Support Systems


Crazy Horse aid station, Lean Horse Ultra Marathon, August 28, 2016. Photo:Peg Ryan/Mile High Pilates and Yoga

By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga

Custer, SD – This weekend I was a volunteer at an aid station for an ultramarathon that started and finished near my house.  For the uninitiated an ultramarathon is a running race that features a distance which is greater than the standard marathon distance of 26.2 miles.  In this particular race there were several distances that runners could choose including 50K (approximately 31 miles), 50 miles or 100 miles.  No – that is not a misprint – there are people who actually choose to run 100 miles.

As a former participant in these types of races I can appreciate the effort it takes to make that choice, complete the often daunting process of preparing and training and then finally actually executing the plan.  In a race as long as 100 miles one needs to plan for being on the course for many hours.  During that period of time anything can happen, including changing weather, trail/road conditions, bugs, wild life, stomach problems, chafing, blisters and numerous other potential hazards.  Hundred-milers also have to think about staying on course in the dark since most runners will still be at it long after the sun goes down.  So the training process includes not only logging many miles of running but also trying different clothing, food and any other equipment or aids that will be needed to cover the distance and complete the race. People would often ask me questions like “Can you stop during the race?” Answer: you can if you want, and some people even take naps, but you’re on the clock and will need to make up the time.  Most races have time limits and if you’ve made all that effort to be at the starting line, you will certainly want an official finishing time within those limits.

Watching the runners this weekend I remembered how important it is to have support when you are attempting to accomplish something challenging.  During my hours at the aid station there were groups of family and friends who would show up and hang out waiting for their runner to appear.  They cheered for all the participants and then would help their runner get what he or she needed whether it was an extra shirt, pair of socks or that special drink that this runner had trained with.  My husband used to be my crew and he was always a welcome sight.  Even when I was thoroughly miserable and questioning my sanity, just seeing him would help me to feel better and renew my resolve to finish what I started.  He would remind me of things I might have forgotten, as in “Do you need your headlamp?” or “How about long pants?”  Just knowing he would be at the next aid station was an incentive for me to get there.  It was a comfort to know that someone was there who was not going to judge me for doing something so outrageous as running 100 miles on trails in the rain and the dark.

Then there were all of the long hours I spent training for these races.  At the time I belonged to a running club and we would plan group runs to help all of us get through those long distances.  We learned a lot about each other’s lives and all became fast friends.  Even those who were not interested in running ultramarathons would support those of us who did.  We would travel to races together and even if we didn’t actually run together, we knew we were there for each other.  Just knowing that our friends were on the course with us was a motivator.

Although I no longer run those races, I still try to keep moving to the best of my ability today.  The need for support and encouragement is just as important as ever.  Support systems come in many forms.  This is one of the reasons why I am such a strong proponent of group classes.   Not only do they help make exercise into a social event but each participant supports the others in multiple ways.  For one thing, we all learn from each other.  Those of you who read this blog know that I am an advocate for adapting and modifying moves to suit each individual body.  Often one person in a class will have discovered a modification that also helps someone else.  Sometimes it is simply a comfort to know that you are not alone.  For those who struggle to maintain a consistent practice it can be helpful to remember that the rest of the group is doing it, too.  If they can do it so can you!

We all experience times when we resist practicing.  Some days just getting out of bed can feel like an effort.  The thought of bringing yourself to a class can be a wall that seems insurmountable.  At times like these it can help to remember that you have support.  Maybe it’s the instructor or another participant who will provide the encouragement you need.  If you’ve made a commitment to your practice you can be your own support system.  Remind yourself how much better you’ll feel if you honor your commitment.

Ultramarathoners have lots of expressions that help keep them motivated when the going gets tough.  One that I’ve always liked is “It never always gets worse”.  You might have to reread that a couple of times before it make sense but the gist is, just when you think you’ve had enough things will change.  Suddenly things don’t get worse and, in fact, they might even start to get better.  If you quit you’ll never know if things might have improved.  During an ultra, when you’ve been running in the dark all night there is nothing like seeing the light start to change as the sun rises.  It is an instant mood-changer.  No matter what you are trying to accomplish this transformation can happen at any time and you never know what might trigger it until it happens.

All of this demonstrates that achieving any goal we set for ourselves is as much of a mental game as a physical one.  Try letting curiosity be a motivator.  You never know when things are going to change.  Some changes are beyond your control, but one of the changes you can control is your attitude.  Instead of thinking “I can’t do this” how about trying “Maybe I’ll take a break and try again after I catch my breath” or “Maybe I’ll sit this move out and join in with the next move” or even “I’ll try one more time and then I’ll back off for now and take a break”. Attitude is half the battle.  Positive self-talk goes a long way to getting you back in gear. Focus on all the things you can do and remind yourself that every move you make contributes to better health and well-being.  You deserve to be the best that you can be.

When I was training for races I would sometimes have to drag myself out the door, especially in the winter.  On days like that I would tell myself “Today I’m just going to go slow and only do a little.  Then if I still feel lousy I’ll come home.”  Most days once I got out there instead of being sorry I’d be glad I did whatever could do.  This will be true for you, too.  Cheer yourself on!  Be your own support group!  No one can do it better than you.

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