Mental toughness

Updated: Feb 2, 2020

A trip like this is both physical and mental. In fact, I would probably say that, assuming you have done the appropriate training, it is more mental because the body is only going to keep going as long as the mind tells it to.

I haven’t tried to hide the fact that I had some tough times on the trail (Check out my North Island and South Island blogs). In fact, I want to celebrate them because I learnt more from the hard times than the good times. I learnt that I am stronger than I think. I have gained confidence in my ability to problem solve, to push on in the face of adversity and face my fears.

I used a few different tactics to overcome some of the mental challenges. Some of these I also used during my training. Some of these I developed on the trail.

Eat the elephant one bite at a time

This was something my mum said to me at the start of the trip, and it became a bit of a mantra for me. Having said that, in the first couple of days I was still completely overwhelmed by the situation. I was thinking of the full 3000km. Wondering if I was this tired after Day 1, how the hell could I keep it up for 70?

But Tommy gently reminded me that all I needed to focus on was getting through the next 5, 10, 20 or 30km. I shouldn’t be worrying about tomorrow. Just worry about getting to the next meet point.

We wrote this saying on a note and stuck it on the wall of the van so I had a constant reminder.

This is my new job

A girlfriend gave me a great analogy which I used for most of the journey – Running was my new job. Some days would be long and boring, just like a day full of meetings or uninspiring presentations. Other days would be fantastic, just like the day you get a pay rise or a bonus.

This made me look at each day more rationally, which provided me with more focus. I became more mentally prepared for the boring days and knew I just needed to grit my teeth and get through them. But, similar to work, each day is different. One crap day in the office doesn’t mean the next day will be crap.

Stop, breathe and start again

Whenever I got very upset in front of Tommy, in particular with anxiety which often led to crippling tears and jagged breathing, he always said the same thing - take three deep breaths. And, without fail, after my third breath, I felt a million times better and could start talking to him about what was freaking me out.

Acknowledging and verbalising how I felt

The other thing Tommy would do when I was upset is say “Talk to me. Tell me how you feel”.

Verbalising my feelings – whether it be frustration, fear or anxiety – always made me feel better. It felt good to get the feelings out, as opposed to trying to squash them down inside. Often when I said them aloud, I realised how silly they were. Irrational. Tommy and I would discuss them and he provided his point of view, which was typically more rational than mine. This approach allowed me to acknowledge my feelings and then move past them.

Remember, you chose to do this and you do actually love running

When times were tough, or I was running on a less enjoyable trail, I would regularly remind myself how lucky I was to be doing this. I chose to do this. How much better it was than being stuck behind a desk. How other people would kill to be in my position. That while I might not be enjoying it right now, I do actually love running.

Giving myself 5 minutes to be shitty

Having said all of the above, there were always going to be days when it was completely crap. When it just plain ole sucked and there was nothing I could do about it. Regardless of how much I loved running, it still sucked. In these moments, I allowed myself 5 minutes to get annoyed. To rant. To stomp. To act like a child. Similar to acknowledging my feelings, it allowed me to get the anger or frustration out so I could move on.

Tackling loneliness

I really struggled with feeling lonely on the trail. It was particularly hard during the first few weeks when I ran solo for a majority of the time. To tackle this, I became an avid podcast listener, as hearing people speaking made it feel like I had company.

But a word of warning – pick your podcast carefully. When you are tired and therefore more emotional, steer clear of the heart-wrenching, tear jerking podcasts. Instead focus on those that are more upbeat. A fav of mine was My Dad Wrote A Porno – silly, funny and easy to binge on. It was hard to be in a bad mood when listening to this podcast.

I also reminded myself that whilst I was the only one running on the trail, I was not alone. I had Tommy waiting for me at the van. I had friends and family all around the world who were thinking of me on a daily basis. There was an amazing online community and my sponsors who were cheering me on. People believed in me. This gradually helped me to believe in me and spurred me on to keep going. I wanted to make these people proud. Make myself proud. So I just kept putting one foot in front of the other.

Tackling solo overnight hut stays

I dreaded the solo overnight hut stays. Thankfully I only had one to worry about as there were other hikers present during the other hut stays.

The solo night just happened to be New Year’s Eve and I had an inkling there would be no one else as it was a remote part of the trail. In preparation for this, I regularly reminded myself there was nothing in NZ that could kill me as long as I was smart. No vicious or poisonous animals. The weather forecast was perfect so no risk of a flash flood. And let’s be honest, it’s highly unlikely a mass murderer is going to hike 20km through the mountains to a remote hut. Plus, I am not the first female to stay in a hut by herself. Hundreds of ladies hike the Te Araroa Trail each year and many will have stayed in a hut by themselves. Time to harden up Lucy Lou.

I was staying in a rustic hut called Comyn’s Hut, which was nestled in a big valley. Rustic meaning it was basically a tin shed, but a very cute one. I arrived at 6pm and was unpacked by 6:10pm. Thankfully it was a lovely night so I had my dinner outside in the sun, opened up a lil package from Tommy (a tear jerking card and delicious bit of carrot cake – yum), and, by 8pm, I was tucked up in bed. Life was not all that bad!

But I slept terribly and never actually fell into a deep sleep. I was woken up at 12:30am by a loud crash. A possum had jumped onto the roof and was now pretending it was a trampoline. I lay in my sleeping bag, heart racing, and took a few deep breaths to calm down. I reminded myself there was nothing out there that could hurt me and that the possum would be more scared of me than I of him. So, I got up, donned my head torch and went outside. I banged on the side of the hut and yelled. Thankfully it scuttled off into the darkness and didn’t return. Happy bloody New Year’s Eve.

From the trail to real life.

These are the tactics that worked for me on the trail but they are tactics I will continue to apply in my everyday life, particularly chunking things down into bite size pieces and verbalising my feelings better.

I feel like I am now much stronger mentally and this excites me. It has opened my mind to think about what else I might be able to do if I put my mind to it! So watch this space….

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