In a recent post about what brings success in running (luck, talent...), I used some nebulous terms and may have been a little flippant, so I'm going to try to correct that.
First, "mental toughness." This consists of a number of things, but the two most important are determination and competitiveness. These also need some explaining.
You can usually tell at the start line of a 100 miler who is not going to finish. Those who look anxious are pretty much doomed. Some look relaxed, but unfocused and they don't do well either. The determined ones look the part; it's not just confidence, though that's important, it's also resolve. When I finished my first 100, whenever someone asked how I was doing, no matter how I felt, I answered, "I'm going to finish." At the Superior 100, I had problems from the start and one could probably tell I wasn't going to finish, but I kept telling myself I would not quit, even though I was down one leg, one hand and one eye; when I finally quit, I knew that I would've died if I continued. I mean that literally. I would've ended up wandering aimlessly in the woods, exhausted and freezing. Determination is good, but stubbornness can be deadly. To a lesser extent, this applies also to workouts; one needs to push oneself occasionally, but not to the breaking point.
Julie Berg's experience at Superior is a great example of determination. After DNF'ing, she got advice from every expert she could find and took what they said to heart. When she was told that she could finish Superior if she could run up Buck Hill (steep 300 ft hill) 30 times, she went out there repeatedly until she was able to do it. She spent a year doing high mileage on trails and lifting weights to improve leg strength for the downhills. She gained experience from running other 100s. No one was more determined to finish that race and, of course, she finished it.
In my own case, after DNF'ing at Superior, I started running a lot of long races for experience and taught myself how to better run hills and technical terrain. I also learned how to keep going under difficult physical circumstances few will ever experience. I expect to finish Superior this year; interestingly, others are already taking it for granted, which is a good sign.
The other quality, competitiveness, can take many forms. I know some runners (the examples I can think of all happen to be male) who run aggressively and angrily, who thrive on trying to prove to others that they're the better racer. That's only one kind of competitiveness.
I also know some who never think in terms of other runners, who just want to do their best and want to cheer for others to do their best - but compete against themselves and the clock. The first time they run a race, their only goal is to finish, but every year they try to improve their time. Though they think in terms of "challenge" rather than "compete," the desire to excel is the same.
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