My Top 7 Mental Tricks To Run An Ultra Marathon

by Jesse Mendoza

Orcas Island 50K, Feb. 4 2017 (Orcas Island, WA)

My first and only trail ultra in the pacific northwest to date. I was untrained for all of the climbing that was involved being a flatlander from the midwest. Not to mention the trail was like nothing I’d seen before. I didn’t really know what to expect. Still, I went into it with a positive attitude hoping I’d finish, but a wrong turn near mile 25 caused me to time out when I finally found the aid station.

My race was over.

I was disappointed with not being able to finish considering I’d traveled so far for the race. I went through every crummy emotion you could think of. I learned a lot that day.

Fast forward to 2018 and I’d finish or battled through all eight of my races this year including five ultra marathons. The stakes were pretty high for me considering I was taking on my first 100 mile this year. I knew that if I’d break down in my earlier races, I’d get it in my head that I wasn’t worthy of completing a 100 mile ultra – at least not yet.

Getting in that long run in preparation for race day is only a small part of my overall plan. Training my brain to get me through an ultra, or any race for that matter, is just as important – if not the most important piece.

Here are my top 7 mental tricks that I use to get me through an ultra:

1. I get it in my head that I can finish days before my race

From the moment I hit that registration button, I start picturing myself at the finish line. I think of my friends or family that I will be celebrating with. I think of that wonderful steak dinner I’ll have after, or that cold celebratory beer. Make it count! Quitting is not an option.

2. I realize that I may fail and I’m okay with it

Option number one above is all well, but I have to be mentally prepared for the worst. Just as I prepare myself for celebrating the finish, I’m preparing mentally to celebrate my effort if the result is not what I’d imagined. I remember to smile, be thankful to my crew, and to remind myself with, “Hey, I can actually do this.” There will be a next time.

3. I trust the gear I use

“Don’t try anything new on race day.” It’s a tried and true mantra. It’s not uncommon for me to use and wear the same gear race after race (see gallery above). There’s no worse feeling than having to waste time fixing gear during a race that I didn’t try during training, especially if I’m chasing cutoffs during an ultra. In using gear I trust, there’s a good chance it’s race ready and I’m not going to be distracted by messing with it.

My trusted favorites:

  • White Salomon cap for sun protection
  • Uvex Sportstyle 202 Variomatic sunglasses
  • Insect U/V Buff
  • Ultimate Direction Jurek FKT Vest
  • Salomon Sense Pro T
  • Suunto Ambit3 Run GPS watch + Timex T49851 Expedition watch
  • SAXX Compression or Kinetic short
  • Darn Tough or Smartwool socks
  • Dirty Girl Gaiters
  • Hoka One One Challenger ATR trail shoe

4. I like to break up the distance by going aid station to aid station

Taking on an ultra is a daunting experience. Nothing messes with my head more than thinking about how many hours (or days) I’ll be out there. Even before stepping on the start line, the demons in my head will begin taunting me with thoughts of, “It’s way too far,” or “there’s no way you did enough training for this.” An aid station is an oasis of good food, friendly faces, and offers a chance to shake those demons and gather myself up for the next stretch.

5. No matter what I do, don’t stop moving forward

Deep into an ultra, my mind keeps telling me to stop. When running is no longer an option, all that’s left is to walk, or crawl. Whatever the case, I remind myself to keep putting one foot in front of the other, no matter how fast, or how slow. The next aid station is near….

6. I stay in my own head as long as I can without any distractions

During training runs of three hours or more I don’t listen to any music. Most of the time I also like to run alone. Part of this also involves getting in uncomfortable situations, like running through water to get my shoes wet, going through a rough trail, or going out at the hottest part of the day. Whatever it takes to stay within my own head for hours at a time to focus on the task at hand.

7. I’m thankful for the moment and enjoy the experience of it all

During my attempt at the Orcas 50K last year, I went through every weather condition you can think of. I started off in a chilly rain, then it transitioned to a swampy humidity, and then I hit snow in the higher elevations that I wasn’t prepared for. Still, I was thankful to be in that moment. Where else could I have gone and experienced all four seasons in a span of four hours? I was having fun and that’s all that mattered – finish or no finish.

(Header photo credit: Glenn Tachiyama. Purchased for use)