It is easier said than done to make a sudden big change in your life however by applying “Mindfulness” you can get an advantage, as demonstrated by the Ultra-runner Nico de Carato for whom this proved to be a big turning point in his life…

So do you need to be there “in the moment” when you are running? Or is it better to look outside what you are doing and distract yourself? In reality the longer the distance you run, the more your mind has opportunities to lose focus and wander away.

Being a former sprinter I could not fully understand this concept of the mind wandering out of focus from the task in hand. A sprinter focuses all their energy on a short distance and we are usually able to see the end goal to focus on it. As a psychologist the idea of knowing what happens inside the minds of long distance runners interested me. I wanted to discover how they achieve this long distance focus and what experiences they can pass on to others who want to make a change in their training to achieve the same “Mindfulness” of staying focused on being “in the moment.”

When we begin with the desire to change something in our lives we often meet lots of internal resistance from our own minds. On the one hand this is something we really want but on the other hand we know what a strain it will be to push through that step by step process and this scares us. I learned through my work as a psychologist that if you really want to make a change, you have to really start with your own mind and attitude. Only from inside us can we find the answers that we need to light that fire to trigger a change.

Meeting Nico by Chance…
Quite recently I met the Ultra-runner Nico de Corato quite by chance when he took part in the first two editions of the” Midnight Run” (A race organized by my company Mente Corpo in Milan). Nico lives in Dubai where he has his own Communications and Marketing Company that is a media partner for several sports events in the UAE and other countries.

I talked to Nico about my new projects based on “Mindfulness” and I discovered that the source of his personal decision to make changes in his approach to long distance running came from taking part in the “Midnight 2012” ultra-running event. He explained that the night environment meant that he had to be more focused in the moment for his own personal safety and his mind couldn’t wander so much. It was after this race Nico explained that having that extra mindfulness made such a difference to his performance that he realized he had to continue training with the same mindfulness in the future too.

We discussed our mutual passion for running not only to stay fit, not only to get good results but to challenge our bodies in different situations. Running at night, in the Mountains, in the Desert, in extremes of Hot or Cold or under heavy Rain and always being there in the moment with yourself and letting the extreme conditions give you an insight inside yourself. We found that an Athlete Psychologist (me) and an Athlete Entrepreneur (Nico) could sit over a cup of coffee and share the same language, we were always in agreement on the same word: “CHANGE.”

I found myself interested to learn more about the steps Nico had taken to swap his “stay fit” lifestyle for a new one facing different challenges and goals and what strategies he used to get himself there. Here are some excerpts from our conversation…

The Starting Line…
Andrea: Nico, when did you start running?
Nico: As I practiced for a long time combat sports (kick boxing) and martial arts (muay Thai), running has always been part of my trainings. But, since I started traveling a lot for work (the first time in Dubai was in 2004), I couldn’t follow the training. I found in running a way to manage my fitness without the constraints: of time, equipment, companions. But after a while, running just for running was not enough and my mind focused on a new goal: Running a marathon. My idea of marathon at that time was that it was a huge event that only a very few people could accomplish. My first attempt was in Milan in 2011, but I had to give up because of being quite ill. So, the first 42,195 meters distance was covered the following year, again in Milan.

A few months later I moved to the UAE and once permanently settled I ran my second marathon, this time in Dubai, with a slower time than in Milan, probably due to the stress of the house move and the different climate. In the following months I committed myself to consolidate my training as a marathon runner. I undertook training programs, sought the most suitable shoes, won medals, and improved my best time and all whilst trying not to overdo it (I ran 1 marathon every 6 months). But this approach was not for me, either. So, I started adding bike and water trainings, but keeping a big goal in the drawer; “To run a marathon in the desert”.

My first desert competition was a 15km run, called Al Maha Fun Run, organized by Al Maha Resort inside the UAE National Park. Not an extreme desert but an interesting environment with a lot of wildlife that I felt comfortable in. The result was satisfying but the huge strain made me consider again the difficulties of a desert marathon… I knew I wasn’t trained!

Nico’s first solo Marathon in the Desert…
Andrea: A few months after the Al Maha Fun Run you were able to accomplish 42km in the desert…how did you make the next step so quickly?

Nico: It was a goal finally achieved thanks to Max Calderan, an extreme desert runner and explorer. We met at the Spartan Race. He recognized me as he had just read an article I wrote for the OutdoorUAE magazine on the flight from Jeddah to Dubai. It couldn’t have been a more random and predestined encounter.

I expressed all my respect for someone who is planning to train for a race over 100 km run at 50 degrees while I still haven’t faced a 42km one. He told me;“Get ready and come to train with me in the next few weeks. I am sure that you are already ready to face this challenge. Leave behind weights, awards, other distractions and anything that can affect your mind. You must live in the desert, be alone, live the experience, walk if you don’t feel like running, stop if your legs are tired, run again when you have recouped energies. You are alone in the Desert.”

So then we went, with almost no instructions. He wanted to see how I prepare. The temperature was 46 degree Celsius at 4pm. We walked uphill and ran downhill and on the flat. Gradually after many kilometres my thoughts vanished, the only concern became surviving! I tried to pretend the support car was not even there. I found that I didn’t bring enough water, gel was absolutely useless in that environment, my running gear was completely wrong, my legs were hurting… but I felt the need to manage and make it work. There were also some other strange feelings… Running in complete silence, in complete darkness. Stopping to rest, laying down on the sand and watching the magnificent sky, full of stars. I felt closer to the Universe.

And then the 100km race…
Andrea: So then you decided to go for the 100km challenge in the desert. What Changes did you have to make in your training?

Nico: At the end of this first challenge, Max proposed for me to train for a 100km run in less than 6 months’ time. For this I realized that the run training is secondary to other factors. I had to learn to train without water, food, sleep. Max made me experience a sort of Ramadan (no water and food during the day), training in the hottest hours of the day.

The last three months before the challenge (December 2nd 2015) I added night trainings. Once a week, instead of sleeping, I went to the desert to train. I put into my training plan more difficult conditions for myself, for example; Carrying a heavy backpack or wearing different shoes or even running in walking boots. After various meetings the project blueprint was set out: “To run 100km for the 44th UAE National Day.” December the 2nd marks the celebration of the unification of the seven Emirates in 1971. This date is celebrated annually and allows the United Arab Emirates to think about it’s Past, Present and Future. The date commemorates the rich heritage, the civilization and perseverance of the UAE to progress in all sectors. This is a special day for all UAE residents.

Andrea: After 17 hours and 40 minutes had gone by, Nico had no more than 10km’s to reach the end. Nico was elated. But the last 10 km’s felt endless. A long line of lights that were off due to the hour of the day were separating him from the end. Sometimes he stopped for a few minutes leaning on a palm tree or a rock to rest his legs and back, even just for a few seconds. He was not cramping, but his back had hurt all along. Nico continued walking for a few hundred meters, and he stopped again briefly. Time went by, and he was at 20 hours. Some trucks and cars went by travelling to Bab Al Shams or towards the horse-riding centre. He was on the verge of asking for a ride. He had no points of reference and he didn’t know how far he was. But suddenly a car driven by Willem Duplooy, the sports and recreation manager of the resort, who had come looking for him, arrived and honked, reached him and screamed, “You almost made it, don’t give up!”

At this stage his mind had the spark it needed and Nico started running again for the last 3km’s uphill and he finally saw the sign to the hotel reception a few meters away. He had made it. 100km in 20 hours and 10 minutes. He couldn’t help crying. It’s incredible how this challenge was so… mindful! Nico goes on telling:

Nico: What remained also after achieving the goal of running 100K was the passion for extreme environments and new kinds of challenges. That’s why I started testing my mind and my body in different situations. The Cortina Trail (a spectacular 47K trail run with +2800 MT height gain in the Dolomites), Fat bike riding in the desert (thanks to my friend Vittorio Brumotti), and so on. Sometimes after attending anew challenge with a lack of specific training for that kind of event forced me to start pushing my mind towards facing new situations.

Nico’s Training Program…
Andrea: As shown, Nico stabilized his mind. He stopped his old training methods and focused on training in the present moment, using “mindfulness”. This strategy allowed him to reach important results for himself.

Now Nico faces a new challenge; “How to continue to steadily train in this new way, without being overpowered by the “duty” to confirm or improve his goals. What he should do? How can we follow him from his mental perspective?”

Conclusions and the way ahead…
The training program I shared with Nico is a mental coaching method based on awareness. We will train his skills of focusing on what makes his mind calm and steady, in order to let his body understand what it has to do in the right moment.

We will work in a step by step way to estrange the ruminant thoughts and create the intention to be “here and now”. We will use some sessions of Mindful Running, a procedure that Nico has already tested, to make real and concrete “in performance” his decision to focus his mind where he wants. This will help him, in each step of his next challenge, to face his competition with the clear purpose to live it step by step in a mentally focused way.

Focusing on his body will be the crucial resource to grasp on to every time his mind tries to fly away, especially as it tries to focus on the result at the end and not on the present moment it is in now. As he already did in many other challenges, Nico has to trust himself, leaving any feelings and sensations to flow naturally.

We do not want to emotionally pump him up to change his mental condition, instead we want him to cross each obstacle as he reaches it without the expectation of it in advance, we want him to be mindful of the Now only, step by step, km after km, breath by breath. ■

Words by: Andrea Colombo and Nico de Corato
Photos by: DubaiBlog