There I was, high up in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, saying “I’ve had enough of ultras.”
That feeling of quitting is all-consuming. And it had gotten a hold of me.
I’m someone who loves a multi-stage running event. These usually last at least three days or more, and while you’re running part of the time, you’re also hiking/climbing/and scrambling for the rest. The terrain can be anything: sand, dunes, dried-up river beds, fields of boulders, stretches of flat tarmac, or steep, steep mountains. All the while, we’re generally racing with a 3kg to 10kg pack on our back.
It was in June when I felt ready to quit.
I was racing the Trans Atlas Marathon, a six-day race that takes place high up in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. There’s a 280k option, but I was really looking forward to racing/climbing/hiking the 160k route, as I was recovering from a slight foot injury and I hadn’t been able to do as much mental preparation as I would have liked for the longer distance.
During these races, you certainly get a chance to chat with other runners, but you also spend a lot of time alone, which means you have all kinds of conversations with yourself.
Here’s how my talking played out the first few days:
Day 1: “This is amazing! Look at these mountains! Six days of this? No problem. The terrain is tough, but I’m making good time for this first 20k. I’m loving this.”
Day 2: “Only 16k today and the terrain is flat. I like climbing, but flat is good. This is fun.”
Day 3: “Wow. These are a lot of rocks for a 30k. My stomach feels awful. Oh, look…more rocks.”
At this point in the race, my mouth was numb. My eyes were swollen. My stomach was not behaving. Why was I still racing like this as an almost 55-year-old?
That night, lying in my tent after eight hours of the most difficult terrain I had ever encountered, the only thought going through my head was this: I don’t think I want do it. Tomorrow, I’m dropping out.
I woke up the next morning expecting my own defeat. I told myself I’d drop out at the first checkpoint. The first checkpoint came and went. Every single day, I found a reason to keep going: the kindness of other runners, the spectacular scenery, the friendly nomads, and the warmth of the organisers. I kept putting one foot in front of the other. Checkpoints came and went.
When I crossed the finish line of the Trans Atlas Marathon, I was thrilled. I wasn’t done with ultras. I was hooked (again). This experience has made me think a lot about where my motivation comes from to keep on racing. When I lost hope, where was my motivation coming from?
Where Does Our Motivation Come From?
Was my motivation intrinsic or extrinsic?
Intrinsic motivation is all about people’s desire to perform an activity for its own sake because of the personal pleasure and satisfaction gained, especially, when you ‘perform’ against yourself and can see improvement. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is all about engaging in behaviour in order to earn external rewards or avoid punishment. Extrinsic motivation may be all about money, trophies, what you can show for it, or gaining some kind of social acceptance.
Is your motivation for doing what you love coming from inside of you or is it because you’re seeking external validation?
Think about it from a professional athlete’s point of view. In the beginning, a pro athlete is just a kid who loves playing a sport. They love the game they play, so they keep showing up for practice, for games, and for championships. They’re driven by intrinsic motivation.
Over time, as they develop their skills and go pro, even though they gain external rewards, their drive is still intrinsic: they play because they love the game.
We all want recognition for our achievements, but the true reward comes from within.
My motivation for ultramarathons is a little bit of both, though the pendulum swings more towards intrinsic motivations. Even though I envisioned being the first woman for the 160k challenge, with all the associated congratulations, when I race, I gain so much self-awareness. I uncover all kinds of mental resilience that I didn’t even know I had. Where is all of that mental resilience squirrelled away during everyday life? It’s nice to know it exists! Because of the difficulty of the event, I can now draw on that resilience for the next race, and even more so when ‘everyday life’ gets a little tough. Being on these events reminds me of so many things: faith, humanity, how miraculous our bodies are, what incredible landscapes exist here on earth and to take nothing for granted. I participate because I learn new things about myself, I meet friendly people, I’m doing something I never thought I would, do my best, and I just enjoy it. These are my true rewards. It’s ok I wasn’t the first woman.
Sometimes, if your motivations are feeling somewhat tangled and confused, you could try this:
Rest your body. Rest your mind. Reflect.
Our culture constantly emphasizes success and idolizes those who appear to always be ‘training’. Throw that thinking out the window! Take a break. Switch things up. Do the ‘yoga, pilates, swimming, or thing’ you never get too because you have to ‘train’. It can give you a chance to step away from what may become a grind. Give your mind a break too. If you find yourself thinking you should be planning and training for the next race, and you’re feeling a little stressed just thinking about it, take a break. Really consider what YOU want to do, what you like and enjoy. Objectively evaluate your training/performance, plan what you would like to improve and with your coach if you have one. You may find you get back to training and planning quicker with a refreshed bounce in your step! Even if you’re a pro!
People burn out when their thinking is based on the external.
Basing your performance on rewards of money, social acceptance, and trophies can result in a feeling of pressure that an athlete at the professional or amateur level may find living up to difficult for any length of time. The pressure can take its toll mentally and physically. You may find your training suffers, goes backwards, and becomes a chore. Your performance suffers and so does your ‘rewards’, in turn, may be leaving you feeling a bit down? If you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, ask yourself why. Dig a little deeper. Take that gut feeling you have and give it some words. Write about it. Talk about it. If any of your reasons stem from seeking recognition from others, praise from society, or if it’s all “just about the money,” think back to why you originally started.
If your feeling a little burnt out…Recover.
Recovery may mean you need to lean on the compassion, the camaraderie, and the community of others for a little while. People want to help. People want to cheer you on. Let them.
Take the time to eat well and sleep
A real motivation—an intrinsic and natural motivation—will fuel you from the inside out. You’ll be unstoppable. Do what you love—for you. Do what you love—for fun. There will be an intrinsic wisdom encouraging you on. You’ll keep learning. You’ll keep growing. No matter what your age. And, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be itching to sign up for another ultra-marathon even after you swore you’d never do one again.
Urban Ultra Hajar 100 Ras Al Khaimah, UAE 2017