Ultramarathon Runner Kouros Sadeghi-Nejad Redefines “Running On Empty” Amidst Mental Block in the Daily Training Grind

Published By Holly Ruvo

Interviewed By Ben Ruvo

Kouros Sadegh-Nejad, Ultramarathon Runner

Kouros Sadeghi-Nejad is a road and trail runner currently attending New York University. He specializes in the half marathon, but has run races up to 50 miles. He graduated from West Essex Regional High School in 2019. In two years he plans to attempt his first 100 mi race.

Ben: How do you prepare yourself mentally before you run? I know you just ran your Peak 50 Miler, go through the mental preparation you had to take while getting ready for this event.

Kouros: Mental preparation is essential in running an Ultramarathon. I personally believe that almost anyone can run a marathon with enough training if their goal is for personal fitness. Ultrarunning requires a greater reason. In the community this reason is often referred to as “The Why”. The reason why we choose to put ourselves through such a test of mental and physical capacity must be greater than wanting to be fit. “The Why” is very personal to each Ultrarunner, but it is unanimously the driving force between all of our actions. My personal philosophy is that comfort makes us weak. We become so accustomed to settling in the norm and refusing to push ourselves that we have essentially lost the primal will that allows us to succeed. To mentally prepare for Pikes Peak, I made sure to put myself in the most uncomfortable experiences I could manage so that nothing came as a surprise. I did hours of cross training and cardio outside for a bare minimum of 10hrs every day the month before my race. If I finished the workout early, I had to remain outside to get my body accustomed to spending that long outdoors for the race. I often used extra time to mediate and reflect on the lessons I had gained from the day. I developed the David Goggins mentality of obsession over motivation. Goggins describes motivation as a temporary stimulus to drive change. This means someone will try to achieve their goal only when the circumstances are preferable. For example, someone aiming to achieve physical fitness may only run when the weather is nice out. Obsession on the other hand means that one will work no matter what environment or conditions he/she is placed in. I ran if it was 100 degrees or if it was a flashflood. Unless the conditions were an imminent threat to my health, I refused to make excuses in my training.

Ben: Ultra running is something that not many people can withstand mentally and physically, but somehow you started this incredible journey at the age of 16. How have you been able to handle the challenges mentally while going through a competition?

Kouros: I ran my first marathon at age 16 before running my 50 miler this year at 18. Training for my first marathon was very difficult because the community was very split on whether a 16 years old should be running that distance. While I received a lot of support, especially from those around me, there were many discouraging comments from people online and some in person. Very few people know this part of my journey. People have to remember that social media is an idealized version of our lives. Everything I post has not been without struggle and hard work to get to where I currently am. Luckily, when I transitioned to training for my first Ultra, the Ultrarunning community was far more supportive and understood that the reason for attempting such a distance transcended just wanting to be fit. The physical training included gradually increasing my mileage each year and adjusting my cross-training workouts with the help of many coaches and other runners on and offline. I can now proudly say that I have run over 13,000 miles in the past 4 years since I started distance running. The mental preparations mostly consisted of increasing the difficulty of the workouts. There was also a lot of meditation and self-reflection involved to truly understand myself. If you do not know yourself, you cannot know what you are capable of.

Ben: When you hit a block mentally while training, how do you push through the adversity?

Kouros: Part of ultrarunning is learning to embrace discomfort. If one quits every time discomfort sets in, one can never find their true limits. One method I employed to push through the adversity is what I called the “double the pain” work ethic. During my runs which averaged 10-11 miles on weekdays and 15-23 miles on Sunday, most of which was run in an 8lb weighted Titin vest, I would ask myself how sore or tired am I feeling about halfway through the workout. I would then make it my goal to double this soreness or tiredness by the end of the workout by pushing harder. People are a bit like cars. When cars are low on fuel they start to signal that it’s time to fill the car up with gas. When people are fatigued, the brain tells them they need to stop. The reality is that a car can travel much further than the warning signal before it is truly out of fuel and a person can push themselves far more than their brain is telling them they can. In an ultramarathon a runner must fuel at specific intervals in the race before the “running on empty” mentality kicks in to ensure they’re not running on low fuel for too long.

Ben: Going to NYU this upcoming fall will be a big transition. How will you mentally prepare for that challenge as you will have to deal with a heavy workload along with your tough training regimen?

Kouros: I’m very excited to attend NYU and I’m definitely looking forward to meeting new people and finding new training runs in the city. Moving to the city will be much easier for most of my road races that take place in or near Manhattan. My decision to not try out for the Cross Country team in order to pursue longer distance events should give me the ability to create a schedule that works around my academic studies. Time management is essential to balancing a heavy workload and academics. There is very little time for procrastination if one wants to balance studies, training, and social life. From my social media it may seem like I devote a disproportionately high time to training as opposed to academics, but academics will always be my first and foremost priority. I give myself plenty of time to finish my coursework and study additional information on top of my training regimen. If anything, I think training helps with my academics because it builds the discipline and hard work mentality necessary to accomplish a rigorous workload.

Ben: Do you have any advice for runners who are struggling with the mental grind that goes along with the sport?

Kouros: Pushing through the mental grind that goes along with athletics if a very individual process. What may work for me may not work for everyone. That being said, it is important to distinguish the mental grind from stress. If your source of passion and enjoyment becomes stressful, you must rethink your training methods or choice of sport. I ran XC and Track for many years, but a plateau of times and an increase in competition along with a lot of expectations put a lot of stress for me that was very difficult to manage. I decided I still loved running, but that I found far more enjoyment in long distance running ranging from 13.1 mi to 50mi rather than the mile to 5k distance. Your goals should help strengthen your mentality. If accomplishment comes at the cost of your mental well-being, then it is not worth it. Ask yourself if you love what you are doing. If the answer is yes, continue. If the answer is no, take a look at why you don’t and adjust your lifestyle accordingly.

Ben: Why do you think it is so hard for athletes to open up and talk about their mental health challenges. What do you think we could do as a society to help end this silence?

Kouros: Although it is improving, there is still a lot of stigma surrounding mental health that prevents athletes from opening up. We live in a world that romanticizes perfection and the concept of mental illness lowers one’s self image in the public eye. Many ultrarunners deal with demons and use their running as an outlet. I think we all have our demons, but the majority of society would rather bottle it up and let it eat away at them rather than grow from their experiences. I know many athletes who have used their sport to overcome addition, eating disorders, rough upbringings, etc. In all honesty I don’t think that there will ever be a true end to the silence regarding mental health in society because people will always be afraid to reveal their flaws. But for those of you out there who are struggling, who are trying to beat your demons, know that you are not alone and the world is filled with people just like you who are all trying to better themselves. If you need help, don’t be afraid to ask. Asking for help doesn’t make you weak; it makes you stronger than all those who are too scared to confront their problems.