I’ve learned quite a lot about psychology in recent years. It usually goes something like this. I run an ultra and get myself into a slump. I get myself out of this slump by thinking in a certain way or playing a mental game. If it works I try to remember what I did so that I can name the phenomena and earn bzillions going around and banging on about it.
I get quite excited about the prospect of speaking about Adams’ Narcoleptic Squirrel conjecture and the Badgers Bottom Ending method for fortune turning. Alas no, It seems that whenever I pick up a book about how the brain works I find that the discovery has already been made, and possibly more heart-breakingly given a different name.
One I like to call selling shit to a farmer has been in my mental bag of tricks for a while now. I read it the other day as being the “as if” principle. It has been used throughout history, including trying to get US prisoners of war to defect to Communism.
Here is a recent example;
I was running the Last Vol State Race in Tennessee, 500k of self supported plodding on humid roads. I was suffering the usual ultra marathon trifles; the tiredness the sickness being too hot being too cold been too hungry not wanting to eat.
I was also suffering some bigger ones too, a skin rash that made my moving parts purple and a general desire to be elsewhere. Generally I was feeling like I was completely wasting my time here.
I'm sure you've been in similar places and will do in the future it's hard to drag yourself out of such a funk. When I am here I will play a game with myself, I will try to sell the race I am doing to someone else. Someone who I reckon might eventually go for it but might need some persuading.
So as I shuffled along a 500 kilometre sticky rolling road in Tennessee I picked a friend and started my pitch.
Humidity, heat, traffic, blisters, your own skin eating itself. It started out as a hard sell, the friend was not yet convinced.
I was enjoying it so much time and take my mind off the pain I thought how do I sell this race to others what can I say is great about what I'm doing right now I can finish them to sign up next year.
So if I pick features that are good about the race the complete ridiculousness of covering so much road on your own with no support was relying on gas stations in vending machines to stay hydrated and to keep field . The challenge of doing a multi-stage race where you're actually choosing this day yourself you choose when to sleep when to start the day when to stop.
Mostly I was selling a feature of this race that might be fairly specific to me and a few others. Having done some “epic” things in the past and having gone many years without repeating those I felt my soul being eaten away by lack of adventure. This race thus far had been so utterly unique and bizarre and hard that I felt that if I finished this I could have that glowy feeling of being “back”. I needed that. I think the friend I was convincing needed that too.
Without really knowing why I find I am in a much better place mentally, I can suffer more in the name of the challenge which makes bailing out less likely.
William James had a theory that emotions are set after behaviour, not before. So for example you don’t cry because you are sad but you are sad because you are crying. I think both ways work. As James put it, you don’t see a bear and get scared then run, you see a bear, run and then are scared because you are running away.
Essentially I am behaving "as if" I am doing something worthwhile. Because my actions (selling it out loud makes it even more effective) are consistent with the race being worth it I start to feel as it the race is worth it.
The Korean Army used this with US prisoners. They were not beaten or water-boarded but were made to participate in “discussion” groups where they had to verbally make arguments and cases in favour of communism. They had to behave “as if” communism was great and sell it to others. It worked in many cases, the returning prisoners were alarmingly sympathetic to communism and some even refused to return home.
So the reason why the sales game works for me is that despite my suffering, by “selling” the race I am behaving “as if” it is a brilliant and worthwhile thing to do.
So some advice to you, perhaps you are planning on an almighty slog around a mountain this weekend. Perhaps when you are on your hands and knees having been thrown by yet another false summit of Bovine and you scream at how utterly pointless this whole mess is, pick a friend, perhaps a road running one and tell him why he should sign up next year.
Make it interesting, start with his objections - You can barely run any of it, you get jabbed in the face by idiots with sticks for 30+ hours and there isn’t even a buckle.