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Mind games


The Long Run

Pip Coates was a swimmer until life got busy and she discovered the addictive simplicity of running. She's never looked back.

View more entries from The Long Run

Britain's Paula Radcliffe competing in the 2005 London Marathon.

Britain's Paula Radcliffe competing in the 2005 London Marathon. Photo: Reuters

There’s a well-worn running aphorism that goes something like: “The greatest distance you’ll ever cover is the six inches between your ears”.

For such an intensely physical activity it always amazes me how much in running comes down to mental attitude, whether you’re tackling a marathon or just going for a jog around the block.

If you’re thinking positively and sending yourself upbeat messages there’s not much that can stop you. Conversely, if you’re mentally off your game nothing is going to go right. You may even end up quitting.

Marathon runnerJez Bragg knows a thing or two about getting through the tough times.

Marathon runnerJez Bragg knows a thing or two about getting through the tough times. Photo: Damiano Levati

And often times in a run, especially over a distance or at a pace that is close to the edge of your capabilities there is a key moment when you need to give yourself a mental boost just to keep going.

Marathoners know it as “hitting that wall” - that perfect storm of mental and physical and disintegration that can prove insurmountable.

Jez Bragg knows a thing or two about getting through the tough times.

The 31-year-old Englishman signed up for his first marathon only 9 years ago and since then had been hooked on distance running, going longer and longer.

In 2010 he won the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, one of the world’s most brutal races.

“You have to treat it with a lot of respect,” he says, with typical understatement. “Just finishing is a massive achievement.”

Inevitably there are low points. So how does he battle through?

Bragg likes to break down the race in his mind.

"I’ll have little time goals for certain sections,” he says. “You can’t think, ‘I’ve got 40km to go’. Counting down is the worst thing you can do.”

And keeping a sense of perspective is also important, he says.

“You can maintain your morale by building a rapport with the people around you and just laughing at yourself for being in such a state. A sense of humour is so important and keeping smiling when you’re feeling so crap.”

And while not many people would want to do the distances Bragg loves, that advice can work for all of us.

Paula Radcliffe is another legendary tough distance runner. After she won the New York Marathon in 2007 she revealed that it was the thought of her baby daughter that kept her going when the pain was at its most intense.

“I kept repeating to myself I love you Isla, I love you Isla to keep my rhythm going,” she said.

Whatever gets you through.

Personally, when the going gets tough, I’ll use a stack of mental tricks either to distract the mind from the suffering or, alternatively, to focus ever more closely on it. One quirky trick I’ve developed is to bring to mind a close family member who died a few years back. He was a tough competitor and it invariably helps me re-focus if I imagine he is running along beside me.

What do you tell yourself when the going gets tough?

27 comments so far

  • Firslty I cant express how much joy I get whenever I see a new running related article from you. I just got into running this year, and I absolutely love reading your article. I find running a lonely activity, and whenever I read such articles I feel happy thinking, there is someone else who experiencing this joy, even though, you are far more experienced and can run further distance than me.

    I also had the same thought when I went for a jog this morning. Ultimately it is the mind, and the state you are in, that determines the distance you cover in a long run. I personally go through different emotions, during every run.

    Date and time
    June 21, 2012, 1:15PM
    • I always remind myself that if I quit now, I'll be disappointed, but if I just. keep. going....the satisfaction of knowing I didn't cave will be even sweeter.

      Date and time
      June 21, 2012, 3:21PM
      • I usually just divide the number of calories burnt by the number of calories in my head, it's a big number by the end of the race. Bring on the Gold Coast!

        Date and time
        June 21, 2012, 3:28PM
        • Ten and a half hours for 168km in the Alps? Is that run in one hit or in stages? Sub 2:40 marathon pace, 3:45 km per minute. SCARY!

          Date and time
          June 21, 2012, 4:08PM
          • i think there is a mistake in the article. UTMB was cancelled in 2010 and CCC (98 km) replaced it instead. Jez Bragg did won the CCC alternative in 10.30, but not the full UTMB(168 km). winner of UTMB is normally done in over 20 hours.

            Date and time
            June 21, 2012, 5:28PM
          • I just looked up the results - they're correct! How come that guy isn't winning every marathon from here to Kenya?

            Date and time
            June 21, 2012, 5:44PM
          • There's no way he ran 168km up and down mountains in 10.5 hours - running that time on a pancake flat course is equivalent to a sub-1:50 marathon.

            A quick google search reveals the race record is around 20 hours, so I assume he meant 20.5 hours.

            Date and time
            June 21, 2012, 6:06PM
        • Well last time I raced, i was starting to get a calf strain (as usual). It tweaked, then got worse and worse. Now I'm not going to give up but 1 person past, stayed with him for 2km, then let him go last 1km and he beat me by 10 seconds. Your trained body has limits. I could of out kicked him perhaps but weighing it up it wasn't worth interruption into training for more important race.

          The whole elite runners is a mystery to me. Why do 10-15 elites sprint at start then slowly drop off down to 3 around 2-4km. They know they are not in the top 3 shape, yet go over their limits?

          Date and time
          June 21, 2012, 4:31PM
          • Well, wlite running is very different to every day running. When you're running at the sort of pace that those guys go, once you're off the back, you're never going to get back and they're there to win, so it's just a case of go as hard as possible and try to hold on. It also helps to drag every last % our of your body just trying to hang on to a slightly faster group. I think about it as putting time in the bank. I've never seen anyone speed up in the last 5km of the marathon, so there's a fine line between putting a few minutes in the bank between your pace and your goal finish time. Sometimes you burn all those banked minutes, sometimes you overcook it and hit the wall and sometimes your body can just keep going and you can out perform what you thought was possible. One thing is for sure though, when you hit the wall in a marathon, it's all over in terms of posting a good time. Just get yourself home in one piece and hope you don't need a space blanket and a drip at the end.

            Date and time
            June 21, 2012, 5:48PM
        • I think you'll find that Jez Bragg did not finish UTMB in 10.5 hours. From the results it appears the race was called off in 2010 when Jez was in the lead. Previous winners take over 20 hours to finish this incredibly punishing course, yes including Killian

          Date and time
          June 21, 2012, 5:02PM

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