The Why in Ultra – How to Keep Going When Things Get Tough

In every long distance race there comes a point where you want to quit. A moment when your legs are burning, the terrain in front of you looks intimidating, other runners are passing you and you would literally rather be anywhere else in the world. At that point you will turn around and ask yourself the single most important question you can ask yourself, “Why?”. 

If you buy any book on training they will tell you 101 ways to become physically strong. Marathon plans will focus on intervals and tempo runs, ultra plans on elevation and back to back long runs. Hardly any books I have every purchased even have a section on “mental” aspects, despite this being possibly the most important aspect of the training!

Finding your “why” is, at least in my opinion (and in the opinion of quite a few others I know), THE single most important aspect of your training. And guess what, it is a principle that you can apply to virtually any aspect of your life. 

Why do you need a Why? 

To really understand what makes the answer to the question “why” so powerful, first we need to consider what are the aspects of training that make you successful in an ultramarathon. Really, these only break down into two camps: Consistency and Individual Efforts. 

Consistency is getting out of bed every day and pulling on your running shoes. It is showing up to the gym even when it is freezing outside. It is being there when you are having an off day and really don’t want to turn up (if you want more on consistency check out the post on compound interest, consistency for money!) That is 80% of the battle, just showing up. You can go deeply into the theme of consistency, books like Atomic Habits by James Clear will help you to develop the right routines that make consistency easier, but underlying those 6am wake and runs is the goal. The goal or the race you want to achieve. But underlying the race is the why. Why did you set this goal?

Individual Efforts on the other hand are not about consistency. By the description they are obviously one offs, individual. They are the intense effort for the final interval of the set or the burn you feel in your legs as you are pushing up a climb in the middle of your ultra race. At some point during these efforts your body will be screaming at you to stop, and the only thing standing between yourself and capitulation is your mind.

But, and lets be honest here, our minds are weak. Out minds give in to temptation and constantly seek the easy path. You might begin to think “oh, but it is only one interval that I am skipping”, but that is a snowball. Today it is one, next week another, and before you know it you have missed a fair amount of training that has a large cumulative effect. To control our minds we need a reason, the reason why we are going to push through the limit, and that reason is your Why. 

Finding your Why

Finding your Why is actually really quite simple. If involves the simple process of asking yourself some questions and stripping away the facade of anything that is not truly meaningful to you. Go deep inside and search for the most intrinsic motivations for why you want to achieve this goal. Don’t worry about ideas like beating others and being the best at XYZ. Focus on yourself. Ideas like “I want to prove to myself that I can do it” or “I want to achieve something that seems impossible” are the type of answers you need to find. Personally, when looking for answers I ask myself a simple set of questions: 

  1. What made me choose this goal in the first place? 
  2. Do I still believe in the reason for choosing this goal? 
  3. How would I feel if I achieved this goal?
  4. How would I feel if I gave up on it? 

Once you can answer question one, you are 90% of the way there. 

Before you go into an ultra race, remember your answer to this question, you are going to need it at some point!

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