Knowing your why
Ultra theme of the month I “10 months to ultra”
One of the most crucial things you can do as an ultra runner is getting to know yourself. We all have different challenges ahead of us, but it doesn’t matter if your challenge takes 8, 10, 24 hours or more to complete. As soon as we start entering spheres of six hours or more, we need to find another driving force than just pure will. Of course, it can help to have a iron will in order to succeed in certain situations (for instance, to avoid quitting a race when you’re running through a nice, warm aid station with lots of friendly people, good food and comfortable chairs). But using pure grit takes a lot of energy - and when you’re running really far, it’s hard to keep that sort of focus for so many hours at end. The fact is that most of us can only maintain our focus for about 4-8 hours, but after that we need other reasons than just an iron will to keep ourselves moving forward.
An ultra challenge is always an inner journey, comprised of many, smaller inner excursions.
Just as important as deciding you’re going to do something, is finding out why you want to do that particular thing. This is just as true for ultra running as for many other aspects of life. What is also true is that it doesn’t matter what your why consists of - as long as you are being honest to yourself and have at least some idea of what your driving forces are.
Sometimes this can be easier to understand if we look at examples that don’t have anything to do with ultra running. Let’s say that you’ve decided to change your career and become a doctor instead. The reason behind this decision could be that you’ve recently discovered your passion for making other peoples’ lives better, that you want to make some good money so you can have a comfortable life when you retire, that you have a particular interest in how the different systems of the body connect with one another - or maybe it’s just time to make mom proud and happy by doing something reasonable in life for once. The list goes on.
It doesn’t matter what the reasons are behind your decision, even if it helps to know. However, working with your driving forces is one of the most important things you can do - both in life in general as well as in ultra running. If you do this, everything will start to become much easier.
But watch out! Just because you’ve found out why you have decided to undertake something at some point in your life doesn’t mean that this will continue to be true or relevant for all eternity. As you start to develop as an ultra runner (and hopefully as a human being while you’re at it), it’s highly likely that your “why” will also start to change. The amount of hours you’re spending in your running shoes, as well as the hours you’re spending dreaming about challenging ultra races and exciting running trips, is all connected with the ultra runner that you are constantly in the process of becoming.
Knowing your why is also the key to success when it comes to motivating yourself to get those training sessions in. Sometimes it’s childishly easy to go out for a run - but not all sessions can be fun, and that’s completely okay. We all have something we are not easily motivated to do. For some people it’s a long run in crappy weather, for another it’s strength training, and for yet another it’s running slowly. And on top of that, for most of us it’s hard to prioritize enough hours of sleep as well as cutting down on candy, chips, coffee or whatever it is that we’re craving. It’s all connected, and in order to find a strong enough motivator that will run like a red thread through everything you do and each decision you make, you will need to start looking inside of yourself.
EXERCISE: find out what motivates you
In many ways, when you’re running really far, you start to feel closer to yourself - because you’re just so sick of putting up a facade. You will probably also begin to realize how ultra running can actually be the perfect opportunity to figure out exactly why you would like to accomplish something extraordinary. But, naturally, it is inevitable that you will have to face several moments of doubt along the way. When the body starts to become increasingly tired it’s entirely natural to want to quit - and if you in that moment don’t have a good enough reason to continue, it’s surprisingly easy to throw in the towel.
In order to know what it is that motivates you, you need to know who you are. One way to do that is to start making reflections about yourself in various life situations. It can be useful to think about different aspects of life as an I-sphere, a WE-sphere, and an IT-sphere. Ask yourself: what is important to me personally? In which ways can what I am doing also be important for others? And in which ways am I contributing to a certain system or a statistic in a positive way?
As we have said earlier, it doesn’t matter what your why consists of. Nothing is right or wrong, and it is better to be honest to yourself when you start digging deep, than to just say something like wanting to “crush boundaries”. However, your why does need to be powerful, and you need to have invested enough emotions into that why in order for it to mean anything when you’re feeling your worst after those first ten hours in a race. When you’re feeling terrible and want to quit more than anything it’s not certain that “crushing boundaries” is a good enough reason to continue - because you might already have crushed your boundaries over and over again that day. We want to figure something out that helps you to continue with your training even when it gets tough - something that makes you smile and laugh inside when you’re pushing yourself forward in those final kilometers of a long race.
Meditation / breathing exercise
A moment of meditation or breathing exercises need not be advanced. But if we want to be able to make reflections about our inner driving forces in a constructive manner, it can be a good idea to use tools that are rooted inside of ourselves - tools that are not distracted by all the external input we are exposed to on a daily basis.
Using the breath as a tool is possibly the most natural thing in the world. Breathing is an inner process, and it occurs without us having to put any energy into thinking how we’re going to make it work.
Start by having your diary ready, and then find a calm and quiet place where you can be left undisturbed. We will start by making use of a simple breathing technique called Box Breathing.
Inhale through your nose to a count of 5.
Hold your breath and count to 5.
Count to 5 as you exhale.
Hold your breath and count to 5.
Repeat this cycle for 2-5 minutes. Every now and then while you are doing this exercise, you can slowly start to lead your thoughts toward running. Perhaps you’re picturing yourself running across a forest trail, or you might feel that nice feeling you get after a good training session. The purpose here is not to focus hard on a visualization of running - but rather to start to connect this exercise, in a soft and effortless manner, with the act of running.
Feel free to do this exercise a couple of times every now and then, and use your diary to write down the things that start to unfold within you. Emotions, ideas and physical sensations might start to reach the surface. These could be very substantial chains of thoughts - but they could also be just glimpses, feelings or an abstract hunch about something.
WHILE YOU ARE RUNNING
The next time you’re out for a run, you can think about the following question: if you were all alone on a deserted island (or even alone in the entire world) and didn’t have anyone to talk to, neither eye to eye nor digitally - would you still be running, and in that case, why?
Write down your thoughts after your run and then do this exercise a couple of times again when you’re feeling in a different mood. It is not unlikely that you will receive entirely different answers from yourself depending on if you’re asking the question when you’re alert, warm and happy or when you’re feeling cold, tired and a little bit down.
15 minutes together with the author of the book Born To Run, Christpher Mcdougall. You don’t have to agree with everything - but there is certainly something intriguing about his idea that we as humans are made to run far - together.
Adharanand Finn provides a subtle answer to a simple question: why run? Recorded at the End of the Road Festival in Dorset.