Coach’s Corner: The “Secret” of Ultrarunning: The Role of Rational Confidence

Note:  Starting today, I will be posting a “Coach’s Corner” article every Thursday that discusses, with some degree of depth, an ultrarunning topic for which I tend to receive a lot of questions from clients and other runners.  I hope you enjoy these articles and find them at least a little useful 🙂

1.  Of Lions and Lambs.

masquerading lamb

One of the most common questions I get as a coach is “how do I gain the confidence necessary to run the insane distance that I just signed up for?” (usually 50 or 100 miles).  This is a VITALLY important question, because without confidence, a runner — especially a first-time ultrarunner — might as well not even toe the line.  Simply showing up and “hoping” or “wishing” that “today will be the day” is not exactly the best mindset to ensure success.  You can’t go into these things as a lamb when you need to be a lion.

So, then, how does one simply “turn on” the confidence necessary to ensure success at an endeavor that he or she has NEVER done before?  How do we find that inner lion that lives within all of us?  Anyone can say, “yeah, I’m confident.”  “Yeah, I feel great.”  “Yeah, I’m going to do this.”  But how do we ensure that those words have actual force behind them, and aren’t just empty assurances we make to ourselves, or false promises we make to others through various forms of social media?  How do we transform from a lamb to a lion by race day?  Or how do we go from being a “Facebook Hero” (in the Foreigner sense of the phrase) :), to an actual success at this very hard sport?

Facebook Hero

The only answer to these questions is that we need to develop rational confidence; a sincerely-held belief that we will not only finish the race, but that we will thrive at the race.  The word “belief” isn’t really even strong enough; the feeling needs to be a truth.

So how do we get to the point where we actually know we will do well in the event when we toe the line?  The only real answer is very easy and very challenging at the same time:  CONSISTENT QUALITY TRAINING.  Only by building ourselves up physically can we develop the mental toughness needed to accomplish our lofty goals.  I often hear people talk about how much of the sport is mental versus physical.  I think that is the wrong manner of thinking of it, because the mental and the physical are completely and inexorably intertwined.

2.  The “Trial of Miles.  Miles of Trials.”

'Like lambs to the slaughter, my ass.'

I often have runners that are frustrated at the beginning of their training, because they do not see immediate tangible results after the first few days or even weeks.  The path to ultrarunning success is a process, and one that cannot be shortcutted or cheated.  If you want to be physically-prepared — and in turn develop the rational confidence (grounded in reality, not delusions) needed to succeed — you have to endure what author (and former SEC runner) John L. Parker, Jr. refers to as the “trials of miles.”

Once a Runner

In his book, Once a Runner (which you should check out if you have not read it yet), Parker discusses the training regimen that star cross-country runner Quenton Cassidy puts himself through:

“And too there were questions: What did he eat? Did he believe in isometrics? Isotonics? Ice and heat? How about aerobics, est, ESP, STP? What did he have to say about yoga, yogurt, Yogi Berra? What was his pulse rate, his blood pressure, his time for 100-yard dash? What was the secret, they wanted to know; in a thousand different ways they wanted to know The Secret. And not one of them was prepared, truly prepared to believe that it had not so much to do with chemicals and zippy mental tricks as with that most unprofound and sometimes heart-rending process of removing, molecule by molecule, the very tough rubber that comprised the bottoms of his training shoes. The Trial of Miles, Miles of Trials. How could they be expected to understand that?”

There is NO magic pill in this sport.  There is no “secret.”  Only consistent training.  Those daily battles with the alarm clock, the daily grind of “removing the very tough rubber” from the bottoms of your shoes, the 6-mile loop around your house that you’ve run 451 times and it’s too hot/cold/whatever outside and you’d rather not run number 452 today.  Fight and win those “trials” on a daily basis, and you’ll show up at the start line ready and able to win the war against the course on race day.

3.  Daniel LaRusso and the Secret of Ultramarathons.

A few days ago, one of my runners said something along the lines of, “I’ve never been this strong physically as a runner; I can just feel myself getting better every day.  I only wish I was growing mentally as well.”  Without trying to channel too much of my inner Mr. Miyagi on her, I said, “You are getting stronger mentally; you just don’t know it yet.”

Consistent quality training is what allows us to have rational confidence that we can face our fear of the great unknown on race day.  All of those little battles we win on a daily basis in training add up, and, over time, allow us to face our own version of that big, bad Cobra Kai kid waiting at the end of the journey.

wax on

(LaRusso demonstrating the secret of ultrarunning).

Despite being unsure of himself on “race day,” Daniel defeated the Cobra Kai, as he realized during the “race” that the consistent training he endured had given him the tools to succeed when it mattered most.

The same will happen for first-time 50- or 100-milers during their own races, BECAUSE their consistent training will allow for growth and discovery of rational confidence.  They will meet their inner lions.

As an aside, with Halloween coming up, for you single guys out there, dressing up as a Cobra Kai villain is a horrible idea, unless your target audience for attention is a bunch of 30 to 40-something year-old dudes shouting “sweep the leg” and “get him a body bag” to you all night long.


(Alex and I on our first date in 2008.  So I guess, in hindsight, that costume worked out okay for me.) 🙂

mean girls

(“Uh, so like what’s that guy in the above pic like supposed to like, be?  A ninja or something?”  “Yeah, so totally not ‘fetch'”).

4.  “Ninety Percent of This Game is Half Mental.”

Former Yankee great, and philosopher extraordinaire Yogi Berra uttered that unintelligible phrase about how much of baseball is physical versus mental.  I think it perfectly sums up how much of ultrarunning is physical versus mental as well:  you cannot separate one from the other, and when people try to, they wind up sounding like Yogi.  Rational confidence is built from wearing down the rubber on your shoes, day in, day out, week in, week out, month in, month out.  This is the only way to gain a sufficient level of mental fortitude to complete an “insane” challenge such as running 100 miles.

Yogi Berra

(Ultrarunning philosopher Yogi Berra).

There is one important caveat to that “no separation between mental and physical” point, however.  No matter how physically prepared you are when raceday comes along, you MUST possess the will to persevere, no matter how bad things get.  Everyone, from a first-time runner to the world’s reigning 24-hour champion, goes through super-low points during an ultra.  And everyone must ultimately make the decision at that lowest-of-the-low moment:  “Do I give in and stop, or do I put my head down, and simply keep putting one foot in front of the other until I start feeling better and I can run again?”

As ultrarunners, we need to keep an immutable truth in our minds at all times during the race:  No matter how bad things get or how badly I feel, if I keep going, I can break through to the other side and things will turn around for the better.

Obviously, I’m not saying that if you break your leg at Mile 5, you should drag it for 95 more miles; there is a difference between acute injury (which accounts for well-under 1% of all DNFs at races), or the general, garden-variety “bonking” that we all will inevitably experience — most likely multiple times — during the race.  We can always overcome that.  Always.

So that’s the secret to ultrarunning:  consistent quality training, which leads to rational confidence on race day, coupled with an unflinching will to succeed.  Then, and only then, will you meet your inner lion.

See you all for next week’s column, and enjoy getting “out there” and winning your trials of miles this week 🙂



One thought on “Coach’s Corner: The “Secret” of Ultrarunning: The Role of Rational Confidence

  1. Pingback: Taking the Leap: Training for Your First Ultra | Dave Krupski

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