Saturday, 29 September 2012

Ultra Motivation

Q; what is the universal language?
A; a smile.

Q; what makes the ‘world go round’?
A; the Sun, money, love? I propose the answer is altogether more simple (ok, and complex);


Our emotions control what we do, shape our values and give us purpose. Their derivative is a place we have limited control over, often shaped by our life experiences, especially those formed at an impressionable young age. Without emotion, money wouldn’t matter and love would be a mystery.

To maximise the benefits from an understanding of the four pillars of ultimate performance each pillar must first be stripped of its impurities; in much the same way that a young army recruit is taken to his lowest possible ebb prior to reconstruction.

So whilst motivation can be discussed as a separate entity it has it’s foundation in emotion, a so-called plinth if you like. When you discover what really motivates you, you will better grounded to start work on the subsequent pillars and then achieve your overall aims. Thus you should consider the psychology of your own emotions.

‘What is motivation?’

I googled this question (to get me started) and at the very top of the page I got the following;

  1. The reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way.
  2. The general desire or willingness of someone to do something.

Whilst far from being a panacea, this definition fits with my thread so for now I will begin with a story to illustrate what it really means.


There was once a young lad I knew very well. His first 12 years were less than ideal. Physically, mentally and sexually abused by his alcoholic, drug addicted mother, he had been in and out of care since he was 4 years old – when the courts decided that his mother (who didn’t want him) should be granted his custody. 

She had brainwashed him into believing that he would never be loved, never mind liked – and his early experiences confirmed this. The other kids didn’t want to play with a ‘blackie’ so from as early as he could remember, he would wander the streets all day rarely returning until midnight – not that it was of any consequence to his guardian.

Her issues were invariably taken them out on him. His sister was treated like his mothers sister and the pair of them picked on him relentlessly. In addition to the emotional pain he was living through daily, he witnessed his mother prostituting herself, trying to kill herself (several times), being taken in and out of mental health clinics and also spending time inside for attempted murder.

At 12 years old, his father got custody of him (his sister thankfully stayed where she was). When he moved to his new school it was noted that he was 4foot 9inches tall, weighed 4.5 stone and had size 3 feet. He was also classed as having learning difficulties.

By the end of his 3rd year in High School, he had grown a foot taller, doubled his weight, tripled his foot size and shot up from the foundation level in all subjects to near the top. He had surprised everyone (except himself). He was a grafter and by this time had bagged 4 part time jobs. As a consequence he felt even more independent - save the roof over his head and the meals that were provided.

However, he had become ready to move on. Why? Because he was petrified of his dad; here was a man that despite his good intentions could not break free from his own issues for the good of his son. He was quite handy with his fists and needed little excuse for beating on the boy.

And to think, all that was hoped for was a safe refuge; somewhere he could finally break free of his mental anguish but it just wouldn’t stop. On the outside everyone came to know him as a likable guy, mostly because of his attention seeking behaviour but others had him marked and knew he was vulnerable.

As far as achievements were concerned, his first came when he was 16 years old. Having just mastered the alphabet sequence a year earlier, he was awarded an A grade in English Higher. This win set about a principle that was already forming well – to be rewarded in life you must work hard because there really are no shortcuts.

Fast forward 20 years and I’ve done alright for myself; detached house; married for 12 years with two kids; got a permanent job; had the privilege of teaching, encouraging and influencing like minded individuals and benefited from same (whilst serving in the British Army); travelled the world and learnt about many cultures; I contribute to my local community in my present day to day job and have raised money for local charities; participated in a conglomerate of challenging activities and whilst it has been anything but plain sailing, I’ve made some relatively note-worthy achievements.

I use that word ‘relative’ because where I am now is a very different place from where I could’ve, perhaps even should’ve, been.

At this juncture, I would ask that no-one feels any sympathy for me because there is a point to my openness. Those years have defined me; there are times when I able to see them as a gift. Ok, so I’d have preferred that some of what happened – didn’t, but I can’t change any of that now.  

You see this background is the reason I have for acting or behaving in such a way;

  1. It is the reason I get annoyed with people who complain about what I perceive to be trivial matters;
  2. The reason I am openly frustrated with laziness, incompetence and a lack of leadership from those so obliged;
  3. It is the reason that I barely converse with anyone unless I have something important to say – and when I do, I can go on a bit;
  4. It has shaped my values – honesty, integrity, conviction, a distrust of vanity and privilege, a hatred of corruption and criminal activity etc;
  5. It is the reason that (behind closed doors) I am incredibly sensitive to moving films and music – often crying my eyes out;
  6. And it has given me an insight to real pain; I will return to the relevance of this point later.

So according to google, I’m half way to understanding what motivates me. I’ve broken things down, analysed them and made some conclusions. I could be wrong but the hard work is actually still to do. I’d advise you read the entire post before you try to hone in on your motivation - you need the whole picture.

It’s now time to consider the desire (or willingness) for running an ultra.

Now you need to know about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. So in layman’s terms;

  • Intrinsic – doing something for you. Sounds like you might have a grasp on that; right? Mmnnn, I’ll explain in a bit.

  • Extrinsic – doing something because of the associated external reward e.g. money, applause, fame, love, the associated image…….. You’ve got a handle on this one, eh? Easy.

To get to the bottom of this, what better place to start than the pouring out above?

What’s this all about, you may ask yourself? Is this guy simply after approval; some kind acceptance? As much as it irks me, I have to admit that in some sense it is true. In fact the truth is, most people have this basic need, and it even defines some.

If I’m brutally honest I would say that about 20% of what drives me is for the associated adulation (extrinsic). I’m not happy about admitting that, in fact I’d rather not. But if we’re going to iron out motivation and uncover what really drives a person we have to be 100% honest with ourselves. By doing so we will not be found wanting when the cracks begin to form – as they so often do during the latter stages of an ultra.

If you want the very best from yourself (and its not just a social gathering), you have to be absolutely certain about your commitment to an ultra before you start. Therefore, it is of huge comfort to me knowing that even if I was the only person on the planet I would still want to train for and run an ultra as fast as my ability would let me. This is where my other 80% of motivation lies.

I am mostly intrinsically motivated. It’s who I am, in no-matter what I do; this drive is equally applicable to everything I am involved with – which is somewhat (and unintentionally) unfortunate for those I interact with. When you are intrinsically motivated nothing else matters. It is felt as a burning desire and is way more powerful than extrinsic motivation.

In life I HAVE TO BE as good a husband and father as I possibly can be. You can probably guess why. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not perfect, far from it – but I will keep learning and keep trying to be better. It’s the reason I walked away from a flying career in the Army 8 years ago and is why I now work where I do.

Latterly, it is my driving ambition to be as good an ultra runner as I can possibly be. My love of this sport comes from the associated pain. We would all agree that there comes a time during an ultra when we are forced to confront ourselves at our rawest form. Ironically, this is my sanctuary.

The spin off from all of this is that my ‘background’ and ‘desire’ also drive me to encourage the best from others. When I witness people around me not trying hard enough or giving up, I am deeply disappointed. I feel they are losing grasp of what really matters; their only chance. Life is too short; it’s not a practice run.

In a weird quirk of fate, I read Carilyn Johnson’s blog 2 days ago - it just so happened to be discussing her own motivation;

“If we quit chasing our dreams because we are fulfilled, or ready to move onto something else, then that is fantastic! Well done! But if we quit because we are tired of the fight, tired of failing again and again, then we are cheating ourselves, and all those around us who are gaining inspiration from what we do day in and day out.”

You see where I’m going with this, yet? Running an ultra extrinsically can be thought of as doing it for the wrong reasons. Am I wrong? Look, I know I’m a novice runner but I contend that the longer distance one runs the less extrinsic it becomes, (and should be).

Running an ultra extrinsically is essentially attention seeking and mirrors a selfishness and weakness in ones being. And whilst it reflects a growing culture, it will not provide the deep meaningful reward available by running intrinsically. 

Why does Usain Bolt sprint?

Why does WilliamSichel run? Why do any of the best of them (ultra runners) run?

Yes, I know these examples are hardly based on rigorous research and can be easily taken as convenient examples to illustrate my opinion. But how many people would agree with my perception?

To find out what motivates you and then see if you’re suited to running ultra’s I propose you ask yourself the following questions;

  1. Do you care what people (other than those closest to you) think of you? 
  2. What would you be doing if you had all the money in the world?
  3. Do you truly know yourself?
  4. When you fail, what is your gut reaction?
  5. Are you completely honest with yourself all of the time?
  6. Would you agree that the right thing to do is often the most difficult? And…..
  7. Under those circumstances which direction do you most take?
In your journey of discovering motivation, I urge you to be totally honest with yourself. I’ve done what I can to break into what I call the first of the four pillars of ultimate performance.

However, although I will continue to discuss motivation in the future, up next will be one of the other pillars; mental strength, physical conditioning and/or energy and nutrient timing.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

The four pillars of ultimate performance

1.       Motivation,

2.       Mental strength,

3.       Physical conditioning, and,

4.       Energy and nutrient timing.

How many athletes blog about these fundamentals?

Sure there are lots of interesting ones; those that inspire and many which cause me to laugh/smile/take note. At the moment though, I’m just frustrated.

I’ve been looking for answers since I started blogging but found the number of elite athletes engaging fully with their followers to be disappointing. As a consequence, I’m no-where near as active as I used to be; only reading blog’s to catch up with interesting individuals and for a bit of entertainment whilst eating lunch.

To my knowledge no-one affords each of the above points an equal footing when blogging.

Having said that, I can think of one good reason why not; we are all unique. This is the very reason that aspiring athletes must find what works for them and then extrapolate to fulfil their potential. Being cynical, I suggest that others hold knowledge as highly prized and are therefore unwilling to share their ‘secrets’ with perceived ‘competition’.


…and without going into my own motivation (just yet), I’m of the strong belief that we each have a very short time frame within which to achieve the things we want to. Life might seem like an endless merry-go-round of fun and frolics to some but I’m acutely aware that it really is not.

Until someone is willing to share absolutely everything they have come to learn about the four pillars of ultimate performance then committed non-elite’s (like me) face the prospect of endless setbacks halting their ability to perform at anything like the ability they are capable of.

Therefore, over the course of the next 6 months I’m going to make it my blogging mission to define and explain the four pillars of ultimate performance. For now though;


This is top of my list because without it a person has no inclination to go beyond their comfort zone and this is what must be done if one is to achieve anything. Achievements are subjective; it’s in tandem with ‘one person’s rubbish is another person’s treasure’. They are based on human perceptions and almost always involve a struggle. It doesn’t matter what level you perceive yourself to be at, you need motivation to attain, sustain and move on from that level.

We’re not looking at elite athletes here, we’re only concerned with being the very best that we can be. You may be born with it or be taught it; someone or something may inspire you; a life changing event may be the root cause of it. However, if you don’t have it and whenever motivation wanes, failure and fatigue soon follow.   

Mental strength

Although closely linked, I feel this warrants separation from motivation. The two compliment one another very well but I believe one can be worked on whereas the other is slightly more innate. Mental strength is especially critical for ultra runners.

For example, I know of many people who perform far better than me over short distances; get them out for an ultra and many of them unexpectedly wilt. Clearly, there are a lot of variables to consider but when I have entered the same ultra over-trained, injured and then consequently suffer with sickness and diarrhea I’m left to conclude that the reason I have crossed the finish line before them is because I have worked on my mental strength and they have not.  

Physical conditioning

Anyone reading this should at least have half an idea of what this involves. But do we really? I’ve made mistake after mistake with this over the last 4 years. I’d like to call myself a runner now but the truth is I have not yet had a single performance which I am content with.

For this very reason I’ve hired the help of a coach. I’ll discuss this topic at great length in subsequent posts.

Energy and nutrient timing

Gone are the days of simply eating healthy. Relatively, there are far more elite athletes competing today than there have ever been. The stakes have risen beyond the stratosphere, so much so that energy and nutrient timing is seen as ‘their’ level.

Nutrition is the last bastion of elite athletes. But we are not elite, we just want to be the very best that we can be. Thus it is my intention to share these incredible insights with everyone.

In summary

I’m willing to bet that in addition to a committed few, a collection of very experienced runners will have read this post and had a metaphorical light switched on. This is the key for all of us.

As a slight side issue, I know of some who pass of the information of others as their own in a distasteful attempt at self promotion (think facebook). To dispel any notion of this I will ensure (as always) that credit is given where its due.

So (aside from being as good a husband and father as I can be) it is my ambition to be able to help others achieve their aims whilst concurrently seeking to be the very best ultra runner that I can be. The next 6 months will chart my progress throughout which I will blog explicitly about the four pillars of ultimate performance.