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Five Awful Things I Said to Myself During My Ultra, and How I Turned It Around

by Cathy Engstom

When I first read Deena Kastor’s Let Your Mind Run, I had no idea it would wind up being one of the most transformational books of my life. I devoured Deena’s memoir about her running career, but I was awed that her positive thinking was the secret sauce for much of her success. Yes, she absolutely put in the physical work to become one of the best runners in the world, but she also transformed the way she talked to herself in order to take her goals to the next level. “Every aspect of a run,” Deena said, “from the pain it produced to the weather conditions, offered me a choice: Is this a thought that will slow me down? Or can I find a perspective that will speed me up?”

I’m miles away from being an elite runner, but I do want to be better at catching my negative thoughts before they spiral into self-sabotage. I’ve done a lot of work on myself over the last few years cultivating a more positive attitude. (Some sessions with a therapist, but mostly learning to recognize when I’m on a negative roller coaster and making the choice to get off the ride.) Not surprisingly, there is no better place to practice this than in my running.

The "Many Happy Miles" socks that helped me through.

I was able to flex some of my glass-half-full muscles this past weekend when I ran the North Fork 50k in Pine, Colorado. It was blisteringly hot, the course felt as endless as a middle-school band concert, and it took me a very long time—about 90 minutes longer than I would have liked—to finish. Basically, a perfect storm for negativity. 

In the interest of us all learning to minimize the negative thinking, I wanted to share the obnoxious things I said to myself that day, and the ways I turned it all around. 

Thought #1: “You’re going to have an awful day.”

My alarm goes off at 4:15 am. I get out the door quickly, but I have a 90-minute drive to the race. So much time to feel my stomach tied up in knots, so much time to worry, so much time to fret and catastrophize over all the things.

Relax, I tell myself. It will be hard, but it might also be amazing. You get to spend the entire day AWAY FROM YOUR FAMILY, running on trails you’ve never seen before, and the volunteers are going to give you snacks along the way. No matter what, it will be an adventure. I pivot and think about how long I’ve waited for today, and little flutters of excitement poke their way through the fear.

Thought #2: “You don’t belong here.”

I get in line to pick up my race bib and gape at the runners around me. They are primarily young men who clearly weigh less than me, are at the very top of their fitness game, and are all sporting some version of a handlebar moustache. I scan the rest of the crowd, imposter syndrome washing over me. Is this a GQ convention? Where are the middle-aged women? Is this race for elites only? Are the back-of-the-packers banned? The volunteer behind the table asks what size t-shirt I want and I mumble something incoherent and get out of there. Back in my car, one thought scrolls across my brain like a television weather warning: YOU DON’T BELONG HERE!  

How I looked. How everyone else looked.

I take some deep breaths and recall Deena’s advice: “Find a thought that serves you better.” So I think about my 20-week training plan. I did every mid-week run, every long run, the strength, the track workouts, the hill repeats--everything. Giving my brain the space to upload those memories causes the warning scroll to flicker and disappear. I may not be the fastest or the fittest, but I’ve put in the work. I do deserve to be here.

Thought #3: “You’ll never finish. Just quit.”

In typical spring race tradition, the bulk of my training was done in temperatures between 20 and 45 degrees F. Today is a furnace with the high in the 90s, and the course is a spaghetti noodle of trails that climb to 8,000 feet. No shade anywhere. I know battling the heat will be an issue, but I panic at the third aid station when I spot a group of people lying on the ground. They’ve all pulled out of the race and are waiting for a van to take them back to the start. As I grab handfuls of ice to stuff into my sports bra, a moustached bro staggers by and joins them. Immediately my brain considers quitting. Do I really want to spend another 5 hours in the heat? I have 19 miles to go, and if they can’t finish, how on earth can I?

“Find a thought that serves you better.” I take a quick assessment of my body. Yes, it’s hot and I’m tired, but I don’t feel bad enough to quit. I get as much water as I can, chomp down on orange slices, and make a pact with myself. Just get to the next aid station. If it’s really bad, you can quit then. But get to the next aid station. This calms me down a bit, and I am happy it does, because the next few miles are so gorgeous, I hate to think I almost missed them.

Thought #4: “This is the dumbest thing you’ve ever done. Why are you out here?”

I’m just past mile 18—barely over halfway—and the sun is, as I might have previously mentioned, relentless. My stomach isn’t interested in food. The trail is mostly sand and it’s difficult to get steady footing. My feet throb. My back aches from the long climbs. I never felt this bad on any of my long training runs and discouragement weighs on me like a boulder.

I search for the positive. What doesn’t hurt? Your shoulders feel great. Your legs actually feel pretty good. Can you channel your energy into what’s working instead of what isn’t? I spend several minutes not thinking about my back or my feet and instead feel how strong my legs are. I let the hot sun do its work and imagine a heating pad on my back, and I offer thanks that we’re not in the middle of a freak snowstorm, or worse, lightning and hail. Even though the trail is sandy, there are pops of colorful wildflowers opening up to the sunshine. I look down at my socks, an intentional choice, and remember the phrase Many Happy Miles stitched on the back. I stay as upbeat as I can, admiring the spectacular Colorado views, and make my way forward.

Mile 25: still no shade, but I'm smiling!

Thought #5: “You’re taking forever to finish. You’re so slow! LOSER!”

Despite my training, the tough course and harsh temps have really slowed me down. I’m slow to begin with, but I’m fighting waves of hopelessness and shame as the minutes slip away from me. The last 5.5 miles are a pounding downhill of very technical trails. It’s all I can do to not trip and fall. Every ounce of energy I have left is focused on staying upright.

As I’m berating myself about my slow pace, I recognize the negative spiral and put a hand up to my own face. Remember your main goal? Your main goal was to finish. That’s it. You trained to have a fun race and to finish. Well guess what? You’re doing just that! This gives me the ability to crack a small smile despite my screaming feet and back, and I push, push, push through the excruciating final miles. 

When the finish line comes into view, my Garmin reads 32.8 miles. Covering that distance is hard physically and mentally, but, as Deena taught me, the mental work can be an asset, not another relentless climb. I’m a work in progress, but I’m getting there. 

The crowd begins to cheer and clap for me, pulling me across the timing mat—finally!—and I choose to focus on what I’ve just accomplished. I don’t even look at the race clock. I doubt the crowd cares what my time is. After all, I don’t think they see a slow runner. I think all they see is a finisher—and I do, too.

Do you struggle to be a glass-half-full runner? What tricks do you use to combat negative thoughts?

25 responses to “Five Awful Things I Said to Myself During My Ultra, and How I Turned It Around

  1. That was beautiful and inspiring and I’m so thankful you shared it with us all. Remember, the slow runners are working harder for longer and deserve more celebration!!

  2. Congrats! I suffered through a hot 11 miles last weekend. Just kept telling myself that I have run way farther than that before.

  3. Wow! I am so impressed by you! That is a HUGE accomplishment!! I hope that you are proud of yourself! It’s awful how we, myself included, beat ourselves up over things when we should be giving ourselves a pat on the back. That you were out there with guys younger than you says so much about you!!! Congratulations and thank you for sharing and for your honesty.

  4. I’m saving this to reread multiple more times. It was like instant tears as I read your last paragraph because this is a dilemna that I need to retrain myself from getting into.

  5. Wipes tears… Cathy, this is fabulous and I know this will be in my brain next weekend at my first real race in a while. What an amazing accomplishment!!! Your last line is perfect. They see finishers!! ❤️

  6. You are amazing! I frequently have those same negative thoughts & am not always great at changing gears. Thanks for sharing.

  7. This couldn’t be more needed than it is right now. First trail race/first ultra tomorrow in 90° heat. I am writing these on my arm. ❤️ If I can’t be kind to myself from the inside, maybe external reminders will help!

  8. This is SO inspiring! Huge brava to you- for this feat, and also for your writing! I laughed at the positive thought of “time away from family” and will be using your mantra of finding a thought that serves me in my long hot summer days with three littles at home. Some day I’d love to run out in Colorado!

  9. I am bookmarking this to read whenever I need to work on my negative thinking! And I’m sure there are plenty of people who looked at you and felt the same things you felt when you saw the GQ models. Way to go, Cathy! ❤️

  10. This is amazing! I have those thoughts all the time. In fact, I was having them at a 5k on Sunday in the heat. I am going to use that finding something to serve me better. Congratulations on your amazing accomplishment. You should be proud as punch!

  11. Love this read. I think you channelled what all of us have thought at different moments and I love how you flipped your thinking into something positive. Congrats!

  12. Congratulations on finishing!! It sounds like your mental struggle was as real as the physical—and YOU DID IT! I finished Kastor’s book maybe a month ago, and the sentence “find a thought that serves you” stayed with me; I repeat it every day. You did so awesome—thanks so much for sharing!!

    Your description of the Colorado Ultra bro is hilarious. 🙂

  13. Totally tearing up reading this…you are an inspiration!! I struggle with keeping positive thoughts on my runs so I love seeing your thought process. Congratulations on completing such an amazing accomplishment and thank you for your beautiful words ❤️

  14. Way to change those thoughts around and persevere! I love this story and I love your grit!!!! Congrats on your race!!!!

  15. Saving this! I, too, loved Deena’s book. Now it’s worth a re-read. Congratulations to you! I’ve caught myself negatively influenced by my thoughts more times than I can count. You nailed it!

  16. Congrats – love how you re-channeled the negative thoughts. AND you looked WAY cooler than handlebar guy 🙂

  17. What an inspiring story of perseverance and accomplishment! Thank you for sharing. You are a rockstar!
    I’m training for my first ultra – a 50k in September. Thank you for the reminder of the importance training our minds (and remember it on race day).

  18. Wow, I have tears in my eyes right now! You spoke straight to my heart. Thank you for the inspiration and great job!!

  19. Sooo cool! Congratulations on your race and reframing your negative thoughts. Such a helpful article! I love the power of positive thinking and you’ve inspired me to focus a little more on this!

  20. Cathy, thanks for sharing your story. I love Deena’s book and truly believe the mind (thoughts) can have a huge impact on us. Congratulations on your awesome accomplishment of finishing the 50K!

  21. You are relentless and hard working and I look up to you all the time. And you are smart to go your own pace in that heat!

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