With less than 5 meters to spare and after 37 hours of running, I got him right before the finish line. It required a massive sprinting effort, with all systems engaged fully and fueled by an overload of epinephrine released by my adrenal gland. At the sight of his back and the finish line, I had transformed from an ultra runner into a 100-meter sprinter. Or better yet, I had transformed from an injured gazelle into a fit and hungry lion. Suddenly, the foot pain and fatigue that had been plaguing me during the 2nd consecutive night of running was gone. No more foot pain, no knee pain, no fatigue, no feeling of my body whatsoever. I roared and charged the finish line with awesome intensity.
Moments after the finish, I saw his family gathering around him to welcome him home after 166KM (104 miles) of running. He approached and gave me a hug, welcoming me to the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc finish line. It’s important to point out here that we weren’t sprinting for first place … or any place of significance really, aside from a coveted finish. The race winner had finished before we started our second night on the course. My finish line competitor was a very friendly Belgian and his outpouring of congratulations made me feel just awful for sprinting him to the finish line. As the finish line fog lifted, I saw him as a person, not finish line sprint prey.
What was I thinking?!
At a time when nothing was at stake for the finishing position or a few seconds knocked off the finishing time, why in the world did I sprint and where in the world did the energy come from? I mean, hours earlier, I was stumbling up a steep mountain while I battled the demons of sleep deprivation and fatigue. In the middle of that 2nd night, my crew had to push me and my foggy brain away from a warm fire at an aid station. I lost 5 minutes just explaining to them why I needed to stay just a few minutes longer at that fire, so why sprint for the finish?!
Well, we all know why. Nearly all runners have been there … whether it’s in a local 5K or at the end of an ultra marathon. Despite any walking or easy pace running out on the course, despite any long breaks or even naps taken in an ultra marathon, there’s something special about seeing that finish line banner and for many, it results in a sprint that defies all reason. So, we know it’s there and that it can produce some pretty incredible energy. Now let’s grab a hold of this phenomenon and use it to help us in other areas – in those dark moments on the course, where we feel alone and perhaps momentarily weak or in need of a boost of strength.
I call this exercise “Other People” and it’s all about using other people as a tool in our mental toughness bag of tricks. We can use it on three levels, each of which I cover in a separate article, staring today with Level 1.
Level 1: Beat Someone
Level 1 is to focus all of your energy on beating someone, just like you’re in a finish line sprint. As soon as their back comes into view, set your sights on them. Fire up your lioness or lion hunger and go for them. Whether it’s on a long mountain climbing stage, where you will want to gradually reel them in, or in an interval training session where you can pick 1 or 2 runners to catch and pass, try to apply that finish line hunger and a jolt of adrenaline to the situation. If you are running alone, then visualize a runner in front of you, or even better, visualize a finish line. See the giant FINISH letters and sound the charge alarm!
That’s it for the first level — give this a try and then let’s move on to Level 2.
Train smart, play hard and have fun!
— Coach Jeff
Jeff Grant is the author of Flow State Runner: Activate a Powerful Inner Coach’s Voice, Hill Running: Survive & Thrive, Run Faster: Unlock Your Speed in 8 Weeks, Running Heavy, and UltraRunning: Coach’s Handbook. Based in Switzerland, Jeff is a coach and writer who specializes in mental coaching, peak performance, and transformation. Jeff’s popular newsletter is a digest containing inspirational and instructional resources, including his latest content. See recent issues and subscribe for free here. Refer to Jeff’s bio for more information, and please check out Jeff’s Coach & Author page on Facebook.