The term “endurance race” can strike fear into the hearts of even the most enthusiastic athlete. Whether it’s a half-marathon, Ironman triathlon or ultra marathon, endurance races challenge participants’ physical and mental stamina and resilience. This week, Chief Bar ambassador and Swedish endurance hero, Kalle Kortelainen, shares his experience running the incredible Shotover Moonlight Marathon. Whether you’re an endurance junkie or not, grab a cuppa, get comfortable and enjoy Kalle’s journey, insights and learnings which can help us tackle our everyday challenges. Over to you Kalle.
Queenstown, New Zealand: I’ve travelled to one of the most beautiful parts of the world to participate in the Shotover Moonlight Marathon.
Last month I participated in this incredibly challenging mountain running race which provided me a chance to explore unbeaten paths of New Zealand, climb remote mountain tops and ridges, and share this whole experience with like-minded endurance junkies (check out my video). Moreover, as with any other endurance event, it’s an experience that will allow your mind to wander many different places during the race. This adds to the challenge as the outcome is completely dependent on your mindset and ability to quickly figure out ways to consistently overcome obstacles and bounce back from negative events while emphasising positive events to your advantage. You’re in the shape of your life, you’re peaking physically, but are you ready for the mental roller coaster that’s about to hit you? Here’s my guide to not only overcoming an endurance challenge, but enjoying yourself.
1. Know Your ‘Why’
It doesn’t always have to be that complicated, it doesn’t matter if it’s a cliché but what there needs to be is a strong feeling that you can anchor yourself back to when you hit some tough times – because they always do at some point. Whether it’s the “I DID IT” social media status update, or you want to recreate that feeling when you did something in the past that once felt completely unimaginable (for me, Ironman Copenhagen with 3 months of training) – that’s up to you. As long as it can evoke that bubbly feeling again when you need it the most, then you know you’ve got a strong WHY. For the Shotover, I wanted to prove to myself that I can stay in good shape despite an eventful everyday life. Crossing that finish line is my confirmation that I’m doing things right, it’s a win, it’s success. Nevertheless, success is not something you have, it’s something you’ve had and something you can get back. The feeling of success, however you define it, is one of your best friends when you’re out running on the trails and it can be the difference between triumph and disappointment.
So how do you measure your success? This is highly individual, but through my experiences with ultra-marathons and Ironman triathlons, I’ve learned that success for me is when I over exceed my expectations. Now nothing is set in stone, and my expectations can change during the course of race or a training session as I will highly likely encounter something unexpected. With this mainframe though, I know that there’s no need to panic or if things start going wrong, it’s a part of it. If I can overcome setbacks and unforeseen surprises and find a solution to them and finish the race, that is an overall success to me. I don’t care whether I’m 5th or 50th, as long as I accomplish the distance by taking a few risks and solving the problems I encounter along the way I’m happy. The fewer the issues, the happier I’ll be – regardless of the favourable result.
2. The Game Plan
It’s critical to have a solid game plan which you stick to. (This is actually one of my mantras I repeat to myself during a race – “Stick to the game plan, stick to the game plan, stick to the game plan!”) Not sticking to the game plan will have consequences and the excellent problem solver within you might not be enough when things head deep south. You can do your best to avoid bonking (collapse due to depletion of energy and hydration) by having a stable energy and hydration intake plan, making sure your gear is intact and avoiding any new gear or foods on race day.
But even with great preparation and a solid strategy in place, you will need to make adjustments during a race. Quick, positive thinking and mastering your inner problem solving skills will give you a few moments of success along the way. Instead of one problem leading to another, one success leads to another success which ends with the finish line. Your hydration pack might be too loose – adjust the fit. Your legs are sending out signals that the cramps are coming – check your running technique, slow down and hydrate with electrolytes (and eat the salt tablets you’ve brought along). There’s no trail, it’s steep and wet – slow down, find the safest path down in your own pace. “Problem solved, I can’t wait for the salty potatoes and snacks at the 26km aid station”.
3. Drop the Pressure
I cannot deny that I’m competitive… because I am and it can be a motivating supplement during a race! However, what I do know is that my competitors and I are racing in different conditions. I might be racing the course the first time, while the guy next to me is doing his 3rd Shotover Moonlight Marathon. I don’t have daily access to the blue mountains, nor do I have hours and hours each and every day to perfect my cardio and muscular endurance. There is no point in letting this have a negative impact on the mental state.
What I can do is optimise my own conditions the best way I possibly can with the resources I have at hand. I’m a husband, father of two girls, a third one on the way and full-time marketing director in the buzzing Sydney CBD. I know I won’t end up on top, beating the Salomon team. But what I do know is that if I train patiently, stay focused, eat and sleep well, I can pull off a pretty decent performance. I’m aware of my conditions, and I get into a positive mindset right from the start by knowing that I did my best to become the best that I was capable of becoming for today and for this exact race.
I did my best to become the best that I was capable of becoming for today and this exact race.
I can’t stress it enough – we are all different, train and race at your ability and with the resources you have at hand and make the most out of it. If you’re not going for the gold medal, optimise your strategy and training plan to your abilities, set realistic goals and build a solid foundation for a great enjoyable experience. People are passing you one by one, let it go – they have a different game plan than you. And remember to have a laugh! Laugh at how unbelievably amazing the place is, how ridiculous the course is or that you’re standing in two feet of mud and you’re cold. Just give your endorphins a little boost whenever you can.
4. Eat the Elephant
One bit at a time, that is! There’s always a way of overcoming challenges, but in the meantime, it’s important to embrace them to the fullest by handling them one at a time. I know it’s going to be tough and that’s something that I love with endurance racing. When I start thinking “what have I gotten myself into” – this is where I have to get things together and start making some important decisions. I crawl into my focus bubble. Body check, posture and technique check. Hydrate, energise, aim for the next turn, the next mountain top, the next checkpoint.
Embrace the challenge with mindfulness. Have you noticed the surroundings? What’s the temperature like? How far can you see beyond the valley, 10km? What colour is the nature – is it green, is it yellow? By activating your senses and observing the environment, you’re in you can either chose so see its beauty and vividness or its fury and obstacles. “That’s a long way up to the top, that is one rocky dangerous downhill path”. Choose your side and re-boot to your intended state of mind as quickly as you can. Be creative and come up with things to look forward to! The outcome of the challenge will depend on the mindset you tackle it with.
5. The Endurance Benefit
Sore legs, a couple of black toe nails, a restless body and exhaustion to some degree are all treats that come with a 42km mountain challenge in 30+ degrees, sunny summer heat. Erase this from your mind as quickly as you possibly can. Put it inside a box, that you put into another box, and squeeze it into a third box that you throw away in a place where you’d never be able to find it again. Now, hold on to the feeling of accomplishment and success and be mindful of the entire journey that brought you there.
Since my last long race, the 50km Ultra Trail Australia, I’ve been meditating and working intentionally on my overall everyday mindfulness and awareness. Developing these mind-body based approaches, parallel to a constant search for enhancing my training, has been a vital building block in the daily life optimisation puzzle – looking for ‘meaning’ by using time as wisely, purposely and efficiently as possible so that I get the most out of the day and continually develop.
For the first time in my 5 years of endurance racing, I felt I was completely in control of every action and situation that played out during the Shotover. I was able to coach and motivate myself and quickly get out of negative thinking patterns and fly past obstacles. I had to accept that the single trail was extremely narrow, that the grass was wet heavy and slippery, that the hills were much steeper than I’d imagined (hey, better views at the top). Meanwhile, I was quickly able to fix gear issues without losing too much time, I did not get stressed when people were passing me after 5km (impressive, that girl is flying past me up the hill, wonder how she does at 35km). Becoming more efficient in everything I do, more productive and at the same time more present and aware of my current state of mind became so obvious early on in the race. Plan, refine, kill your demons, let things go – be creative, what can you do to become more efficient? I was not going to let the cramps, the heat, the stupid grassy downhills without any trails get me. I had to adapt throughout.
42km and I can hear the crowds now, a few hundred metres to go. This is what I’ve been waiting for. This moment, this feeling. As I pass the last corner before the final stretch I see my wife and kids clapping and jumping, they’ve been patiently waiting for me for hours and I was so happy to see them again. The pain in my legs is gone, I can’t stop smiling, and a sense of relief is exploding within me as I run across the finish line with the little ones in my hands.
This was not a brutal ultra-race, but it was still a challenge out of the ordinary which took me a little over 7 hours to complete. This race allowed me to conquer a few tough hills and test my physical and mental abilities to a great extent. A challenge like this is such a motivator and an experience that puts my everyday life into perspective.