I’ve done endurance sports and high-intensity training, and this is what I’ve figured out: my physical fitness and strength are important, but just as important (some of my friends would argue even more important) is mental toughness.
How do you prepare yourself physically and mentally for seemingly impossible events? I asked Fort Lauderdale resident Bob Becker. Soon-to-be 69 years young, Becker is an ultra-runner, who only weeks ago completed the 51.4-mile BADWATER Cape Fear race in 12 hours and 34 minutes. Held in Bald Head Island, N.C., the race challenges the body both physically and mentally.
“When people ask how I run those significant distances, I ask them how they got from couch potato to that first 5k or half marathon finish, or how they transitioned to that first completed marathon,” Becker says. “It's in the training, and the desire to set and accomplish a goal that may very well have seemed unreasonable before making that commitment.”
Since 2005, Becker has completed some 21 ultra-marathons, which are longer than the 26.2-mile distance of a traditional marathon. He ran one with a stress fracture on his right femur. In another, he had to cover himself in trash bags to stop shivering because it was cold and rainy.
But Becker says the hardest race he has done is the BADWATER 135, which dubbed itself "the world's toughest foot race.” It started 282 feet below sea level and finished 8,500 feet up Mt. Whitney in the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
He finished 35th out of 80 starters in a time of 40 hours and 48 minutes.
You’d think Becker is one of those lucky people who stay physically fit despite age. Maybe it’s genetics. The truth is, Becker has been through his own set of physical challenges.
The fractured femur mentioned earlier? He battled that injury for years and endured a surgery that required inserting a steel pin and plate in his right hip.
While he was recovering in early 2006, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and again went through surgery for removal.
By May of that year, he climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro and began running ultra-marathons later that year.
When describing the importance of the mind in endurance sports, Becker refers to a quote from Ray Zahab, a well-known and highly accomplished Canadian ultra-marathoner who ran across the entire Sahara Desert in 2007 – that’s 4,400 miles.
“90 percent of ultra-running is mental, and the rest is in your head!”
Becker strategizes to limit the physical pain, but the strategies he uses also give him a mental edge. Here are his top strategies for breaking those physical barriers:
“I try to be realistic about my age and capabilities,” Becker says. “I'm not training to win, but to complete the race – and pick-off as many runners as I possibly can before that finish line.”
His training includes one to two recovery days each week, when he frequently sleeps in and does not exercise at all.
The other five days, he mixes in core work, heavy lifting and cross training with his runs. Sometimes, he does two-a-day workouts, training in the heat of the day and adjusting his training routine to correspond to the challenges of his next race.
Pacing to a plan
“The mantra is ‘Go slow to go fast,’” he says. “The first 75 or 80 miles of a 100-mile race is the warm-up. In other words, be disciplined. Don't worry about people passing you early in the race. Save enough energy to ideally complete the second half of the course as fast or faster than the first half.”
Run your race
“It's fun to run with others, and it can be very motivating and help the time and miles--pass more quickly,” Becker says. “But I find that rarely do two or more runners move for extended periods at the same pace.
So he runs most races alone, running in groups for short periods of time whenever possible.
“Sticking to your own strategy is most important in achieving your planned result,” he says.
“It's going to hurt.”
Becker says it’s rare to complete an ultra-marathon without experiencing some pain, fatigue, sore muscles or a combination of all of those.
The key is to minimize these effects by wearing the right shoes and socks, having spares in case of a change in course conditions, bad weather or swelling feet.
Bring some gear options for carrying items during the race – water, food, electrolytes, rain gear, phone, medical supplies, course map, etc.
“Always minimize the stuff, and therefore, the weight, you carry, but know what will be available on the course and carry what you will likely need,” he says.
Remember what drove you to do this in the first place
“There are periods during many races when I question my sanity and want to be done with it,” he says. “Then, I remember how totally satisfying it is to cross that finish line and know you have completed something hard that relatively few people will ever do. I think about other races where I had finished and said to myself, ‘never again,’ only to start thinking a couple of hours later of the changes I could have made to finish even faster. And, I like being part of the fraternity that celebrates those special post-race moments with a mutual ‘atta-boy’ and a cold beer.”
Becker is race director at Fort Lauderdale-based Ultra Sports. Ultra Sports puts on events throughout the year, including the Keys 100 in May. The Keys 100 includes individual races of 100 or 50 miles, as well as a 100-mile six-person relay event, across the Florida Keys. For more information, go to http://www.ultrasportsllc.com/ or call 954/439-2800.
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Lisette Hilton, president of Words Come Alive, has had the luxury of reporting on health, fitness and other hot topics for more than 23 years. The longtime Boca Raton resident, University of Florida graduate and fitness buff writes for local, regional and national publications and websites. Find out more on www.wordscomealive.com.