Last weekend Mario Mendoza, Renee Metivier, and Max King quietly packed three treadmills into a U-Haul and drove the three hours from Bend to Eugene, Oregon. At sea level, in a building with quality air conditioning, the three runners got ready to each break a treadmill ultramarathon world record. Each athlete prepared both mentally and physically for the monotony, pain, and suffering they each knew would come during their world record attempts.
While King and Metivier aimed to break the more coveted 50K world record, Mendoza was the sole athlete gunning for the 100K record. Running for 6 hours, 39 minutes and 25 second, Mendoza ran an average pace of 6:25 for his 62-mile record-breaking run, smashing the previous treadmill 100K record by an hour and ten minutes. His accomplishment is an amazing example of physical endurance, but an even more impressive feat of mental strength and fortitude. For over six-and-a-half hours Mario stared out the same window, ran the same pace and incline, and had little to distract his mind from the numbing pain that inevitably comes with running a 100k.
In every race there comes a point where the physical pain is ensnared in a larger mental battle. While the mental battle is not waged separately from the physical fight, it can often decide the outcome of a race. We’ve all felt the nagging sensation of doubt and fear creep into our minds as we contemplated the number of miles or laps left until the finish. Having now held both the 50k and 100k treadmill world records in the same year, Mario is uniquely qualified to share his strategies for combating mental fatigue, preparing for pain, and motivating oneself through the hardest parts of a race. Here are some of his key tactics.
Break the race into bite-size pieces
Some of us have heard of this strategy before, but it becomes more poignant when you think about the monotony of running 62 miles on a treadmill. Mendoza described this as the record’s greatest challenge, “In trail running you can really break up your run, you can study the course and look forward to seeing and experiencing different things throughout, but on a treadmill you really have to make the boring space comfortable and that’s really hard.”
To combat this monotony, Mendoza decided to break the 62 miles into smaller segments. Initially breaking it into thirds, as the race progressed he gave himself smaller goals, optimizing the mental satisfaction and motivation each small success brought.
“As I hit 45 miles I started splitting it up into short 3 mile segments. I just kept telling myself ‘I can do three more miles, I can do three more miles,’ and then once I felt like I couldn’t do three more miles, I started telling myself ‘I can do one more mile, I can do one more mile,’” he said.
Regardless of the distance, sectioning the race into small digestible parts gives our minds small goals to achieve and creates a positive feedback loop of satisfaction as we continue to hit our goals.
Know your ‘why’
Regardless of how much you may like running on a treadmill, it’s hard to imagine running for over 6 hours in the same spot. Most sane people at some point arrive at the ‘why’ question: “Why am I doing this?” Without a strong answer, there isn’t the internal motivation to win the mental battle and to keep on fighting when the pain is overwhelming.
For Mendoza, his 100k record attempt was part of a fundraiser for underprivileged youth in Central Oregon. The fundraiser’s goal is to provide resources for young runners, helping promote running to a more diverse audience. It was this internal motivator that pushed Mendoza through the dark moments in his race. Without a compelling ‘why’, there is little motivation to push through the pain. For your next race refine your ‘why’. Discover the motivation that will push you through to the end.
“Without a ‘why’, there is little motivation to push through the pain.”
Visualize and mentally prepare for the pain
Prior to the race, Mendoza mentally prepared for the hardest parts of the attempt.
“Throughout the whole week prior to my attempt I was preparing myself to make my mental space as positive as I could,” he explained. “I strove to create a really good headspace, emotional space, and spiritual space where I could be ready to suffer and dig deep. I took time to pray, reflect, and meditate on what was going to happen so that when those challenges arose I wasn’t surprised by them.”
Most runners understand that at some point in every race there is bound to be pain and suffering. Mendoza’s tactic allowed him to visualize and expect those miles of suffering. He knew that at some point there would be miles in which he would have to push through the pain and therefore he was prepared for battle when the pain came.
As Mendoza entered into the final third of the race, the gravity of his attempt hit him: “There were times when I wondered if I was going to cramp,” he said. “As I picked up the pace I had a few moments of fear but the majority of my thoughts were positive. I made the decision that I would rather try and fail, than not try and not know if I could have gotten it.”
It was only through Mendoza’s surrender to the outcome, and his positive mindset, that he was able to push through the hardest 5 miles. The way we think about our running is sometimes as important as how we run. For Mendoza, practicing positivity throughout his attempt gave him the assurance that he could persevere to the end.
“It was these mental tricks that helped me ignore my legs screaming at me.”
In the same way that you wouldn’t run your next race without training, it’s essential to prepare and mentally train for the fatigue and challenges you will face in a race. As for Mendoza, “it were these mental tricks that helped me ignore my legs screaming at me.”
Looking to the future, Mendoza sees treadmill running as a crucial benefit for his own running: “Running on a treadmill is a different mental battle than other disciplines,” he said. “I think it’s going to make me a better runner and it’s going to pay off in the long run.”
Whether you’re training for a 5k or a hundred miler, Mendoza’s intentional focus on using treadmill running as a tool for mental training and strength is something to think about. Maybe we should all run our next race on a treadmill?