How does one prepare for the Ultimate Human Race?
This question has vexed me since I signed up for the Comrades ultramarathon last fall. The road race, this year going uphill from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, is the largest ultramarathon in the world. Started in 1921 as a way to honor those who died serving in World War I, the race is full of tradition and mystique, with participants describing the race as “epic” and “life-changing.”
And the race itself is brutal. A distance of about 87 kilometers (about 54 miles), it has a nonnegotiable 12-hour deadline. Once the final gun goes off, the finish line is blocked and runners are not allowed to pass through.
My goal is to run a marathon on each continent, and when the opportunity came up to run in South Africa, I leapt, but I was uncertain that I could do this.
I needed to get fit — and not just physically.
When it comes to a serious endurance challenge, you have to train your mind to gain fortitude and resiliency, just as you might train your legs to run long distances. But how?
I spoke with Jennifer Lager, a McLean psychologist who works with the Center for Athletic Performance Enhancement. She said a key part of mental training is being able to picture yourself doing whatever activity you’re attempting. The technique is called visualization, and it’s meant to help you mentally take on all the challenges you will encounter.
“The better you target where you know you may have problems and do some visualization about working through those successfully, and the more vivid you make your visualization in terms of using all your senses,” the more effective the visualization will be, Lager said.
Another good technique is to use cue words that can help keep you motivated and moving during the event. These words, as Lager puts it, encapsulate “everything you want to draw up in that moment.” You can even have different cue words for different parts of the event — breaking the longer event into much shorter, more manageable events in your mind.
“Staying in the present is helpful,” Lager said. “What can be so tiring about a race is that you’re thinking about running right now, you’re thinking that you still have 12 miles to go. The cue words can help you stay in the present and help you think, “What is my task right now?’ ”
In my Comrades research, one name kept coming up. Bruce Fordyce may not be well known to Americans, but he is a national hero to South Africans. Fordyce won Comrades nine times between 1981 and 1990 and became the face of the race. When I reached him by phone, Fordyce shared how he made the leap from competitor to champion.
The first time he ran Comrades, as a college student in 1977, he finished 43rd. The second year, he finished 14th. He was in the top 10 at certain points in the race, but he just couldn’t hold on.
“I was looking down the road. I saw the fourth and fifth guy and I realized they were just like me,” Fordyce, 59, said. “They’re tired and hurting. They aren’t superheroes. So that fired me up. I thought, ‘Now what can I do?’ ” The next year, Fordyce finished third and went on to begin his streak of top finishes.
Fordyce was meticulous with his training, keeping detailed diaries of each run. “If I did all the work, all the long runs, I knew I would be ready. It doesn’t mean I’m going to win, but I know I’m not going to let myself down. That would give me quite a bit of confidence.”
A week before leaving for South Africa, I went on a rainy lunchtime run with Michael Wardian. Wardian is one of the world’s best endurance runners, having recently set the world record for running a 50K (31 miles) on a treadmill, which he did in just under three hours. He travels all over the world to compete and has run Comrades four times, coming in 11th in 2011.
As we sloshed through mud on the trails in and around Rock Creek Park, we discussed what keeps him going after all his successes. At age 41, Wardian said he still has the fire to challenge himself and compete. His mind-set hinges on remembering his motivation.
“There’s always a point where it’s going to be a struggle. You’ll feel bad, you’ll think, ‘I can’t believe there’s another hill. This isn’t fun anymore,’ ” Wardian said. “You have to remind yourself that this is what you signed up for and this is what you want. You’re not going to remember the races that were easy. The struggles are part of the journey that make you the person you want to be.”
I read about Jamie Watts in a RunWashington magazine article on her completing 34 races in one year. Watts, who has cerebral palsy, told me that, like most people, she started to run to get fit. She took up races in 2012, doing about seven a year. And last year, she decided to go for 34 races before her 34th birthday (on Saturday).
Watts said her main goal was to know herself. “Running is who I am, so let’s figure out what that looks like,” Watts said. Despite having a disability, “I’m a runner just like everyone else. You gain confidence, you can take life as it comes. You adapt, you conquer.”
As she racked up fun runs, 5Ks and 10Ks, she became more sure of herself. (The friends she made along the way also helped.) So when she took on a greater challenge, the George Washington Parkway 10-miler this past April, the distance was not a deterrent for her.
“For the 10-miler, [I thought,] ‘I have done six, so let’s see if I can do the last four miles.’ ” With her friends waiting for her at the finish line, she completed her challenge.
I asked her for advice. She said to “be confident and do it anyway. Figure it out as you go. No matter what happens, keep going.”
On May 31, I was in Durban, listening to thousands of voices sing “S hosholoza” (“Go Forward”), a popular South African song sung by thousands of people before the start of Comrades. Instead of being overwhelmed, I took in the moment. All the training, the preparation, physical and mental, gave me confidence.
I did my best and I competed for my family and friends, completing the race in 11:54:38. It was a struggle, but I was ready. While I visualized how I would feel as I crossed the finish line, the reality of its happening was beyond anything I could have imagined. At the end of a journey to South Africa, I saved my last cue words: Finisher of the Ultimate Human Race.
Also at washingtonpost.com Read past MisFits columns at washingtonpost.com/wellness . There, you can subscribe to the Lean & Fit newsletter to get health news e-mailed to you every Wednesday.