Scottish ultra marathoner James Stewart talks about one of his mental coping skills for the European 24hr Championships last month.

The Great Britain athlete finished 11th at the 2018 European 24hr Championships and helped GB to a team silver with 244.35km. Yet it was far from a perfect day for the Croy runner, with stomach issues and low points to battle through, Stewart shares what got him through.

“My rocket 88, the fastest in the land, crucial velocity, crucial velocity!”

That was the first one to come out. The first of 23 planned ear-worms. A method for compartmentalising the 24 hours I’d be running round the park in Timisoara. Something to look forward to every hour or so. The opener was Crucial Velocity by Clutch. Chosen by the hard-rocking Pat McCann.

What am I going about you are probably asking. Let me explain.

24 hour racing is a battle of wits with oneself. The physical distress of the race is well known and I wrote a bit about my race last month. There are basically 4 things which can go wrong in a 24 hour event, or any long ultra for that matter:

1. The body goes

2. The gut goes (with stuff going either up the way or down the way (or both!))

3. The ability to consume carbs goes

4. The head goes

I am great believer in trying proactively to make sure that #4 doesn’t happen. That might be through staying positive, practicing mindfulness or in the case here, coming up with a distraction technique.

Inspired by teammate James Elson writing “Arms raised in a V*” on a whiteboard at Belfast last year and how that made me feel, I decided pre-race to ask some folks to write me a song lyric of their choice to give me something mental to consume during the event.

This article is about how it didn’t work in some ways and then how a particular card hit me hard and became my go to one.

Too much of a good thing?

On reflection I had too many of them. Getting them from the first hour didn’t have the effect I’d hoped, chiefly as I didn’t need a pick-me-up that early. Think of it like taking paracetamol for a sore head but not actually needing it, so that when you do need it the effect has been dampened.

Nonetheless, I was enjoying the cards. Louise, my best friend and wife, carefully coordinated the collection of the lyrics and wrote the cards out. Mick Seymour, my crew chief on the day, would hand me the cards every hour or so.

When I was tumbling into the distress of a slowdown, caused by issue #2, a card handed to me lit a flame. It reminded me mentally of why I was here. Of sacrifices made. Of love.

Heavy eh? I mean, this is a running blog. Not some sort of NME mash-up where McAlmont & Butler meets Led Zeppelin via I Am Kloot to inspire a middle-aged sweat monster to keep running literally day & night [We have no idea what that means either – Ed]. But it is relevant.

Without strong resilience and mental fortitude you will never realise your full running potential. No matter your chosen distance. This is just how I chose to try and make it work in an event.

I don’t ever see the day when David Rudisha stops after the first lap for a lyric card. But hey, you never know. He might have read one at the start.

The song

The song that hooked me had quite an effect. Was it a heavy metal riff monster that I could draw magnificent energy from? You know, something like AC/DC’s Highway to Hell, or perhaps Motorhead’s Ace of Spades? Nah. It was a personal resonance that if left unexplained would mean nothing to but a few. I better explain. Here’s the lyric.

That is, obviously, Badly Drawn Boy’s Magic in the Air from his Mercury Music prize winning album The Hour of Bewilderbeast.

In doing this for the race I’d hoped to land on something that would get me emotionally charged and give me a boost of determination. Something that if I was flagging it would make me want to push and push and PUSH!

It worked.

As I finished the lap with this in hand I shouted to Mick, “This card only from now on, every hour!” And I ran. During that lap, card in hand, I held back some tears. The enormity of the event coinciding with the enormity of the choice.

I yelled “yas!” as I pushed. It connected and resonated so loudly that it scared birds from the trees, literally. I grew 6 inches. Which some would joke is like doubling my height.

Why? That’s the beauty of music. It can have such an effect. I’d searched for it to inspire. James Elson’s little nugget from 2017’s World Champs became a turbo boost for me in 2018.

Who selected this song is important. It was Louise. I mentioned her above. It was our wedding song. Not a conventional song choice for a wedding. But it had resonance then and even more so in Romania.

We’ve had a frenetic and challenging 2018 so far and many people will know why. In that moment memories and smiles and sacrifices came flooding through. A gulp, a bit lip later and I was doubling down in determination and inspiration.

And then every hour I topped up on that fuel to remind me of the feeling, the stimulation and the reason. It worked gloriously. I don’t well up often but my call to Louise at the end was delivered with a croaked voice but buoyant mind. We ran the last 6 hours or so together.

A thank you

To those who took part in this little mind game, you know who you are, I thank you wholeheartedly. I ended up with not all cards given but I read them all after the race and each and every one made me smile. I am a pretty lucky guy on so many levels.

*Pearl Jam’s Jeremy