What Can We Learn From Ultra Trail Runners?.

North: Finding My Way While Running the Appalachian Trail

‘North’ the story of Scott Jurek’s 2015 attempt at the record for the Appalachian Trail.  North is an eye opening read focusing on the sheer determination of Scott and his wife Jenny to complete the run Northbound in record time. This is a feet that is impossible to most, and even to the best runners.

The Appalachian trail is a 2,200 mile trek running down the East Coast of the USA. The trail crosses 14 states running from Georgia to Maine. On its route hikers/runners will cross the highest point at 6,643ft at Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The trail is more commonly used for hiking but throughout the history of the trail, setting speed records has been at the forefront of keen trail runners.

Whilst I am not (yet) a trail runner, I recently found myself mesmerised by the ambitions and achievements of  ultra endurance trail runners. Triggered by the documentary The Barkley Marathons, Karl Meltzer: Made to be Broken and then Scott Jurek’s account of this running of the Appalachian trail in his book North: Finding My Way While Running the Appalachian Trail. I found myself with a new admiration for the sheer physical and mental strength shown by each of these athletes, and their teams.

The Appalachian trail has ongoing ongoing attempts to break the record with a recent new record being set by Belgian dentist Karl Sabbe in 41 Days 7 hours and 29 minutes with an average of 2 marathons per day! Karel now holds the record for both the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian trail.

About North: Finding My Way While Running the Appalachian Trail

North is an honest account of life on the Appalachian trail as an ultrarunner out to set a record. The storytelling has a shared perspective of Scott’s journey on the trail as well as his wife Jenny,  who is Scott’s lifeline off the run managing life in their moving base, Castle Black, their trusted van. But more than this, her role as motivator, Physio and management team whilst on the road.

I want you to read the book, so I will avoid any spoilers or anything I feel will hinder your enjoyment of the book. If you intend to read ‘North’. It is safe to read on.

‘North’ is honest, sharing the ups and downs and goes beyond facts. Scott and Jenny share a great deal whether it is insights to their life, pains they have gone through as well as their thoughts and worries. They all somehow contribute to their journey to the Appalachian trail and an aspect of finding purpose that lead to this new attempt at the Appalachian trail record.

This book is an eye opener to human strength both from a physical and mental perspective but above all it got me thinking. What can we as average daily runners learn from the likes of Greg Meltzer and Scott Jurek  through their passion and achievements on the Appalachian trail.

Below are some key takeaways from my recent immersion to the world of ultra trail running through Made to be Broken and North. Not just as interesting facts but more as a focus on what we as regular daily runners can take away from these endurance athletes.

1. Understand the Why?

This seems like a good place to start.

For some it may be a tough question to answer, why do we choose to take on a challenge? To others it may be easy.

It may be in our nature. Maybe it is a desire to test our own limits and to push our boundaries. In some cases it may be to prove something to ourselves or quite simply in the case of many runners, to become a little more healthy

Whatever your reason, this may be the primary reason you took up running or it may have evolved over the course of your time as a runner.  From getting a little more healthy to the desire for a marathon PB. The motive we set out with can be the most powerful motivation we carry with us.

When you are fighting in the last 10k of your marathon and digging deep through the pain your ‘why’ is what will lift you up and pull you through.

Think of it as your purpose. Try achieving greatness without a purpose and you may find that the challenge just became significantly more difficult.

2. Determination

Linked closely to your why, or Purpose, is determination. macmillandictionary.com defines determination as ‘the refusal to let anything prevent you from doing what you have decided to do’. This is a state of mind that brings your purpose to life. This is about your mindset and how you behave in the face of your challenges. It is the ability to overcome doubt.

This can be true at any level. If you are starting your running journey and chasing your first 5k. The challenge you face at a personal level may be equal to that of an experienced runner chasing a PB in a marathon.

Yes, the distance is vastly different. But the willpower and determination needed to achieve your individual goal may be the same.

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3.Know Your Body

Whilst determination is key to achieving tough goals, determination can also a poor judge of knowing when to hold back and rest.

Scotts journey was riddled with physical challenges, his ability to be a good judge of his own body and capabilities led to critical decisions on the go that ultimately kept him running.

There are times to push and times to hold off and recover. Understanding each of those scenarios in your own context is key to your own running journey wither out on a trail or in your daily running. Knowing good versus bad pain. Knowing to slow down or stop, pains are all a part of managing yourself.

Let’s be honest here, pushing your limit whether it is with a focus on distance or pace, or both, will hurt. Learn to know what that feels like. That’s the good kind of pain.

4. Partnership

When taking on a big challenge, don’t underestimate the importance of the support you will need.

In the case of Scott journey in ‘North’, Jenny is his trusted travel companion, taking care of everything whilst they are on the road. She stands by him through thick and thin, good days and bad days on the road.

For most of us, we will never need this type of intense support, but don’t underestimate the importance nonetheless.

Anytime you take on a training plan you make a commitment in terms of time and effort. Whether it is a 3 month Marathon training plan or a 6 month Ironman plan. Having your partner fully on board understanding and accepting the challenge and time commitment is crucial.

5. Don’t Do It Alone

Tap into the knowledge of others. Whether it is past coaches, friends or fellow runners, all have value to bring in your own journey.

On the one side, advice and guidance can push you to change your habits and perceptions. Even though change may be right, making a change from your path can be tough.

On the other side advice and guidance when it aligns with your views can offer the support and reassurance needed to overcome any doubts and break down the hurdles that stand between you and your goal.

Fellow runners are key too, whether old friends or new, all can contribute greatly to achieving big goals. Sometimes a distraction and companion on a long run can take your mind off the solitude and pain of the run.

This same benefit is true if you are new to running. When you start something new the unknowns are the greatest. Teaming up and taking the journey as a ‘team’ will relieve some of your doubts and make tackling challenges easier and keep your motivation up.

Related Reading: Benefits of Group Running

6. Be Prepared for Change

Even the best made plans can change. Often change is forced upon us, resisting change can make the situation worse. Accepting change and adjusting to it will make you stronger.

In Scott’s case on the Appalachian trail, knee pains drive a need to change his approach to the run. They force him to slow his pace for a period of time, a tough decision to make when you are chasing a record. But ultimately the right choice in order to ‘keep the dream alive’.

The need for change can come in many forms, getting ill during a training plan resulting in a loss of training time. The weather on race day not being as desired or planned. All are surmountable with flexibility and some forward thinking.

Giving yourself enough time to change your training plan, or even adjusting your race day expectations can be tough but needed changes. Some days are ideal for setting records, others are not. Planning for a PB to discover race day is made up of  heavy rains and wind may result in taking a new approach. Setting out for just enjoying the day may leave you having fun on the day, yet being surprised by the result.

7. Focus On The Now

Setting out on your marathon and when hitting the 2k mark thinking  ‘only 40.2k to go go’ may be demoralising. Imagine having to face the thought of only 2,200 miles (3,500km) to go as is the case on the Appalachian trail.

Sometimes thinking too far ahead is best avoided.  Bringing the focus back to bite size pieces makes them manageable. The challenge of today, or in the case of a marathon the next 5k suddenly become realistic.

Focusing on the now drives a combined physical and mental benefit. It’s easy to imagine the next 5km. It’s less obvious to imagine the next 42 or beyond.

The risk of thinking ‘beyond the now’ is that the slightest pain or discomfort will be amplified, which may trigger thoughts like ‘if it hurts now… how will I feel in 20km?’

Mentally, this is a killer. With thoughts like that it is almost guaranteed that your run will not be getting any easier or faster. Your mind has the power to grind your run to a halt. Controlling your thoughts has great significance in reaching your running goal.

8. Stop Thinking About Your Goal

This may be counterintuitive. But it is an interesting point that comes through in ‘North’.

When you train you should be thinking about your goal. You should be training for your goal! Every element of your training should be built in such a way that you will achieve it, whether distance or pace. If you are training slower than your goal pace requires, you may need to assess the feasibility of your race day goal, or pick up your training pace.

When race day comes you should be fine-tuned and ready for the challenge ahead. The risk of spending every minute with your goal at the forefront of your mind is that you may lose your connection with your run. You still need to enjoy what you are doing.

The suggestion is not to forget your goals, but learn to get to know your pace and then focus on the environment around you, whether the beauty of the Appalachian trail or the atmosphere of a marathon race. These elements should be key motivators in your journey.

Your goal should serve as checkpoints. Am I on track? If yes, then keep going. If no, can I adjust?  Your goal should be available for you to access when you need to dig deep and push.

9. Honour and Integrity

No shortcuts. Ever!

As per Scotts definition in North  ‘It’s not only important to set records, but if you take shortcuts the only loser is you’

This is true whether you are setting records out on the Appalachian Trail, running for a personal best or training for any distance race. Shortcuts will ultimately catch up with you. Mentally or physically. ‘Winning’ off the back of a shortcut is a hollow win, never give anyone (including yourself) the chance to challenge you on your achievements.

But shortcuts don’t only exist on race day, let’s take training as an easy example.

Your training is designed to get you to a goal. Most training plans are built to gradually improve your abilities, distance and pace. Taking shortcuts in your training may make a single training session easier.  However, come the next training sessions or eventually race day, you play with the risk to fall short of your goals.

10. Never Give Up Attitude

This may be an easily thrown about term, but not so easy in reality. It takes a lot of the previously mentioned determination to never give up.

The never give up attitude often comes hand in hand with a setback or a change of plan. Things have not gone perfectly, your record or goal may seem to be off track or quite simply, the reality of the scale of your challenge is coming to the forefront. Your motivation and belief starts to sink. What options do you have now? Sink or Swim?

The ability to not give up when the going gets tough is both mentally and physically challenging. The need to re-enforce your ‘why?’ or reset priorities. If your personal best is in sight, that may continue to drive you, but if that starts to slip what do you fall back on?  The enjoyment of the run? The experience you are building? The opportunity to try some new tactics in a race?

Adversity may strike, but you never know what happens next. Keeping your momentum and staying in the game can lead to a turnaround. No one who ever stopped a race won it!

Related Reading: 10 Marathon Race Day Tips

11. Humility and Respect

When we chase our own records by definition we are pushing against our own odds. We are venturing into unknown territory. It means we need to push harder and further.

Whether running on road, trail, mountains or track,  the path we run on can turn from being our best friend or our enemy in an instant. Unknowns come in all forms.

By respecting the challenge we are taking on we appreciate the difficulty we are up against.

Whether at a professional level or as an everyday casual runner. We may not succeed in every challenge the first time we try. In some cases it takes a lot of determination, persistence and learning. Our own personal growth is what enables us to overcome our challenges.

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What can we learn from ultra trail runners? Beyond mindset and determination the average weekend runner has a lot to learn.
What can we learn from ultra trail runners? Beyond mindset and determination the average weekend runner has a lot to learn.