365 Days and Counting: Managing the Mental Game of Ultrarunning.
Surely you can relate to the feeling of doubt that washes over when you consider competing, yet again. In 365 days, we fit in one, or at times even multiple, training blocks lasting anywhere from 8-20+ weeks. Countless hours are then dedicated to running and cross-training and just enough time for recovery. We do all of this while still maintaining our everyday lives, and yet we dare to entertain the question,
can I do this?
This was the question that Tanri brand ambassador, Alyssa Clark, had thought of one too many times.
Growing up with a marathoner for a dad, an adventurer for a mom, an international competitive cross country skier for a brother, and an elite rower for a sister, Alyssa was bound to find her avenue for endurance athlete greatness. Whether she has the family blood to thank or Dean Karnazes for stumbling across his Ultra Marathon Man, at the age of 10 she set the intention, I want to do that one day, and that she did.
Coming from the chaos and uncertainty of 2020, Alyssa was ready to take on a challenge. As if moving from a different country during COVID, and setting the Guinness world record for running 95 marathons in 95 days, for a total of 2,489 miles, wasn’t challenging enough, Alyssa continued to build on her achievements.
On June 7th, 2021, Alyssa was back into the groove of things with her first in-person race, the Ruck a Chuck 50k in Foresthill, CA. With 31 miles in the heat of summer successfully under her belt, she went for the Ouray 100 in Colorado on August 1st.
This race was not only more difficult in terms of distance but also 6x the elevation gain. The race philosophy itself is meant too push racers out of their comfort zones, to push their boundaries, but with an open mind that failure is in the air, and if you happen to breathe it in on this race, you’ll grow stronger for the next one.
The race had its ups and downs (see what I did there.) Normal hiccups like stomach issues, unexpected weather conditions, and the dwindling of mental energy made an appearance. However, the majority of the race went smoothly and Alyssa walked out with 1st female and 6th overall.
Thus far, she had continuously raised the bar and seen success at every level. When September came around, she was ready to take on an even more strenuous race, the Tor de Geants. 205 miles of the Italian Alps and Aosta valley, numerous climbs, and an elevation gain of 24,000m. The training had been done. Her body was ready, and her mind was set on reaching the finish line. Without the luxury of flying into Italy several days before the race, however, Alyssa was left without much time to acclimate to her new surroundings. Stress began to consume her.
Sometime after her first fifty miles, signs of dehydration became apparent. Imbalance, hallucinations, and eventually reaching a point of sporadic black outs Alyssa feared for her safety, so she called it.
DNF at 140 miles.
The rush of emotion was hard to handle,
The human vocabulary is too narrow in describing human emotions. How can I feel so disappointed, grateful, sad, upset, proud, wimpy, strong, and all the emotions in between? There’s no question I’m deeply disappointed with how Tor went. I put my heart and soul into a positive outcome and it didn’t go the way I was so sure it would.
Though Alyssa struggled with her time in Italy, she knew she’d move forward. She had too. The amount of training she had done this year to get to this point was not going to go to waste. So she re-visited an old friend, the Pinhoti Trail.
Alyssa had gambled with this trail once before, in 2020, she attempted a self-supported FKT which resulted in a DNF at mile 140. Something about this trail was calling Alyssa back to it. It could have been the familiar terrain or the chance to come face to face with her true potential. Whatever it was, she knew failure wasn’t an option. This time around, Alyssa would have a crew accompany her and go head to head with the current men’s FKT holder, Coree Woltering.
5 days 7 hours and 22 minutes was the time to beat, and after a full night of rest, she set off to the northern terminus where her 350-mile journey began.
Going into FKT’s, or any long-distance attempt, there has to be this understanding of relinquishing control. One can only plan so much before mother nature, or fate, takes things into her own hands. Alyssa recalled times in the past where she’d push herself for too long, deplete her physical and mental energy, and potentially risk her longevity on the trail. This time was different. She was more in tune with her body than ever and made calls on when to stop, switch shoes, and re-energize quickly and strategically. But even with her strong start, by day 3, it became more and more difficult to process how much she had left to go.
“On day 3, at mile 230, I laid down for 2-3 hours, woke up, and was in so much pain. I couldn’t bend my foot at all, I had no flexibility, my shins were so swollen that they were blistering. I thought to myself, how am I going to finish this? I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’d start hobbling along, and then I’d start crying and think how am I going to do this for another 120 miles? But then I’d think about all of the people who believed in me, and my previous failures at 100+ mile attempts, and how badly I wanted this. There was something in my head that was so determined that I wasn’t going to come back and fail again. I knew I could do this. I needed to do it.”.
The next 100 miles were filled with scattered sleep, tactical trails, unexpected weather conditions, and lots of Oreos. The time spent on the trail, so far, had been tough but the support she received along the way made it so much easier to keep going. Aside from the incredible assistance her crew provided on the day-to-day, they reignited her love for the trail running community. After sending out a message looking for pacers, they received many responses with locals happy to help. One, in particular, running 24 miles with her on Thanksgiving Day, and another who drove in from an hour away for a night run in the pouring rain. It was without a doubt that Alyssa would leave the Pinhoti trail with something even more precious than an FKT, lifelong friends.
Reaching closer to the finish line, Alyssa was running on pure determination. As she approached her last long stretch of road running, she planned on walking the entire section, but something overcame her
“I had run three hundred and twenty-something miles, but I still had twenty-something miles left, which is a long ways. I knew I was going to be heading into the dark again which makes you so tired. But at one point I was almost watching myself running. I had reached the critical amount of pain that I could reach and almost settled into this meditative state where I kept thinking, you don’t have to think, you just have to move.”
During the last two hours of her time on the trail, Alyssa started processing her achievement and just coasted through the last miles, no longer feeling the aches and pains but rather taking in the beauty of the trail.
With the support of her newfound friends, her crew, and everyone cheering her on from home Alyssa set the women’s first supported FKT at 5 days 14 hours and 43 minutes.
Overjoyed was an understatement. She was eagerly greeted by Nimblewill Nomad, the oldest person to have hiked the Appalachian Trail, as he cheered her arrival with a handmade congratulatory sign at 11 pm.
Laying in front of the southern terminus was surreal, but an achievement she believes was destined to happen.
“I attempted this trail last year and I also had to drop from a big race this year. I think you have to trust that things happen for a reason, and I think I didn’t finish that big race this year so that I could come back and do this. There’s so much to be said about failing at something. I think this was a great opportunity to learn and apply a year’s worth of training and to prove that just because you fail at something doesn’t mean you can’t come back and succeed at it.”
Taking on the Pinhoti trail not only landed Alyssa with an FKT but also allowed her to raise $1,525 for the free to run organization. An organization that supports women and young girls in areas of conflict to build leadership skills, emotional and social wellbeing through adventure sports.
With such an eventful year now behind her, we asked Alyssa, what’s next?
“Next year my three goal races are Mont Blanc 90km, TDS, and Moab 240. I may do some smaller races in the meantime, but for now, I’ll be spending the next month ice climbing and skiing with my husband.”
Whether you’re 2022 goals include running your first 10k or taking on an Ultra, keep pushing yourself towards the finish line! As Alyssa said, “we don’t do these things because we think they’re going to be easy, we do it because they’re worth it.”
Keep an eye out for Alyssa’s races next year by following her on Instagram @theory_in_motion !
That’s an amazing accomplishment! Go Alyssa!
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