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What state of mind is necessary for ultradistance running?

In terms of training for what may seem impossible distances, training the mind becomes as much or more important than training the body. Only so many miles can be run for physical preparation before the law of diminishing returns and starts to take over.

By attempting to run the long race, we are seeking to learn something transcendent about ourselves, something beyond the concept of “success” or “failure.” As we try to teach our children, so we often need to relearn ourselves, that failure is only a failure to take the risk. In that risk we may discover ourselves.

As I set out on a run many years ago, while listening on my Walkman radio, I heard an interview with Sir Edmund Hillary in which he was asked if he knew that he would be successful in climbing Everest even before he had attempted it.

He asked in return: “Why would one want to undertake an adventure if they knew beforehand what the outcome would be?”

Perhaps because I was in the midst of a run, those words provided the impetus I needed to commit to entering the 100-mile race that had captured my imagination for years. Until then it had only lain dormant in my imagination. And that decision motivated a renewal of my training … a re-commitment to the challenge of possibility.

Buddhist thought speaks of suffering as caused by three “unwholesome mental states”: those are; desire or greed; it’s opposite, aversion; and finally, delusion. Greed might be the desiring of something so much that it takes the person out of their awareness of the moment.

The focus on the finish of a run and the anticipated relief, removes the runner from the focus on the breath and stride and form, from the precise measuring of effort. Likewise, aversion to the discomfort required to run with best effort would, as with any fear, result in avoidance. No risk is taken.

Finally, “delusion” may lead to thinking that the effort might come without sacrifice of comfort, without commitment. So, if I anticipate the physical pain as it arises, I change the relationship to it.

It then becomes a form of play. I build a relationship to pain that seeks neither to push it away or to obsess about it. I recognize it as essential to the effort, to my exploration of limitations. Those limitations become less absolute as I push up against them.

Beside these more esoteric elements of distance running are some practical correlates. Pacing oneself in running is critical to the outcome. Proper pacing means running with an awareness of the moment, while calculating the likelihood of being able to continue.

Being mindful of the ultimate intention enables the runner to protect energy pool for the entire course. This comes with experience and sometimes hard lessons learned.

I once observed a 70-year-old in the ultradistance race that we were both running. I felt some pity for what I thought was his too slow pace, mostly simply fast walking.

“He is hurting”, I thought, “and not long for this race”. I confidently ran by him at the 35-mile mark of the race, pleased that I was doing so well. Then, hours later, I stood at the finish line in that 100-mile race as a DNF, which stands for meaning I “did not finish.” I was amazed and humbled to see my elder fellow runner complete the race under the time allotment of 30 hours with only minutes to spare. He had finely tuned his pace while I had pushed too hard early on and wilted at the 40-mile point.

I was unable to hold down food or water and was relegated to a slow walk for 10 more miles … before acknowledging that to go on into the night was foolish. A well-run race is often about keeping a restrained effort throughout, in order to have the opportunity to finish.

Still, movement is not only my inheritance, it is my predilection. It bubbles up to the top of my elective activities of the day. With movement of the body, the mind takes flight. At times, I will recognize a tugging on my mind by unresolved conflicts, either recent and raw, or ancient and familiar.

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As my body warms to the physical effort, I begin to turn round the thought that seeks resolution, perhaps to see another facet of the experience, previously unavailable.

With this more balanced thinking, a domino effect of clarity may, then, give rise to forgiveness. This is a forgiveness of myself and my inclination to hang on to my resentment; then forgiveness of the object of my confliction.

This can then give way to compassion… a compassion that can become more expansive. My reward for attending to my thoughts is a return to balance…and a commitment to my running ritual, in the mysterious comfort of nature and solitude.


I invite you to take advantage of your body. Immerse it in nature by whatever means necessary. Touch the earth with your feet, even if you don’t run or walk.

Return to the source and receive the blessing. Take pleasure in the feast of nature that is meant to heal us, even when we aren’t aware of our wound.

May we then rediscover our gratitude for this body, and this life, and this moment.

Mark James is a 30-year resident of Flagstaff. He started running 40 years ago in Eugene, Oregon, and continues to enjoy running on the trails around town. To read the full essay — including additional sections not in this week’s or last week’s column — visit on Monday.

Myles Schrag ( is coordinating editor for High Country Running.


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