Preparing yourself mentally for a trail run race

Written on Apr 25th, 2016 by , Category Marlene Farrell Blog, Trail Running

By Marlene Farrell

Trail running is sublime right now with soft dirt under our feet, flowers scenting the air and a feeling of lightness in the balmy temperatures. Many of us have signed up for a trail race. Gaining in popularity, trail races are still less common than the ubiquitous road race. Training for the two is different, and so is the race-day strategy. For those who will race on dirt soon, I want to share the experiences of my friend Imelda and myself as we tackled our first trail races of the season. We both had successful days of racing and maybe you can glean a few helpful tactics.

The Skyline 25k and 50k trail runs are held in mid-April every year amid the arid landscape near Yakima. (Skyline 25k and 50k photo)

I signed up for the Yakima Skyline 25k last winter, during the heart of ski season, hoping that with a base of cross country skiing and a month-and-a-half to log more running distance, I’d be ready. Imelda, who lives in Twisp, signed up for the Yakima Skyline 50k, her first. Since she doesn’t ski much, she faced the challenge of running through a high snow winter.

On race day, April 17, I was more nervous than I had been in several years. It’s hard to ever feel ready for a race with 4,800 feet of climbing but especially this year with local trails snow-bound until very recently. Now at age 40 and a Master runner, nimbleness seems exchanged for tightness, and my downhill confidence has wavered since I broke my ankle in 2014.

Nervousness led to pre-race adrenaline flow. I woke up on the hour at 2 a.m. and 3 a.m., and at 4 a.m. I got up although I didn’t need to start driving until 6:15. Too much early adrenaline can leave me feeling spent when I need it most. But relying on experience I took the adrenaline surge as a gift. I calmly and methodically went over my race essentials: shoes and clothing options, breakfast for the road, energy blocks, bars, ibuprofen, salt tablets, a small first aid kit, a filled Camelbak, spare water, a towel, sandals and more clothes for post-race, and a well-studied map and race schedule.

Trail racing reminds me of my strengths and weaknesses under strain. As usual I was skittish at the starting line, rechecking my laces three times and bouncing up and down, silently pleading for the starting gun. Once underway it took several miles to get into my running groove. My muscles fought each other up the first huge climb. I knew to be patient.

There were points on the course where I could look up and see runners so far above that they appeared like brightly colored dots. It’s easy to be daunted or to work too hard to run faster. Instead, I stayed in the moment and focused on the terrain ahead, stepping carefully, noting bunches of phlox and the surprise of early lupine.

Part of my brain was concerned with the details of trail negotiation, staying hydrated and keeping tabs on competitors. But there’s another part that turned inward. I consider it a form of mental toughness to take charge of my thoughts and turn them positive. I focused on gratitude:

• Gratitude for every moment that my body moved forward, possible thanks to the gift of health.

• Gratitude for the aid station worker who gave me his frank opinion after hefting my Camelbak that I should drink more. He then filled my reusable cup three times and put it back into my Camelbak’s zippered pouch, saving me precious seconds of effort so I could turn them instead to my next climb.

• Gratitude for my family who lets me escape now and then on long runs and expeditions to trail races, from which I come back tired and dirty but smiling.

At the halfway turnaround point endurance steeled me as I retraced my steps up the mountain. I ran in a dreamlike state, stepping off trail to pass runners going my way or the other way. I punctuated each step with positive self-talk, thinking, “I feel great,” and “I have a lot of energy.” My hamstrings and calves, rested during the downhill charge, felt fresh and ready for another 2,000 feet.

There can be a psychological challenge to running an out-and-back course. However, I turned it to an advantage. For the whole second half I knew what to expect. There would be no more surprises.

Instead of being overwhelmed with exhaustion, I felt immersed in the flow. I couldn’t feel the cobbles that littered the double-wide trail and made sections of the single track and final parking lot lap treacherous. I might not have been as fast as the guy who zipped by, calling, “It’s a controlled fall!” but my feet knew where to go as if I had run this trail many times before. Even a four-foot bull snake 100 meters from the finish wasn’t going to slow me down. I leaped over it and sprinted to the finish line.

Nothing else but ‘the now’

For Imelda, winter training honed the mental toughness she’d need in the 50k. She said, “Winter seemed not to end, and my mind would make me doubt, ‘Why in the world did I sign up for this when I can’t even run with ease?’ But my other self said, ‘Winter is making me tougher, and I will feel so much lighter when spring comes.’”

Imelda devised a strategy to prepare for the four huge climbs of the 50k. “I was reading all kinds of material on how to prepare for a first 50km and one thing was sure, I needed to focus on hill repetitions. That is what I did starting in March, every Wednesday I was doing my own version of hill repeats.”

For race day, Imelda armed herself with mantras that she repeated throughout the day, including:

• This hill is not as hard as Lookout Mountain.

• It doesn’t go up forever and it doesn’t get steeper than this, which means that it’s doable.

• Surrender to the hills, surrender to each step, surrender to the now, there is nothing else but the now.

Imelda was also grateful for aid. She said, “When I got to the aid station at the Buffalo Road turnaround I had the most wonderful caring help I could ask for. A teenager asked if I needed help, and I didn’t hesitate to let her know I needed water. I asked her to open my drop bag, get my coconut water, a banana, dried salmon. I felt like she was basically feeding me in my mouth, peeling the banana, opening the coconut water, more water, thank you, and bye.”

The second half of a 50k can feel much longer than the first half. Imelda said, “Miles 15 to 20 have always been a mental block for me, so I decided I needed another mantra, which was to offer my race to somebody. As I was descending and pain was growing in my left toe, I thought about my husband Nathan, who recently has been struggling with his health. I prayed for him constantly, for his recovery and the last thing I knew I was already at aid station number 3. Offer your race, your thoughts for a good reason, and you never know what will come from that.”

“In the last descent, I smiled. It was all like a dream. I thought, ‘Wow, this is it, and I am strong, healthy and without injuries, so keep moving.’” As for the final mile, “I crossed the bridge, running faster and pushing for my finish. I smiled — I did it.”

Marlene Farrell is a writer, long-distance runner and coach. She lives in Leavenworth.

Here was the scene at the Skyline 50K turnaround aid station. (Skyline 25k and 50k photo)

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