A post I wrote for www.appalachiantrials.com – the best site for preparing your (thru)hike!
My so far most demanding long distance challenge was doing 100 km (62,2 miles) ultra-running competitions in the end of the 1990ties. My best time was 8h20min which still is around top 60 in the Austrian all time rankings. In addition I did some 25 marathon competitions, best time was 2h54min, but then I suffered from a chronic inflammation of my Achilles tendon and never got back to this level. Later, in 2008 and 2009 I participated in a 120 km Ultra Trail run in the North Swedish Mountains which took around 18 hours and was mentally even more challenging due to spending hours alone.
I think it´s amazing that you can do a 100 kilometers run when in training you never did a longer distance than 30 kilometers. A clear evidence how decisive the mental factor is.
Regarding this mental part of handling very long distances I hope my experience from ultra-running will help me to complete my AT Thru Hike planned for 2015.
Here are the mental strategies that helped me most and worked for me in order to keep up motivation when trying to cover long distances, as e.g. finishing a 100 kilometers ultra-running competition.
1) Full focus on the very next section
Always concentrate on the next stage, on the next part of the journey, on the 5-10 kilometers to come, on what is straightforward and manageable. NEVER, absolutely NEVER think about how far it still is to the finish line. Coming back to my ultra-running past I can say that to start thinking that it´s still 80 kilometers left when you have already done 20 km of running is disastrous. Or imagine having already done a marathon at a reasonable time and still not having reached half distance of your race – you will quit immediately if you allow for such thoughts.
2) Picture your moment of triumph
Picture crossing the finish line and how it will feel. In fact, it was one of the best moments in life for me crossing the finish line of an ultra-running competition. I imagined the picture of that moment all the time when doing long distance challenges, no matter if it was a competition or an activity on my own as e.g. cycling 320 kilometers (199 miles) to my summer holiday destination.
Since last summer I have photos of Mt. Katahdin as screen background on my computers and smart phones and in addition a picture in my sleeping room. Really hope this will help to make the entire AT!
3) Be prepared for the worst
Be mentally prepared for the worst that may happen on your journey. Assure for yourself that you are capable to overcome difficulties that for sure will occur. Once I completed a Marathon where I had open blisters on my feet after the first 10 kilometers. If you are aware that such thing can happen it´s easier to handle the situation. Of course it will hurt and of course it´s 100% ok to curse and swear, but never lose your capacity to either overcome or endure the problem. In other words: I´m trying to be (mentally!) prepared for snow in the SMNP, 2 weeks of consecutive cold icy rain directly after starting from Springer Mt, no hitches the first times trying to get to town for resupply or not one single trail magic for hundreds of Miles. If it comes out better, just enjoy!
4) Determination is decisive
Someone has written that thru-hiking the AT is a call. Of course you can do it successfully without feeling such type of determination, but I´m deeply convinced it helps. It helps quite a lot. Some examples from my personal life:
Directly after finishing school I did a pilgrimage to Mariazell (Austria, 120 km/75 miles from the capital Vienna) together with one of our teachers and some class mates. When arriving I started calculating that it should be possible to do it within 24 hours. It cost me 2 failed attempts but determination for the goal made that I succeeded 2 years later. This became my introduction to long distance and endurance activities. Besides, my “equipment” for this first long hike was an old rain jacket, a lighter (for night time orienteering) and some pieces of barm brack in my pockets.
I started running in 1992 and after only a few training rounds I did know I have to do a Marathon, this it is what counts. Only half a year later I completed my first Marathon in spite of less helpful conditions – the temperatures were above 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit). For almost 20 years I had the dream to once in my life complete the world´s biggest (16 000 skiers) and most famous Cross Country Skiing competition, the 90 kilometers (56 miles) long Vasaloppet in central Sweden. After moving to Sweden I did it in 2012 in spite of heavy pain in the back.
Since having read Bill Bryson´s “A Walk in the Woods” 10 years ago I feel a call and determined to hike the AT.
Of course I´m aware that it´s a long way from running 100 kilometers to finishing the entire AT. Anyway, it´s just managing to do 35 times 100 km!