A Case Study:
I didn’t want to be there. I wanted to breathe dry, thin alpine air while running on a ridge crest and leaping over rocks under a cloudy sky. Instead, I was running through a gloomy, saturated forest with thick, humid air engulfing me like a sticky embrace. I didn’t want to be there. On mile two I heard the first clap of thunder. Minutes later a monsoon unleashed from the dark sky and the muddy trail transformed into a murky river. Seriously?! I stood under the boroughs of a pine tree feeling damp, defeated and aggravated. I didn’t want to be there. The next clap of thunder rumbled directly overhead and a flash of lightning briefly illuminated the dreary forest. The sudden burst of light also seemed to snap me out of my negative stupor. I’d fallen into the trap of catastrophic thinking and was choosing to be miserable! I finally engaged with my attitude and resolved to put an end to fixating on the less-than optimal conditions. I stepped out from under the protection of the tree determined to not only complete the run, but to also enjoy the experience. For the next two hours my stream of thoughts progressed as follows:
… I’m so grateful that I’m running through this thunderstorm in a dense forest and not on an open ridge… The thunderstorm brought wind and it’s helping with the high humidity… The rain is washing off all the mud that keeps accumulating on my legs …The mud will work my balance, strengthen my ankles and improve reactions to unexpected changes in terrain…Puddles are fun to splash through! I feel like a kid again!…This is so much fun! I was getting bored running the same trail every Friday, but in the storm it’s a totally different experience! …
By the time I returned to my car I was drenched, muddy and smiling. I even had to remind myself that I was tapering and talk myself out of adding another hour to the run. I went from being irritated about the weather conditions to enjoying the very same circumstances all by deliberating spinning each negative into a positive. I tricked myself into having fun!
Positivity and Ultra-Running
Ultra-runners tend to be almost contagiously positive! Is it because this community is full of happy-go lucky-folks who are incapable of entertaining a single negative thought? Absolutely not! All runners experience hardship of some kind out on the trails or roads. Therefore, we need to be actively in tune with our thought process. In doing so we can maintain a positive outlook in adverse situations and avoid variations of catastrophic thinking. This is especially true for ultra-runners who spend numerous hours on the trail allowing for numerous things to go wrong! Falling into a spiral of negatively while undertaking huge feats of endurance can easily end a race, training run or personal project. Re-framing negative situations into a positive can be a real challenge on mile 78 when choosing between chips and crackers seems like a monumental effort. Luckily, positivity is a learned skill that can be practiced and perfected.
What Are We Preventing?
I was first introduced to the concept of catastrophic thinking in Cory Reese’s book Nowhere Near First: Ultramarathon Adventures from the Back of the Pack. This unhelpful phenomenon, also known as catastrophizing, is a negative thought process where a person latches onto “worse-case scenarios” which, in turn, causes intense anxiety. It’s not surprising that negative thought patterns appear in ultra runners during endurance events. GI trouble, random aches and pains, blisters, sleep deprivation, heat, altitude and/or a multitude of other issues can and will have an effect on a runner’s attitude and that’s normal. Problems occur when athletes’ negative sentiments spiral out of control in a catastrophic thinking pattern leading them to feel hopeless and/or believe that there is no point in continuing.
It is worth noting that catastrophic thinking is not the same as the practice of “bracing yourself”. In his book How Bad Do You Want It? Coach Matt Fitzgerald describes bracing yourself as the practice of mentally preparing for an upcoming unpleasant experience and/or worse-case scenario. Unlike catastrophizing, bracing yourself is not surrounded by negatively. It is a preparation and performance strategy grounded in acceptance. “The more discomfort an athlete expects, the more she can tolerate, and the more discomfort she can tolerate, the faster she can go” Fitzgerald explains.
Awareness Is Your First Defense
The key to combating the trap of catastrophic thinking is identifying it before things get wildly of control. Athletes are constantly monitoring their bodies and taking corrective action toward anything hindering their performance. For example, if a runner is feeling overheated, they might slow their pace and seek out ice at the next aid station. The same attention needs to be given to the athlete’s mental status. A runner must make a conscious effort to be aware of their mind and recognize when negative thoughts begin to take control of their attitude. When negativity is identified, the athlete can then choose a strategy to actively cultivate positivity. Though I have listed each method separately, there is some overlap as several techniques can often be combined to produce the desired positive result.
The Art of Spinning
The goal of a political spin is to “control or influence communication in order to deliver one’s preferred message.” Spinning can be an excellent line of defense to combat negative thoughts during any low moment and can often be combined with the other methods on this list. It is amazing how many times I have found myself in a seemingly undesirable situation and have convinced myself otherwise by finding a way to spin things in my favor and relate a positive message to myself. A simple trick is to deliberately search for one teeny, tiny positive (no matter how ridiculous) and concentrate completely on that. This may, undeniably, take some creativity so try to have fun with it. Sometimes the way you spin a situation is so far-fetched and ridiculous it will make you laugh!
Laugh and Smile
Ultra-marathons essentially consist of a bunch of people lining up to run an insane number of miles in (sometimes) horrendous conditions while snacking on semi-liquid substances in single serving packets. These people pay money for the privilege! Sometimes they even wait for ten years to experience a particular type of suffering because the race has a lottery. Ultra-running is a pretty hilarious sport if you “spin” it the right way and that’s excellent for fostering positivity! An article featured by the Mayo Clinic notes that laughter increases oxygen consumption, relieves tension in the muscles and reduces the stress response. Additionally, fake or stimulated laugher may produce the same positive benefits as spontaneous laugher. The next time you’re getting frustrated or stressed on the trail try to find the humor in it (and if you can’t laugh or smile anyway). Sometimes things are so bad they can become downright hysterical. I remember once being so exhausted after a race that I forgot how to unlock the car to get to the food and puffy coat within. I just stood there exhausted and frustrated trying to recall what I needed to do to open the door. The situation was so pathetic I could have cried, but I began to laugh instead. This seemed to snap me back into focus. I needed to use the clicker in my hand!
Choose Your Words
Something as simple as choosing different vocabulary to describe the situation can change your entire outlook. For example, on a recent self-supported 50k I encountered what seemed to be endless stretches of slippery, sloppy, shoe sucking mud. I consciously chose to describe the trail with the mild word “tacky” instead of “wet quicksand that might swallow me whole.” Another option is to use the word “just” to downplay a situation that can be interpreted as negative. For example, while in a torrential downpour you can think to yourself “oh it’s just a bit of rain. No big deal.”
The Choice is Yours
Just as you choose to press register and sign up for the race, you have the power to choose how to interpret and respond to circumstances during a run. It’s a simple, but often forgotten fact. When something unpleasant occurs, you can choose to be miserable or commit to the discomfort and actively find ways to make it tolerable by creating positivity. Many things happen out on the trails that are out of your control. However, you always have command of your thoughts. It’s not easy and yes, your mind can be chaotic, but on the end of the day you can choose to fight back against obstructive thoughts and regain control.
It Can Always Be Worse
Imagine you’re in a 100 mile ultra. It’s 95 degrees on the trail in the shade. Your feet feel like one monstrous blister. You can’t decide what hurts more: your right quad or your left hamstring. You have thirty more miserable miles to go and you can’t stand the thought of eating one more gel. Worst still, you cannot find the humor in this nor can your brain find the energy to creatively spin the situation into a positive. You feel terrible and you want this to end so you can sit in an air-conditioned room with your feet up while inhaling a tub of ice cream. Yikes!
We all have moments where we simply don’t have the drive to put creative effort into positivity. However, there is a solution: the art of comparison. No matter how bad the situation is I can usually come up with a worse scenario (if I haven’t already done so!) without much exertion. This can help make the current predicament seem less dire. As a bonus, this will also typically cause me to suddenly feel very grateful for my reality.
Remembering that “things can always be worse” is similar, but not the same as catastrophic thinking. Catastrophic thinking centers on believing that the worst-case scenario can and will occur. The “it can always be worse” strategy focuses on downplaying your current situation by comparing it to worst-case scenarios. However, there is no belief that the worst-case scenario will actually happen. The internal dialogue of this strategy might look like this:
“Running on a trail in 95 degrees is better than running in 105 degrees on blacktop. I have some pretty bad blisters, but at least I still have all my toenails! My legs are really messed up, but I can still move forward nonetheless. Thirty miles is a crazy amount of distance to cover, but it is way less than 100 miles! Heck, I’m more than halfway through. These gels are really getting old, but I won’t have to eat them forever. My crew has some crackers waiting for me at the next aid station.”
Of course, there is a risk that later during the run your fabricated worst-case scenario will come to pass. If this happens it’s probably best to view your self-fulfilling prophesy as hilariously tragic and think of something even worse still!
Deliberately Train for Positively
As runners we all condition and train our bodies to accomplish our athletic goals. We must also train our minds to foster positivity. When you’re in the middle of a long endurance event feeling frayed and exhausted it is imperative that your brain is so accustomed to identifying and combating catastrophic thinking that you do so more or less automatically and without too much effort. Just as long runs are great for testing gear, nutrition and hydration, they are also perfect for testing mental strategies. However, I would also take things a step further and encourage athletes to practice positivity outside of training. Pay close attention to your thoughts during everyday life. When you get frustrated at work or a glass shatters on the floor take a deep breath and coax your mind away from negativity.
Actively practicing positivity is especially important for runners like myself, who naturally tend to fixate on the bleak. When I began ultra-running several years ago, I quickly learned that I would not survive long in the sport if I continued to dwell on worse-case scenarios. I began to consciously make an effort to think positively whenever I felt myself slipping into negativity during everyday life. Ultra-running has surrounded me with an amazing community of optimistic people and taught me an important lesson in finding positivity in the face of adversity. Today I am a much happier person for it! Ultra-running creates an environment that encourages ultra-positivity. It is one of the reasons I am so passionate about this sport.
Dandelion Dilluvio-Scott is a coach with Team RunRun. To learn more about her or to work with her, check our her coaching page.