that I needed to train with gear I'd use in the race and to fuel more mindfully to avoid the dreaded 100 mile nausea.
4. Less is More: Set yourself up to succeed mentally in your 100 miler by not overtraining and by tapering properly. If you feel good for longer physically during the race, you'll be ahead of the game. In training it means that it's better to do less mileage than too much. For example, if you overload your body with 10-20 more miles a week than your body can adapt to, you are back tracking your training. If you'd done exactly the milage your body can handle you would hit that sweet spot where you are getting maximum benefits for maximum mileage. Here's the trouble with trying too hard to hit that perfect spot: we don't have any way of knowing exactly where that sweet spot is each week or day other than listening to our body and our intuition. That is why it's better to err on the side of fewer miles than too many. Cross training can help close that gap between doing too few miles and your sweet spot-- without stressing your body out in the same way that only running mileage does. That being said, you can also under train which can be disastrous in a 100 mile race. You want to be prepared and have your body ready to handle the stress of the race.
5. Exercise Your Mental Muscles: I'd right out say just do yoga everyday, but I admit there are other mental-physical practices that will get you similar results. For me, yoga is perfect for honing my mental muscles as it combines physically difficult poses with flowing breath which activates deep calmness during extreme physical strain. I enjoy hot vinyasa power yoga as the heat adds another element of stress to the body, further challenging my mental fortitude. This heat is great for runners who find regular yoga to not be challenging enough or who need heat training for an ultra.
6. Strategic Visualization: We visualize things all the time. How often do we visualize exactly what we want? Leading up to your race take a little time each day, preferably after a meditation or yoga practice when you are relaxed, to visualize your race going exactly as you want it to. Be very detailed in your vision. During your race return to the vision when you find yourself moving into fear or visualizing negative events. I can't stress enough that this is the most important key to 100 mile mental success. If you only do one of these mental strengtheners, do this one. Well, on second thought do the breathing one too.
7. Breathe: This one is deceptively simple and it's often overlooked. Feeling overwhelmed during a race? Breathe. Getting overly negative? Breathe. Climbing 5,000 feet in 5 miles? Breathe. Breath calms the body and connects us with the present. Being present is the key to mental strength. I highly recommend a regular breathing practice like yoga as it trains you how to use the breath through movement, something you can't learn during a 100 miler, you must practice beforehand.
8. Eat and Hydrate Regularly: The brain and your mental will power will fail if you do not hydrate and fuel properly. It's not as simple as it sounds of course: 100 mile nutrition is an art and it varies for each individual. That being said, you'd be best off trying to figure out what works for you as a well fed body will deliver incredible results.
9. Make Friends: Put away your Ipod and start talking to the runners around you. There's strength in numbers and strength in sharing our joys, pain and suffering. Not only will the miles fly by but you'll make new friends. At Zion 100 this past weekend, I made more friends than I've ever made in a race and not so coincidentally, I had more fun than I've ever had in a 100 miler. Three of us got about an hour and a 1500 foot extra climb off course and instead of suffering by ourselves we made a pact to run the rest of the race together and through that friendship we were stronger than any one of us was alone. It was a powerful lesson in the magic of friendship and camaraderie. I also make an effort to say something encouraging to every runner I cross paths with, it reminds me to smile and I hope it gives them a little boost.
10. Smile: Even if you have to peel your lips up your face, do it. Smiling works: it activates the brain to begin to think more positively and amazingly it helps you actually feel like smiling. Plus, you'll surely entertain the runners around you with your clown grin.