The Five Stages of Your Body Grief…Endurance Style

I recently did an Ultra (50k) with a friend who had never run more than a 10k.  He wanted to do more…so like the great friend that I am, I told him if he was willing to jump in, I would run it with him and ensure he finished.  The day of the race, I was not a runner.  Instead, I acted as more of a mental coach to help a perfectly physically capable person do something that their mind wasn’t quite ready for yet.  Hence why I am calling this the 5 Stages of Grief.

We all have grieved, and most of you are familiar with the 5 Stages of Grief.  I had so much fun being able to tell him what his mind was about to do to him, and that if he just didn’t listen to it, and continued to push through, he would be okay.  Now, outside of endurance sports, I would tell you to listen to your gut and mind when it says not to do something.  However, in the endurance mindset, your mind sets up a series of mental blocks to try to get you back into your comfort zone.  In order to persevere, you must completely ignore it all and keep going!

So that morning we met at the venue a little after 5am for a 6am start.  We were stretching and talking, while I ate pop tarts and drank coffee.  I tried to explain to him how the day was about to go.  I knew this was a looped course; so six laps of just under 10k each.  I let him know out the gate I was going to make him slow down and not run his normal 10k pace…because he will never make it if he did.  I then continued to let him know that we will be friends until a little after sunrise.  At that point, he will hate me for about an hour.  Then, we will be friends again for a little bit; then he will hate me again until the final push where adrenaline will take over and he won’t even remember I’m there as he finishes.  He laughed it off and called my BS, and said he had been training and was ready.  So, adrenaline pumping and head lamps ready, we toed the start line and BANG he instantly took off!

Stage 1 – Denial
I could say that denial started before the race or during the second lap.  If before the race, it was the, “Oh, I got this.  It’ll be easy.”  Or could have been at the point of 8-10 miles in where he started to think “We are only how far?  I wonder if I can do this…”  I saw it in both of these instances, but I also knew it was just a phase.  I knew that he would have his pure athletic ability kick in, that is if he could allow his strength to overpower the doubts in his mind.  For the purpose of discussing denial, we will focus on the later of the two: somewhere between mile 8-10.  At that point he asked me to slow down because he could feel a cramp coming on.  I told him to not slow down but to drink, drink, drink!  “It’s not a cramp.  It’s your mind telling you: ‘Ok buddy.  You have a new PR.  Now chill out and let’s go home!’”  After letting him mentally allow the “cramp” to hit, we slowed down for a bit.  We hydrated and took some salt.  Then, he was ready to get back to a jogging pace, and was pretty much in awe that the mind can fake a cramp.  My only reply, “Oh just wait, your mind hasn’t even starting F*ing with you yet…it’s coming!”

Stage 2 – Anger
So, around the half marathon point (another PR), the anger kicked in.  He was getting really short and quiet on me.  Every time I tried to push the pace or get him to talk, I got short, mad responses.  I didn’t let it get to me and I just kept pushing.  We have all been there and know what this feels like- mad at the world that you are even out here, instead of at home comfortable or having fun somewhere else…somewhere easier!   If you don’t know what I am talking about, then you have never pushed yourself at all, because this is an easy mental point to get to and an easy one to get out of.

Stage 3 – Bargaining
The anger phase began to give way, as I was then given trade offs.   “I will jog to that next tree line or up to the creek, and then we can walk a little bit.”  I could also see the doubt starting to build.  I began mixing into the jog/walk routine a conversation about my favorite race topic…FOOD!   I do believe we managed to talk about the proper way to eat a burger, down to the most minute detail for literally almost 15 mins.  It was great!  I could tell his body was tired, and his mind was reaching its limit, and that we would hit rock bottom soon.  So family, food, beer, and even dreams of what was at the next aid station were repetitive topics to keep his mind off of his body.

Stage 4 – Depression
Then his mind threw another cramp his way, and on top of that, this one was right at the start of the second to last loop.  A hard mental pill to swallow as he was approaching his first marathon distance (another PR).  He then hit rock bottom.  He told me he wasn’t sure if he could do it.  His mind had won, he sat down.  At this point, we salted him up and hydrated.  I even pulled out some gummy bears.  I told him that I wasn’t going to leave him, yet I would be pissed if I DNF a 50k… And I was able to convince him to just walk with me.  All I asked is he keep moving so we don’t really tighten up and get a real cramp.  I went deep with him, started telling him how he was feeling and what his body was doing to him.  He thought it was crazy how I was right.  I simply told him, your mind is powerful, but when it comes to shutting you down, it honestly is not that creative.  I was pointing out other racers and we are talking about what was going through their minds and what stage they were in.  I was forcing him to cheer on every person we passed and every person that passed us.  I told him just push the pain away, it really isn’t real; it’s just your body telling you that it is time to quit now.  I convinced him that we wouldn’t listen to it anymore, over power it, and know your mind will get to a point where it will take the pain away.  It will say “Ok.  Screw this.  Just please hurry up and finish!”  That last wind, so to speak.  It was coming.

Stage 5 – Acceptance
As we were finishing the second to last loop, his mind reached the “screw it phase”, aka Acceptance.  He then realized, “Yes I am going to finish this and yes, I will be and ultra marathoner.”  His personality came back.  He began to talk.  His pace quickly became a swift power walk, and we were having fun again!  As we hit the checkpoint to begin our last lap, he was in high spirits and joking and talking to everyone.  I loved it.  This is what it was all about: finding that breaking point and breaking it.  And he not only broke it, he blew it out of the water.  That final lap, adrenaline kicked in, and we picked up the pace.  He was actually pulling me with his pace for just about the entire last lap.  We got to that finish line and crossed it.  I told him, “Today you kicked the course’s, your body’s, and your mind’s ass!  Congrats Mr. 10k-er you are now an ultra-marathoner!”

It was truly awesome to watch someone jump from a 10k distance to a 50k distance and go through what I tried to explain to him before the race.  It is impossible to understand unless you have been there.  This is what endurance is all about, loving to hurt, but hurting to share the love.  I can’t wait to hear from y’all on some of the times you have hit these stages of grief at endurance events or races.  And to all of my LegendBorne Ambassadors and Crew- love y’all and keep killing it!

By Ambassador Randy Ramcharan


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