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 (the evil 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.

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 literally get depressed. 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).

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.


  1. Wow......speechless. I'll read that blog post again and again.x

  2. If I was being honest I'd say that what motivates me is a desire to escape from all that life requires. What life requires is as shallow or deep as you want it to be. This is why ultimate finishing time and all the rest are set to 'ordinary best' and not higher.

    I have always subscribed to the view that the race is long, but more importantly, it's against yourself. This attitude is what brings me an inner peace that I can find without having to externalise my anxieties. I only wish I could tap into this on a 4 mile run and not a 40 mile one (for the sake of my knees).

    Great post.

  3. Very interesting this, Dale. I have to admit that as someone who can't run very quick and hasn't won a race since I was thirteen (unless it's against my kids, and even then it's close), having people say "you ran how far??" does provide a bit of extrinsic motivation.

    Now, when are we going to meet up for this run?

  4. Cheers guys. Just to be clear, although I can seem like I'm on a misery trip most of the time, I'm really not.

    It's probably fair to say that we've all got issues in life. I just hoped this post would help people identify with their own and by doing so might begin to break loose of them.

    Ali, I'm free for a 3hr moderate session the 20th Oct. you say where.......fb me ;-)

  5. I knew you were "Blackie" from the start, as I remember you putting something on Facebook a while ago about seeing a drunk woman in the street with a child. It stuck in my mind.

    Whatever motivates you should be bottled and sold. You're amazing!!

    Debs M-C x

  6. I could be your half-sister.

    And here is another one: (read through not only latest post, but there were a few from her childhood).

    I find it fascinating how people come to ultrarunning, and how many have background that rings the bell. However, it is also due to while doing ultras, we tend to open up, and if more "regular" folks did, we'd see pain everywhere, sadly, just different coping mechanisms.

    Great post. Can I share it?