This is not a race report. However my thoughts are prompted by my recent participation in the Arc of Attrition, so i will briefly describe the race.
My performance in that race was well below par, and that was for a number of reasons. Mostly it was a mental failure rather than a physical cause. Basically when things got tough (as they always will in a 100 mile race) I started looking for excuses to quit.
Coming into the race I was fairly sure that I wasn’t fit and strong enough to complete it but after withdrawing from so many races last year I didn’t want to pull out. However I didn’t expect mental weakness would be the cause on my DNF. I was expecting my quads to give out, or my achilles tendon to flare up, but its clear that my lack of running last year has not only left me heavier, slower and weaker, but also affected my resolve, and so in the next few months I’ll need to focus on mental strength as well as physical strength if I’m to improve.
Mental strength is not just willpower. It involves being indifferent to the physical discomfort and being able to detach. When running long distances well I can usually monitor my physical condition in non emotive terms. My legs aren’t tired; they don’t hurt; i’m thinking of my body as a machine and i stay focused on supplying it with the right fuel and fluids to keep in driving forward.
So I need to ensure my training incorporate mental strength goals as well as physical ones. This means being disciplined and working hard, but also being confident; setting and achieving goals to grow your confidence.
My three step plan:
1. Structured training plan
I’ve had very structured training plans in the past, but recently have been less formal. A typical week might be:
- Hill reps
- Tempo or progression
- Long run
- Other runs at easy pace
The problem with this is I may not decide how many reps I’m doing until I’m halfway through the session. There is no obligation to run 10 hill reps of 2 mins each, so no mental discipline involved.
For the next few months I’ll be far stricter with target numbers of intervals, target HRs or paces. I’m not going to become a slave to the plan and I’ll happily adapt it, but once I leave the house I’ll know the aim and stick to it unless i feel a physical injury.
2. Race simulation
I need to run more of the easier / shorter races. The sort of thing where a DNF is out of the question. These won’t all be at max race pace, but I’ll set goals like a negative split, or “no one passes me in the second half”. A strong race finish is great for building confidence. Also during these races i can practice setting my mental focus on nutrition, hydration, navigation, running form etc. as well as my pacing plan. Staying positive throughout the race and focused on the sense of movement while being indifferent to the effort.
3. Practice discomfort
There are plenty of ways to do this. Hill reps and speed intervals usually deliver on discomfort. However running in the foulest weather, thickest mud etc. also qualifies. Midday runs in humid summer heat has worked for me before and if it ever warms up I’ll try it again. The mental element of these sessions other than the obvious physical fitness gains, is re-learning how to focus my mind on something other than the pain. For example to focus on good breath control, good running form etc.
Hopefully with a couple of good months of training, i’ll be both physically fitter and also mentally tougher.
Arc of Attrition
What went wrong?
- Poor planning
- Poor adaptation
- Mental disintegration
Planning: The main planning error was shoe choice. After a stress fracture last year my only thoughts coming into this race were to ensure i protected my lower leg, so I chose a well cushioned comfortable shoe. I gave almost no thought to grip despite reading many blogs about the trail conditions in previous years. The result was three falls in the first three miles as I slid about in the mud and on wet rocks.
Adaptation: Normally in muddy conditions I shorten my stride and increase the cadence to get through the worst sections but this time I just cursed my shoes and walked. Problems always arise in a long run, and you need to find answers, and adapt, but i just seemed unable.
Mental weakness: After more slides and a painful fall where I bashed my arm landing on a rock I completely disintegrated. I was scared of another fall that could cause a more serious injury, and settled into a walk. Fifteen miles into the race and i was already rehearsing the excuses i would make for my impending DNF.