This is a story to inspire and alleviate your anxieties about what will quite probably be the hardest and most awe-inspiring act of self-harm you’ve ever paid a fortune for.
What am I talking about? Well, this time two years ago I was preparing for what would be my longest ever race (by a long shot!) – the 108-mile Spine MRT Challenger. A race famed to be Britain’s most brutal because it takes place in Jan of all the months. As if running 108 miles weren’t crazy enough.
As I prepare for another year on the Spine Safety team, I thought I’d indulge in some reminiscing and reflecting on one of the most perspective-changing experiences of my life. It changed me profoundly and opened my eyes to the extent by which we underestimate ourselves, especially women!
I’m writing this blog not because I’m so frickin accomplished, awesome or athletic but because my success and enjoyment were so unexpected that there is definitely something to be learned from that. As someone with a background in Psychology, I thought I’d share a few psychological tips based on what worked so well for me. I hope they might be useful to others. I feel their value comes from the fact that someone as inexperienced and undertrained as I could end up with a women’s record but more importantly have so much fun.
It’s ALL in the mind. This cannot be stressed enough. When preparing for anything this big, the first thing we often do is start planning the physical aspects of our training, yet our psychology and attitude are critical to success. This is so overlooked and yet is absolutely what sets winners and finishers apart. I mastered my mind and most importantly I found joy amongst the simplest of triumphs. I prepared for the worst, accepted its potential suffering and from this starting point, relished in every little bit tackled and avoided 😊
Train the mind. I went out the in worst possible weather and focused as much on my mental strategies as I did working my legs and testing my kit. When in the grimmest, most challenging weather, at my lowest ebb and absolutely knackered I imagined what it would be like to feel like this on top of being sleep deprived, and I thought about what would I say to that person to motivate them, to spur them on, to refocus their attention. Practice your motivational talk in your mind and use it on the race.
Know your why. I followed this amazing advice from Sarah Fuller, and it was my rock when the chips were down, and the winds were up? Go to that start line with your eyes wide open. It is imperative that you truly understand what your facing into and the real reason you want to take part in such an extraordinarily grim act of self-harm LOL. Joking aside Sarah’s right, if you don’t thoroughly understand your why, you’re not going to have the resiliency to go on when your chaffed, snow buffeted and battling the sleep monsters. Write a letter to that suffering Spiner who might be blinkered by their pain and desperation and tell them why it's worth carrying on. You’ll need reminding of that, several times along the way.
Break it down. Remember that it’s not a 108-mile or 268-mile race, (actually, it’s often many miles longer with diversions) but 108+, or 268 one-mile races. Please take it one little bit at a time. Be present, be mindful, as breaking it down makes it is far less daunting. The present is often hard enough without trying to predict how much harder it will be later in the race and know that we are terrible, its scientifically proven now, at predicting the future. So many DNFers (did not finish) are people who were having an awful time and thought ‘I’m finding this so hard now and it's only going to get worse so there’s no point in persevering’. This is logical but isn’t what happens in reality. How many ultra-runners tell stories of feeling so horrific at some point in their race, feeling sick, not being able to eat, having a niggle but they still finished. So, my satirical mantra is, “nothing lasts forever, not even death”. Walls of fatigue/pain/can’t be arsed, come and go, so reassure yourself that it will change. Over ultra-distances the horrible pain in your bandy leg, will be soon be replaced with a searing pain in your groin, then nausea so like I say, nothing lasts forever…. 😉 LOL
Practice gratitude & humour. The power of this on body and mind cannot be overemphasised and this isn’t some airy-fairy waffle. There are numerous studies that show the chemical and cognitive changes of practicing gratitude and finding humour in the face of the ridiculous. Those resulting endorphins and happy chemicals are one’s own personal opioids. Yeah similar in structure and effect to heroin and that stuff gives people superhuman strength and phenomenal pain thresholds like those depicted in the film 128 hours. I have my own story here (https://www.sidetracked.com/ario-caves-project/) of getting out from over 500m underground with multiple broken bones. You'll need all the endorphins you can get to pull you through something like the Spine. The one thing everyone commented on and I feel gave me a significant edge over those who were way fitter and stronger than me was the fact that I was having so much fun. Yes, fun, in the same cesspit as the rest of em. I was ecstatic at every little triumph, in awe of every mile I completed, and that stuff is gold, euphoric even at times. This is what carried me through my many lows, walls, aches & pains and there were plenty.
Survive. The Spine is a game of survival, not athletic prowess, so be savvy. It’s a different beast altogether so don’t take it for granted that those who excel at it are no angel-faced, skinny-ma-lynx’s. This is a game of who has the discipline to pace themselves. Who took enough kit to keep themselves warm when their exhausted and plodding, and who has the good sense to take the time required to take good care of themselves. It sounds so obvious but the discipline is hard when your knackered, yet it makes all the difference. Duke of Edinburgh instructors likely have more to teach Spiners than racing snake athletes because they know how to survive prolonged grim weather while moving slowly with big packs. I cannot stress enough how important it is to take care of your feet, to dress hot spots before they become sores, and to change socks when you can at checkpoints. Plus eat for god sake! Who cares if you feel sick, at least feel sick with a full tank. Your car can’t run on empty, so neither can you. My personal experience and that on the Spine safety team has shown that most preventable DNF’s are due to not taking the time to protect yourself adequately. Stop and put those waterproof bottoms on, put your gloves on, put your goggles on before its too late. Most DNF’s last year were due to wind blindness which caught a lot of folk out.
Toughen up to f%*& ;-) Look it you’re not in this to enjoy yourself, not in the traditional instant gratification, hedonist sense anyhow! Gratitude aside, let’s admit it, the euphoria will be potent for quite honestly years, but after the event. You are going to hurt, to doubt, to lose hope momentarily and your resiliency will be tested in the cruelest and relentlessly bad weather. So….. your likely best to take a cavers’ view on this. Down a deep, remote cave, a 1,000m vertically down, no one is coming for you if you give up, so the question is not -if- but rather how epic is this going to be. From that view of radical acceptance comes a deep calm and an attitude of leaning into the discomfort 😉 It hurts, yes, but your focus never deviates from taking care of yourself and never and I mean never off the target – the next mile in front of you. Hopelessness and giving up just aren’t an option, so forbid them from your mind. A woman can’t opt-out of the searing pain and effort of childbirth, so you’d best just quit moaning and get on with it LOL. Just keep imaging the euphoria, the pride of kissing that wall. That will spur you on. PS From personal experience best not to think about the relief of getting there that just weakens your soul!
I’ll leave it at that for now. If it's your first time and you're worried about niggles and colds, don’t, they’ll likely just disappear a mile after the start line when the excitement kicks in and Jacobs ladder looms over ya.
I wish you all the very, very bestest of luck. Believe in the impossible. Go out there, stay open-minded and know that we humans are capable of extraordinary things when we believe in ourselves. Give it your all and no matter what the outcome, you are now a part of the ‘Spine Family’.
NB: the Spine MRT challenger is a version of the Spine Challenger race, whereby members of mountain rescue race as a fundraiser for their teams. All mountain rescue teams in England and Wales are funded by donations and run entirely by volunteers who are on stand-by for the public 24hours a day, 365 days of the year. Please support your essential voluntary rescue service by donating and promoting those mountain rescue folk who are participating. From my MR team, we have Heather and Graham who are doing it in aid of CRO – the Cave and Mountain Rescue Organisation for the Yorkshire Dales. They are still recovering from a very tragic, and prolonged cave rescue we had at the weekend. They went all weekend with no sleep helping those in need. Teams like this need your support.
See you out there. Happy racing and stay safe 😊