A quick note to add about the thinking and mental approach of all athletes from the pros to the first time runners entering their first half marathon. People talk about success and performance and for each of these words you can find a number of different definitions. My favourite quotation on success comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson, a reasonably long definition ends with the words, “… to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”
Performance does not necessarily relate to speed or position in the pack. In the Namib Desert Challenge there were a number of participants who walked the entire way. Was my performance any better than theirs because I ran and because I finished before them? Trail runners often have to walk, there are certain places where it is impossible and even dangerous to run. It is often the challenge of road runners to run the entire way without ever walking. So who performs better, or who is more successful. The answer to this debate, as is the case in life, lies in your own mind and your own preparation and goals.
As soon as you start comparing yourself with others that’s when the trouble and mental anguish starts. Being at the start line, doing the training, these are successes. Starting the run and only getting half way, your performance has been good enough, this time. You will always strive to achieve more and do better next time, this is human nature, it is called self-actualisation and will always drive you further if you let it.
How Hard Is It - Really?
Since this blog series started off to talk about desert running let me finish with something on this topic. A few tips about running in sand, and then a conclusion relating to the sub-heading.
When running on sand I do 3 things: I shorten my stride – when running in soft sand it will give way and you will slide. Especially when you are tired you do not want that slide to have your legs stretching too far apart because this will cause three things – it will take a lot of effort and wasted energy to recover from the slide, it will stop your forward momentum and there’s the potential for you to strain a muscle or tendon. By keeping a short stride, when you do slip and slide then the distance to recover is very small and it’s more than likely that it’s only a short slide and your forward momentum is hardly affected. The next two things I combine, I run with a slight crouch into myself so as to lower my centre of gravity whilst at the same time planting my feet completely flat, as if I was wearing large snowshoes - this too minimises the potential for a big slide in the soft sand.
How hard is it to do desert running? It goes without saying that when it comes to the desert it is seriously hot. For the vast majority of the run there are no water tables, you carry your own water on your back, and you need it. For the entire run there are no spectators or fans cheering you on and boosting your flagging spirit, at the finish line your fellow participants will applaud you with honour and respect – they know what you’ve been through. For the vast majority of the run there isn’t another soul in sight, no spectators and no fellow runners. You are on your own out there in those conditions, and you have only 3 things to keep you company: the beautiful scenery and landscapes, the knowledge that somewhere out there after much distance, time, and hardship there is an end to this and with you as your constant companion through the aloneness of the desert, but often not a willing, pleasant or supportive companion, your mind.
Without putting in the effort to know, understand, and become friends with your mind you will find it difficult to endure the harsh conditions and aloneness of the desert. But when you do, the beauty and the achievement of a desert run is something to remember. And when life’s aloneness and harshness troubles you then you will find, without possibly even realising it, that you can endure and it’s not as bad as it seems. There is the odd water table, there are some magnificent landscapes along the way, there is always a band of fellow participants who are ready to welcome you and proudly acknowledge your feat, and always, the finish line is there to look forward to, a sense of great joy and achievement will be there, and you’ll look forward to the next chapter in your life.
With respect and fellowship to all endurance athletes for their striving, performance, and success.