Trials and tribulations of the KSR trail running team.
Firstly, I’d like to start off this article with a disclaimer. I am NOT a qualified sport psychologist and by no means claim to have mastered the mental aspects of ultra-endurance events. However, I love the mental battles that go on in such events and I am slowly learning about this often undertrained aspect. To quote 7-time winner of the Western States 100, Scott Jurek, “Ultra running is 90% mental, and the other 10% is all in your head.” So while it is obviously very important to train your body for the physical challenge of something like the Kokoda Challenge, I think that is also very worthwhile to think about some of the mental challenges that will also be faced on the day of the event.
The first challenge of the day can really affect different people differently; and that is the challenge of WAITING for the race to start. For some, this won’t affect them at all, while others will be vomiting from nerves. It’s probably good to be somewhere in-between where you are at least somewhat focused but not burning excess nervous energy. In a team event like the Kokoda Challenge, you will have at least 3 friends hanging around with you before the start, and this can definitely add a sense of security which helps alleviate some of the nerves. Positive talk amongst the team and possibly talking about anything other than enormity of the challenge about to be undertaken can really help calm a nervous team member.
The next mental challenge is that of patience. For the first quarter or so of the race you should (if you have trained well and are adequately rested) be feeling fantastic thanks to your high level of fitness. Many make the mistake of going out too hard due to this false sense of security. I have definitely made this mistake before (see my account of the Buffalo Stampede 2014), so by no means claim to have mastered the fine art of “patience” (Dave Coombs is probably one of the best runner’s I know when it comes to patience in races, so he probably should have been the one to write this paragraph!). However, I have also experienced firsthand just how much it can pay off in the second half of an event if you do start out at what feel like a “too easy” pace (see my account of The North Face 100 Australia 2014). Long training sessions are the perfect time to learn what your ideal pace is and what moving at that speed feels like. An added bonus of exercising patience at the start is that you probably enjoy your day much more for two reasons; 1) you will hurt less in the second half, and 2) will be passing people later on, which tends to be a more positive experience than being passed!
Of course, the major mental challenge you will face during the Kokoda Challenge is dealing with when you aren’t feeling so great. Your legs will probably hurt, you might experience chafing, cramping or gastrointestinal distress or a host of other problems (trust me, the high and satisfaction you will experience from completing such an epic event, along with the lasting bonds you form with your teammates, will make the ordeal MORE than worth it!). But somehow, amidst all these setbacks, you will need to keep on going. Of course, if you are at the stage of risking permanent injury, then withdrawing may be the wisest option. Now, obviously some of these problems have logical solutions, like drinking if you thirsty, or applying some sort of lubricant if you are chafing. But some problems aren’t so easily solved. We ALL get sore and tired legs and there’s not a lot that can be done about that once the race has started (though a lot can be done during your preparation for the event, like training well and using good shoes/equipment). Personally, when I start to feel the inevitable onset of fatigue, I try to focus on the present moment. Thinking about the fact that I still have a marathon to go does not (in my experience) help. I try to never think beyond the next checkpoint and have a nutrition alarm that goes off every 20minutes which I find really helps break up the hours. However, when the going gets really tough and even 20minutes seems like an eternity, I will try to focus simply on getting to the next tree up ahead. No matter how tired I am, I can (usually) go another 10 meters, and eventually, those 10 meters after 10 meters add up into kilometres.
The final aspect that I’m going to mention should be more of a mental boost but in some cases, it may present challenges as well. And that is the fact that the Kokoda Challenge is done in teams of 4. I am VERY lucky that all of Kokoda Spirit Racing are great mates, so spending a whole day in each other’s company is an enjoyable experience (even though Caine does fart a lot =P). If your team gets on well, then chatting can really help distract you from your tiredness and the kilometres will seemingly fly by. Whenever a team member is hurting, it is important that the rest of the team encourages them, but they should also make sure not to run off ahead of the tired runner. There is nothing more demoralising than watching your team run away from you and feeling like you are “letting the team down”. Many people will also find it difficult to ask the rest of the team to slow down, so it may be important to monitor how your other team-members are faring (though if you do need to slow down a bit then you shouldn’t be ashamed to say so as it may pay dividends later). Team training sessions are a great way to learn how your teammates handle themselves when they are tired. But in the end, these events can really reveal a person’s true character, so the best advice I can give is to try to be in a team with people you like!
So I hope this brief overview I’ve given of some of the psychological challenges one can expect to face during the Kokoda Challenge will help you be better mentally prepared for the big day. Good luck everyone and happy training!