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How to Prepare Your Mind for a Grueling Endurance Race


During his nearly 30-year career in the U.S. Marine Corps, Paul Roarke developed plenty of core strength. But he noticed that many of his longtime colleagues struggled with maintaining the physical standards needed to perform. As a result, they were forced to retire early, depriving America of some experienced soldiers. It’s no different, Roarke says, than civilians who no longer can apply their skills because of diminished physical performance.

The chiseled 50-year-old Roarke’s fitness regimen over the years has included boxing, martial arts, power lifting, and triathlon, and in June he will compete in “The Death Race,” a grueling endurance event in Vermont so challenging that its website is YouMayDie.com. Participants literally sign their lives away, and only 10 percent of the 200 competitors finish.

Roarke serves as an instructor at the Navy’s international leadership school in Pensacola, Florida, not far from the Athletes’ Performance facility at The Andrews Institute in Gulf Breeze. He recently authored the book Corps Strength: A Marine Master Gunnery Sergeant’s Program for Elite Fitness to show people how to extend their performance well into middle age and beyond—winning their own version of “The Death Race.” Roarke recently spoke to CorePerformance.com about the book and mental preparation for the race of a lifetime.

Core Performance: What was the inspiration for Corps Strength?

Paul Roarke: There are no old people’s wars. You’re held to the same physical standard and you have to be able to perform regardless of age. That’s true in both military and civilian life. As I got older, I found that the system I developed was keeping me in good shape and doing well on physical fitness tests. The guys who used to beat me were dropping off and retiring early because they couldn’t do it anymore. The Marine Corps weight standards are strict. When you’re younger, you can work out a certain way, but as you get older you have to change your mindset. What worked for you at 20 won’t work at 30, 40, or 50. (Click here to try The Longevity Workout.)

CP: You’re a big believer in support and active rest. How do you define those?

PR: Support is when you spend an hour doing one thing—a long run or ride, kayaking or swimming, for instance. It’s not overly strenuous, but it’s your base point, sort of your default workout. It takes away excuses since no matter how busy you are, you can return to that base point. Active rest refers to doing something at the end of the day to counteract the sedentary office environment. Something as simple as yard work, walking the dog—anything that keeps you moving that’s not particularly taxing. Like flushing your legs the last mile after a long bike ride, this flushes your body at the end of a long day. (Learn more about “active recovery.”)

CP: You refer to firefighters, military, police, and construction workers as “working athletes.” What do you mean by that?

PR: We’re all working athletes. It’s just that a professional athlete gets paid a lot more money. I worked in construction before the Marine Corps, and some of those guys were just brute strong. But as they got older, they couldn’t keep up with the physical demands. If they had combined a healthy lifestyle with exercise, it’s amazing what they would have done. We all know older people like that in all professions, and if we thought of ourselves as working athletes, we’d train accordingly. (Click here to learn how an athlete ages.)

CP: How do you train for “The Death Race,” where you’re not told anything about the course, challenges, or even how long it will be?

PR: I’ve done dozens of triathlons and road races, a few adventure races, and when I looked at this I realized it would be a fundamental mindset change. It’s a long race—three days—and if you figure the average person does a marathon in four hours, you now have to think in terms of 72 hours. So you have to change your mindset and think of what it means to be long, what it’s going to take mentally and physically to get there. I knew off the bat this would not be a speed event. I always talk about doing more exercise in less time, keep the intensity up for a lot of reasons. For this—and I could be wrong—it requires more of a long slow burn. You have to have the physical toughness to do things over and over. (Click here for 6 tips to develop an age-defying mindset.)

CP: What have you applied to this from your military training?

PR: In Marine recon, you’re required to cover extreme distances for drops or to get to a point. You can’t take off at a 7-mile pace; you’d be done after a couple miles. So they developed the Recon Shuffle, a shuffling pace at 12 minutes a mile. That’s a different stress on your body. Mentally you just want to go faster and get it over and your body gets stiff and sore when you run that slow. I know there will be times when I’ll have to hold myself back. I know what it’s like to be up for two or three days without sleep and you basically become a zombie after two days. I know what’s going to happen. People are going to take off and then four or five hours go by, and if they’re not used to doing things for that period of time, they won’t be able to do it. I’m going to hold back at first to put money in the bank. After day one or two days I can withdraw that.

CP: Only 10 percent of Death Race competitors finish the race. You spent nearly 30 years in the Marine Corps and you have an incredible endurance sports resume. Do you feel any pressure to win this race?

PR: I always put pressure on myself; it’s my personality type. If I’m not struggling with something, I’m not living, so I’m kind of used to it. I’ll finish unless I get injured, which can happen, but knock on my wooden head, I’ve never had a major injury. The kind of physical training system I’ve developed over the years helped keep me going while others got hurt, and that’s given me a lot of belief in the system. (Protect yourself from injury with “prehab.”)


About The Author

Pete Williams – Pete Williams is a contributing writer for CorePerformance.com and the co-author of the Core Performance book series.

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Tags: Race, Goals, Motivation, Outdoor Recreation, Planning