Hitting the Wall – how to mentally recover
01 January 1970
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Brad Brown: Welcome onto this edition of Old Mutual Live, great things start here, great things start now. It’s great to have a returning guest on the podcast today, it’s a short while since the 2016 Comrades Marathon. I think a lot of people went through some really tough times on Comrades race day. The term ‘hitting the wall’ is definitely one that I think rings clearly for many people. It’s a great pleasure to welcome onto the show today Paula Quinsee. Paula, welcome, thanks for joining us today.
Paula Quinsee: Hi Brad, thanks for having me back again, it’s always good to be on your show.
BB: Paul, let’s talk a little bit about hitting the wall and you’re in the process of creating, or you’ve created a programme called ‘Hitting the Wall’. It’s basically the mental and emotional aspects of running. I think as a runner, every single one of us at some stage in our running career has hit the proverbial wall. It’s a tough place to be and it’s an even tougher place to get out of.
PQ: Yes, that’s correct Brad. The longer the distances you start running, the odds of hitting the wall more than once are probably a big reality. So this programme that I’ve put together is really based on my own journey. My own running career that spanned over the last 10 years.
Tips and tricks that I’ve learnt along the way that have helped me. That I’ve shared with some others and they’ve had some great successes and results with it. Based on that I thought, you know, why not share it with a whole lot more people. If people can benefit from it, then hey, that’s great.
How to know when you’ve hit the wall
BB: Without a doubt. Let’s talk just generally about hitting the wall. You mentioned the longer you go the chances are you’re going to hit it more than once. That’s probably the bad news. The good news is they don’t last forever.
But it is difficult once you’re in that sort of space to really get out of it. In your mind, what’s the definition of hitting the wall? How do you feel? If someone is listening to this and they go, I don’t know if I’ve hit the wall. How do you know when you’ve hit that proverbial wall?
PQ: I think it’s probably that point where the little voices start talking to you. Going, this is hard, I can’t do this, oh no, I’m not going to make it to the finish. Or you just, you want to give up or you want to stop, things along those lines.
It’s how do you manage that rough patch or the bad patch. That is what it is, it’s a bad patch and you will get through it. You will get to the end and the finish. But it’s about how do you, in that moment, get yourself out of that moment, if that makes sense.
Comrades can hit you pre, during and post
BB: Without a doubt and Comrades is probably a very good example of that Paula. Because you talk about when the voices in your head start to tell you this is too hard. I can’t do it and I need to quit. Everybody, I don’t think there’s one person on Comrades race day that doesn’t have those self-doubts creeping in at some stage. For most of us it happens way more than once or twice.
PQ: Absolutely and you know, it’s also happened outside of races. I had someone come to me about 3-4 weeks before Comrades this year wanting me to help her with her motivation with Comrades. She was battling with her running and that and she wasn’t sure if she was actually going to run it or not.
She’d qualified and when we sat down, we unpacked it. Looked at it from a bigger perspective. It was actually other stuff in her life that was spilling over into her running that was affecting her motivation. Her drive as far as her running and Comrades was concerned.
BB: It’s sort of interlinked and the baggage that you take in pre-race, into a race like Comrades, does have an effect on race day as well. It does make it particularly tough. Paula, give us some practical hints and tips on what people can do to sort of overcome those feelings.
When you do, you almost want to try and nip it in the bud before it actually starts. When you start doubting yourself, you want to stop it here. But let’s talk about those and then let’s talk about when you are really deep in the hole, how to get out of it.
How to start tapping into your self-motivation
PQ: Yes, I think before you start, the first thing is to understand, why are you doing this in the first place. Why have you picked this as a goal? I think a lot of us focus on the goal. For example, I’m running Comrades. But we don’t really dig into the deeper behind that; which is why am I doing this? What is it going to do for me once I’ve done it?
Yes, there’s that sense of achievement. But there’s probably a whole lot more as well that comes with that. That’s where you start tapping into that motivation. When you get into that bad patch, when you’ve hit the wall, is why you’re doing this.
People do things for different reasons. A lot of people do it for charity. You yourself have run for charity and that’s been a big driver to keep going. Because you’re doing it for all these people and you don’t want to let them down. Everybody has different reasons as to why they choose the goal that they choose. It doesn’t matter how big or small the goal may seem.
Then when you get into that phase where you kind of hit the wall. It’s a dark patch where you’re battling to put one foot in front of the other. It’s to then tap into all of those reasons as to why you’re doing this. The first thing we tend to do when we hit the hall is we tend to panic.
We tend to go, oh, I can’t do this, I have to walk, I have to stop, I can’t. When we start listening to those voices in our heads, that’s kind of when the mind takes over. They say that the mind is the strongest muscle in the body because your body will do what your mind tells it to do.
Is visualisation a good mechanism?
BB: Too true. You talk about the reasons why you do something, how much of a role does visualisation play in that process? When it gets really tough, really feeling, not just thinking about it. But feeling what you’re going to experience when it’s over or the reasons why you’re doing it. Are you a big one on visualisation?
PQ: Absolutely, it’s one of the tools that I teach people that I work with. In fact, you interviewed a runner not so long ago, a novice, Craig Bruinders and he sent me a message after Comrades. He said, reflecting back now on your comments the morning we ran together.
You told me to visualise going through a rough patch and working through it. I didn’t quite grasp the full extent of what you meant until I ran Comrades. It’s definitely a race that humbles you, for sure. That’s just an example of how you can use tools and that to help you go through it.
If you visualise yourself going through a bad patch and working through it and coming through it on the other side. The more prepared you are, the better you can manage and control a situation than allowing the situation to control you.
BB: I think that’s some great advice and it’s particularly tough for novices. Do you find that the novice runners and let’s talk Comrades or the Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon. Where runners are taking themselves beyond where they have ever been before. Do you find that they struggle to visualise that and imagine what it would be like being in that place. In that position because they’re not quite sure what to expect?
Do you almost think that they sugar coat it? Let’s be honest, Comrades can be brutal, we saw it with Caroline Wostmann on race day. She was in incredible nick and I’ve never seen anyone hit the wall like Caroline did on race day. For novices I think it’s difficult to put themselves in that position.
Tip for novices when tackling an Ultra
PQ: Absolutely and Comrades is one race that you have to respect. It doesn’t matter what level of runner you are or what fitness level you are. Because Comrades will spit you out, it will chew you up and spit you out without a doubt and probably more than once.
The thing with novices is, it’s all a mental game. Because you don’t train the full distance. For Oceans you don’t train on a 56km run, for Comrades you don’t train on an 89km run. There’s a big mental part of a race like that or a distance that people are running.
It’s more about, first of all you need to get comfortable with pain because there is going to be pain. I think that’s the difference between novice and probably an elite runner. Is that they’ve just got that comfortable with being uncomfortable and in pain. They’ve learnt how to manage the pain better than what novices or the not so, sort of experienced runners.
It’s all about what are the little tools that you can use to help you through that bad patch. Some people use mantras. I use a mantra, I use visualisation. Some people count from lamp post to lamp post, some people count in five kilometre chunks. Some people carry pictures of their children with them or they write mottos on their hand or their pacing charts. Some people use theme songs. So everybody is different and there’s no one size fits all. You’ve just got to find what works for you.
BB: Paula, I’m listening to you talking like that and I’m thinking about back to my first Comrades. I think, we saw it again in Comrades 2016 where we chatted to many novices in the days leading up to Comrades race day. Many of them, I listened to what they were saying and how they thought the day was going to roll out on the day. I was that, I was very, very confident and cocky and bordering on arrogant ahead of my first Comrades.
You talk about being chewed up and spat out. I remember having the biggest meltdown, as you come out of Drummond, up the back of Botha’s Hill on my first Comrades. I learnt lots of lessons there. Unfortunately, I missed a cut-off thereafter, but I did come back. I came back very humble and respectful of the race. Since then every single experience I’ve had of Comrades has been incredible. I still have those dark patches and I know they’re coming. Sometimes I think once you’ve done it a few times, you almost look forward to being in those places. Because you learn so much about yourself when you’re there.
Mental training is just as important
PQ: Absolutely. They say running is the biggest metaphor for life because what you put in is what you’re going to get out. That’s not only just your training, but it’s also to do with your mental prep and also your attitude. Comrades is one race, unfortunately, that you cannot go in being over confident or over sure of yourself.
Because that’s not going to happen and we’ve seen it so many times. As you said, Caroline was a great example. You can be prepared as much as you want, but you have to respect that race. You could probably get away with it a little bit on a marathon, maybe even Two Oceans, depending on where you’re at, but definitely not Comrades.
BB: It’s true. I’ll use myself as an example once again. I’ve been battling with a pretty serious back injury for quite a while and haven’t run and went and did an Ironman. I was out there for fifteen hours. You can fudge an Ironman. Comrades, I was like, there is no ways I’m going to try and fudge a Comrades. You can’t. Comrades is just a different beast and you have to respect that race.
PQ: Absolutely and unfortunately that’s something that you can’t explain to novices until they’ve experienced it themselves. My advice for novices, for your first one, is just go out there and experience it. Don’t have too high expectations. Because you will end up being disappointed. Go there, get the experience and then come back with a plan for your next one thereafter. Because the next one will be better because you are a year down the line. Hopefully a year wiser, a year fitter, a year stronger. So strictly speaking, you should have a better race.
BB: Paula, I think what you’re doing is amazing and I think it’s such an important part of enabling someone to become a successful runner. Whether it is a 10km or a half marathon or a marathon or an ultra. I think the mental side of things and how to push through. Because if we all think back to when we started, when we ran our first 10km, it was tough.
We thought there’s no ways we could ever do 15. We felt the same before our first 21, the same before our first marathon. So, to master the mental side of things, I think is vital. It’s something we too often neglect. Your programme is available online, if people want to find out more about it, where can they get some more info?
How to get hold of the programme
PQ: Yes, absolutely, they can go onto my website, paulaquinsee.com and just look for the motivation section and click on that, all the information is there. It will be a downloadable online course, so to speak, that kind of people can work through in their own way and time and pace. If you want, if they’re looking for some additional info, if they have more questions, they can always get in touch with me, I’m happy to help share the knowledge.
BB: Brilliant. Paula, what I’m going to do is I’ll make sure that the link to that page is in the show notes to this episode of Old Mutual Live. I’m definitely going to go through it, it’s an aspect of running that I’m fascinated by. Like I say, I love hanging out in dark places, it’s something I look forward to on big, long races.
I just love the feeling of being there and just being with yourself and learning stuff about yourself that only being there can take you to. Paula, thank you so much for your time once again here on Old Mutual Live, I love chatting to you and I look forward to doing it again soon.
PQ: Thanks so much Brad, it’s always a pleasure being with you.