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Positivity will get you through

I was 19 miles into my 25-mile “welcome-to-the-season race” and a steep, mile-long hill loomed ahead …

Photo by Bernie Boettcher

I was 19 miles into my 25-mile “welcome-to-the-season race” and a steep, mile-long hill loomed ahead like the road into purgatory. I managed to momentarily keep it together after I recalled the elevation map warning me of such horrors and the extended downhill that should immediately follow. “Piece of cake,” I lied to myself, as I slowed to an exaggerated body-flailing stumble up what must have been a 60-percent incline.

You see, the thing is, I have a list of my top three worst races of all time. I should clarify here: By worst races I really mean mentally challenging races. I can remember in detail each death march on my list. This race wasn’t even on the radar for making a spot on the list.

It may seem like a bad idea, to keep a running list of races in my head where I nearly crashed and burned. To relive the dread and pain of near death in the mountains or on a track in the oppressive heat. But, to me, it’s all a head game. It makes perfect sense. Knowing that I have survived a tough race in the past gives me strength to draw on during a tough race. I can nearly always convince myself that “this isn’t so bad” and “I’ve done this hundreds of time before.”  After that, though, it’s just a matter of finishing.

In this particular case, my thoughts kept wandering over to how my search-and-rescue textbook (I’m halfway through an intensive two-month training period) had rated “positive mental attitude” above all else on the list of survival necessities. Next on the list were the things you would expect: water, shelter, food. I kept thinking about it as I nearly crawled up that road. I decided the authors were right (no, I knew they were right) and turned my thoughts to ice baths, endless gallons of cool water I could dunk my head in and … just finishing the damn race!

I’ve always been a proponent of breaking things up into small, manageable tasks. A marathon isn’t 26.2 miles, its groups of four miles run consecutively until the finish line. Finding something I can wrap my head around is the best way for me to successfully complete a task. It all goes back to training my mind to accept what I’m about to do. This goes for anything—an arduous task at work, a particularly tough workout or getting through a long, busy day.

As I trudged through the race’s last six miles, I had lots to think about to keep me going. The three races of death flashed through my mind: the steaming hot 10K on the track in Austin, Texas, when the official got confused and told me I had one more lap to go and then realized his error with a smirk as he told me he was “just kidding, you have another lap.” I may or may not have apologized to him after the race for being ruder than I intended when I finally did cross the finish line. Or the eight-mile race straight up the side of a ski mountain which was my welcoming reception to trail running in Colorado. We were running past resort signs with the names of various runs and arrows clearly urging us to go down the mountain, not farther up! I spent the night curled into the fetal position on the floor with altitude sickness; I fully intended to never run again. Or, finally, the wretched 5K during college cross country when 300 pounding racers ran through two feet of mud with no respite the entire way. To this day, I still shy away from notoriously muddy courses.

Luckily, I haven’t had to update my list in many years. Despite the steep hills and technical rocks and occasionally long intervals between aid stations, the Desert Rats 25-Miler in Fruita, Colorado, was strikingly beautiful. Following brutal climbs, we were rewarded with canyon views and the high rock formations shielded us from the intense sun for much of the first half of the race. Next April will find me back for round two. I am always interested to see how I handle a course I know vs. one I don’t. I suppose both come down to one thing: a positive mental attitude.

Jen Burn is the Subscriptions Manager at Trail Runner. She will run her first 50-mile race, the Silver Rush 50, in Leadville, Colorado, this summer.

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