Why analytical thinkers and problem solvers make the best ultramarathoners

barkleysI don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Barkley Marathons finishers are typically scientists, physicists or engineers. I feel like you need to have a certain mindset or way of thinking to handle the physical and mental demands of an ultra endurance race like that.

This past weekend I was glued to Twitter following the 30th running of the Barkley Marathons—the only resource for live updates on the famously enigmatic 100-ish mile race—and constantly refreshing the #BM100 hashtag feed to find out how Canadians Gary Robbins and Rhonda-Marie Avery (who was the race’s first blind participant – yes, blind) were faring on the race’s unforgiving course. Rhonda-Marie and her guide gave a valiant effort, dropping out after getting lost on the first loop, while Gary completed four and a half loops (out of five) before getting turned around and losing time, which forced him to drop out about five hours from the cut-off time.

According to sources on the course, Gary was hallucinating bad—something that ultrarunners often experience when attempting 100+ mile races on little to no sleep. I’ve heard of runners seeing things in the trees, feeling like the forest was caving in on them, hearing voices and experiencing other wild visions when they start to lose mental footing during a race. Even this year’s winner (who is the race’s first-ever three-time finisher) Jared Campbell mentioned he was hearing voices in the tunnel on the course. I can’t imagine the mental fortitude it would take to ground yourself and keep pushing on when your that emotionally, mentally and physically exhausted.  

Although mental toughness only accounts for about 14% of a runners performance during an endurance event, I feel like it 98% accounts for being able to finish a race like Barkley. And while ultrarunners are certainly a fit and hardy bunch, I feel like those with excellent problem solving and mental skills—like scientists and engineers, and others with analytical minds—are the ones that can truly go the distance.

I thought about this as I read a few interesting tweets yesterday from someone who was at the Barkley race site on the weekend. In a series of tweets, Twitter user Thomas Norton (@427L88) wrote:

People who love the BM are not pure runners; they are problem solvers who also run. In camp, you don’t see the race, you hear about [it]. Vets eyes light up as they tell of problems solved in past BMs. Runners who have dropped out tell of the problem that got them. Then the talk begins of what could be done. Vet eyes just sparkle as they recount past problems overcome. If someone cries “runner coming”, all those sparkling eyes jump up to see who is solving what problem now. Camp happiness was overflowing when “runner coming” went out for Jared on loop 5. The camp was happy for Jared… but also [that meant] the problem had been solved. Vet problem solvers in camp all hoped that in some way they were still helping solve problems.

According to performance psychologist John Hall, mental toughness is actually more important than hardiness when it comes to performance during an event. “Whilst hardiness was not predictive of performance, mental skill use was, and there was evidence of mental toughness and mental skill both competing with each other, and complimenting each other,” Hall wrote in his research paper on the impact of mental toughness on performance.

So could that be why analytical thinkers and problem solvers make the best ultramarathoners? What does this mean for us non-engineers? Can one train to be mentally skilled and tough to be a better endurance runner?

“Your concentration, determination, acceptance of responsibility and stability of attitudes are key influencers of finishing time and you are not just born with this,” Hall says in this Runner’s World article. “You can work at it through practicing mental skills, just like the physical skills you practice. Working on skills for dealing with stress, focusing, refocusing, and relaxing will make you mentally tougher and a faster runner.”

Cool. So does that mean these past two year practicing meditation (relaxing), working as a freelance writer with weekly deadlines and a new role at work where I get to create strategies and plans (stress, focusing and refocusing) will make me a better ultrarunner?

I guess there’s only one way to find out!

Do you agree? Have you done an ultra race? If so, how far? What problems did you run into that you had to solve? Have you ever hallucinated on a run?

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Thanks Amanda for the link-up!