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Ultra marathon success

100_1520.JPGamendedFor many non-participants, the assumption is that for ultra marathoners successful performance is measured by shorter race times, and a lower race position. Success for some, or all, ultra marathoners may be a measured in other ways. Participants in ultramarathons often associate with a sub-culture, where performance is more than simply race times or positions, and is instead measured against meeting personal goals to explore limits of human endurance, and a sense of belonging.

Has our psychology evolved for endurance ?

Evolutionary biology suggests that endurance running was important in the pursuit of prey, and instrumental in the evolution of hominins. According to fossil evidence, key physiological adaptions may have evolved approximately two million years ago to benefit long distance running. The relatively new field of evolutionary psychology, like cognitive science, identifies the human mind as a computational mechanism seated in neural tissue, designed, like any other organ, by the processes of natural selection. If correct, then many of our psychological constructs are a result of adaptations to previous environments that increased both the likelihood of survival and reproduction. In an attempt to explain the behavior of the modern human, evolutionary psychologists aim to answer how a particular behavior develops in relation to the environment, whether the mechanisms that underpin it were acquired or innate, and why such mechanisms evolved. More recently, this approach has been applied to performance, motivation and reasoning in the fields of sport and exercise psychology. As a result this presentation aims to provide clarity regarding the current understanding of evolutionary psychology and identify its application to endurance running.

Evolutionary psychology, as an approach, has been developing over the last twenty years though currently limited literature exists regarding the application of evolutionary psychology to sport. In particular, minimal research has been performed with regards to the evolutionary origins of the psychological mechanisms involved in endurance running. Future research, from an evolutionary perspective, may benefit areas such as motivation, mental toughness and attention strategies, and improve the support sport professionals and psychologists provide to endurance athletes.

Does Mental Toughness identify the ultra marathoner?

According to many researchers Mental Toughness is key to success in all sports.

Defined by Crust and Clough (2005) as

The 4 C’s, challenge, commitment, control and confidence. 

Mentally Tough individuals are said to: 

  • View negative experiences as challenges 
  • Be influential and control negative life experiences 
  • Be deeply involved and committed to achieving goals
  • Be confident in their ability to deal/overcome difficulties 

But what if this is not true of the ultra marathoner, what is it that makes them distinct? Motivation, tolerance of pain, or purely the physical results of slogging the miles out.

I’m currently performing research with ultra marathoners with the aim of being able to answer these questions… I will share the results as the come in.

Enjoy the struggle

“Struggling and suffering are the essence of a life worth living. If you’re not
pushing yourself beyond the comfort zone, if you’re not demanding more from yourself – expanding and learning as you go – you’re choosing a numb  existence. You’re denying yourself an extraordinary trip.”  Dean Karnazes, Ultrarunner

Recovery and rest: its ok to stop

5 days after the 100km, and I still feel tired, mentally and physically. Mental fatigue has been shown to impact physical performance, and it would seem logical then to expect such fatigue after challenging events. So, after finishing a race, when you have given your all, its ok to stop, rest body and mind, and take stock.

2017-05-26 16.15.18This is an excellent time to think, without over analysing, what has been achieved, identify any lessons learned regarding training and racing, return to a more manageable training/life balance, and perhaps start to look at any future events that are interesting. At the moment I’m considering some shorter running races, or maybe an adventure race, I like the idea of cycling, running, kayaking, and swimming, ideally out in the wilds.

For the moment, I’m just going to enjoy taking it easy, let the blisters, muscles and mind heal, and keep walking the dog.

London to Brighton 100km Ultra Marathon

2017-05-28 10.31.40There is no doubt, 100km is a long, long way.

Though my PhD research continues into ultra endurance, through my physiological/psychological testing of ultra marathoners, i felt the best way to really understand and experience such a challenge was to complete the distance myself. I’ve survived a number of ultras over the years, but this was certainly my furthest, and i viewed it with some trepidation.

I choose to raise money for Asthma Uk, as a condition that has affected me over the years, and something that makes me appreciate good health

2017-05-27 05.56.20I selected the London to Brighton run as my challenge, and I had foolishly imagined that the route from Richmond (London) to Brighton would be relatively flat – that was a mistake. The hills are not steep, as in a mountain marathon, but they are at times long, and
cruel – well that is how they felt at the time. The weather on Saturday was good: hot, but usually accompanied by a gentle breeze, and earlier in the day even some cloud and light rain. Running 100km was more difficult than i had imagined: your legs tire, but most importantly mentally you feel exhausted. It became more and more difficult to tell my body to keep moving, after 70km everything was telling me to stop. But the thought of my family, and friends at 56km, and then 80km, was enough to keep me going. The organisation was incredible, well signposted along the entire length, and the food stops covered everything from water, energy drink, tea, coffee to fruit (pineapple tastes great on a long run) and pizza, pasta and baked potatoes at the major stops. With friends to talk to I stopped at 56/80km and enjoyed some well earned food after mostly relying on carbohydrates from the easily digested tailwind nutrition i had mixed into water along the route – it was ideal, but i needed something more substantial nearer the end.

The last 10k2017-05-28 12.04.54m seemed to take a lifetime, and seeing the Brighton race course felt like a small, but well deserved, miracle. Seeing my family made it all worthwhile, and quite emotional – 12 hours of running, jogging and walking, and two hours of stops to get me through, and it was complete. Two days later and my legs don’t feel too bad – i think the massage at the end may have saved me !!

Great event, and first class organisation and support. If you want to run 100km, this is an ideal event – no navigation, and good food, and first aid if needed all along the route. Thanks London 2 Brighton Challenge!!!


Flow, and getting ready for the next big run

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (don’t ask me to pronounce) described flow as the ‘state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter – the experience is so enjoyable that people will do it at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it’.

If we didn’t love the immersion of running in the mountains, trails or ultras we certainly wouldn’t willingly endure the pain. But the goals and conditions are known and clear.

With a family,  university research, and a job, running has been fitted into the remaining gaps in each day:  either through running during lunch hours, or long runs (split into two) serving as a commute into and out of work. Either way, the training for the Mourne Skyline run has been mostly done on the road, and been more limited that I would have liked.

But, either way, I cannot wait to turn up at the start of the latest in the International Skyrunning series. The route shows off some of the best locations in the Mourne’s and will be beautiful in any weather conditions. My challenge will be more around finishing within the cutoff times (necessary to avoid runners being on the mountains in the dark), rather than the physical endurance of the vertical and horizontal distance.

Perhaps, for many, the challenges of the race will lead to what Mihaly describes as optimal performance – where awareness and experience merge, a feeling (probably completely misplaced) of being in complete control, a distortion of time, and deep involvement. And, this feeling, whatever name its given,  will bring such peace, and completeness and make all the training on roads , and in squashed lunch hours all worthwhile.



BANFF Film Festival

Check out the films on show at the outdoor, BANFF film festival, Newtownabbey on 26th/27th June. Both days include a number of films on outdoor pursuits from climbing to skiing – 26th includes two guys preparing for the epic UTMB

Check out the trailer