By Andy Jones-Wilkins
CTS Ultrarunning Coach
In a sport where the ultimate goal is to get from the start line to the finish line as quickly as possible, it might seem counter-intuitive to suggest that patience is one of the key skills athletes need to master. However, after two decades in the sport, I have come to the distinct conclusion that patience is critically important for success in ultrarunning, particularly for runners seeking longevity.
Certainly, there are times when a sense of urgency is important. The ability to think on your feet, adapt to changing circumstances, and make split-second decisions can determine how successful you are in an event. However, from my view, being patient far outweighs any of that. To make my point, I will highlight three aspects of ultrarunning that we all experience and all require patience: training, recovery, and racing.
Patience in Training
I remember back to the late ‘80s when I first started running. It seemed like with each run I got faster, more efficient, and more joyful. I quickly started signing up for 5ks, 10ks, half-marathons, and seemed to enjoy one PR after another. Inevitably, after a move west and a series of significant life events, I discovered trail running and ultramarathons. At first I was humbled and awed by the sheer tenacity of those rugged trail runners. Because of where I was, those runners were mostly old desert rats who seemed intent on going out weekend after weekend with no other goal than to spend hours in the mountains. It was alluring and tantalizing to me and I quickly made the transition to ultras.
As with my progression in road racing, I quickly got faster, more efficient, and more joyful. Then, about the time of my first 100-mile race, the 2000 Angeles Crest 100, I hit a plateau. I stopped getting faster. I felt like I had reached my limit. At that point, on the advice of my running mentor, Tom Nielsen, a switch went off and I realized the immediate gratification days were over and now, in order to find continued success, I must learn patience. In the subsequent three years, I learned the importance of rest, periodized training, and, for lack of any better way of putting it, the importance of letting the training come to me.
It turned out that in my decade-long build up, I had been in a cycle of more, better, faster and was never allowing myself to just revel in the training and, in the wise words of veteran ultrarunner Tim Fitzpatrick, I never allowed the training to just “sink in.” Once I understood the need to do that and found a way to integrate a patient approach with my training, I embarked on a seven-year joy ride of training and racing between 2004 and 2011 that only ended when injury got the better of me.
Patience in Recovery
In 2011, about two months after Western States, I became crippled with a severe case of plantar fasciitis. I had, of course, heard all the horror stories about this injury, but had never succumbed to it myself. In the fall of 2011 I was debilitated by it. Impatiently, I tried all the tricks to heal myself and, as is often the case, ultimately came back from it three months later only to develop another, far more severe injury as a result of trying to return to running too quickly. So, five months after limping home from a run with PF in my right foot, I was laying on the operating table to have the meniscus in my left knee scoped.
I thought that injury would get me back into the groove of practicing patience. Certainly, a torn meniscus would require significant recovery and a patient return to running. One would think. But, not for me. I still thought I had time to get healed up in time for Western States 2012. Even though all my friends and family were telling me I was stupid to even try, I was determined. Until, of course, I limped back to my car 400 meters into a training run on the Western States course over Memorial Day Weekend. At that moment, finally, I accepted the fact that nothing other than a fully patient recovery plan would do.
When I arrived home from Auburn in May, 2012, I circled June 29, 2013 on my calendar, took six weeks completely off from running, and charted the slow, gradual return to form that would be required. If I was going to actually practice what I preached about running and recovery, now was the time. Finally, by New Year’s Day 2013, I felt like a runner again and began my slow, steady preparation for the 2013 Western States.
Patience in Racing
I went into the 2013 Western States with low expectations. Sure, I wanted to run well and I certainly wanted to finish but, in contrast to previous years, I was wary of making any bold predictions about my place or setting any audacious goals. I was, however, quietly committed to running a patient race and, with any luck, I wanted to pace myself well enough to have the race come to me.
By the time I got to Foresthill (mile 62), I felt like I had achieved the first part of that goal. Running up Bath Road with my son, Logan, I think I was in something like 35th place. Logan looked and me and said, “You look like you still have some bullets left in that holster.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but I actually felt good. I stayed patient on the descent to the river on Cal Street and along with Erik Skaden, a guy who certainly knows a thing or two about patience, we started passing people, one every couple of minutes. By the time we got to ALT (mile 85), we were skimming the top 20. Darn, I thought, this patience is paying off.
At the Highway 49 crossing with just under seven miles to go, I finally started thinking about my place (it was 17th) and wondering if I had any chance of cracking the top 10. With my eager 13-year old son by my side I, for the first time all day, got impatient. And, just like that, on this day it felt wrong! By No Hands Bridge, I settled into a more patient, joyful space, started chatting with Logan and savored those last three miles like I never had before. Reflecting back on it now, I can safely say that 2013 was my most enjoyable Western States run. While I have certainly run faster and placed higher, I never felt as calm, as peaceful, and as centered as I did on that day. I believe it was my patient approach that gave me that gift.
And so, as I embark on what will be my life’s next journey – recovering from hip surgery – I am once again committed to a patient approach. I believe patience, along with persistence, resilience, courage, and grit, can get me to the starting line and to the finish line in ways that will not only enrich my running but, more importantly, enrich my life.