sport psychology

Life Lessons from Ultra-Endurance Sporting Elites

For most, simply completing an ultramarathon, open-water swim, or an Ironman triathlon is laudable. For few, these sports exist as platforms for competition. For all, these pursuits are comprised of extreme fatigue, excruciating pain, managing the inner critic, and intense exhaustion. Ultimately, ultra-endurance sports have the capacity to strip an individual to the core, exposing oneself to his or her innermost depths. The visceral nature of these endeavors paves the way for self-exploration along with some extraordinarily personal moments.


As part of a sport psychology graduate school project, it was my objective to capture the essence of these unique experiences. I was sought to explore the psychology behind elite-level performance in ultra-endurance sports (sports > 6 hours in duration). To do so, I interviewed 10 of the world’s best ultra-endurance athletes. Following that, I recorded, transcribed and coded their responses into groups using a thematic analysis. Theirs insights were rich and useful for a variety of performance environments. Below are three principles that derived from the conversations with some of the world’s best ultra-endurance athletes:


I.               Embrace the Struggle.


Ultramarathon runner Dr. Stephanie Howe-Violett uses preparation as a way to familiarize herself with pain. She practices being comfortable with being uncomfortable by completing a 30-mile training run as preparation for races. The run consists of 3 loops. Each loop starts and ends at her car. Just like in a race, as her loops progress, so too, do the temptations to stop. By intentionally using a visual cue (one that represents a ticket home) she is able to better withstand the inevitable low moments that flare up during a race.



II.             Follow the Path.


Every athlete interviewed took a unique path to get to where they are today. The paths they selected were not the paths of least resistance. They sought to face the unknown and stayed the path regardless. That kind of intention, humility, and commitment gave me a better appreciation for them as people, not just athletes.



At 28-years old, James “The Iron Cowboy” Lawrence didn’t even know how to swim. Fast-forward eleven years later and this father of four and husband completed 50 Ironman-distance triathlons (2.6 miles of swimming, 122 miles of cycling, and 26.2 miles of running) in 50 states in 50 days. Rob Krar (2X Winner of the Western States 100) was a full-time pharmacist until his achievements allowed him to pursue a full-time career as an ultramarathon runner. Another ultramarathon runner – Clare Gallagher – fell back into running while teaching in Thailand. Her training coincided with the rainy season, which left her training in tsunami evacuation towers. Dan Simonelli (open-water swimmer) owned a small marketing company until his daughter joined the lifeguards. It drew him back to the water and changed his life. Simonelli has since become the head of the La Jolla Swim Club and completed numerous channel crossings, including the English Channel. It took Lynne Cox (open-water swimmer) almost ten years until she gained approval to swim across the Bering Strait from U.S. territory to Soviet territory. When she did, she gained worldwide recognition for using swimming as a platform for changing the world. 


III.           Get Outside.



We are just starting to understand how rampant technological use affects the brain. Rather than wait for more research to develop, go outside. Many concur that time outside is time well spent.

Nature offers experiences that are unique and impossible to replicate. In becoming the first woman to swim the Cook Strait (between North & South Islands in New Zealand) Lynne Cox was guided to shore by dolphins. No way was that a part of her plan. Long-distance paddler and coach, Kevin Eslinger understands the connection might be stronger than we even realize:


I’m not separate from it, nor am I some great, essential part. It is all of me and I am all of it. Taste your tears. Taste your blood. Taste the ocean. They all taste the same.


Our connection to nature is far more wide-reaching that we might understand. To enjoy a crisp spring morning doesn’t require an ocean or a mountain range in your backyard. A stroll around the block or a lunch outside can slow things down, offering an indelible experience, a true #nofilter.


Through valuing the struggle, embracing the path, and spending undistracted moments outside, we might be better able to manage the speed at which life occurs in 2018 and beyond.  One certainty is that the future is unknown; however, from what I’ve learned, that means there is an abundance of opportunity to be had. Through being intentional, one might be better able to optimize those opportunities that present themselves on this road of life. After all, it’s all about the journey anyways, right?