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What I overcame to be a better ultra-runner

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Post by: Annie Weiss, Swiftwick ambassador, ultra-runner & dietitian. 

There are countless struggles that ultra-running brings to life. The physical demands, mental battles and psychological barriers faced on any given training or racing day is unimaginable. There are so many components are involved in succeeding. But in retrospect, really not so much.

Sure, we can’t control the weather. And let’s face it, that affects all racers. We can’t control who shows up or how many bathrooms are on the course. But do all those things matter?

At first I thought so, but then the more I thought more about it, the more I realized that it’s not all those variables that’s creating success or failure. It’s me. I sat back and really started to evaluate my training versus racing. What were the differences between succeeding and failing? What limits did I really need to overcome? Here are the top 5 that I came up with.

5. Acceptance that it’s gonna hurt.

No matter the distance, the last third of the race always hurts. Even in the 5k distance, the last one-mile push can bring about a different type of pain. I realized this phenomenon around mile 40 of the 2015 Ice Age 50-miler. I remember sitting in 2nd place and trying so desperately to catch the leader, but whole body ached and I felt like I was breaking at every joint. My legs said “no” simply because my mind said an even stronger “NO.”

Most of ultra-running is accepting the element of pain. Since then I have mastered the art of the final third. The wheels turn on and I tell myself, “This sucks, but it’s the final section, you’re there with every fast step forward.’ (It does help to have your coach on your shoulder too ).

4. Hills & heights: my personal hell.

This may not top every ultra-runner’s top five list, but living in the Midwest is a huge hindrance for me. While other racers get backyard mountains to play around in everyday, my jungle gym consists of a treadmill, city mile flats and rolling horse/ski trails. So after the 50-mile championships, I realized I needed to suck it up and at least try to get on some hills.

I found the tallest Wisconsin hills I could, and now it’s all I do. Prior to ultra-running, road racing was mastering the backsides of Boston and getting through the wind tunnels of NY. Now the challenge has become climbing thousands of feet of mountain side for miles at a time.

3. Fueling.

Improper fueling will ruin a runner of any distance. It took me a solid year to master my nutrition. Now my routine includes eating and drinking by mile one and then continuing mile after mile.

“What?! You eat that much?!” Yes, yes I do. And I ask people why they don’t! I hear all kind of excuses such as, “My body can’t handle it,” “I don’t eat carbs,” or “I’m trying to lose weight.”

Your body is like car needing gasoline to run properly. Fueling your body with carbohydrates makes it a running machine, and giving it nothing or things that are not proven to fuel is like clogging the engine. Muscle wastes at altitude and carb burn rates go up 25-70%. Therefor you must EAT. I mastered that art a long time ago after bonking in the marathon a couple of times because I wanted to believe my body could run on nothing. Taking care of my engine has improved my running immensely and warded off injury. Strong bones, powerful muscles and fuel in the tank go a very long way.

2. Stress.

Think about the biggest, most important race you just did or have coming up. Nervous? Maybe not if you’re casually running, but if you are attempting a personal best or win, nerves take over like aliens!

I’ll paint a typical runners race morning. Wake up and pace around. Go to the bathroom 26 times. Check heart rate at start. Start two minutes faster than pace and slowly lose even a steady pace by the halfway point. Seem familiar?

Stress hormones can ruin a runner’s day. And you probably don’t even know it! Letting race day stress go is tough but very possible. First, I’ll play dietitian: cut the caffeine in everyday life and on race morning. It keeps stress hormones elevated. Sure, you can include it in the second half of your race. But skip it before you start.

Also it’s important to remember to breathe! Realize everyone showing up is there to race. Once you start running your best versus the best of the guy next to you, your racing will improve.

And finally, recognize you have 40+ miles to go. Play it smart, and you’ll catch up. I see it in every race – the top five at mile ten looks very different from the top five at mile 45.

1. Body image.

It’s incredible how a slight lack in body image acceptance can impact one’s sport to the point of failure. There are still countless people who tell me I don’t look like a runner. Followed by (shocked voice), “you can run a three-hour marathon?!” It’s not easy to accept your body when comments regarding your image continue to flood everyday conversation. I’m not a typical runner build, but I was not born a runner. I was made into one.

I’ve accepted my body for what it is. And once you accept that your body is a powerhouse capable of anything, it starts to work that way. Letting go of all the “get leaner” or “lose the next 5 pounds” crap will save you in your next race. Be yourself, be your body, be your own power. It works. People can judge, but at the end of the day, you win when you can let it all go and let your body function at its peak performance.

By changing the way I think about racing, myself, and the demands in training, I have become a stronger and more powerful ultra-runner and woman. The struggles will always be there, but managing them is the key.

This article originally appeared on Annie’s blog.

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