For most, simply completing an ultramarathon, open-water swim, or an Ironman is laudable. As though the distance is not enough, the combination of inclement weather and harsh terrain pack a visceral punch. These punches parallel the literal and metaphorical peaks and valleys of life. Participants of all levels, including elites, feel those punches. They come in the form of extreme fatigue, excruciating pain, repeated conversations with the inner critic, and emotional exhaustion. These sports are platforms for extraordinarily personal moments. They have the capacity to strip an individual to the core, exposing oneself to his or her innermost depths.
As part of a sport psychology graduate school project, it was my objective to capture the essence of these unique experiences. I was sought to explore the less tangible, but all too real side of the psychology behind elite-level performance in ultra-endurance sports (sports > six hours in duration). To better understand how these individuals thrive in situations many wish to survive, I recorded, transcribed and coded their responses into groups using a thematic analysis. There is plenty of rich insight that came from these conversations, most of which are useful in a variety of performance contexts. Below are three principles that derived from my conversations with ten of the world’s best ultra-endurance athletes:
- Embrace the struggle.
Attempt a new or audacious endeavor and you will most likely fail. That’s part of it. Your reaction and perception to failure are the difference between growth or defeat. At the iconic Western States 100-mile run in 2017, Clare Gallagher (2016 Leadville 100 champion) was in contention for most of the day. Late in the race, her run became a walk and that shifted into a side hobble. She could barely take another step forward. Gallagher dropped out at mile 93. Imagine going from a potential podium finish to dropping out due to injury at mile 93. Rather than allow that consume her, Gallagher re-evaluated and bounced back by winning a competitive CCC (Courmayeur Champex Chamonix) 100K race in September:
Another ultramarathon runner – Dr. Stephanie Howe-Violett – uses preparation as a way to familiarize herself with pain. She practices being comfortable with being uncomfortable by completing a 30-mile training run as preparation for races. The run consists of 3 loops. Each loop starts and ends at her car. Just like in a race, as her loops progress, so too, do the temptations to stop. By intentionally using a visual cue (one that represents a ticket home) she is able to better withstand the inevitable low moments that flare up during a race. Whether you’re in a rut, frustrated at work, or battling injury, adverse moments are learning opportunities. Success is a non-linear and failure is indefinite. Keep learning. Keep growing. Keep getting better
2. Follow Your Path.
Every athlete interviewed took a unique path to get to where they are today. The paths they selected were not the paths of least resistance. They sought to face the unknown and stayed the path regardless. That kind of intention, humility, and honesty gave me a better appreciation for them as people, not just athletes.
At 28-years old, James “The Iron Cowboy” Lawrence didn’t even know how to swim. Fast-forward eleven years later and this father of four and husband completed 50 Ironman-distance triathlons (2.6 miles of swimming, 122 miles of cycling, and 26.2 miles of running) in 50 states in 50 days. After his first triathlon, Lawrence could never have envisioned where the sport would have taken him.
It took Lynne Cox nearly ten years until she gained approval to chase down a dream. The dream? Swim from one U.S. Alaskan island to another that belonged to the Soviet Union. Not only did she complete it in 39 F water, but she completed it in just a swimsuit, cap, and goggles. Afterwards, Gorbachev and Reagan recognized her for such remarkable perseverance. None of them could have planned for the way their paths have taken form, but they stayed on them regardless.
3. Get outside. Period.
We are just starting to understand how rampant technological use affects the brain. Rather than wait for research to catch up with technology, spend more time outside. There is plenty of research that signals that time outside is time well spent. The lack of distraction forces us to focus on what’s at hand or daydream. Long-distance swimmer and coach Dan Simonelli:
You get this sense of smallness and gratitude for your existence. It makes you appreciate life. Not being distracted allows you to delve into that.
Nature offers experiences that are completely unique, making them impossible to replicate. In becoming the first woman to swim the Cook Strait (between North & South Islands in New Zealand) Lynne Cox was guided to shore by dolphins. No way was that a part of the plan. Long-distance paddler and coach, Kevin Eslinger understands the connection might be stronger than we even realize:
I’m not separate from it, nor am I some great, essential part. It is all of me and I am all of it. Taste your tears. Taste your blood. Taste the ocean. They all taste the same.
Our connection to nature is far more wide-reaching that we might understand. To enjoy a crisp spring morning doesn’t require an ocean or a mountain range in your backyard. A stroll around the block can offer an indelible experience, a true #nofilter.
The combination of stories and experiences shared with me wove together a thread of lessons that resonate well beyond any one achievement. Ultimately, this project taught me that we are all capable of so much more. Each of these athletes was drawn to the external appeals that accompany exploration; however, it was the exploration of what lies within was most captivating. Through valuing the struggle, embracing the path, and spending undistracted moments outside, we might be better equipped to manage the inner-critic. In turn, one might become more inclined to listen to the inner-voice and follow where it might lead. The destination is unknown, but, from what I’ve learned, that doesn’t matter. It’s all about the journey anyways, right?