So, in no particularly order, and under the assumption a person has done the basic work to have the requisite fitness for a 100 miles, my tips for the mental side of 100 mile ultramarathoning:
- Decide what's negotiable and what's non-negotiable before the race begins. In the dark moments, you'll want to negotiate everything with yourself. Anything you've left as an open question will become available to negotiate away. My most recent 100 miler, I had a stated goal of finishing in under 24 hours. However, I kept a private goal of trying to get under 20 hours. Even though I was way under 20 hour pace at the time, in the first real dark moment it became very easy to negotiate my way to giving up that private goal and settling for the sub-24 hour goal.
- Know your motivations. There are the obvious answers, but I've discovered sometimes it's the less obvious that get you to the end. My first race, I wouldn't quit although I probably should have because the person who suddenly decided to pace me when I was fading made it so clear she really didn't want me to quit. No matter how painful it got, I did not want to let her down. I was also pushed forward (as slowly as it may have been) that I was at an invitation-only race and someone else might not have been there so I could have a space. In my second race, I wish I would have remembered that the faster I finished, the sooner my crew could get rest. Had that been at the forefront of my mind, I might have finished in under 20 hours. Frankly, I've also been motivated by how cool it would be when I get to post my finish to Facebook. Silly, of course. But a driving factor nonetheless. Motivation can come from all kinds of places and in a variety of shapes and forms. When running really long, it's critical to keep these motivations in mind and find new ones along the way.
- Form. As fatigue sets in, form deteriorates, both in running and walking. As form deteriorates, things start to hurt. As things start to hurt, form deteriorates even more and things start to hurt even, even more. It's a vicious cycle with one solution. A relentless mental focus on maintaining form. This saved me at Daytona 100. I was 65 miles in, had felt absolutely great for the first 100 kilometers and then suddenly had terrible pain in a knee. I was reduced to a snail's pace. After a few minutes, my pacer convinced me to try a short run. At first, it was a no go. But after a couple tries, I really focused on forcing good running form and the pain receded. I was running again! However, had I had that relentless focus earlier, I would likely have prevented the worst of the pain from the beginning.
- Have a plan. Follow the plan. And plan as many things as you can: when you plan to eat, when you plan to refill nutrition bottles, when you'll take salt and reapply lubrication and changes shoes and socks. Every little detail can be planned. If you have crew, let the crew keep you on plan. It becomes remarkably simple to forget even the most basic things deep into a race. In my first 100, the person pacing me asked me how much water I'd been drinking. As I thought about it, I realized I hadn't had a sip of liquid in a very long time, perhaps hours. And be completely ready to adjust the plan on the fly. Things aren't going to go according to plan. So make the adjustments that are needed. But refer back to the plan to make sure you're not forgetting anything.
Finally, if the goal is to finish the race, making the commitment to finish no matter what is the most important of all. (Disclaimer: risking potential injury falls outside the "no matter what" commitment.) I ran across the perfect description of commitment on the Science of Ultra podcast this week: "commitment is making the choice to give up choice." Choose to finish, leaving no other alternative available.