Ultra-endurance running isn't for everyone - but to Hillary Allen, it's everything. Learn how this ultra-endurance runner fights through the mental and physical valleys to stay on top of her game.
Photo: Joey Schusler
Ultra-endurance running is extreme.
I’m not sure how or why I stumbled into this particular sport, but here I am - completely hooked. Considered to be any distance greater than a marathon, ultra-endurance running has become a part of who I am. It isn’t just the ultra-distance that I enjoy, it’s the extreme challenge of the mountain terrain.
Last year, I competed in a race that was one of the most challenging I have ever faced. The 86-mile stretch ascended 26,000 feet and descended 26,000 feet, over a rough and unforgiving terrain.
As well-trained and prepared as I was, I still didn’t know entirely what to expect. Mentally, I began to doubt myself. I questioned whether my body would be able to physically hold up. I wondered whether I could reach the finish line.
As an ultra-endurance runner, I’ve learned how important it is to be mentally ready and confident from the start. Before I even begin a race as daunting as the one I completed last year, I tell myself that I can and will do it. I tell myself that the only thing I need to do is start running, and the rest will take care of itself. When I am able to get myself in the right place mentally, I’m psyched up and ready to achieve the impossible.
That all happens before the race even starts. What about along the way? People often wonder how I am able to keep my head in the game during these long races. The answer isn’t simple, but over the years I have developed a series of tips that I use during every race in order to perform at my best.
5 Tips to Soar Above the Downs of Ultra-Endurance
1. Embrace the Suffering.
Endurance running is a journey. It is a dynamic process. There will be ups, and there will be downs. It is unrealistic to expect a race, or training run for that matter, to be unmarred by bonks or low points. My advice? Don’t ignore or resist the inevitable. The low points will come, again and again. Accept them, welcome them, and learn from them. Find a way to weather through them, because resisting will only lead to further struggle.
2. Turn Your Mind Off and Let Your Body Take Over.
When the suffering eventually ensues, or a difficult part of the course is approaching, let your body does what it does best. You have trained for this. You’ve put in the grueling hours of work, so stop doubting yourself and let your body do the work. Grind up the hill without question. Let your mind exist in the present, as if observing, as your body accomplishes the challenge.
3. Repeat a Mantra.
Ultra-running is excessive. The distances and terrain you will encounter are overwhelming and can seem impossible. My solution? Don’t worry about the course, but remain present in the moment. Find a mantra that resonates, and repeat it throughout the race. One step at a time… I repeat this mantra knowing that if I do my best in the moment, and take things one step at a time, it will add up to be a worthwhile and meaningful experience at the finish line.
4. Eat Something.
This should really be the number one tip. But seriously, freaking eat something! We can only push our bodies so far before they physically can’t go anymore. One of the first symptoms of fatigue is psychological, not physical. Ever heard of the term, “hangry?” The irrational, irritable, impatient, and overly emotional part of a person that takes over when they are hungry. If I am going to voluntarily run extreme distances over mountainous terrain without correctly fueling my body, it’s going to shut down. First mentally, and then physically. I’ve learned the first sign that my body needs more fuel is a change in my mood or attitude. When I find myself spontaneously crying at an aid station begging the volunteer for a handful of M&Ms, or get angry at a stupid hill I’m climbing - it’s time to stop and eat. Ideally, fueling should be done consistently throughout your run, but listen to your body. When your mood begins to decline and you feel hangry, it’s time to refuel.
I run because I love it. It makes me happy to explore places with my feet. Running genuinely makes me happy - it makes me smile. When things are good, and especially when things are bad, a smile centers me. It reminds me of why I run and the joy it consistently delivers.
Is ultra-endurance running easy? Absolutely not - and it isn't meant to be. It is mentally and physically challenging. Some might even say impossible. If you are a seasoned ultra-endurance runner or just getting started, find out what works for you to keep your feet moving forward. Whether you take my tips and use them for yourself or develop your own set of processes - always remember to pay as much attention to your mental self, as you do to your physical body.
About Hillary Allen
Hillary Allen is a mountain ultra runner for The North Face and Skratch Labs based out of Boulder, CO. She has her masters degree in Neuroscience and structural biology and is gearing up for her race season in Europe. Follow her on Instagram @hillygoat_climbs.