Training for and relying on mental toughness to race your best at Capt’n Karl’s races
Okay, so you’re thinking of/committed to doing one or more of the Capt’n Karl’s races this summer. As someone who raced the 60k series four summers in a row, I can tell you that completing any of the races, and especially completing the series, makes you mentally tougher. But it also, paradoxically, requires mental toughness. So how can you cultivate and employ mental toughness in your race?
Why mental toughness is necessary for Capt’n Karl’s races
First, if you’ve never participated in a night-time ultra like the Capt’n Karl’s races, you may be unfamiliar with some of the challenges possible there. Here are just a few of the challenges I’ve experienced during these races:
Enduring temps close to 100 degrees, where you’re sweating even before the race begins
Getting startled by a venomous snake on the trail ahead of you
Feeling the dread as your headlamp slowly dims and then goes black, with miles to go before the finish line
Doubting yourself: Are you really on the right trail? Did you miss a turn back there somewhere?
Hearing strange noises in the brush beside you, as you run alone in the woods
Running face-first into a spiderweb, or smacking your head on a low branch
Rolling your foot, kicking a large rock into your ankle, and tripping and falling
Seeing the party at the finish line, and hearing the bluegrass band, but having to turn around and go back out into the woods by yourself for 2 or 3 more loops
Losing an entire night of sleep, and having to keep awake and press on as exhaustion sets in
(For those racing the series:) Feeling the increased tiredness (and possible injury) as the summer progresses and the race miles build up, with a race every 3-4 weeks, and the accumulation of one night’s sleep lost every weekend
How to train for/practice mental toughness
There are many ways to practice mental toughness in order to build up your reserves. Likely, your day-to-day life, and your previous experiences, have already built up a large capacity for mental toughness. Here are some additional ideas to reinforce this grit:
Identify what your goals are -- for the Capt’n Karl’s race(s), and longer-term. Think about how your training, and your running during the race, will help you achieve those goals.
Summer races in Texas are going to be hot, even at night. Train for this. I like to run in the heat of the day to prepare myself. (This also helps me experiment with various ways to keep cool.)
Practice running at night, with a headlamp. If possible, practice running single-track trails at night, so you are more comfortable with this on race day. (This also helps me fine-tune my lighting system so I’m ready to run confidently during the race.)
Challenge yourself in your training. If you do one hard thing a week -- maybe hill repeats, or a speed workout, or a double -- it builds confidence that you can do hard things, even things that seem out of reach. This is confidence you can draw upon later, during the race.
Think about “worst case scenarios” of the race. Anticipate what could potentially go wrong, and visualize how you would respond to that. You won’t be able to anticipate everything the race will throw at you, but the more mentally prepared you are, the more effectively you’ll be able to handle race-day surprises.
Practice positivity during training. Instead of thinking negative thoughts about your pace, endurance, or preparedness, identify what you are grateful for, what you’re doing well, or what strengths you possess. For example, “I got out of bed and got my run in, instead of sleeping in. I am mentally strong.”
Prior to the race, write down on paper your reason for running this race, and what it would take to make you drop out. (For instance, if you’re feeling tired, will you drop out? Or only if you are injured?) If you don’t commit this to paper, it is a lot easier to quit when the going gets hard.
On race day, remind yourself how tough you are. Think of all the obstacles you’ve overcome to be where you are today in life. Tell yourself, “This is what I’ve trained for.”
Run aid station to aid station. Long races and runs can feel overwhelming. Instead of thinking to yourself, “I have to run 37 miles,” tell yourself, “I have 4 miles til the next aid station. I’ve got this.” It’s helpful to look up the number of miles between aid stations in advance and memorize them, so you have these checkpoints to look forward to.
Anything can happen in these races. If you’re feeling down, exhausted, and hopeless, just keep going -- and when in doubt, eat/drink some sugar! Things can change quickly, and you will likely feel better soon. One time, when I was the only finisher of a hot hundred-mile race, I got through it by repeating this mantra to myself: “Just take one step at a time. One step.” If you can do this, you will get to the finish line. All it takes is one step at a time.
If you enjoy running with music, and you have some energizing/inspiring songs queued up, start listening to it during a low spot, and it might give you the extra boost you need. (But remember to only keep one earbud in your ear at a time, so you can hear what’s going on around you, for safety.)
How to rely on mental toughness to race your best at Capt’n Karl’s races
Simply having reserves of mental toughness built in won’t be useful unless you can tap into them on race night. Here are some ideas to help make that transfer:
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