Wondered How To Run An Ultra Marathon? Kim Collison Explains His Madeira Island Ultra Trail

Bringing Back the Smile
My Psychological Strategies Used to Finish the Madeira Island Ultra Trail

Saturday 28th April 2018 at 16.57 my smile was back on my face as I ran down the finish chute of  the Madeira Island Ultra Trail (MIUT) a 115km 7200m race which was part of the Ultra Trail World Tour (UTWT).

Sometimes the journey to the finish line is relatively plain sailing, everything works out to plan and you hit your best possible goal. However this is often not the case and you have to ride the low points to reach the destination. I often find when I have had to show resilience, determination and strength of character to just reach the finish line, I still get a big smile on my face. Reaching the finish of the MIUT was the second of these and represented progress from a tough 2017 and trying to find positives from my DNF which should of been a DNS at the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc (UTMB) in August 2017, due to an ongoing injury.

Over the course of a few months I had rehabilitated enough to complete a winter Bob Graham (https://kimcollisonblog.wordpress.com/2017/12/23/a-winter-bob-graham-round/Round) in deep snow. I knew the change (including strength and conditioning sessions) in my training plan was working and I started planning my goal races for 2018. MIUT looked right up my street with big mountains, technical trails and a new destination. With a race selected I set my training plan to try to peak my form perfectly and dream big, aiming for a top 10 finish. The reality was my fitness was not the same as in 2015 and the goal was overambitious. However it is these ambitious goals which drive me to push out of my comfort zone on a daily basis and make the little steps needed to reach a bigger goal given enough time.

A key part of ultra running is the ability to manage the stress deliberately sought; in order to feel you have overcome a challenge and get the reward of a finish line feeling. I might complete all my my training sessions accurately leading up to an event, which I find gives me the confidence to perform to the best of my ability, is only part of the preparation as another key component to running ultras is developing phycological strategies to cope with adversity.

Flexibility and ability to change are characteristics which have helped humans thrive, with this awareness you can develop a solution focused approach to problems. Three weeks before MIUT I was at the end of a good block of training and I was putting in my last long run before starting to taper. An hour into the run, running along a narrow path, my left foot slid off the path and I landed hard on my right quad. I lay there breathing deeply, accessing the damage, slowly I stand back to my feet with an extremely sore quad and managed to carry on my run. I thought I had been lucky but over the next couple of days I develop a sore left calf. The pain in the calf was getting worse, I could not bury my head in the sand and hope the problem would disappear. The first part of finding a solution is often working out what is the problem, after consulting the Physio, the problem was a slight calf tear. Sometimes I feel the emotion building up when I receive bad news or I’m put under unexpected stress. A simple first step to calm the nerves is to take a big deep breath, maybe two or three. I could now start to think logically about what I could do with the resources and time available before the race and make a new plan. In this case it was more rest, easier sessions, self massage and no running for six days before the race.

With the less than perfect taper, at least I thought I would arrive fresh for the start line by flying out Monday afternoon, four days prior, to relax on Madeira with a nice pre race holiday. “Sorry the wind is too strong to land we have been diverted to Porto” followed a few hours later with “your flight is cancelled and we will be flying back to Manchester”. Eleven hours later the plane landed in Manchester. Stress and fatigue was written all over my face.
A way to control stress can be through a technique of anchoring a physical action like crossed fingers to trigger an experience from your past which is connected to a desired mood state. In moments of stress I sometimes use this technique to help change my mood to a calm state where hopefully I can make a rational plan. I often connect back to a time when I was lying in a hammock on a sandy beach and scuba diving in coral seas.
By the time I worked out I needed to rebook my own flights, the best option was a flight to Madeira via Lisbon and a sleepless night at Porto airport. On arrival I drove straight up to the summit of Aeerio, 1800m, where there is a spectacular viewpoint and the daunting task of reality struck. I was nervous about the calf and would it hold up to the rigours of over 7000m of descending; time had run out and it would either be okay or not. Rather than worry about the uncontrollable factors and let stress build up, I tried to focus on the controllable factors in the time available. The first priority was sleep followed by relaxation, imagining the route, and preparation of food and drop bags.

Standing on the start line in Porto Moniz I realised my attitude to win was back, I was on the front row and not playing to lose. The competitive drive which wants me to do the best I could had kicked in. I knew in reality, I was far from going to be able to win the race but the important thing was my mindset was there to perform and achieve my goals. I think this is a key strategy whether your goal is to win a World Championship or to finish your first ultra. I find with the added motivation, I overcome more obstacles in the way to reach the goal. The hype surrounding European races builds and the race finally starts, I am off racing to win and in the top ten. I was soon over the first hill and started climbing the second hill when it dawned on me that I had let my competitive drive outweigh my current fitness. Rather than pack in the towel and sulk I referred back to my revised goals of finish and enjoy the journey. I parked the problem, to reflect on later and focused on the future. I eased off the gas to a sustainable pace, kept eating or drinking every 20 mins and forced a smile every time some one else came past. Eventually after 4 hours I noticed I was no longer forcing the smile and I was really enjoying the moment; I had passed through this low point. The trail was interesting, views fantastic, weather rather Cumbrian and I was starting to overtake competitors. The key strategy here was to focus on myself and what I could control; eating and smiling.

There sometimes comes a point where your body just starts to shut down and the legs stiffen; no matter how hard you try to shift your mental state somewhere else the body soon shifts you back to thinking about the pain. I often think why am I doing this silly sport? In Madeira I hit this point with about 25 km to go. My legs were sore and head mentally weary, everything was screaming at me to throw in the towel. It is at times like this when I use a couple of techniques, the first is I imagine the finish line banner and how it will feel to make it. The second is self talk, including the classic “shut up legs” or just shouting encouragement at yourself. This could also be the time for distraction through music or conversation.

The finish line arrived and I was relived with a big rewarding smile on my face. I had succeed in my goals of finishing, enjoying the journey and the top 10 ambition is rekindled for next time.

Kim Collison is a British International Ultra Runner and UK Athletics Level 2 Coach. If you wish Kim to help you run faster or further then contact him through his website www.kincollison.co.uk.

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