How to cultivate neutrality in your next ultra marathon


I’ve just finished reading this cracking article about the case for neutrality and while I poured through its contents, it immediately drew my mind to the parallels of running ultras. The article ponders the notion that in life, we’re either optimistic or pessimistic. We’re either glass half full or half empty, and implied in this is that being half full gives optimism a sense of superiority.

But what if the glass isn’t half full or half empty? It’s both, or neither. The glass is in a state of continual change, so why do we need to feel something about it?

This circles us back to ultra running. There are a lot of positive people running ultras, lots of smiles and happy faces, which for the most part are said to help push us through the tough times that running a big ultra throws at us.

Equally though, negativity pays a visit too – and that’s OK. Things are either great or they are bad. We’re either up or down. The same goes for most things in life, they can be awesome or awful, but they’re not mutually exclusive either. Mostly, they can be both, with different people viewing things from multiple angles.

It’s OK to feel bad in an ultra. But like our glass half full analogy, in ultra running, being of a positive nature is viewed in a superior sense to all the negative nannies.

But what about the case of simply being neutral? In many respects, this is similar to how I view many runners talking about ‘being in the moment’ – for seeing things as they are right there and then without the requirement to attach feelings to your run. Trying not to experience your run in relation to what your expectations and desires are.

I’ve written about this kind of stuff before, expectation setting and the need to measure, which places unnecessary obstacles in our path, thus creating a sense for how we must ultimately feel about our runs.

Think about a race you ran where it was neither awesome nor awful – it was just right. Was it a race where you had no expectations? Where you removed all barriers of time and placing and thus any sense of how you might feel about it? Where you simply went, ran and were able to take in the bigger picture. It can almost be enlightening in many respects. Each part of the journey had no expectation and no sense of emotion attached to it – it helps us to see the bigger picture so to speak.

Now think of a race where you experienced some massive highs and lows. Did you combat the lows by forcing yourself to smile? By thinking happy things and feelings? Did it feel right? Or did you feel suppressed and a sense of a weight of expectation around those feelings?

Cultivating our sense of neutrality

I think in ultra running we’re far too keen to point to whether we’ve succeeded or failed, much like we do in life. It’s either one or the other, where we try to counteract those feelings and as a result the weight of expectation can drag us down. Is it any wonder we’re seeing such a rise in mental health related issues? What about cultivating our sense of neutrality and the bigger picture? Gaining a sense of perspective that will ultimately help to make our lives and indeed, our racing more successful?

Quoting shamelessly from the article, “According to the Tao Te Ching, gain is loss and loss is gain. Successes create pressures that are unpleasant and even big failures can be instructive, thus are fundamental to success. That perspective provides resilience, the ability to keep going instead of getting stuck imaging how things could or should be or will be when things go some other way.”

And that is key to ultra running, the ability to be resilient and to keep going. The world of ultra running and racing is so uncertain with many different things at play, so why try to attach a certain feeling to it and thus bringing a sense of expectation into the game? Don’t resist what is happening as such, just let it be.

But how do you actually go about cultivating a sense of neutrality? Again, I’ll quote from the article as it articulates it far better than I can:

“In practical terms, it means detaching. As a human, you will inevitably feel or think when stuff happens. If you’re stuck in traffic, late for a meeting, and freaking out, feeling bad, that’s OK. There’s no need to put a happy face on a sad day, but—if you don’t resist what is—things will shift without you trying. Likewise when you’re delighting in a win. Be wary, keep cool, understand that everything is tentative.”

In short, if you’re running and you feel bad, then that’s OK to feel bad. Is there a need to put on a false smile for the sake of it? Just ride with it and be accepting. Thoughts and feelings come and go like the tide changes. It’s important to appreciate and gain a sense for the bigger picture.

Neutrality is about going with it, about being in the moment, which will make dealing with a race (and indeed life) just a little easier and makes us somehow more successful.

Like our articles? Take a second to support Ultra168 on Patreon from as little as $1 a month!
Dan on Twitter
I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

2 thoughts on “How to cultivate neutrality in your next ultra marathon

  1. feelings are irrelevant during ultras i make a point of putting my feelings in the drop bag for the finish they are no use to me during the race

  2. Multiday stage races, it’s amazing the emotions you go through at times, an absolute rollercoaster, maybe that just me ????

Leave a Reply