I feel like the word “headspace” is kicked around a lot with ultra running, especially when people are referring to a “bad headspace”. Over the last year I’ve heard a lot of advice along the lines of “don’t get in a bad headspace”. I got the gist of what they were saying – to me it was ultra runner speak for “keep your head in the game”. However, I absolutely HATED that phrase. It felt insulting and when someone asked if I was in a bad headspace I felt belittled and judged, as if they didn’t trust me to think my own thoughts. A little extreme? Maybe.

Turns out it’s all in how you define “bad headspace”! It wasn’t until a friend and I got into the throes of a conversation full of constructive criticism that I realized my version of a bad headspace was a bit different from his [and maybe everyone else’s too!?].

So, what exactly does “bad headspace” mean?!

I first heard the words “don’t let that get you into a bad headspace” leading up to the North Fork 50M – I was taking on my second 50 miler after two DNF’ed races [Dirty 30 and Mt Evans Ascent] the same month that my marriage publicly crashed into the ground. Friends were looking out for me, and I truly appreciated that. However, when I was told not to let all the crazy in my life put me into a bad headspace it felt like they didn’t believe in my ability to keep my emotions in check, that they thought I’d let my non-running life end my NF50 race even if my body was still on board, that they didn’t think I was mentally strong enough to deal with my decisions…that I wasn’t good enough.

That interpretation of “bad headspace” stuck with me and apparently it’s had a pretty big effect on me. This past weekend, at about 3am on a dark trail in Moab, Jeremy simply stated “you seem like you’re in a bad headspace” and rather than say “naw, I’m fine…just thinking” with a casual smile I turned and walked away from him in stony silence to avoid a complete breakdown. It was probably another hour before I spoke a single word.

The sunrise on Porcupine Trail, a few hours after I spewed all my hatred at Jeremy’s shoes.

As innocent as it may have been that comment stung…and it pissed me off. I as pissed at him for what he said, at myself for letting it hurt so much, at “headspace” for being so stupid…just plain pissed off. As he hiked uphill in front of me I literally stared at his feet in the glow of my headlamp and listed off all the reasons I hated his shoes. Clearly I was in the best mental state possible…not. But it didn’t feel like a “bad headspace”, it just felt like my feelings and that made me madder – they were my feelings and I got to feel them when + how I wanted to!

At that moment, when he mentioned the words “bad headspace”, I was twisting my brain around a newfound, raw emotions; working on compartmentalizing random feelings into their own little boxes and being relatively successful at it. I wasn’t upset, I wasn’t overjoyed…I just was. And when he implied I was in a bad headspace it felt like he was telling me my hard-earned thoughts + feelings weren’t justified and definitely weren’t allowed. I did not like that – they were my feelings and I was going to feel them whenever I wanted to, so suck it. How could it be bad to just spend time in my own head?! Obviously I harbored some pretty strong feelings about “headspace”…

When things don’t go as planned [hiking on roads with snowshoes in hand] don’t give up…adjust! #happyheadspace

Once I managed to shove my feelings into their respective boxes and place them on a safe shelf I forgot about the headspace comment and our 20 hour trek continued without incident. I completely forgot about how insulted I felt and would have never brought it up if our stuck-in-traffic-so-let’s-discuss-all-the-things conversation didn’t turn to emotions and running. I remembered how bitchy I’d acted when he was just checking in on me and felt the need to explain where I was coming from and why I absolutely hated the words “bad headspace”. His reaction to my explanation and anger toward a simple phrase made it pretty obvious there was another interpretation of the words “bad headspace”.

But really, what does “bad headspace” mean?!

As he explained his definition of “bad headspace” things started to make more sense and I realized that I was taking a very emotional, personal take on what “bad headspace” meant. To him [and everyone else?!] a “bad headspace” is simply state of mind where you’ve let your thoughts tumble into a rabbit hole of “I cannot do this”, “this is now worth it”, “why am I even trying” and “I should just give up”…basically a tornado of negative, doubtful thoughts. The thoughts that give you permission to give up, even if you’re body isn’t done.

Sometimes a moment taking in your surroundings literally changes your perspective on life!

What causes these thoughts is different for every person out there and that’s the beauty of trail running…and just being human. For some people it’s the uncertainty and drama in their personal life that triggers this thought process, thus the comments and encouragement friends had for me last June before/during the North Fork 50M. And who am I to judge them for that? It’s their headspace, I don’t get to define it or tell them how it will affect them…they get to do that.

But for me? My personal life is completely different from my running life, at least when considering this mysterious headspace. I like being out on the trails, lost in my own head [and sometimes on unknown trails…oops!] and free to figure out whatever problems pop up. It’s encouraging, it gives me a reason to be there…to keep going, to NOT give up. I like my headspace, I like getting lost in it and I like having the time to figure out my thoughts, my feelings and my purpose in life. I don’t head to the trails to run from something, instead I’m chasing after whatever my brain will let me find!

The views I stared at on my first trek up Bear Peak, alone…when I hit the trails with the goal of getting lost in my own head.

Ultimately, it is your headspace and you get to decide if it’s good or bad or…whatever you want it to be. And, if you do wander into a “bad headspace” where your brain is talking your body away from a run/race/whatever YOU are the one with the power to change that, to make it into something positive, something you can work with. That’s one of the bigger challenges with ultra running [or any physical activity, really], it is incredibly mental and your thoughts are at a constant battle with your goals and aspirations…have your thoughts, own you feelings, but decide just how much they get to effect your performance!

How do you define “bad headspace”? If you fall into a bad headspace…how do you regain control?
What are your thoughts on the mental game of…ultra running or sprinting or hiking or life?

1 Comment

Moab Miles: The Whole Enchilada Trail // Heidi Kumm · May 20, 2021 at 10:42 pm

[…] to turn around. At this point we’d been on the trail for nearly 12 hours and, aside from an early misunderstanding about “headspace”, we were yet to annoy each other. Our conversation would ebb and flow – for the first time ever I […]

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