On the fifth and final day of Career Boot Camp we chat to not one but two Ultra-marathon runners!
Australian ultra-marathon runner Samantha Gash is a true inspiration. She’s run 3253km in 76 days across India, completed a 1968km expedition run along South Africa’s Freedom Trail and undertaken no less than four 250km desert ultramarathons.
But she can still recall the fear she felt when she ran her very first marathon.
“When you train for a marathon you only train to 32km. When I got to that point in the race I absolutely freaked out and wanted to quit because I was terrified. I realised I needed to keep pushing myself into those situations that scared me because running marathons and ultra marathons, although impressive on some level, are no where near like the real life challenges you’re going to face.”
Sprinting outside of your comfort zone
For Samantha, who was a “physically dormant” individual during her childhood and adolescence, took up running as a personal challenge “I really believe that we get such personal and professional development and an understanding of who we are when we choose to go into that unknown so I connected to the thing that scared me the most. Running for me became a way of me becoming mentally stronger and then I got the bug!”
Tom Evans , UK ultra-marathon runner, stumbled into the sport after challenging himself to complete the Marathon des Sables (a six day, 251km run across the Sahara Desert) in a faster time than his two friends. He seems as surprised as anyone that he managed to complete the race in 3rd place, the highest ever ranking for a European entry.
Since then, he says, “lots of amazing opportunities [have arisen] to race all around the world, from Costa Rica to the French Alps. The performance side of things for me is important but what I really thrive on is that mental and physical challenge, you don’t know what’s going to happen. There are so many external factors that can change along the race or during a training session especially in these more arduous environments. For me it’s really humbling and I’ve fallen in love with the sport over the last year.”
Running – it’s (mostly) all in the mind…
Both athletes place huge importance in mental preparation ahead of a big race, “It’s definitely not seen as that important” says Tom. “But it plays a huge part. I try to focus on the process not the outcome. Some days [of a race] it will not go great and sometimes it will – but if you focus on getting the small things done it will all add up. I’m big on setting goals and have high, but very realistic goals, that i am able to achieve.”
“It also helps to have a strong purpose so you know that when things get hard that you have an underlying purpose and know why you’re doing what you’re doing. ”
Samantha also credits mental perseverance as a key contributor to her running success “The mental component of ultra running really dictates how your physical body tends to flow and respond.
“If you can find ways of being calm when your body is stressed, when conditions are hard you just don’t sweat the small stuff anymore – mental is underrated by many people.”
That’s not to say physical preparation isn’t important too, ultra marathons are pretty far, and that’s an understatement, and often take place in unfamiliar conditions that require a lot of forward preparation.
Samantha has run races in the most extreme conditions, temperatures and altitudes and endeavours to simulate those conditions in her training schedule. “When I can’t simulate the challenging component of a race I’ll replace it with something else equally challenging or something that pushes me.”
“In 2016 I ran from the West to the East of India, which was going to be at a high altitude and in really intense heat. I couldn’t be constantly running in the heat throughout Melbourne’s winter so I put a treadmill in a hot yoga studio. I hate treadmill running, which is why I’m a trail runner but I went into a yoga studio late at night when classes were over, cranked the temperature up to 36-40 degrees and then ran on it for hours. It wasn’t just physical training it was mental training.”
Tom cites similar challenges in his training regime “I’ve just finished [a race] running in the mountains. In the UK there are no mountains so sometimes you have to think outside the box in your physical training.
“Physically there’s only a certain amount of things you can control – the way i describe it is controlling the controllables. Any stone I can overturn and carry out detailed planning for is worth doing – I’ll train really specifically for each race.”
When the going gets tough…
Enduring the seemingly unendurable is part and parcel of ultra-marthon running life. “You know it’s going to happen” explain Samantha, “and knowing that you’re going to go into a rough place can equip you for dealing with it.
“There is always a very clunky period when you move beyond training, you move beyond adrenaline and the excitement of early phases of something and it becomes really challenging as your mind and body is learning to adjust.” When Samantha ran across India it was tricky to adjust to the extreme heat. “We were running on a road where there was a lot of traffic and a lot of pollution so we were very burdened. And my body started to break down [to the point that] I was struggling to even walk.”
“When you can’t do what you think you could have done it’s natural to freak out and get a bit disillusioned.”
But in that moment it’s important to take control and embrace the unexpected circumstance you’ve been faced with – “that’s the exciting part!”
“Sometimes you have to walk or listen to music or change your pacer – you have to explore and experiment. We are quite quick to be harsh on ourselves when things don’t go to plan – we need to move away from what we consider to be failure and redefine it as an opportunity.”
Tom agrees with Samantha stating that “things will go wrong but how you deal with these things will make the difference between a good and bad performance.”
Tom maintains his composure and determination by looking both forwards and backwards in time.
“What is the goal I set and how much do I want what I set out to do? I try to think about the outcome – knowing that if I really want this it’s going to be possible and my mind will conquer my body.”
“I also think backwards, thinking about all the process, everything I’ve put into training, all those workouts, the sacrifices I’ve made to get to where I am.”
That attitude can “pull you out of any hardship to get you to the finish and achieve your goals.”
Samantha Gash and Tom Evans are speaking on Day Five of Career Boot Camp 2018. Sign up here (it’s free) to listen to his podcast now.