I just run my first 100 km race . In case you are wondering how it feels to run such a distance, well…yes, it hurts, even though in my case I expected it even worse. It was a wonderful, very rewarding experience. I chose Florence as a start and run through the Tuscan hills and the Apennines all the way to Faenza; it was beautiful, funny, lively, messy and emotional.
I think the best advice someone gave me was the evening before my first ultra-marathon. I met this guy at a restaurant, and since he was having a huge amount of pasta, was very skinny and wore sport clothes, it was clear he would run too, the day after. We started to chat and it turned out that he was one of the serious runners, who regularly made it to the top ten. I asked him if he had tips or suggestions for me, he paused a moment, looked at me straight in my eyes and said slowly: “do NOT let one single negative thought enter your mind. Not one, never ever. Turn everything negative into positive. There will be a moment where you think one more step, and I die. But you won’t die. You will get to finish line and walk again. You are able to do much more than you think”. I follow this advice religiously.
This doesn’t mean training is secondary. One can’t just try a 100 km run with no training or very little of it; physical preparation is the key. I am reading a big impressive book called The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. It reviews our scientific knowledge of expertise, and studies how experts differ from non-experts in terms of training, reasoning, knowledge, social support and innate talent. The conclusion is a starling assertion: the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Expert performers in every fields, memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming are nearly always made, not born. Yes: practice does make perfect. Even Mozart had thousands of hours of training by age 10.
So preparation is the basic requirement and one can’t succeed without it (you can find hundreds of good programs online, for example on Runners World). But reality is, alas, quite complicated and the result of many contemporary factors you can’t control. Many things can happen: the weather might be nasty, your shoes might be lost or forgotten, your biorhythm or menstrual cycle can be against you, a negative event just before the race might put you down. You need to be prepared to react positively to whatever happens. You also need to find your own personal way to do that, your own mantra. Here are some ways I use to finish a race, maybe they can inspire you:
1. From time to time, before a competition, sit on the sofa or somewhere comfortable, and picture in your mind what can go wrong and what would you do in case it does. It will make you confident and will prevent you from panicking if something happens.
2. Turn bad thoughts into positive thoughts. You have a pain? Your body is behaving well and helping you to adjust your rhythm or signal something. A light pain is normal, during a long distance, accept it and sink it in. You will have phases and it will disappear (unless you are injured. In that case you need to quit, of course). You are tired? Good, you are giving it all. You feel everybody is faster than you? For sure some of those won’t be able to keep up that speed, and anyway who cares. And so on.
3. Think about your achievements, what you are good at. I often say to myself “I had three natural births, of course I can run this!”
4. Reassure yourself remembering what you have done during the training. I often think “I have enough km on my legs. I have trained in the rain. I have trained tired. I have trained in the dark. I have trained with very little motivation. Sure I can do this once more”.
5. Develop a mantra. Google “running quotes” or “running mantras” and get inspired, or simply say to yourself something you really like to hear.
6. Keep a little help for when you are tired. A caffeinated gel, one of your favorite songs in your iPod, a change of clothing, even a telephone call if that helps. it has to be your treat.
7. Don’t think that you are slow or bad. Finishing will make you prouder than quitting, so finish slow, but do it.
8. Enjoy the nature. Unless the weather is particularly bad, dress well for the temperature and enjoy the view. Smell, listen, get in tune with nature or even with the city, if you run in town. Keep watching the sky or stars or clouds, be aware of the nature, because it’s a help for you and it’s where we all come from.
10. Plan a reward if you finish the race. Ask for free massage to your partner, buy yourself a little gift, put your name down in the computer for another great race, to suffer again.