Biting Down

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Biting Down

We’re over two thousand metres above sea level. We’re in The Alps. Down below on the ground it’s something like 26 degrees Celsius. Up here we can see the glaciers. There’s snow on the ground, our breath is icy. This is the halfway mark – approximately 42km in.

In the distance below we can see him. Climbing, climbing through snow and rocks and mountain. This is the hardest course on Earth, probably, with definitely the toughest competition. And this is only Cillian’s third race. He’s wearing the green and navy gear, he’s sweating, he’s cramping badly, but he’s moving. And although all of us there are worried – my parents, his wife Jenny, and his best friend Diarmuid – there’s no doubt in our mind’s that Cillian will finish this race. That’s a certainty.

Months earlier, when we were talking about doing these races, and how it’s even possible, or why anyone ever would, Cillian told me that, ‘you just need to bite down.’ A simple answer, but hardly an easy thing to do. Just bite down and run 85km through the Alps.

He says this as if anyone could do this if they really wanted to. it comes down to mindset and willpower more so than the capability of thee body in the end. Of course you need immaculate fitness, but even people with incredible cardiovascular endurance can’t finish races like this. A strong mind is as essential as a strong body. And so, in the case of ultra marathons, mental and physical are treated as equals. Both are needed in order to perform. Both play a role in achieving something that seems unachievable.

In the everyday world, away from the extremes of ultra-running, we still haven’t achieved this equality. Mental and physical aren’t see as equal. We don’t acknowledge the influence our mental states have on our lives – on our ability to achieve goals, to be happy, to be whole. If a runner like Cillian goes into a race like this with excellent physical fitness without a strength of mind to match, they won’t last very long. they’ll struggle and falter and eventually give up. It’s easy to use this as an analogy for our lives – if we have good physical health but poor mental health, then it won’t be long before we begin to suffer, too.

So for me, going forward, I’ll consider this idea of biting down. I’ll remind myself that focusing only on the physical half of my health isn’t enough. I’ll look back at this race in Austria and recall that in order to achieve a finish you need both your physical and mental to be aligned. You need to work on both in order to be at your best.

Not all of us will ever run ultra-marathons for our countries. But all of us can learn from those that do. We need to strengthen our minds for the roads we walk down. We have to work on our mental health everyday. And on days when we’re being truly tested in the most gruelling ways, we need to zone in and bite down.

I also have a Substack if you wish to read more.

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