Mental Toughness

A big aspect of running is mental, particularly when you start venturing into marathon distances and beyond. You can do all sorts of training, but come race day it still takes a certain amount of courage.

I seem to be hitting this mental block lately. Back in January I psyched myself out and bailed on a run with an awesome group of people. I have yet to return to attempt it again.

This year, I’ve had a few races that started out with big climbs. Physically, I’ve done what I needed to do. I’ve hiked them at a comfortable pace for me, and allowed the most of the race field to pass me by and pull ahead (I’m a slow hiker. My hiking skills need work, too). But I’ve struggled mentally during these climbs.

It’s this crazy, self-doubt type of struggle. It’s not that I don’t think I’m capable of the challenge. It’s more that I go into complete panic mode about the task at hand. And it gets completely out of hand. My heart rate rises and sometimes I get dizzy – and I know it’s not from my effort level. It’s from those feelings of panic and anxiety that I let take over.

Let me explain how out of control it gets. It manifest itself in the physical ways I described above. But I’ve also felt these feelings so strongly that I have contemplated turning around and walking back to the starting line – dropping out less than 1-2 miles into a race that I’m capable of completing, simply because I’m nervous. I don’t know what the deal is, nor do I know why this has been getting so out of control. But so far, I’ve managed it.

I felt these feelings very strongly during the first climb at Terrapin. Then at Hungry Mother, I felt it during the first climb and during the second set of climbs. But by the time we got to the biggest climb at mile 10, I had settled in and was focused on the work at hand. Somewhere during that race a mental shift occurred, but I’m not sure how I got there.

Yeti 50 Miler is looming. Although I won’t face any panic-inducing climbs at Yeti, I think the sheer distance of the race may bring on some nerves, fear, and even panic.

But I think some of that is healthy, as long as it’s on a manageable level. If you’re not at least a little nervous at the start of an ultra you’re either in denial or you’re insane. And fear, as long as it’s not out of control, just shows you have a healthy respect for what you’re doing. Right? Right.

All of the training that goes into preparing for a long distance race is physically necessary, but it also helps you work on the mental aspect. You prepare mentally, so that the fear and/or anxiety you feel on race day is manageable. It doesn’t take over.

I also think if you continue to step out of your comfort zone, it will get better. My theory is that each time you face that fear, you train your brain to understand it a bit better. And then next time you face something that scary, it’s not as bad.

I’ve been working on tools to get a handle on these mental challenges. Fifty miles is a long way. As I was out running 20 miles this past weekend, I realized 20 miles is what I will need to do after running 30 miles. That’s a lot, and I can’t quite wrap my head around it.

Fifty miles is, like, way down the trail.

But like I said, I’m working on it. Hopefully come race day I’ll be prepared. In the meantime, if you’ve got any tips on how you endure when the going gets tough, I’m all ears.

Hungry Mother 25K – Race Report

The Hungry Mother 25K is a trail race that takes place at Hungry Mother State Park in Marion. This year’s race was on April 13. I love the trails at Hungry Mother. They’re beautiful and challenging. The race consisted of a 15.6 mile loop that showcased the trails throughout the park. There was also a 50K option that consisted of two loops.

I woke up on race morning with a pounding headache. There had been strong thunderstorms the night before, and I hadn’t slept well. I took some Tylenol, and had my pre-race coffee and breakfast. Then I hit the road to make the 1 hour 15 minute drive to Marion. I felt unusually tired on the drive there, as if I had been awake for a long time. But once I arrived at the park and walked around some, I felt better. My headache was gone, too.

I picked up my race stuff, which included a technical t-shirt, socks with the race logo, and a collapsible reusable cup. I headed back over to my car and made my final preparations for the race, while talking with two other runners parked next to me. We then headed over to the start/finish area for the pre-race meeting. It was overcast and in the mid-60’s, with storms in the forecast later in the day. At 8 AM on the dot, we were off and running.

Blue shirt, green hat. That’s me. 🙂

We started out down the road before heading onto the trails. From there, we immediately started climbing. The course climbed approximately 400 feet over the first 1.2 miles. I primarily hiked, knowing we would have approximately 3,500 feet of climbing total over the 15 miles.

Despite the fact that I was going at my own pace, I once again started to get really anxious here. I don’t know what the deal is with these races that start out with a climb, but I just start to freak out for no reason. This doesn’t happen during training runs that start out with a climb. I tried to calm myself down and told myself to just do my own thing and enjoy being on the trails.

If you look closely, you can see runners making their way up the climb ahead.

After the first climb there was a long, mostly downhill stretch. I had fun running down the trails through here. Just before mile 3, we began another 300 foot climb over about a mile. Again, I hiked. And again, I felt nervous. What the heck. I was completely fine a second ago. At the top, I was rewarded with a few nice views of the lake and of Molly’s Knob, the high point in the park.

We would later climb to that peak around mile 11.

From here was another long downhill to the first full aid station, a little after mile 5. The volunteers were awesome, cheering the runners down the hill and into the aid station. They had water and Heed, and an assortment of food. I refilled one of my flasks and grabbed a triangle of PB&J. I try not to spend more than a minute in aid stations, so I thanked the volunteers and headed out. As I was heading back out on the course, so was a girl named Lisa whom I had spoken with before the race. We have run several of the same races, and had actually finished within a minute of each other at Terrapin.

So we left the first aid station together, crossed the highway, and ran through a campground area. The campground was pretty full and I wondered what these people must think of the runners coming through. Many of them were sitting outside watching us go by and cheering us on. Lisa and I were chatting away with each other, and one gentleman joked we must be feeling pretty good. And I definitely was.

From the campground, we headed onto the lake trail and over to the CCC trail. I hadn’t run on this particular trail before, and I enjoyed exploring something new. The trail was surrounded by rhododendron. We encountered another climb through here, and Lisa and I separated a bit. Once again, my nerves spiked as I began to climb. But I kept moving, and before long I came to the top and was rewarded with another downhill back to the lake trail.

The weather was still in the mid-60’s, but with the effort of running it was starting to feel warm. Luckily a small rain shower and a light breeze moved in, and it felt so refreshing. I ran along the rolling lake trail before turning onto a trail that climbed up towards the next aid station just before mile 10. It was a big party here, and the volunteers were so enthusiastic. They helped me refill both of my water bottles, and I ate one of my gels. Looming ahead of me was a grueling 1.5 ish mile climb up to Molly’s Knob.

This section of the course was an out and back. As I began the climb, I saw runners on their way back down. We all exchanged cheers and encouragement with each other as we passed. The trail climbs steadily and relentlessly for the first mile. Then, for the last half mile or so it gets even steeper. It’s the kind of steep where you want to stop and take breaks, even when you’re just hiking. I was 2.5 hours into the race, and definitely feeling it. But the view at the top was spectacular.

From there, it was back down to the aid station. The descent is so steep in some places that it’s actually kind of painful to run down. But I was determined to make up some time here. I rolled into the aid station a little before mile 13, refilled my water again, and drank a cup of Coke. The lead 50K runner arrived at the aid station at the same time as me, as he made his way through his second loop. He still had the out and back to Molly’s Knob to do, so he was about three miles behind me. One of my goals was to finish before the first 50K runner, so I headed down the trail.

My legs were really fatigued now, but I tried to continue to run a strong pace down to the park road and along the lake trail. This next part is where the race director shows a bit of his masochistic side. 🙂 You’re literally within sight of the finish line, but first you hang a right and run a 2 mile loop.

There were a few more climbs in here, and I was really ready to be done. I was 3 hours and 50 minutes into my run, and my A goal for the race was to finish under 4 hours. Finally, I hit a downhill and knew I was headed back towards the road and the finish line. I hit the road without about 3 tenths of a mile to go, and pushed to the finish. I crossed the line in 3:56:48, just sneaking in under my goal. The RD gave me a high five and excitedly asked what I thought of the course. I told him I thought it was a great showcase of the park’s trails. And although it was demanding, I also really enjoyed it. The pride he took in the race definitely showed.

Finisher’s award

Remember that lead 50K runner? Well, he finished just 5 minutes after me, smashing the old course record. He had an incredible race, and I’m glad I snuck across the line before him, hah! From there, I enjoyed the delicious post-race lunch, provided by Sister’s Cafe, and a complimentary beer from Wolf Hills Brewery. Perfection.

Overall, I was really impressed with this race. It was well organized and the course was well marked. The volunteers were so helpful and supportive. I can’t say enough good things about the race. I will definitely be back to run it again in the future.

Mill Mountain Mayhem 10K – Race Report

This past weekend I ran my fourth, and final, race of the RNUTS series – the Mill Mountain Mayhem 10K. It’s the race I love to hate, and it’s also the race that was voted both ‘most loved’ and ‘most hated’ in the series.

I arrived in Roanoke about 40 minutes before the start and picked up my shirt and bib. Then I hit the restroom and caught up with a few friends before walking up to the starting area. I realized I was feeling really hungry, which worried me a bit. I hadn’t brought any fuel for the race, since it was a 10K. Luckily, for whatever reason, it never bothered me during the race nor did I think about it while I was running.

The walk to the start

We all gathered at the start on the JP Fishburn Parkway, and just after 9 AM we were off and running. We started out climbing up the road. I alternated between running and hiking and tried to maintain a good pace on the way up. After a mile, we turned onto the singletrack trails. It was so green. I love this time of year when everything seems to come alive again.

Some sections along here were really rocky and I tried to be careful and not roll an ankle. I made it through unscathed, and popped out onto the old road up Mill Mountain. I was surprised to find a small cheering section here, and it gave me a little boost and I headed towards the steep climb on the old road.

Photo credit: Sunshine

The section on the old road during the race doesn’t last long, but it is very steep. I had planned on alternating running and hiking this part, but I ended up just hiking.

After the section on the old road, we turned back onto trails and made our way up to the top of Mill Mountain. Along the way, we passed by a water stop where I grabbed a cup of Skratch. Then it was a bit more climbing before arriving at the Mill Mountain Star. I started to realize I was on track for a course PR.

Photo credit: Jay Proffitt

I passed by the star and prepared for the 1.5 mile screaming fast downhill to the finish. Theoretically, you should be able to make up a lot of time here. And I’m sure some runners do. But most of this trail is very rocky and rooty. My first priority was to not get hurt, with other big goals on the horizon. So I ran conservative here.

Photo credit: Josh McFadin

I made it down the trail unscathed, and crossed back across JP Fishburn Parkway where the race had started. From here, the trail was fairly smooth to the finish and I pushed my pace harder. I ended up finishing in 1:24:47, a 20 minute course PR. I felt really strong during this race. I worked hard, but didn’t push it too much. I definitely have a love/hate relationship with Mill Mountain Mayhem. And I’m always glad to make it through in one piece!

Terrapin Mountain Half Marathon – Race Report

The Terrapin Mountain Half is a trail race that runs through the mountains of the George Washington National Forest. It starts and finishes at the Sedalia Center, located about 20 minutes north of Bedford. The course was absolutely gorgeous, but it was also a tough one. With over 3,000 feet of gain, this race was definitely one of those “big, scary” races for me. It brought new experiences and a few lessons. I knew it was going to be tough, but it’s a good thing I had no clue what I was in for.

Barry and I left stupid early on race morning to make the 2 hour drive to the Sedalia Center. We checked in, picked up our race bibs and participant mugs, and attended the pre-race meeting. The race started at 7 AM, just before sunrise, with the ominous Terrapin Mountain looming in the distance. It was in the low 30’s and windy. But with a clear day, we were guaranteed some great views along the course.

We started out running down a paved road, and then began climbing up a gravel road that eventually turned to trail. I ran the first mile or so, before starting to alternate hiking and running. During the second mile, I pretty much switched to 100% hiking. I expected to do so, as most of this race’s climbing comes during the first 5 miles.

Photo: Eco-X

I had a few waves of nerves hit me as we began climbing. I knew I had a lot of work ahead of me. Although I spend a lot of time on trails, these mountain runs are in a league of their own. I definitely felt anxious, similar to when I psyched myself out of the 311 to 220 attempt earlier this year. Each time, I took several deep breaths and told myself to chill out. I reminded myself that I was fine, to just keep hiking, and to take it at my own pace.

We went through one small stream crossing, and then arrived at a bigger creek crossing just before mile 2.5. I had walked through the first one, as I do most water crossings, not minding getting my feet wet. But at the bigger one, I hesitated for some reason. I saw footsteps off to the left at an upper part of the creek and decided to try and cross there. It was a poor choice. I slipped partway across and fell into the deep water – completely submerging my body and head.

Ironically, I paused to take a photo of the creek before falling in the darn thing.

I was absolutely soaked from my fall. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I also really banged myself up. I ended up with about 10 bruises on both of my legs, a big bruise on the back of my right thigh, and a cut on my right shin – all from that one fall. I guess I made it count. None of that hurt, though, and actually didn’t bother me until later that day. But I was immediately freezing cold after my fall.

When I fell, some runners behind me called out asking if I was okay. Per usual, I immediately answered I was fine. I popped up out of the water, and continued climbing up the trail.

Within half a mile, the folks who had asked if I was alright caught up with me. Turns out I couldn’t have fallen in front of a better group of people, as several of them were wilderness first aid trained. They again checked in with me to see how I was doing. I replied that I was cold, but I joked we had a lot of miles left and I would dry out. I realize now that they understood my situation a lot better than I did. Remember the weather? With the wind, the ‘feels like’ temperature was in the 20’s and would only get colder as we continued to climb. I was soaked to the bone and my clothes were actually already beginning to freeze.

Side note: I never told anyone about my blog or asked permission to use names, so we’re going with initials for the folks that I met and that helped me on the race course.

One of the runners, P, immediately started offering me a dry layer. She knew I needed to get some of my soaked clothes off of me. However, I was really cold and I couldn’t imagine taking anything off in that wind. Instinct was overriding common sense. As we got closer to the first aid station at Camping Gap (mile 4.1) I got even colder. I started to understand my situation better, and I started to feel scared. I was still with that group, though, and I tried to draw some comfort from that. I didn’t know it, but they were actually keeping tabs on me- watching for signs of hypothermia.

Given my situation, I considered dropping out of the race. However, we had been warned at the pre-race meeting not to drop at the first aid station. They provided support to the 50K runners through mile 22, and wouldn’t be closing up until the afternoon. If you dropped here, you’d be waiting a long time for a ride back. So although I considered it, I felt like I should continue on in the race if I could.

The climb to the first aid station seemed to take forever. I was so cold and I started to feel dizzy. When I finally saw the aid station up ahead I sighed with relief. However, the wind was absolutely gusting in the clearing where the aid station was located. I almost wanted to turn around and go back down the trail to get out of the wind.

There was a lady watching all of the runners come into the aid station. I think she may have been the medical person, because she kind of focused in on the cut on my leg. P explained to her that it was just a scrape, but that I had fallen in the creek and was soaked. She asked if we could get into someone’s car to get out of the wind so she could give me some layers. We were able to do so, and I ditched both my t-shirt and long sleeve for two of her long sleeve shirts. My hands weren’t working well and it took me several minutes to get out of my shirts and put hers on. I think this left her with just one shirt and a thin wind jacket. I asked several times if she would be alright, but she brushed off my questions. I’m pretty sure if I had tried to refuse her dry layers she would have forced me into them. Hah! We couldn’t do much about my soaked capris, but P advised me to tie my long sleeve around my waist. Even though it was frozen, she said it would help keep my core warm.

I felt a lot better with the dry layers on, but was immediately freezing again when we got out of the car. I quickly shoved my t-shirt in my pack and got ready to leave the aid station. Some of P’s group was hanging back to wait for more of their runners, but she said she was going to stay with me. We were headed into the final 0.5 – 1 mile climb to the summit of Terrapin Mountain. It had the steepest sections of trail we would see all day, and had the highest wind.

I didn’t make it too far up the trail, before I was so cold that I wanted to turn around and go back to the aid station. I couldn’t believe how hard the wind was blowing and my bare hands were cold and started to hurt a lot. I was moving really slowly and stopped a few times, but P was up ahead and encouraged me to keep moving. The trail was rocky and I did my best, but I kept stumbling over the rocks which was frustrating.

We soon caught up with T, who was part of the same group as P. I think I had gotten kind of whiny about my hands being cold, which I’m now embarrassed about. T gave me his gloves, which left him with nothing for his hands. He tucked his hands into his sleeves and told me to keep his gloves as long as I needed them. I’m incredibly grateful for their help. The trail community definitely takes care of each other, and I would not have finished this race without them. But beyond finishing or not finishing a race, I would have been in some serious trouble without their assistance. The only thing I had to help myself was my emergency space blanket.

We continued climbing until we finally made it to the top. The view at the summit of Terrapin Mountain was a highlight of the course. I had been looking forward to it, but when we finally made it there I stayed just long enough to briefly take in the incredible view and snap a photo. It was SO windy out on the point, and I started to get very cold again. So I immediately turned around and continued back along the race course. I parted ways with T and P, as they lingered to take in the view. They encouraged me to keep moving and said they’d be right behind me in a few minutes. They also told me it wouldn’t be as windy once I got on the other side of the mountain.

As I headed out on my own, my focus was on getting out of the wind. The trail was rocky, as it roller coastered along the ridgeline. Soon, I arrived at the second ‘highlight’ of the course – a section referred to as “Fat Man’s Misery.” It’s a crevice between two rocks that you have to lower yourself into and shimmy through. It was kind of cool, but honestly not my favorite.

From here the course went through some beautiful sections of mountain laurel. There was a lot of downhill, and I had expected to run all of it and make up some time here. But a lot of it was so steep and technical that I actually had to hike.

I picked my way down the mountain, running when I could, and finally rolled into the second (and last) aid station just before mile 8. On the way there, I linked up with two other runners – A and D. We were well matched, and I would stay with them from here to the finish.

As we left the aid station, we passed by P and T making their way down to the aid station. I was glad to see they were in good spirits, and I returned T’s gloves. P commented that I looked much better. I was feeling good now that I was out of the wind and my pants were nearly dry.

For the record – it took over two hours for my thinnest piece of clothing to dry during the race. My other pieces of clothing (long sleeve, gloves, etc.) were still frozen at the finish.

Hard to see, but this is a waterfall we ran by in the final 5 miles.

I was expecting the final 5 miles to be primarily downhill, but there ended up being a fair amount of uphill left to climb. A, D, and I ran when we could and hiked when we had to. There were a few more creek crossings, and this time I made it through them unscathed. In the final 1.5 miles, Barry showed up on the course to run us in.

It was funny when Barry realized half of the clothes I was wearing were not mine. I regaled him with my creek story, and he then shared with us how his race had gone. He had a great day and finished in 2:33 and change. It was nice to have his company and hear about his race. We made our way back onto the gravel road and then the paved road – retracing the course towards the finish.

Photo: Eco-X.

Once we were on the pavement it was just a short stretch to the finish. We picked up the pace, and crossed together in 4:04. I had a goal of finishing in 4 hours going into this race. Given everything that happened out on the course, I’m happy with my time. After finishing, I got changed into some dry clothes and waited for P and T to finish. Soon they came across the finish line. I again thanked them both for their help, and returned P’s shirts (wish I could have washed them first!). Barry and I then enjoyed the delicious BBQ lunch being served at the finish line before heading home.

All in all, it was another successful race day. But on this day, my success definitely hinged on the goodwill of others. I already knew the running and trail communities were incredible. But that point was definitely driven home at the Terrapin Mountain trail race.

Montvale 10 Miler – Race Report

Last weekend Barry and I headed up to Montvale to run the Montvale 10 mile trail race. This race is my favorite in the RNUTS series. The trails wind through an old growth forest and they’re super twisty, which is fun. Check out the map from my GPS data:

Barry and I arrived about 20 minutes before the start of the race. It was just enough time to pick up our race swag and bibs, hit the restroom, and catch the tail end of the pre-race talk. It was a gorgeous sunny day, albeit a bit windy, with temperatures in the low 40’s. We were promised that the trails were in excellent condition, other than a few muddy sections near the creek. But before any of that, we all had one obstacle to tackle just to get to the start: the creek.

I think the ‘feels like’ temperature that morning was in the 30’s and let me tell you that water was icy cold! The creek dipped in the middle, and the water came up to my knees while crossing. We mingled at the start with soaked socks and shoes. My feet were freezing, and then numb, but my socks and shoes did dry out during the race… just in time for us to run back through the creek on the way to the finish. Ha!

A little after 9 AM, we were off and running. We started out down a flat, grassy trail along the creek. There were some muddy spots through here, but they would pretty much be the only sloppy sections on the course, other than the last little stretch to the finish. Within the first mile, we turned off of the wider access road and onto singletrack trails.

I focused on running a smooth, comfortable pace. The race also had a 5 mile option that started 10 minutes after us. I had hoped to make it to mile 2 before the front runners of the 5 mile caught me, but it was not to be. As I made my way up the gradual climb to the water stop around 1.5 miles, the top three guys came flying by. The 5 mile does one loop, while the 10 mile does two loops. So from mile 1.5 to our split around mile 4, I was constantly having to let faster runners pass. Everyone was polite in passing, and I made sure to listen for them coming up so I could yield to them. But I was getting tired of not being able to just run.

Finally, we made it to the split and the 5 milers headed off to the finish. I was really happy to let them go and finally have the course to ourselves. Things got peaceful and the course got quieter. I was finally able to just settle in and enjoy the trails.

During the first loop I had felt really ‘off.’ I seemed to have pains that were just rotating around – one minute my hip was bothering me, the next my achilles, etc. Nothing lingered or got worse, but it seemed to be a constant rotation of pains. But a little over the halfway point I finally just stated to feel like myself.

Photo credit: Mountain Junkies

One thing I love about this race is how the trails are constantly changing. You’re going uphill one second, downhill the next, and then you might have a short flat stretch. It’s fun and if I was stronger I think I could definitely run the whole thing.

Around mile 6, I realized I had a shot at a course PR. That wasn’t the goal going into this race, but I figured why not go for it. With that resolve in mind, of course something crazy had to happen. Between miles 7 and 8, I came to a three way trail intersection. The girl sweeping the course was standing there with an armful of course markings. Uh, oh. She was confused to see me, and I was surprised to see her. She thought I had gotten off course or had gone the wrong way. But I explained I was pretty sure I was on course, and that there were other runners behind me. There was another woman who had been taking photos just up the trail. She walked down and pointed me in the right direction. About a quarter mile later, I saw another pink and black polka dot streamer and knew I was on course. All of the markings were fine the rest of the way to the finish, and the photographer stayed in that three way intersection to direct the rest of the runners. Sometimes things happen in races, and you just have to figure it out. Not a huge deal. However, I did lose at least two minutes in the confusion and wasn’t sure if I would get that course PR anymore.

The last mile of this race always kicks my butt. You’re so close to being done. But then there are a few short, steep climbs. Once you get up those, you get a nice view of a field and some mountains and then you have a big descent down to the creek. THEN you’re really almost done.

In years past, the creek crossing has had a skinny, bouncy log. However, I guess it has washed away since the last time I ran the race. Instead, I waded back through the water. I thought “Hey, cool. Now my shoes are super clean.” But that was short lived. The grassy section heading towards the finish had ankle-deep, shoe sucking mud. So much for clean! I had a minute left to PR, and I pushed hard for the finish. I crossed the line in 2:04:50, good for a 10 second course PR.

Photo credit: Mountain Junkies

After the race, I hung out with Barry and enjoyed some post-race food while the awards were going on. When they got to my age group, I was surprised to hear my name called for third place. Full disclosure: there were only three in my age group, so it was an automatic placement. But hey, I showed up and ran, so it counts right?

Photo credit: Mountain Junkies

Next up Barry and I both have the Terrapin Mountain Half Marathon this weekend. It’s got over 3,000 feet of climbing, and is sure to kick my butt.

"I've opted for fun in this lifetime" -Jerry Garcia