As I write this, I’m just over a week out from the Black Canyon 100K, the longest running race I’ve ever attempted. My previous longest was a 50-miler that just about killed me. It’s fair to say that ultramarathons in general are not my strength. I think it’s because I land heavy. When I run really far, my legs get beat up long before I get tired. Another weakness of mine is downhill running, which exacerbates the tendency of my legs to get beat up by long distances, and the Black Canyon 100K racecourse features a ton of descending. It won’t help me that I’m a little underprepared for this one, a chronic groin issue having prevented me from starting to get serious about my training until 15 weeks before race day.

To topic it all off, I’m going into the race all wrong from a planning and logistical perspective. Recently, my mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease, moved into my home so that my wife and I can care for her. This new situation has made travel very difficult. I can’t justly burden my wife by leaving her alone with her mother-in-law for long periods of time, so it is necessary that a professional caregiver be brought in to assist while I’m away, and that’s expensive. So, for this race, I’m going to drop in the night before it starts, catch as much sleep as I can, and leap into the abyss the next morning without a support crew, drop bags, or any idea how I’m going to get back to my rental car after I finish.

For all of these reasons, I don’t expect to be particularly competitive at Black Canyon, and I expect to suffer tremendously. But you know what? I’m okay with it. I believe the race can be a satisfying experience for me nevertheless, precisely because of these low expectations. As a coach, I often tell athletes that, while there are times when it is simply unwise to do a particular race, by and large, any race has the potential to come out as a success if you go into it with appropriate expectations. 

This is easier said than done for many. Too often, athletes start a training segment with a certain goal in mind for their “A” race and refuse to modify it—at least in their heart, if not in their mind—after subsequent events render that goal unrealistic. They thereby set themselves up for almost guaranteed disappointment. In these situations, it’s far better to come up with an adjusted definition of success based on current realities, because doing so gives you a chance to come away thinking, “Hey, that went pretty well, all things considered.”

Expectations are powerful. Psychologists use the terms “maximizing” and “satisficing” to refer to two different mindsets toward outcome expectations. Maximizers tend to seek perfection when making choices and decisions, whereas satisficers tend to be content with anything that is “good enough” or better. Research has shown that maximizers are more prone to second-guessing, disappointment, and regret, and are less happy in general compared to satisficers. 

True, maximizers are also more successful, by and large. One study found that, in a sample of recent college graduates, the maximizers among them took jobs with 20 percent starting salaries than the satisficers did. They just weren’t any more content with their bigger paychecks.

What are the implications of all this psychobabble for endurance athletes? It is normal and even expected, to a degree, for competitive racers to set lofty goals for themselves. As an athlete myself, I aim for nothing less than 100 percent realization of my potential on the racecourse, and as a coach I encourage my athletes to have the same mindset. But you can bring a satisficer’s mindset to the pursuit of ambitious athletic goals; it’s what I do, and I encourage this as well.

There are some athletes who essentially refuse to be satisfied with the outcome of any race unless they achieve their “A” goal, even if circumstances beyond their control make this goal impossible to achieve. For example, a runner might have her heart set on breaking 3:30 in her next marathon, but race day turns out to be hot and she runs 3:32 (still a PR) and is devastated. Or she might even refuse to adjust her race plan in consideration of the heat, blow up at 18 miles, and end up in the med tent. It happens.

There’s a want of wisdom in this attitude, in my opinion. To me, the greatest satisfaction lies in making the best of each racing opportunity. When circumstances are favorable, doing so may indeed result in achievement of an “A” goal, but when they’re not, there’s just as much satisfaction to be had in seeing what’s possible regardless—if you have the right attitude.

A small part of me wishes I were better prepared for the Black Canyon 100K, and could afford to arrive a day earlier, and had a support crew, etc. But it’s only a small part, I swear. Because I know that, even despite the imperfect circumstances, I have an opportunity to make the most of what I’ve got, and I’m excited for the challenge.

Stadephobia is not a real word. I just made it up. It combines the ancient Greek words stade, which was a unit of measure used in footraces (1 stade = 180 meters), and phobia, meaning fear, and it’s my name for the phenomenon of fear of distance. In general, phobias are irrational fears of things like spiders and open spaces, but in endurance sports many athletes experience a perfectly rational fear of longer race distances. The Ironman race distance, for example, can be quite intimidating for the athlete who has not yet mastered it.

How to overcome Stadephobia

As natural as such fears are, they shouldn’t be allowed to get out of hand. In excess, stadephobia sabotages athletes by tempting them to make poor training decisions out of an insecure need to prove to themselves that they can successfully complete the distance they’ve signed up for. It also causes athletes to start events in a state of high anxiety and low confidence that is intrinsically performance-hindering. So, how do you manage fear of distance? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Trust the process.

You are not the first athlete ever to attempt to complete whichever race distance you’re currently preparing for, whether it’s a marathon, an Ironman, or even a 100-mile ultramarathon. Keep this fact in mind throughout the training process. If you follow a training plan that is similar to those that athletes like you have used successfully in the past to successfully complete the same race distance, you have every reason to believe that it will do the same for you.

2. Don’t look up.

One of the big mistakes I see athletes make when they are training for a race distance that intimidates them is to base their assessments of their ability to complete the distance on race day on their current fitness. A triathlete training for an Ironman might, for example, struggle to complete a 75-mile bike  ride 12 weeks before the race and think, “There’s no way I can ride 112 miles and then run a marathon!”

Well, no shit. Even a professional Ironman racer cannot and should not expect to be ready to perform at peak level 12 weeks before an event. You aren’t supposed to be ready before it’s time to be ready! By looking too far ahead in the training process you will achieve nothing more than creating a lot of unnecessary anxiety.

Whether you’re a first-timer or a pro or anything in between, what matters is not where you are fitness-wise but which direction you’re going. How fit you are today is not important. What’s important is that you are getting fitter. So, instead of comparing yourself to the athlete you will need to be on race day to achieve your goal, compare yourself to the athlete you where when you started the training process. If you’re fitter now than you were, say, four weeks ago, then your training is working and you can expect to keep getting fitter in the weeks to come, so that when it’s actually time to be ready, you will be.

3. Accept uncertainty

At the root of stadephobia is anxiety about uncertainty. No race distance is inherently scary. Rather, a race distance is only scary to the degree that an athlete doubts his or her ability to complete it successfully. But some athletes are naturally more comfortable with uncertainty than others. Given two athletes training for a 100K ultramarathon, both of whom rate their chances of completing it successfully at 75 percent, one might be completely freaked out about those odds while the other is only mildly anxious.

If you tend toward being uncomfortable with uncertainty, work on it. Champions don’t mind risking failure. In fact, they deliberately set goals that carry a high risk of failure. The whole point of doing endurance sports is to challenge yourself, and you’re not challenging yourself if you know for sure you’re going to succeed. Obviously, you don’t want to take on tests that you know you’re going to fail, either. There’s a happy medium. But the point is to train your mind to be happy in that middle state, where it remains to be seen whether you’ll make it to the finish line until you actually do.

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