Mental Hurdles Running 100 Miles

It has often been said about ultramarathon’s that “it’s all mental.” That is not entirely true. It is definitely very physical, and the importance of training cannot be understated. However, the mind does play a big role in the success of any runner. I have put together a short list of mental hurdles that one might encounter on the road to 100. As one becomes more experienced and physically fit, these hurdles might become less relevant but understanding them can be just a few more tools to add to the runner’s kit.

  • Stockdale Paradox

Coined by the Good to Great book series written by Jim Collins, the Stockdale Paradox refers to Admiral Stockdale, the highest ranking POW in the Vietnam War. When asked which characteristics were common in survivors, Admiral Stockdale stated that the optimistic prisoners fared worse in terms of survival.

The authors of the book series had expected that optimism would have been a common, even necessary trait in survivors. However, Admiral Stockdale stated that optimism led to unrealistic expectations that when not met, would become a highly demotivating factor.

The proper mindset is to actually have a pessimistic outlook combined with the confidence to continue moving forward despite conditions.

“Things are going to be hell, but we’ll have to go through it anyway.”

For me, the biggest heartbreak came during my 2nd 100 mile run. I had buckle-mania and my goal was to finish sub 24 hours. When it became clear I would finish in 25 hours, it broke my heart. I ultimately DNF’d at 81 miles with more than 8 hours to finish the race (more on this later).

Although the average person will never see conditions as harsh as Hanoi Hilton, the same concept can apply to other aspects of life, and yes, ultra-running. Runners may initially set high expectations for a race, but when they start missing goals, they may become discouraged and self-doubting.

Which leads to our next pitfall…..

  • Expectancy Theory

In the workplace, expectancy theory refers to the phenomena where an employee might only be motivated to work towards a goal if they fully expect to attain it.

In an ultra, runners may find themselves lacking the belief that they will complete the race. At this point of uncertainty, some runners will no longer even try. Once the doubt sets into their brains, they start a downhill spiral towards the DNF.

I’m told some military units like the Navy Seals and Delta Force will mislead their recruits into believing they will fail an obstacle.

Hypothetical Example: Candidates may be told that if they do not reach 12 checkpoints in a certain time frame, they will be disqualified from advancement. However, they are only given enough time for 9 checkpoints. When the candidates realize they will not be able to reach all 12 checkpoints, the discouraged candidates will withdraw from the course.

And that’s the point. The exercise is meant to weed out the people who are not willing to try their absolute best when failure seems inevitable.  That’s the best mentality for an Ultra: keep moving forward, no matter what, until you finish or miss a cutoff time.

Which leads to our next pitfall:

  • The Temptation to miss a cutoff time

This doesn’t take much explaining. For some reason, missing a cutoff time seems more acceptable than quitting a race. Maybe it’s because you never have to actually say the word quit. Maybe because missing a cutoff time implies that you tried your hardest. Whatever it is, it seems more acceptable. For that reason, the temptation is there and it is subconscious. Your body and mind won’t tell you, but somewhere deep down, they want you to miss the cutoff so that your day will be over and you can go back home and rest.

You have to fight it. DNF is DNF. Not trying is quitting. Of course, there will still be times when you miss a cutoff, but run admirably.

Overcoming the Mental Aspects

Simply put, you should go into your first 100 mile race with the expectations that it’s going to be miserable. At the same time, decide that no matter what happens you will continue to move forward.

And try to stay happy. You need to keep your morale up. I hate giving this advice because it sounds so stupid, but you’d be less miserable if you were happy.

Before you begin, give yourself some type of core value that will keep you going. You need to want it even after you no longer want it. Ultrarunning is only fun in the way that competitive eating is probably fun. You’re gonna be less hungry.

Personally, I believed that if I had quit, I would lie about it for the rest of my life. To myself and others, I would say, “you weren’t there, it was really hard.”

I never believed I would finish my first 100 mile run. But I moved forward for two reasons:

First, my brother Mike was also running, and I knew that if I dropped, he might drop.

Second, I believed the honest thing to do, was to keep moving until I could no longer run. That moment never came, but a finish line did.


Good luck,

Justin Flores

Don’t Forget to Follow us on Facebook!!!