Inside the Mind of an Endurance Athlete

Endurance – the ability to continue with an unpleasant or difficult situation, experience, or activity over a long period of time.

Sounds simple, right? Some describe it as becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable. Marathoners, Ultra Marathoners, Ironmen and Ironwomen, and others who push their bodies past the normal limits of exhaustion, for hours and sometimes days, are a truly unique breed of athletes.

“I’m a distance runner. I’ve been trained to keep going, even when it’s hard, when it hurts, when it sucks, when I don’t want to. I look past it. Relentless forward progress to the finish. Call it what you want; stubbornness, endurance, determination, guts. Deep down, I don’t know how to give up.”

Half of one percent of the U.S. population has completed a marathon (26.2 miles). Sounds crazy doesn’t it? It is, but think about foot races that cover 50, 100, 150, 200 miles, and more.

Then there are Ironman events which feature a 2.4 mile swim immediately followed by a 112 mile bike ride, followed by a full marathon. That’s over 170 miles back-to-back-to-back. Better yet, how about a double Ironman, or a triple length Ironman? Are you sensing the crazy yet?

These are distances that will keep athletes on their feet from multiple hours, to days at a time with little to no rest.

The average finish time for a 100 mile run is just over 28 hours. The average finish for an Ironman (140.6 total miles) is just over 15 hours. Some of the world’s best ultra marathoners will finish a 200 mile race in around 61 hours, while some of the mid-packers will come in closer to 85-90 hours. If your math is rusty, that’s about 3 1/2 days.

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” – T.S. Eliot

When I say the words “endurance athlete”, it may bring to mind images of the most elite athletes, olympians and such but those aren’t the athletes that I am referring to. Sure, there are elite endurance runners who crush these races, but I’m actually talking about the everyday athlete. The men and women who have real jobs and families to support, who aren’t paid with endorsements. Those are the ones who inspire me because they are the ones who are up and out of the door at 4 or 5 am to log miles in the dark hours of the morning.

The majority of these people will never taste victory and stand on a podium at an ultra endurance event, yet they do it anyway. What sets them apart from the crowd? What drives them to put in the work for months and years on end, only to show up and place 40th in a field of 100?

As you might imagine, a large part of successfully training for and competing in endurance events is an extreme mental focus. Most everyday endurance athletes will tell you that there is nothing exceptional about their physical abilities, in fact many would not have considered themselves to be athletic as kids and young adults. It’s all about their mindset. They aren’t content with the status quo in most areas of life, which gives them an internal drive to push their limits over and over again.

Most endurance racers also have a higher than average pain threshold. I’m not talking in the sense of a Ripley’s Believe It or Not type of pain threshold, but they do have an innate ability to manage pain. When pain sets in, and it always does, they can deal with it in a way that allows them to continue on in spite of the burning pain coursing through their body. They are also able to ignore their mind when it is imploring them to stop.

“Pushing your body past what you thought it was capable of is easy;
the hard part is pushing yourself even further” – Rex Pearce

They are willing to take risks and are completely ok with possibility of failure. Signing up for an ultra marathon takes moxie, and lots of it. Showing up to the starting line and staring fear in the face takes more than that, it takes a bit of delusional confidence as well. It isn’t about arrogance, but it is about having a high level of confidence in yourself and a belief that you can accomplish seemingly impossible feats.

They are some of the most resilient and persistent people on the planet. They expect setbacks and even welcome them. Setbacks offer endurance athletes the chance to improve their mental and physical capacities. Every obstacle offers a chance for conquest.

“We had seen God in his splendour…. We had reached the naked soul of man.”
-Ernest Shackleton

They are able to maintain an intense level of focus for extremely long periods of time. Some people wonder what these athletes think about during these long bouts of competition. While that answer may differ from person to person, the prevailing answer is that they are focused on the task at hand. They are thinking about keeping the proper pace, ingesting the right amount of calories, staying up to date with their hydration levels, and remaining in tune with their body, only they are doing this over the course of hours or days.

They are okay with being alone with their own thoughts. As you may imagine, it can get lonely after awhile. Depending on the event, hours can pass without seeing another person and sometimes they are forging ahead into the cold, black expanse of nothingness…alone. If they weren’t comfortable being in a self-imposed solitary confinement, things could get really ugly (and sometimes it still does).

Sports Psychologist, Frank Farely says that “they tire quickly of everyday things, and their only remedy is to take on the next challenge, hoping for more stimulation.”

In addition to this assessment, Farley also commented that most of these athlete’s maintained similar characteristics in that they’re independent thinkers and methodical about goal-setting. They also tend to believe that they control their own destiny in the sense of successes and failures. They’re typically energetic and innovative, which is why so many are tend to be entrepreneurs.

“Ultrarunners understand, perhaps better than anyone, that the doors to the spirit will swing open with physical effort. In running such long and taxing distances they answer a call from the deepest realms of their being – a call that asks who they are.”  -David Blaikie

Endurance athletes are used to being called crazy, psychotic, and host of other names by those who don’t understand their passion.

They are a special breed, bound by the love of exploration of not only their body and mind, but also of this incredible planet that we call home. They consider moderation to be boring and therefore exhaust themselves in the pursuit of getting more out of life.

They’re entrepreneurs, doctors, school teachers, nurses, construction workers, CEO’s, and janitors. They are everyday people with an extraordinary mindset. Ultra-runners and endurance athletes are a rare and unique breed…and they’re okay with that.

Published by

Justin Skains

Hard-working husband, father, coach, and amateur ultra-marathoner who prides himself on results day-in and day-out...and oh yes, I love to write!

5 thoughts on “Inside the Mind of an Endurance Athlete

  1. This is SO well written. Like yourself it is the everyday people with real jobs and families to support that I have so much respect for.

    The longest distance I have ever covered is a 50k and I am in so much awe of these “everyday people” who compete the Ironman and Double Ironman and triple Ironman (and I can’t swim myself) and the 100 and 200 mile ultras.

    Yet even in these shorter distance events I participate in I identify with what you share. And when it is over, it is looking forward to the next challenge.

    Really enjoyed reading this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for reading and for the great comments! Us everyday runners are what make this sport great. We work, we train, and we fit it all in between work, family time, and the responsibilities of life. Congrats to you for being one of the good guys!

      Liked by 1 person

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