Everyone can suffer. Ask 10 ultra runners what their respective strength is as a competitor and 11 of them will say "suffering." Feeling like death during an ultra is nothing new and neither is the idea that you just have to suck it up and suffer through it to avoid a DNF. It becomes this badge of honor that suffering is not only necessary, but what gets you to the finish line. But that's not what wins races, in my opinion; especially hard fought races where it feels like the Grim Reaper is around every switchback grinning at you beneath his cowl.
Pictured: "Just a little farther..."
Blame Steve Prefontaine, he of the iron will to sacrifice everything on the track, but the focus on suffering as a key to winning ultras, or any race for that matter, just doesn't cut it for me. Despite the widespread adoption of the concept by runners everywhere, it seems like a red herring more than a strategy.
But I found out what the key to succeeding was on the third lap of my last 50km. It was Boredom.
Or, more precisely, the ability to cope with boredom. Because after 30 or so kilometres, your mind starts to go places. The last 20K were dull--so dull, as a matter of fact, that only three things made those last steps tolerable. They were, in no particular order:
The first one won't be a surprise to anyone who has used any type of caffeinated beverage in their life. It's an automatic pickmeup and is one of the few things that likely prevents assaults in many workplaces and relationships in the real world. Also, a study by Jason L. Talanian that was published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism demonstrated that late stage caffeine ingestion improved time trial times for cyclists. Science is awesome and I don't need much more convincing to use CNS stimulants at the best of times.
The second one isn't all that surprising, either; there's a reason why Jock Jams was one of the best selling workout albums of the late '90s. Although, the late '90s were a weird time to begin with--maybe Jock Jams was popular because we all thought the world was going to end. Ah, simpler times. But the effects of music on an athlete during sports performance are myriad.
For instance (again, in no particular order):
And I don't even think I am covering everything music can do for an athlete. Needless to say, it helps. But it doesn't help if you use it all the time; pulling it out at kilometer 30 of a 50K was a good choice, but 300 meters in probably wouldn't have helped much toward the end. Diminishing returns and all that noise.
The third one, though? That one surprised even me and I was there. My last lap was my fastest lap, which made it way more interesting and, to be honest, fun. Granted, I had consumed a pack of a delicious GoCubes and was cranking out Mötley Crüe's "Home Sweet Home" and other assorted songs with home or running as themes, but those didn't make me pick up the pace so much as help manage the pain of speeding up.
It was trifecta of late stage race management and it worked well. But it had very little to do with suffering and a lot to do with keeping myself entertained. The next time you're hurting in a race, don't ask yourself if you can suffer a little more to make it through. You are your own audience in those moments, so pull a Maximus and ask yourself if you are not entertained--and if you're not, find a way to make that happen.
You'd be surprised at the power of a smile in a world full of hurt.