running ultra marathon

Thoughts running through my mind

James Randall is currently in training for his first ultra-marathon, The Wall. This iconic ultra takes runners on a 69-mile route along Hadrian’s Wall. James shares thoughts on the mental side of running as the big day approaches.

Last time I wrote a blog, I’d just completed my longest training run, 40 miles, and followed up with a 4 miler the following day. In the month since, I was pleased to do a steady half marathon within 6 days of the 40-mile run; and I’ve done a total of just over 170 miles. The longest of those was 31 miles (which I paced well in 5:41) and the shortest was two quick 5ks in an evening either side of watching Derbyshire lose at cricket. Again. But whilst the last blog focused on some of the physical efforts of running, to paraphrase Ray Lewis (watch 52 Cards), there are two sides of running that I don’t think a lot of people really understand. There’s one side of running that’s the physical side of running, the thing that we are all born to do and all can do. It literally comes naturally to us. But there’s another side of running that’s the mental side of running, that’s called effort, that’s called glory, it’s called ‘if you can find a way to push through pain there’s something greater on the other side of it’. There’s a world of difference between being injured and your body being physically unable to do what you want, and feeling tired and your mind taking the easy option to just stop.

The mental side of running

Since September I have run around 1,000 miles, and all bar about 15 of those (thanks Kev) have been solo. I am comfortable running alone, I can run when and where I want at a pace that does (or doesn’t) suit me. But 1,000 miles is a long time to spend with only your thoughts to accompany you; I’ve felt the elation of doing things I’ve never done before, yet I’ve felt the desolation of another cold, dark, wet morning, and I’ve felt the isolation of being 20 miles from home and my whole body aches. Within the space of a single mile, I’ve gone from feeling like 69 miles will be a breeze to wondering how the blazes I’m going to even get halfway.

It’s the mental side of running that helps you even begin to contemplate running such a long way. It’s the mental side of running that reminds you why you’re doing this. It’s the mental side of running that makes you get out of bed at 4:30 am on a Saturday when your body is telling you to stay in it. It’s the mental side of running that conquers the demons in your head telling you it’s just too far. Conversely, it’s the mental side of running that convinces you your backpack is cutting your shoulders into ribbons, that your shorts are slicing into your nuts and that your socks are turning your toes into jelly. And with just over a week to go, it’s the mental side that instils the discipline not to go and run 25 miles even though you can and even though you’re feeling better than ever. It’s the mental side that insists that you trust your training.

Breaking it down

In truth, I still can’t contemplate running such a long way. I can’t comprehend doing that distance, and so mentally I’ve broken it down into sections. Although it would be nice if I found someone running the same pace as me to talk to, I have podcasts and playlists to hand, enough for the whole race if necessary. On the podcast front, I’m mainly relying on John Robins and Elis James. On the music side, I have everything from Avicii to Bruce Springsteen to Coldplay to the Manics. I’ve got some Macklemore, I’ve got the song I’ve adopted as my theme over the last few months (Hopeless Wanderer seems very apt), I’ve got some absolute bangers from Les Mis and The Greatest Showman and I’ve even got a bit of Boney M. Nothing quite stirs the blood like Rasputin after 34 miles.

There are pit stops where I can take on extra food and drink on 13, 27, 44 and 62 miles. As far as possible, I intend to run for 5 miles and then walk for 5 minutes, just to keep my pace steady and conserve my energy, at least until the final pit stop. And after 62 miles? The final leg is 7 miles. I can do 7 miles. I’ve done a 7 mile run 11 times as part of my training, each time imagining these are the final 7 miles. Of course, I haven’t been in a world of pain when doing so (apart from one particularly brutal hangover) but it’s a start.

And when I say I’ve imagined the final 7 miles, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pictured myself crossing the finish line. I can’t comprehend doing 69 miles, but I can comprehend doing one final mile. And every time I think about it, I feel a little excited and a little bit sad. I’m excited because I signed up for this – I’m not a martyr, I’ve enjoyed it and I’ve learnt a lot about myself and what I’m capable of putting myself through. But I’m also a little bit sad because after all these months, after all these hundreds of miles, it feels like I’m coming to the end of an amazing book. I just don’t know quite how it’s going to end yet, but it’s been a heck of an emotional journey. I feel as ready as I’m ever going to be. Fingers crossed…

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