Beyond the Ultimate: Ice Ultra

It’s difficult to comprehend the physical demands of an Arctic Ultramarathon through 250km of -20 degrees Celsius and 30mph winds. It’s even more difficult to comprehend the mental state required to accomplish such a feat. That’s why, rather than focus on the tangible materials and measurements of ThruDark Athlete Jonny Pain’s latest extreme endeavour, we sat down with the man himself to talk through what it felt like to be out on the ice.

We challenged Jonny to find just three words that adequately summed up his experience – he gave “Fear”, “Confidence” and “Rediscovery”.

Beyond the UltimaTE

Fear is where the growth is

For Jonny, this has not been a challenge of just 12 or even 18 months in the making. Although he started training specifically for his Beyond the Ultimate project in this period, little did he know he had been mentally preparing for this moment for years…In 2017 Jonny was finally discharged from hospital having suffered four leg breaks, hypothermia and having undergone surgery for compartment syndrome following his recent extreme endurance challenges. He admits that such a significant injury history led him to question whether he was “done” and a fear that injuries could repeat themselves in future should he attempt to push his limits again.

This “overwhelming” fear of failure came to a head the night before setting off on Day 1 of the Arctic Ultra. It was here, right before the event had even started, that Jonny describes as his most difficult moment of the entire experience. Driven away from the main camp towards the starting line, with nothing but a tepee and reindeer hide for respite from the cold, Jonny is candid about the night that lay ahead of him. Struggling to sleep, he physically retreated into his sleeping bag, describing his actions as “cocooned”. He began to feel claustrophobic and soon became anxious. Speaking with Jonny you get the impression that this anxiety was very much an unfamiliar sensation and at this point in our conversation you can detect the inquisition in his voice as he aims to make sense of his own emotional response.

Unable to contend with the feeling and provoked to anger at the same, Jonny admits he was close to attempting the walk back to base camp in the dark and withdrawing from the challenge – an idea he acknowledges as futile with the benefit of hindsight. This only serves to show the state of anxiety in which he found himself, something Jonny describes as having “let the shadows in”. With retrospect, Jonny knows the fear he experienced was irrational based on his physical capacity, all the metrics he had seen from his training showed that he was well prepared physically. But this fear of failure, of crumbling under the pressure of his sponsors and disappointing the expectations of his peers, still threatened to get the better of him. Tonight of all nights, just hours before the starting line.

Jonny is reserved about exactly how he was able to “do battle with the shadows” and come out on top. You get the impression that this was very much an internal conflict that he is still processing. This Stoic sense of introspection and self reflection is one of Jonny’s greatest strengths as an athlete and you just know that this experience will be banked and the lesson learned for next time. He reminds us of a previous conversation in which he explains “fear is where the growth is”, this being an implicit nod to the inevitability of adversity. Able to steel himself by way of this candid mental reminder and facing up to fear, Jonny was able to bed down for the night. It wouldn’t be a comfortable sleep for those next few hours, but he was still in the fight.

"I let the shadows in..."

Confidence isn’t a simple “on/off” switch but the linear result of trying and doing.

Having overcome his first night on the ice, a night that threatened to jeopardise his entire challenge, Jonny took to the starting line feeling physically up to the task. He describes how the first day of the race saw him sit at the rear of the pack whilst he found his feet. His goal was to ensure he finished, rather than rush on ahead and risk injury or error. Here, this pragmatic objective turned to a micro inspection of every moment as Jonny focused on what was immediately in front of him. Confidence would build with every step and looking back Jonny realises he probably underestimated himself in those first few kilometres. Some confidence can only be realised with the benefit of experience and this first day showed the value of pragmatism as a confidence-building tool. This self-assurance of his own physical ability is something that Jonny is determined to take with him into the next stage of his Beyond the Ultimate challenge now he knows the legs are there. Dispelling some of those earlier fears of failure that so haunted him.

However, the second day of the race would see the most physically and environmentally challenging experience of the five days. Shortly after passing the 15km mark, Jonny noticed an unusually high concentration of race support up ahead. Normally spread more sporadically throughout the distance, their gathering was ominous. Conditions coming in were brutal and it was here that the racers were warned of temperatures dropping as low as -30 degrees Celsius and wind speeds picking up to 30mph. Here the support team stressed the importance of each racer getting their kit in order before taking on this next, most perilous, section of the course. Over the next stage, visibility would drop to no more than a metre and Jonny found himself teaming up with another racer to best navigate through the wintery abyss. Passing other competitors along the way, the two would call in rescues on behalf of several others – some of whom lost digits to severe frostbite in the process. It was here that Jonny stresses the confidence in his own personal admin, of trust in his kit and his preparation, was what kept him going where others fell down. That base level confidence not to panic when things hit a snag would be the difference between his success and failure.

Jonny’s experience over the course of the race would reveal several lessons about confidence, showing the sense of belief to be more than a simple binary. Confidence isn’t a quality you either possess or don’t, it isn’t something to be switched on or off – it is an experience you build over time. This lesson presented itself to Jonny as a linear development and you can chart how his confidence built from that first night on the ice to crossing the finish line. There was a base level confidence, a foundation he could fall back on in moments of adversity to prevent him pushing the panic button. This was built on faith in his own physical training and his kit. But there was also a further experiential confidence that grew with time, from finding his feet on the first day of the ice to leading others through the blizzard of day two before going from strength to strength on days three, four and five. It is a testament to Jonny’s resilience that he didn’t start the race strong and finish weaker by the end of it, but really something quite the opposite. He grew with the challenge. After all – “fear is where the growth is”.

"What let other people down was panic..."

Sometimes endeavour isn’t about breaking new ground but about finding what was lost. Finding that is something only you can do.

Rediscovery – a strange choice of word given that this was very much unchartered territory for Jonny, having never conducted a task in such a new environment or conditions. However, this sense of “rediscovery” goes right to the heart of Jonny’s endeavour – this was never about the discovery of new physical, or worldly realms if you like, but the rediscovery of a state of mind he once thought was lost.

Those of you who meet Jonny must ask him about what happened on that hill on the fifth day of the race, for it is a story that eludes printing in full – and probably best it does! It is this moment on the hill, as Jonny climbed on, overtaking those who were at one point ahead of him, that rather defines the “rediscovery” he speaks of. A physical and at times explicit verbal challenge he issued to himself, the ability to beat himself up, talk himself down, belittle and overcome his own personality at the same time. It is this capacity to take himself to the edge, physically and mentally, to not only face the adverse camber of a physical obstacle but the explicit admonishment of his own thoughts, that separates Jonny Pain from the rest. Perhaps there really is no single word for this experience that can explain the inner fire you unearth when both body and mind have turned against you.

When we sat down to talk, this third word would escape Jonny for some time. And this is exactly it. As the man in the arena, only Jonny can know what it felt like to survive the fear on his first night, to come through the storm and cross the finish line. Only he can know what it felt like to rediscover a fire he once thought was lost. This is a mission of his own doing for his own cause, and it is almost futile to try and capture this in writing. We can follow it, like it, share it, write it and record it – but we will only ever be observers watching on. We are mere spectators of an “Endeavour Through Adversity” that is truly personal to Jonny Pain.

Credits: Beyond the Ultimate

"It just got done."

Learn More

Ice Ultra: Arctic Ultramarathon