How To Be Mentally Marathon Tough

During my second attempt at the Comrades (Ultra) Marathon in South Africa I was convinced I was going to fail and DNF. In fact, by mile 13 of the 56 mile race I was finished. Despite traveling over 24 hours by air to arrive in Durban, South Africa, to participate in the World’s Largest Ultramarathon, I knew all my hard work was going for nought.

I would fail myself, my friends, and my family who had sacrificed so much to give me the opportunity to get a once-in-a-lifetime shot at a back-to-back medal. You see, at the Comrades Marathon, if you finish in your rookie year (your first attempt), and then return the very next year and finish, you will receive the coveted back-to-back medal.

You get one shot, and I was going to blow it.

Being Stubborn Isn’t Always Bad


The above picture shows my finisher medal and the back-to-back medal. Not many people have those medals, and it’s one of my most prized possessions. So, if I was so convinced I wasn’t going to finish less than 1/3 of the way into the race, how did I achieve it?

By being stubborn and keeping a promise. You see, prior to my first race, I attended a meeting hosted by some of the best known Veterans of the Comrades race. During that meeting, I remembered one bit of advice:

“No matter what you do, don’t get on a bailout bus.” (A bailout bus is a bus that you get on in the middle of the race to get a ride to the finish, causing an automatic DNF).

I promised myself at the beginning of the race that I would not quit. Now, if I didn’t make a cutoff, if I was pulled off the course by the officials, well, that was on them. It’s my fault I didn’t finish. They forced me to stop, and that would be okay.

But I wasn’t going to quit. I would keep walking and running until they forced me to stop. I would keep moving forward.

At the time, I became frustrated because, somehow, against the odds, and against the pace on my watch, I kept making the cutoffs. And then I met a fellow runner who kept my mind busy, distracted, and before I knew it, I was entering the stadium with 10,000 spectators watching.

I finished the 56 mile course with 8 minutes to spare.

Visualizing Crossing the Finish Line Works

One of the things I remind myself of during those low moments of the race is the fact I probably will not even remember how I feel at that moment the next day. The mind has a way of forgetting the painful memories. I just focus and visualize a successful finish. Over and over, I think of crossing the finish line, how I will feel in that moment, and what it will look, feel, and smell like. Staying focused on my end goal keeps me from the negative mind spiral that can get you to quit. I do that normally. But during the second Comrades Marathon, I didn’t do that at all. I just wanted it to end. Nobody would really care if I finished or not.

But I would know. And I’d made myself a promise. So I kept going. And to my surprise, my body, did, too.

The Mind Tricks You

Studies of many elite athletes has shown that the mind will trick us into slowing down, giving up, and being unable to continue long before the body is really finished. That being said, a certain trainer friend of mine didn’t listen to her body, and is still recovering from her half marathon effort almost a year later. But in many cases, our mind gives up before the body needs to give up. It’s a protective mechanism, and generally it serves us well. Except in endurance sports. The key to mental toughness is knowing when to listen, and when to tell your own mind to bugger off.

A Marathon is Tough

Don’t let anyone fool you. A Marathon is tough.

So if you’ve signed up for a marathon, be prepared. You’re going to have to be tough. It’ll be cold; It’ll be hot (sometimes at the same time). There will be up. There will be down. There will be rude people. There will be nice people. There will be rain. There will be sun. Sometimes at the same time. You will have to expect the unexpected. You will drop water. You will drop GU gels. You will lose a toenail (maybe).

Preparation is Part of Being Tough

Don’t expect the race to give you what you need. Don’t expect water at aid stations. Don’t expect electrolytes. Don’t expect or rely on anyone else but yourself – this is an individual sport. I mean, sure, if you plan to finish in under 3 hours, then you can reasonably expect there to be stuff at aid stations. But if you’re like me, at the middle or back of the pack, you can expect that aid stations will run out of supplies. You can also expect there to be huge crowds that will slow you down if you wait at every aid station. You can expect the unexpected. If you get upset and lose energy because there is no water where you thought there would be, well, that’s not on the race. That’s on you. Getting angry at volunteers (as I’ve seen so many, many times) only serves to sap your energy, make you weak, and also make you look like a jerk. So expect the unexpected and always have a plan B.

Roll With It

Learning to “roll with it” is part of racing. Some call it being mentally tough; I call it survival. After over 55 races in 5 years, I can tell you that not everything will go as planned. In fact, at every race I think, “So I wonder what will go wrong this time?” not out of fear, but because I’m ready for the challenge to adapt. To overcome the obstacle. It becomes part of the fun of racing.

And, at the end of the day, I remind myself of the famous line from Black Hawk Down: “It’s nothin’. It’s nothin’.”

It’s just 26.2 miles after all. Some of us use that as a cooldown after a swim and bike. But it’s never easy.