he Mental Battle during the MdS
A couple of weeks ago Sussanah Chan finished the Marathon des Sables. Billed as "the Toughest Footrace in the World" it consists of a self sufficient 6 stage 156 mile race across the Sahara Desert.
Water is provided in rations and a cover to sleep under at night but everything else you need to survive in the Sahara, food, sleeping gear, and survival kit needs to be carried on your back.
Days are broken down into stages of up to 50 miles. It isn't until 48 hours before the start that participants are told how the week long race will pan out. This race should be a daunting prospect for anyone looking to take part. That was the case for Sussanah who gives an account of how she faced the psychological battle of taking on the Marathon des Sables.
There is a plethora and depth of preparation for such a race involving training programs, nutrition and kit. These are reasonably well documented on websites and blogs from previous runners, even I have joined that community of documenters on my blog.
However one of the key things that must also be prepared, and is perhaps one of the most useful weapons in your arsenal, is your mind.
I'm relatively new to running. I started with a half marathon back in October 2011 and I only did that as my brother egged me on. I remember crossing the finish line of that half marathon utterly exhausted, legs aching and wondering how on earth people can run twice that distance. The next day it hurt just stepping down off of kerbs.
I can remember, clearly, the elation and sense of achievement I felt when I went home with the medal around my neck. If you have completed races you know exactly what I am talking about. That feeling that takes away any memories of the agony during the race and coaxes you to sign up again.
It's also the feeling that drives me to finish lines. I went from half's to full marathons to Ultra running over a relatively short period of time.
There have been some tough races. Runs which have not gone my way and I have found it terribly hard to push on, not found the enjoyment I was looking for and been disappointed with my performance. It was these awful race experiences that ultimately strengthened me.
Rather than being negative and dwelling about how badly it had all gone, I ‘banked’ those feelings of disappointment, using them to push me on next time.
It took me 2 years to finally realise that the only difference between struggling through a race and doing my best, is in my mind. It doesn’t matter if I don’t run faster each time (races differ so much and things like the weather can play a major part in performance) as long as I know I have pushed myself and done the best I could on the day, I am happy.
In the lead up to the Marathon des Sables I began training my mind to get used to dealing with what I was about to run through.
On long back to back training runs and in races, I embarked on dealing with the tedium of running for hours and hours, fighting the urge to stop and instead deal with running through pain. (Obviously running with an injury and just running through endurance running pain are two different things and it is important to be able to distinguish between the two).
I adopted psychological techniques to spur myself on, to deal with breaking down what I had to do, and I used the 'banked' difficult run experiences to my advantage.
I practiced using positive mental imagery and using emotional thoughts to help push me on when the going got tough; I would visualise the finish line moment, recalling the strange way in which the running pain and fatigue disappear when the finish line reached and the medal is round my neck. The more vivid the image and the more detailed I could connect and feel the emotions and sensations with those images the more effective they became. These techniques were very helpful during the Marathon des Sables.
Running in the desert I had to keep my mind busy for the long hours in any way I could. I don’t race with music so I used my time to occupy the thinking space with all manner of thoughts in a disciplined attempt at keeping out thoughts of how much my feet hurt, how hungry I was, how much my back ached or how far I had left to go. Keeping my mind occupied was at the top of my agenda.
I'd start the day with a hit list of things to go over in my mind to keep it occupied. I made sure I looked around me to absorb and enjoy the beautiful landscape I was running though. I talked to other runners. I approached each day as a new day, waking up only thinking about what was ahead breaking it down to checkpoints, (mostly 13km apart) this made it seem much more achievable.
Whenever I passed a checkpoint or a particularly tough section I found that acknowledgement was a powerful ally. Taking that moment to enjoy what I had accomplished removed some of the burden of what was still to come and gave a moment of relief and peace that helped spur me on.
The most difficult period for me during the race was on day 2. I remember looking infront of me and seeing the ground just rise at a steep incline. Infornt of me was a 1.5km high Jebel. It was rocky, with many loose and unstable, and the only way to the other side was to climb with fatigued legs, literally on all fours at points. I'm not good with heights and had not expected anything like this on the course!
My heavy rucksack affected my balance while climbing and as I gradually crested the top of the Jebel my legs went weak with fear. I am incredibly grateful for my fellow competitors who, despite their own struggles and suffering coaxed and guided me down back to an altitude I am more comfortable with.
I remember feeling panicked at one stage on that Jebel, but I had a fleeting thought that behind me was a totally blind runner. Although it sounds very cliche it struck that he too had to do this and with far greater difficulty. With renewed perspective I managed to pull myself together and pushed on without looking back or down focusing only on the next step just ahead of me which was taking me towards the finish.
For me the key to getting through the MdS was about remaining positive, while of course physical training also plays an essential role without the psychological strength I wouldn't of been able to get through the tough times.
Refusingto let anything get to me, and managing to blank things that I did not want to think about out were crucial. The finish line at the end of the 48mile stage was one ofthe best finish lines I ever crossed and is a memory that will stay with me for a long time!
I always held on to the prospect of having the medal hang down from my neck, thinking about it during every single stage. I wanted to enjoy the race, and on reflection it was impossible not to. It was such a beautiful extreme experience. I would definitely do it all over again.