Trail Running is 90% Mental

Some people may make the case that a person must be mental to go running out in the middle of the woods, but that’s not actually what this post is about. Rather, I am simply making an argument that a successful trail run, especially a long trail run, is mostly about mental fortitude and attitude.

Case in point, I am currently training for my first ultra run; a 50k run in the Germantown Metro Park that will consist of four 7.75 mile loops around the park. Last week for my long run, I set out to do two loops in that park. Basically, I wanted to know what I was in store for. I’m not a big fan of surprises come race day. So, I set out and drove the hour and a half to see the park for myself. My first impression was that there were far more hills than I expected. About four miles into my first loop, the elevation started adding up. I instantly got down on myself and the negative talk began. Perhaps you’ve been there. “You can’t do this. You’ll never be able to complete four loops. You’re not a real runner. You have no business trying to do this.”

I hate to admit this, but the negative voice I hear in my head at times is my own. I have a tendency to focus on the negative when it comes to myself. Perhaps it comes from years of fighting obesity, but I am able to quickly forget how far I’ve come. I forget that I am not the man I used to be. I can do it quite easily. Long story short – I did not complete two loops during my first encounter with Germantown. I hit my limit after just one loop.

I walked away feeling defeated, discouraged, and embarrassed.

Today was a different story. I completed two loops in their entirety. Yeah, it was tough. I even got attacked by a swarm of bees at one point. But I overcame the bees and the hills. What had changed in a week? I’m still basically the same runner I was last week. The handful of training runs I competed over the last seven days didn’t make me twice as capable as I was. I’m still not fast or naturally gifted. The one thing that did change, however, was my mental state.

I went into today’s run accepting that it was going to be tough. I began the run in prayer. I asked God to give me strength, to protect myself and my companions from injury, and to protect me from myself. My negative self talk has the potential to cause some damage and I had no desire to go down that road today. I confessed that to God, asked for His forgiveness, and put my trust in Him.

I then spent the entire first loop focusing on staying positive. It helped that my wife stayed positive as well. Despite some aches and pains from a foot surgery she is recovering from, she stayed more or less in a good mood. That helped – a lot. I am convinced that surrounding yourself with positive people is the most basic way to stay positive yourself. Basically, I just tried to enjoy that first loop. I focused on the blessing of being on a trail with my wife and our son. I slammed my Tailwind to stay hydrated and walked the big hills with no apologies – I had bigger fish to fry.

The second loop started after a changed shirt and a PB&J sandwich – calm down, it was was sugar free jelly, natural peanut butter, and low carb wheat bread! Both Stef and Zach opted out of this loop, which left me on my own. The aftershokz went on and my running playlist was engaged. My running music is comprised of loads of positive, upbeat praise and worship music. Casting Crowns, P.O.D., Skillet, and Toby Mac. Before long, I found myself singing out loud; much to the chagrin of the various hikers I passed. I find it impossible to focus on negative things when I’m praising God.

This strategy worked well. The second loop seemed to be flying by. That is until mile 11. As a rounded a corner I saw a dog harness, cell phone, and various articles of clothing strewn about the trail, which is weird, but my brain didn’t even get a chance to process it before I was attacked by a swarm of bees. Before I knew what was happening, I had probably been stung about a dozen times. Eventually, I realized all the stuff on the trail belonged to another runner and his dog who had been attacked as well. The dog had accidentally stumbled into a hive and upset the bees. This was at about the same point the hills began.

Everything post bee attack was tough. Real tough.

My heart rate skyrocketed and I had some breathing issues. Fortunately, the inhaler I carry on my trail runs helped some. The hills were made tougher with the pain of the stings, but I had to take moment and thank God it hadn’t been worse. I also prayed for the dog, because she seemed to take more stings than the rest of us. The bee incident did manage to shorten my planned 19 mile run to just under 15, but on a positive note, I managed to complete two full loops.

The only change was my mindset an my attitude.

God’s Word tells us to to think about “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable … excellent or praiseworthy” Philippians 4:8. I’ve learned the mind is the most powerful weapon a trail runner has. Sure … it would be nice to have the endurance and lungs of Jim Walmsley, but let’s face it, that’s never going to happen. Through dedication and hard work, I may be able to slightly improve my running performance … but nothing will have a more dramatic impact on my running than an improved attitude!

My advice for trail runners, regardless of their skill level?

1. Stay positive! Don’t allow negative thoughts to get a foothold.

2. Focus on those things lovely about being on a trail! There are plenty of people who wish they could enjoy a train run, but for whatever reasons can’t. You are blessed!

3. Begin each run in prayer and praise God frequently throughout your run. You are never alone in the woods!

4. Finally, prepare yourself mentally before the trail gets tough. Spend time in God’s Word and in prayer during the week before your long run. Don’t wait for hills to talk with God … know that the hills are coming, and talk to Him in preparation!

I’m a work in progress, but this lesson is going to stick with me.

Mini Book Reviews of ‘Into the Furnace: How a 135-Mile Run Across Death Valley Set My Soul on Fire’ and ‘Stronger Than the Dark: Exploring the Intimate Relationship Between Running and Depression’ by Cory Reese

A few times in my life I’ve enjoyed a book so much I immediately pick up something else by the same author. It almost never works out for me. Perhaps it’s because of my high expectations or maybe it’s the mathematical improbability of one writer making magic twice in a single lifetime, whatever it is, I am almost always disappointed the second time around. I recently took a chance on ultra runner and author Cory Reese by reading two of his books back to back. I really enjoyed Into the Furnace and then took a chance on Stronger Than the Dark. Oh my, I was not disappointed! What follows are mini reviews of both titles.

Into the Furnace: How a 135 Mile Run Across Death Valley Set My Soul on Fire: On the surface, this is a book about Badwater, but in reality, it is about so much more! Funny, heart wrenching, and honest. As a 50 year old wanna be ultra runner, I’ll never run through Death Valley, but there are some philosophical gems in the pages of this book I can apply to my life. Such a good read!

Stronger Than the Dark: Exploring the Intimate Relationship Between Running and Depression: In his latest book, ultra runner Corey Reese takes a deep dive into the ocean that is his depression. He is powerfully, and somewhat painfully, transparent. He discusses the cause, symptoms, and side effects of his depression honestly. In doing so, he gives the reader permission to be honest about their own pain. Ultimately, Reese argues that running saved his life. But it’s not just the simple act of running long distances, that seems fo have saved him, rather, running is the vehicle used to transport him to a place where he could experience healing. This is an important book for anyone who has experienced depression. I honestly had difficulty putting it down.StrIn his latest book, ultra runner Corey Reese takes a deep dive into the ocean that is his depression. He is powerfully, and somewhat painfully, transparent. He discusses the cause, symptoms, and side effects of his depression honestly. In doing so, he gives the reader permission to be honest about their own pain. Ultimately, Reese argues that running saved his life. But it’s not just the simple act of running long distances, that seems fo have saved him, rather, running is the vehicle used to transport him to a place where he could experience healing. This is an important book for anyone who has experienced depression. I honestly had difficulty putting it down.

I highly recommend both of these titles for anyone interested in running or ultra running. Reese has a way of using running to address bigger, more important subjects. I hear he has a third book as well, and I can’t wait to read it.

Running Shoe Review: Brooks Adrenaline ’21

When I first began running a few years age, I instantly fell in love with Hoka OneOne shoes. Hoka and I were a match made in heaven and it was love at first sight. I was heavier than most runners, pushing the scales at nearly 300 lbs at the time, and Hokas featured a thick, padded cushioning sole. It didn’t take long for my “shoe guy” to hook me up with some Hokas in an attempt to lesson the beating my knees and joints were taking. I loved them so much I named my German Shepherd Hoka. I still love them … but, alas, it was time for a change.

I was introduced to my new shoes when I had a gait analysis at my favorite running store. The salesmen recommended them because my analysis indicated I had an over pronation that “came and went”. The salesmen indicated that the Brooks Adrenaline had unique guide rails that would offer just the right amount of stability to help correct my over pronation. I was a little skeptical as the Brooks offered a greater slope than I was used to with my Hokas, but out of desperation, I bought them anyway.

Enter Brooks Adrenaline GTS 21.

Having lost a significant amount of weight since I took up running, my body composition has changed somewhat. I weigh under 200 lbs for the first time in 26 years or so and have more lean body mass. My running has changed as well. I’m only “pretty” slow as opposed to “really” slow. A twelve minute mile is cooking for me; and all that slow running is tough on the body. Recently, even with my beloved Hoka’s, I’ve developed a bit of an IT band issue. Searing pain that begins in my hip and radiates down to my knee on long runs. The pain normally doesn’t hit me until I’m ten miles or so into a long run, but when it hits, it hits hard. The pain is bad enough to degrade my already clumsy running gait and will hurt for a little while after the run is over. With a goal of working my way up to a 50k distance, this painful issue on long runs has become quite an obstacle.

I’ve got about 30 miles in the Brooks Adrenaline shoes so far and wanted to offer my initial thoughts. These shoes are great! While I would like to say they instantly cured my IT band issues, that isn’t the case. However, I have really enjoyed running in the Adrenalines so far. The Brooks Adrenaline GTS shoes offer a good mix of stability and feel. While my feet are supported and stable, I can still feel the terrain underfoot. This combination of stability and feel gives me a certain level of confidence when running. In my short time in the Brooks, I’ve tried them on the road and on the trail, and enjoyed each experience. These shoes are responsive and stable, which is an experience I didn’t get with my Hokas. Because of that responsiveness, I’m actually able to feel what my foot and toes are doing as I roll through my gait – and I think this may be key in making the necessary adjustments to correct my over pronation.

These shoes are excellent … just don’t expect me to change the name of my dog.

Mini Book Review of “The Ultramarathon Guide: A Simple Approach to Running Your First Ultramarathon” by Michael D’Aulerio

I grabbed this book off of Amazon because I am a runner with budding aspirations to complete an ultramarathon. This book by Michael D’Aulerio is a great primer for such events. It is separated into chapters with each containing practical and useful information. D’Aulerio offers tips on topics such as what to bring to an ultra, how to stay motivated, and how to fuel and hydrate. It is a helpful read that I can see referring to from time to time as I continue to grow as a runner. I highly recommend it for any novice runner who is contemplating an ultra.

Mini Book Review of “Running to Leadville” by Brian Burk.

This book is very similar to author Brian Burk’s other book ‘Unfinished’. Like its counterpart, there are many grammatical errors. So much so that I felt I should lead with that in this review as it could deter some people. I will say this, however, it is a good book. Burk’s very strong at describing the ultra runs that are featured in his stories. In this case, that’s the Leadville 100. If you are even mildly interested in long distance trail runs, you’ll enjoy this book. Like ‘Unfinished’, there is a huge plot development, however, it occurs earlier in the story and doesn’t come off as an interruption to the plot. If you are choosing between the two titles, pick this one.

Mini Book Review of “Unfinished: Finding Yourself Among a Lifetime of Miles and the JFK 50-Ultra-Marathon” by Brian Burk

Full disclosure; I didn’t know what I was getting when I downloaded this book for my Kindle. I thought I was getting the author’s account of his own adventure running an ultramarathon and, as someone who has the goal of running a 50k this year, that was of interest. However, what I got was a fictionalized account of a young Olympic hopeful marathon runner and his girlfriend in a small, sleepy little West Virginia town. I suspect the characters and locations, including the running shoe store the protagonist works in, are all drawn from the author’s own experiences. Certainly, there were enough details of the JFK 50 that I expect Brian Burn has run it himself. Those details lended a bit of realism to the characters and the events described throughout the book. I found it readable and engaging. Now for my quibbles … and there are a couple. First, I downloaded this through my Kindle Unlimited and, like many of the books available on the platform, I am assuming this one is self-published. I have nothing against self-published works at all … I like good books regardless of how they are published, however, this one needed some more proof-reading. There were some mistakes in syntax and grammar. Normally, such mistakes are forgivable if the book is written well, however, in this case the mistakes interrupted the flow of the story enough to be a distraction.

As for the story itself, I liked it. Without spoiling anything, I will say there is a huge plot development about two thirds of the way through that happens rather abruptly and changes the whole story. I wasn’t for it. In fact, I almost quit reading. Instead, I sat the book aside for a couple of days and then soldiered through. Other readers may deal better with it than I did.

If you are a fan of ultra running and enjoy fiction tales, my guess is you would like this book. I will certainly be on the lookout for other novels written by Brian Burk, but I think he is capable of much better than this. I give it a solid 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Mini Book Review of “Reborn on the Run” by Catra Corbett

Reborn on the Run by Catra Corbett

This book depicts the incredible journey of a meth addict turned ultra runner. The feats that author Catra Corbett accomplishes on the trail, are incredible. Reading her story helped encourage me that I can recover from my days as a Type 2 diabetic. In comparison, my mountains aren’t nearly as big as hers. Unfortunately, there are enough typos and errors in this book that it detracted, at least for me, from the amazing story. I’m glad I read it, however, and I am now a fan of Cards Corbett.

Mini Book Review of ‘Down Size: 12 Truths for Turning Pants-Splitting Frustration into Pants-Fitting Success’ by Ted Spiker

I really enjoy Ted Spiker’s writing style and have gained a great deal from his articles and blog posts over the years. I purchased this book by and large because of his name recognition and, while I don’t regret it, I wasn’t exactly blown away either. Spiker is a famous big guy runner who has been open and honest with his battles regarding his weight over the years. That same honesty is present in this book which is greatly appreciated. He speaks as one who “gets it” and is far more relatable to me than most running authors. He has seemingly put the hardest of his struggles behind him and this book is about getting over that hump. Spiker shares his tips that, by and large, speak to the mental side of weight loss and fitness. He avoids the nuts and bolts that some authors might dive into by not not sharing the specifics of his diet or fitness routine. It made for an enjoyable read, I’m just not sure how much of it I would actually apply to my own struggles … or even how much of it I will remember six months from now.

It Feels Like Something is Broken Inside of Me

Saturday I participated in what, is for me, the hardest run on my schedule. For the second year in a row I signed up for and ran the Indian Run at the Hocking Hills State Park in Logan, Ohio. It is beautiful, well-organized run through one of the most beautiful parts of Ohio. But it is tough. When I ran it last year it was, at the time, my longest run ever. It included many sections of climbs that I was not prepared for and it was all I could do to finish. As soon as I crossed the finish line in 2018, I knew I wanted to come back and do the run again. My long-term goal is to someday do an ultramarathon, but this 20k run through Hocking Hills beat me and I immediately knew I wanted revenge.

That revenge was supposed to happen last Saturday. With another year of training and some modest weight loss, I was convinced I would do better than last year. In some ways, I suppose I did. I beat last year’s time by 18 minutes and physically, I think I feel better and am recovering faster than last year. However, once again, this run beat me.

My problems began at mile 4 with a steep climb up Steel Hill Road. I had strategically planned to walk the hill and did so, however, about half way up the climb I began suffering from painful calf cramps. These cramps plagued me throughout the finish and hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt while running. Every step was a struggle. These cramps put doubt in my mind that I would be able to finish and caused me to walk much more of the course than I intended. I only finished because turning around at that point would have been a more difficult run; plus, my cellphone was out of service which prevented me from calling my wife to come get me. So I trudged forward.

The problems got worse at mile 9. For the second year in a row, in that exact spot, I experienced what I can only describe as an asthma-like attack. Wheezing, a failure to catch my breath, and elevated heart rate accompanied a feeling as if I were about to pass out. It was a sensation I hoped I wouldn’t experience again after last year. It was sensation that put me in survival mode. I was no longer concerned about time, or crushing the run, I just wanted to survive it.

In doing so, it felt like something broke inside of me. I vowed in that moment that I would never sign up for the Indian Run again. It’s just too tough. The 20k distance had beat me down again and any hopes of ever completing the 40k or 60k distance were dashed. In fact, in that moment of suffering, I began to question why I run in the first place. I thought I had made some gains, I thought I had improved, but here I was suffering in the same ways for the second year in a row. It called into question all the work and training I have done over the last year. It made me feel like giving up.

I told my wife afterwards that I was never signing up for the Indian Run again. I could hear the shock in her voice when she responded by telling me she had no doubt I would be back. But beyond that particular run, if I’m being honest, I’ve entertained the notion of just quitting all together. I’ve thought about giving up. I’m not a natural runner, I’m built more like an offensive lineman than an ultramarathon runner, I’m slow …. and here’s the deal, I I always will be.

I don’t mean for this post to be a downer, but for the first time since I began running and losing weight, I am questioning if its all worth it. I’ve run a couple of times since then and I’m starting to recover physically, however, I feel like I’m a long way from recovering mentally. I feel like something is broken inside of me.

I’ve never experience this type of pessimism and dread following a run and I’m not sure how to recover from it. I don’t know if it is normal to feel this way after such a hard effort, but I know I don’t like. Running normally gives me pleasure and peace. That is not where I’m at right now … and I miss it terribly.It