Sitting here at my desk and looking up at my book shelf, I see lots of titles about ultrarunning. Some, like those by Bryon Powell and Hal Koerner, focus on training. Others, such as those by Dean Karnazes and Scott Jurek, tell life stories woven with advice. My collection includes Born to Run, Chi Running, Running on Empty, My Life on the Run and perhaps my favorite title, What Is This Madness? (about ride-and-tie).
You get the point: I like books about running.
I also probably have more self-help and psychology books than the average middle-age woman. Some of these books I helped edit in the mid-2000’s when I worked for the book publisher Guilford Press. Mind Over Mood, Full Catastrophe Living, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Smart but Scattered, The Mindful Way, Lean In etc …. etc …. so I know a little something about self-help publishing.
Given my interest and experience with these genres, I approached with curiosity but skepticism a new book that covers both self-help/psychology and ultrarunning/endurance sports. I mean, do we really need another book about overcoming obstacles and finding your true self through long-distance running?
The book is The Ultra Mindset: An Endurance Champion’s 8 Core Principles for Success in Business, Sports, and Lifeby Travis Macy, and it won me over because it makes a genuine contribution to the literature in this niche.
I’ll write a little bit about it below, but I really hope you’ll also listen to the UltraRunnerPodcast episode that Eric and I recorded with Travis on April 28. We talk about the book, his background, his extreme adventure racing and ultrarunning, and everyday stuff like work and parenting.
As runners, especially ultrarunners, we know that running long distances through a natural environment presents numerous challenges and opportunities for learning and self-awareness. While running, we develop beneficial character traits and feel positive emotions such as grit, humility, optimism, patience, gratitude, flexibility and confidence.
The trick is to transfer and apply those positive traits and feelings to all aspects of life, to help in areas that really matter, like relationships, parenting and work. The Ultra Mindset helps us do that, through a combination of storytelling, research, and exercises and activities.
The “8 Core Principles for Success” draw on well-proven and fairly familiar findings in research about psychology and leadership, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy—a practice that involves replacing your knee-jerk thoughts and actions with different thoughts and behaviors to help you feel and act better—and growth-mindset research. But The Ultra Mindset does a good job of reframing the research in ways that ultra athletes can relate to and use.
Take one chapter, for example: “The 4:30 a.m. Rule: When You Have No Choice, Anything is Possible.” Travis opens with a story about the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge multisport race. He’s competing at the top of the international scene of adventure racing, and the competitors face six exhausting days involving biking, paddling, orienteering, and running over sand dunes. We’re treated to writing that’s as good as a throwback episode of Mark Burnett’s Eco-Challenge.
Then Travis elaborates on the mindset that helped his team succeed at the race, which involves committing to do something ahead of time, then making the choice to give up the choice about whether to follow through on that commitment. The commitment becomes non-negotiable, as if you actually had no choice. If you don’t have any option except to do something, then it’s amazing how you manage to figure out a way to get it done. He delves into the concept and backs it up with research on grit and commitment.
Then he presents the readers with an exercise to think through (1) a task you want to accomplish, (2) why it’s important, (3) why it’s hard to do in the moment, (4) how you’ll commit and follow through even when you don’t feel like it, and (5) how you’ll stay accountable. He gives examples of a couple of things he wants to achieve and walks through the exercise of how he’ll follow through.
I tried the exercise, and it’s actually helping me accomplish a couple of specific personal goals related to nutrition and parenting. His advice helps me overcome the allure of instant gratification and the desire to give up.
At least, it has helped for three days so far. Let’s see if it lasts three months. About that, I’m less sure. The problem I have with self-help books is the advice stays in my mind while I’m reading them, but once the book is back on the shelf, the details and desire to follow through fade like a New Year’s resolution. For me, I need to commit to study the book repeatedly and practice the advice, as if I’m learning a new language and need to study and practice the vocabulary.
The Ultra Mindset is a first step toward making positive change, filled with inspiring and eye-opening stories about ultrarunning and adventure racing. But if you read it just once and fail to deliberately and repeatedly try to apply the mindset principles, then you probably won’t change for good. And none of us wants to be like the guy who read Born to Run, bought Five Finger shoes, tried a half marathon and hasn’t run since 2011. We want to stick with it and keep getting better, right?
So check this book out—but realize, an “ultra mindset” takes effort over months and years, not days. Just like ultrarunning.