I’ve been running endurance races for almost 10 years, during which time I’ve competed in international races all over Asia, including trail runs, triathlons and obstacle course races (including one just this past weekend).
One question I’m frequently asked is, ‘Don’t you get bored?’ shortly followed by, ‘What do you think about during a long endurance race?’. Now, I am by no means a professional athlete, but I hope my own experiences can inspire others to get out there, take on a new challenge, or simply apply a new perspective to other aspects of their lives.
To explain my thought process, let’s start with my very first proper hike. It was in the early summer of 2009, shortly after I moved to Hong Kong. I headed into the Lantau hills, accompanied by a good friend, who had plenty of experience on the local routes and is arguably the person most responsible with getting me into trail running. A haze hung across the island peaks, which only exacerbated the 30-degree heat and extreme humidity.
During our initial ascent, all I could think about was why I was doing this. How had I had gotten myself into this situation? What could I do to slow my heartrate and cool down?
There were few positive thoughts going through my head and I was very much in survival mode. At numerous points along the way, I considered giving up and just rolling back down the hill. But I persevered, and eventually made it to the top, although it took the spirited encouragement and determination of my guide to get me there.
After that experience, and a desire to get fit in the outdoors, I was forced to come up with some imaginative and creative ideas to tackle longer distances that I now implement whenever I find myself embarking on an endurance event.
There is always a great sense of achievement when you reach a high peak, and savour that elevated view. But after training on the same trails a number of times, I found a shift in my mental state, and how my focus shifted along the journey. Most people who have considered or attempted longer distance running are concerned with boredom, and what they could possibly think about to pass the time.
During shorter races, of up to 25km, I won’t concern myself with why I am doing what I’m doing, but still have thoughts about how I am getting on, and what my result will be (my time and distance, rather than placement). During longer races, the notion of “Why?” inevitably creeps in, and this is the challenge a lot of people struggle with.
Personally, the persistent question is ‘Why didn’t I train more?’.
What gets me through these moments, which I’m sure will resonate with fellow runners, is to think about the next checkpoint, next hill, and ultimately the finish line, whether it’s 50km, 100km, or even a multi-stage event of 250km. These thoughts are intermingled with imaginative and creative ideas, perhaps how to solve an issue at work, a dispute with a colleague, or perhaps something at home. Essentially, the same thoughts we all dwell on throughout a normal day.
Most of the time, however, I try my best not to think. That may sound strange, but keeping my head as clear as possible while I’m running actually enables my brain to enter a state that I have come to refer to as “subconscious resolve”.
The brain filters through everything going on in all aspects of my life, similar to how the brain organises our conscious into our subconscious while we sleep. It took me a long time, and a certain degree of fitness, to latch onto this and develop ways of letting go of my short-term thought patterns. This was particularly hard personally, as I have a very active short-term memory for thought patterns, but a poor long-term memory. This isn’t great in a relationship, when you know precisely why you are now talking about goldfish when the conversation began on a work-related topic, but can’t remember the date of your wedding anniversary (yes, I’ve done that, sorry again dearest).
I often describe entering this state to people as the feeling you get when you hit your rhythm on a treadmill. It takes a certain amount of concentration to stay upright on the machine, but once you fall into your routine, you no longer need to actively think about each step, your positioning or breathing. This is similar to the way my mind relaxes and settles into subconscious resolve. This is one of the reasons I’m happy to train on the same trails week after week. Paying attention to a new or unfamiliar course can distract me from getting into that unconscious state. That is not to say I don’t enjoy the challenge of a new trail, but I find myself searching out more social interactions on those runs. This is just another mental state that I think we all search for, in the same way people listen to music, or watch TV while exercising.
When I get to the point of subconscious resolve, my thought patterns are at their most imaginative and creative. With all the logic of my day-to-day life removed, I am free to consider new ideas, whether that means new business ideas, solving pre-existing issues at work, coming up with a new charitable fundraising activity, or how I can be more engaged with my family. It can also get quite emotional, as you feel more than you think about specifics. If I try and overthink a particular topic, I can often trip or stumble, as my brain tries to focus again on my actions, similar to the feeling of being unsteady on a treadmill.
Close friends have likened my explanation of this unconscious state to their own experiences with meditation, but I’ve never been able to engage in meditation effectively. I need to be doing something in order to not think about anything. Sometimes, during the long, sleep-deprived ordeal of an overnight run, I have even caught myself imagining how I might survive a zombie apocalypse, and created terrifying, action-packed movie sequences in my head to pass the time. It can get a little weird out there, all alone in the dead of night.
During a race, It’s not always possible to find that state of subconscious resolve, but as a secondary tactic, allowing my brain to wander can be a welcome distraction from draining, short-term concerns during long races. Each step can feel it’s taking forever, like watching the second hand on a clock, while the next checkpoint or finish line takes an eternity to appear. Letting my brain do the work in the background, and focusing away from the short term, has definitely helped me achieve longer and longer distances. Familiarity of the trails, distances, and my techniques while navigating the terrain, have also helped.
Preparation and experience are paramount to alleviating the “Why?” questions, which can block out almost all other, more imaginative and creative thought patterns, while running.
Once you are able to achieve that, you are free to resolve any mental entanglements and get into a state where you can think about more fun, interesting, and ultimately important stuff. I think everyone will experience this at different points, and at different distances, but it can also be beneficial during any kind of stressful activity. It doesn’t matter what you think about, seek out whatever interests you and helps you appreciate your journey through today’s busy world.
I often think, either actively or subconsciously, about my wife and children, and how I hope they are proud of me and whatever I’m doing. That’s where a large component of my drive comes from, although there is also an undeniable personal satisfaction in achieving each new goal. This balance enables me to keep going, and going, and going. I view my trail running similar to the way other people might appreciate a breath-taking panoramic view, looking out over a wide expanse, down a long winding road, or across a towering mountain range. I just like to imagine there are zombies somewhere in the distance…
If you’re interested to know more about my experiences with trail running, how I’ve used any of the concepts above in a corporate setting to tackle complex problems and situations, or would like to share your own experiences, please feel free to reach out or leave a comment…