Over MLK weekend, my way older brother turned 40 and to celebrate I ran in the FootRx Frosty Foot 50K trail race. This awesome 50K utilizes the absolutely world class trail system at Tsali which is located in Nantahala National Forest here in Western North Carolina. The rolling, mostly single track trails, trace the fingers of Lake Fontana which sits squarely in the shadow of the Smokey Mountains. It is impressive country, even in the dead of Winter.
We were super fortunate to jam this race in during the best weather window of the weekend. The day before the region received hours of soaking rain, and the day after, temperatures took a nose dive. A fair bit of the course was wet, but at no point did slippery conditions impact the event. The trails are non-technical, meaning, few challenging rocks or roots, and gently rolling, or lacking super steep sections. My Garmin collected 3343 ft of elevation gain over the 31 miles so it wasn’t without climbing but nothing too dramatic. Aid stations were well stocked and thoughtfully placed. The “t-shirt” was a cozy, warm Saucony, long sleeve pull over and for picking up my packet at the shop I received an awesome custom embroidered Montrail beanie. All super good stuff.
I was feeling pretty comfortable going into race day despite the fact that I had been dealing with two somewhat nagging injuries. The first, Peroneal tendonitis in my left leg and foot that god bless her, Michele Hobson, Physical Therapist by day and monster Adventure Racer by night, spent weeks getting squared away for me. And the second, a gnarly ankle sprain that I managed to pick up during my last training run before the race.
Run on the sidewalks they say; it’s safer than the trails they say.
Well hardly, because this girl managed to fall down and go boom just .16 tenths of a mile from my house. And it’s a good thing it was so close because I mostly had to hop on one foot to get home. Somehow, despite the fact that it swelled pretty good and is still a bunch of pretty colors, it was pretty much pain free by race day.
Toeing the start line, I knew that even though I was comfortable, it was still going to be a long day. I was mentally prepared for this and, as I preach to my clients, my strong self had prepared for my future weakened self. I had pre-selected the thoughts I would focus on in order to keep my head game in check. In order to avoid any spiraling mental unpleasantness I relied on these mantras from the get go.
The first was a set of words my coach included in her final pep talk email to me a few days before. “Mentally tough, focused, and consistent.” These are less motivators and more straight up directions. BE mentally tough, BE focused, BE consistent. I was able to use the words to essentially perform a constant self-assessment. Am I focused? Am I consistent? As an example, when I would feel my pace start to accelerate, I would almost immediately adjust and aim for consistency.
The second phrase I played on a loop in my head came from the now infamous letter that my wife wrote me during the 2015 Adventure Racing season. You can listen to me talk about it here. As I often do before a challenging event, I took out that letter and waited for which words would resonate.
“Control what you can control and get the fuck moving.”
Pretty much words to live by, right? There’s not too much to control during an ultra-marathon, but I realized as I was running that I could at the very least control my heart rate by controlling my pace which would effect my consistency. I could also control my thoughts and mindset and not allow myself to get discouraged during a sneaky final climb at mile 28. I also realized that I could control what place I would finish in by summoning some effort and ducking my head into the pain cave, to make a challenging pass in the final miles.
The takeaway here is this: whenever you are facing a challenge that is personal. Where it might be long and lonely, where there is a chance you’ll be discouraged, you have to decide ahead of time what you will think about. Sure some folks like to just tune out and let their thoughts wander. And if you are someone who doesn’t struggle with challenging thoughts during an event, I’m so glad for you, but Im not there yet. In the end though, most of us have, at the very least moments, where things teeter on the edge of “what the hell am I doing here?” I can proudly say that during this race, and UNLIKE other races during which I have competed, I never once thought, “I’m never doing this again.” I had decided what I was going to allow to play in my head, and those words weren’t in the script.
Write your lines ahead of time, and stick to the script.
Crossing the finish line felt great, and I actually felt like I had a bit more in the tank, which is good because all 40 miles of the Mt. Mitchell Challenge are in less than 6 weeks. And I am already working on the script for that one.
Special thanks to Paul Christopher for some great photos. Check him out here.