An Ultramarathoner’s 5 Secrets of Toughness

It’s four o’clock in the morning,  the temperature ten degrees below freezing in the pitch-black Georgia forest. Troy Espiritu has been running for 20 hours, and he’s so exhausted that he’s hallucinating that the trees around him are falling inward. Is he lost? There’s no way to know. He keeps running, one foot in front of the other. It’s at least another five miles to the next checkpoint. Nausea twists his throat. He stumbles, falls to his knees, and retches a watery bile onto the frozen ground. As the spasms subside, he huddles on the ground, trembling. I’ve just got to get to that tree over there, he tells himself. He pushes himself to his feet, stumbles a couple of yards. He’s moving again. He’s running.

Espiritu is an ordinary guy, a 39-year-old podiatrist with a wife and four kids. Four years ago he was just another casual runner, jogging a few miles a couple of times a month. He’d heard of ultramarathon races, and he thought that the guys who ran them were insane, not his type at all. Man, he thought, there is just no way I would ever do that.

Then he became one of them.

How can a person learn to become tough? People have wondered that since the dawn of time, but only recently have psychologists begun to come up with detailed answers. One of the most important insights is that there is not one variety of toughness, but many.

The most obvious is physical toughness – the ability to stoically endure cold, heat, physical pain, and the like. Native American youths had to endure punishing ordeals before they were welcomed into the fraternity of braves. Ancient Roman soldiers brutalized one another in mock battles. Modern warfighters face similar preparation. Just as crucial, however, is mental toughness — the ability to stay lasered in on the task at hand. When it comes to really long distances, such as 100-mile races that can take the better part of two days to complete, that’s the kind that gets you through. “I would say that 70 percent of it is mental,” says Espiritu.

Then there’s emotional toughness, the strength to keep a rein on despair, anxiety, and loneliness. For many American soldiers posted overseas, this is the kind of toughness that’s proven the most crucial, as multiple tours of duty take servicemen and women away from their families and friends for long periods of time. It’s crucial for ordinary Americans, too. For most of us, the most common forms of stress crop up at home and at work, and to thrive we need to be both emotionally and mentally strong.

Espiritu is a prime example. At age 35, he was just another suburban dad, feeling overwhelmed by the pressures of raising a family and managing a growing medical practice. “We had a four year old, two two-year-old twins, and a newborn. We have no family where we’re living here, so it was just my wife and I. And there were definitely some moments when we kind of felt like, ‘Wow, how are we going to do this?’”

The road to toughness began when some friends started training for a marathon. They asked Espiritu to join them, and he did. After completing that race, he ran another, and then another. Soon he was running marathons on back-to-back weekends. Some of the guys in his running group had done ultramarathons, and they asked him if he’d thought about training for a 31 miler.

At first he scoffed, but then reconsidered. Before long he was running 40 milers, then 50. Today, he’s got three 100 mile races under his belt. On Friday evenings, he’ll come home after working all day long, eat dinner with his wife and kids, put them to bed, and then run from 10 o’clock until six the next morning, come home, shower, and go to his kids’ soccer practice all day Saturday. “It’s important to learn how to function while being fatigued,” he explains.

Without realizing it, Espiritu had taken advantage of some of the major techniques that allow people to maximize their hardiness.

1) Modify your perspective. Instead of panicking in the face of a crisis, the goal is to see the situation from another perspective, a process that psychologist Salvatore Maddi calls “transformational change.” Try to understand the larger context and to identify the good things that might come along with the bad. Though Espiritu initially recoiled at the idea of training for an ultramarathon, for instance, he kept mulling over the idea, and eventually accepted that the challenge was indeed within his abilities.

2) Lean on your friends. Deep down, humans are pack animals. In a difficult situation, having a friend by your side can make all the difference. “I don’t think you can look at toughness in a vacuum. It’s almost by definition a social phenomenon,” says West Point psychologist Mike Matthews. Espiritu agrees. Since his joined his friends in training for that first marathon, he’s run with a supportive group of six to eight other guys. “I don’t know if I could do any of this stuff by myself,” he says.

3) Laugh. Rob Shaul runs a gym in Jackson, Wyoming called Mountain Athlete, where he works with elite mountaineers and soldiers preparing for special forces selection. For these elites, the key to maintaining perspective is a sense of humor. “When it comes to surviving really hard situations,” he says, “not taking yourself too seriously really seems to help.”

4) Keep your head down. A disturbingly daunting task – like six days of SEAL training –- can drive even the toughest into discouragement. The trick, Shaul says, is to just focus on the little piece in front of you. “The darker it is, the more short-term you want to be thinking,” says Shaul. “Guys who’ve made it say that they just tried to think about making it to the next meal. Pretty soon those meals add up, and the next thing they know, they’ve made it.”

5) Exercise. Espiritu benefitted from the surprisingly powerful psychological benefits of exercise itself. Numerous experiments have found that people who are physically fit recover more quickly from the stress. A study conducted by researchers at Princeton found that rats who exercise grow neurons in their brains that are less responsive to stress hormones.

Today, Espiritu says that the toughness he acquired by running now affects every other aspect of his life. “When a difficult situation crops up, I think, ‘If I can run 100 miles, I can handle this,’” he says. “I’m no superman, but I know that I’m disciplined enough to put together a game plan and make it happen.”

But the most intense reward is one he enjoys in the thick of his most difficult challenges. After a long, lonely night of running, there inevitably comes the moment when the sun finally peeks up over the horizon. “It’s the high point of running a 100 miler,” he says. “When that sun comes up the next day, you might be at mile 80, you know you’ve still got another marathon to go, but you’re not tired at all — it’s like you just started running. It’s a tremendous feeling. You just can’t describe it.”

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