Two well known quotes are turning around in my mind
- "Pain is temporary, quitting is forever"
- "A 100 mile race is an eating contest with a bit of running thrown in"
This is going to be a long post, even for me. And no pictures even. This what I think I've learned about how to survive an ultra through to the end, and what I've still got to learn. It's good for me to write it down, and it just may be of help to one or two others out there.
Since I started this game in my not-quite-dotage a few years ago, I've run 45 ultras and 15 marathons and finished all but 7 of them. What a girl, I hear Keith the Aussie saying, get a grip and MTFU. But a near 90% hit rate doesn't seem so bad, we all have good days and bad days. I could take this statistic on the chin if the DNF's were spread nicely through all the races I do. Except they're not. I've pulled up 5 times in the UTMB and twice in the Lakeland 100. The big ones. Can't do the big races. I said it in a post after this year's UTMB - "this event is too big for me, time to move on". Perversely, I finished the considerably bigger Tor des Geants in good shape. How come?
Anyone who thinks a DNF is an easy way out has never had one. You stop only because you simply cannot go on. I wrote this a day or two ago, but I've since read James Adams's fascinating account and speculation about his experiences, particularly the recent Spartathlon. He maintains that probably 80% of all DNF's are because the runner just chooses not to continue. Once things start going wrong a lot of his thoughts begin to turn towards how he can escape the event and still square the decision with himself and others - looking for acceptable reasons to justify failure. James calls this the "lazy cowardice" route to a DNF. I've heard this point of view before but James expresses it in a challenging way, exploring thoughts that I'm sure all of us have at times. I'm well over half way, I've accounted well enough for myself, better stop now before I do any damage. This event is not as important to me as the one coming up, don't want to spoil that one........ And so on. I'm sure we've all been there. But I would argue that most of us get through that point somehow. For me, that's where the "pain is temporary, quitting is forever" mantra works. Yes, I know it's a Lance Armstrong quote but that doesn't make it a bad thought. We know what we're going to feel like tomorrow and we know that however we project ourselves outwardly that it will hurt, and it's going to go on hurting until that particular ghost is laid - if it ever can be. Anything is better than knowing you have to go through another "morning after". So I'm happy to go back to where I came in and say that for me, and I'm sure many others, we stopped because there was just no way of going on. There may be different reasons for different runners but all my DNF's have in essence been identical. I reached a point where I was unable to eat or drink anything at all and subsequently slowed to a pace at which I couldn't complete the race. I've carried on for 10 or 12 hours on occasions without any effective food or drink but if you then simply run out of time there's not much else you can do.
I have to come clean here. Even setting aside the DNF's, many of my successes have been far from resounding. I have finished all of my marathons and maybe half my ultras in what I could call reasonably good shape. That is, I finished, was ready for a good meal and a beer or two and went home knackered but happy. In the others, at some stage in the race or immediately afterwards I have started to feel some degree of nausea. After the feeling starts I find it progressively more difficult to eat or drink. It doesn't make any difference whether I'm actually sick or not, that's just a temporary hiatus if it happens, the feeling doesn't go away, it just gets worse until eventually I'm eating and drinking nothing.
Experience over the years has taught me that when I get to this stage there are only two options. One is to stop and do nothing until the feeling goes away, then I can start eating and drinking, then walking, then eventually running again. But I know that for this to work I have to stop for about two hours at least, psychologically very difficult during an event, and sometimes I just don't have that amount of time to spare ahead of the cut-offs. The other option is to tough it out and carry on to the end of the race without eating or drinking. This is not enjoyable but sometimes the only way to get a finish. I've finished the West Highland Way once from Kingshouse (about 22 miles) and several times from Kinlochleven (about 14) without eating or drinking from there to the finish. I've finished at least one Hardmoors 55 and several Highland Fling's feeling bad, and I've struggled in most of my longer races. So it seems to be distance-dependent, but perversely I finished the recent 66 mile Lakeland 100k, and as I said earlier the 200 mile Tor des Geants, feeling fine.
Tea is the end. I really enjoy a cup of tea during a race, and when there's time I get one whenever possible. But the flipside is that when I get to the point that the only thing I can stomach is tea, then I'm not far from the shut-down point - the beginning of the end. So if I can just cure my eating problem before teatime then I'll be OK................well, maybe.
Reflections - Understanding the problem
It's tempting to look for and then jump on a single reason for any problem; that way we can convince ourselves that there is a ready solution, a magic bullet to cure it. I've been guilty of this over the years but I've now come to the conclusion that the issue is much more complex than I first thought. I believe now that whether any individual runner is likely to finish any particular event in good shape depends on a whole raft of related factors. I may not have them all even now but I think a good list for a start might be:
- length and "difficulty" of the event
- weather conditions on the day
- start time
- training and state of fitness of the runner
- race strategy and pace
- nervous state
I''m going to have a go at all of these - I told you that this was going to be a long post, and you don't have to stay with me if you get bored - but if you do the usual health warning applies; this is what has happened to me, and the conclusions that I have drawn from my experiences - for anyone else it may not necessarily be the same.
Hydration and Nutrition
I'm going to cover these first because for years I thought food and drink was the only aspect of my game that I really needed to fix. I now realise that it's probably not the only problem as we may see later, but it's still significant and it shows up consistently as my only real symptom of failure, so needs to be addressed. Let's start with nutrition.
I've tried every food strategy I've ever heard of during ultra events: eating little and often, eating at "mealtimes", eating "real food", relying only on liquids and gels,moving from solid to liquid and vice-versa, eating as much as I can, eating sparingly, managing sweet and savoury, and so on - no single strategy has been a complete success. Foods that have seemed to be a really tasty in one race have proved completely unpalatable in the next. For me, the advice to "try everything in training" simply doesn't work, because training cannot replicate the effort required in an actual event. Very few of us go for 50 miles training runs, let alone 100 mile ones.
I think the science is helping me a bit nowadays. I used to worry that if I didn't eat substantial amounts to balance the huge amount of energy being used that I would be in real trouble, and this just added some psychological pressure to the problem, but the accepted key points now seem to be:
(a) Physical exertion demands blood flow, which is not then available to promote digestion. The harder you run, the harder it is to digest so you may have to slow down as you eat. Liquids are easier to digest than solids.
(b) You will not be able to replace anywhere near the number calories you are burning. There is inconsistent advice on how many calories per hour you should attempt to take in. Marc Laithwaite (in his articles as "The Endurance Coach") and Tim Noakes (in his book "Waterlogged" - more from this later) both suggest aiming for around 240 kcasl/hr, whereas Corinne Peirano (official dietary advice for the UTMB) recommends 60-80 kcals/hr for "fragile digestive systems" and up to 200 kcals/hr for "big eaters". These are all respected sources so I guess no-one really knows, but it gives a range to work with and of course everyone is different, not only in their body size and makeup, but also in how much energy they are expending during the event.
(c) You will get a significant amount of your energy during an ultra event from body fat stores. This is harder to access than recently digested carbohydrate so if you rely on it alone you will go significantly slower, but it is sufficiently important to warrant at least some training directed to improve your ability to access it.
The key things I've learned for me is that I'm not turned on or off by any particular foods, it depends on the day, so I don't fret about "not having the right thing". I can take in a regular 100/120 kcals comfortably for many hours (until things start to go wrong), I usually do this with gels, shotbloks and so on, and if it's a race with food provided I'll go for bananas, flapjacks, crisps, general snacky stuff.. I found the ginger biscuits provided in the recent Lakeland 100k a real treat. Later on in the event I'll go more for soup if it's available, rice pudding, yoghourt and so on. I have to avoid eating too much in the early stages of a race, and if I stop to have something more substantial - a bowl of stew or some pasta for example, then I have to remember to walk for at least half an hour or so immediately afterwards. It works now, food choice is not a prime cause of DNF's for me, though it may have been in the past. The key thing is that reviewing all this, I'm not actually doing anything wrong here.
Hydration is an aspect of ultras that I still haven't cracked. I've just read Tim Noakes's book "Waterlogged" - fascinating but rather long, so I have to admit skipping over some of the more technical stuff - which supports (or maybe started, I don't know how it came about) the modern wisdom that you should drink only when you're thirsty. The only problem I have with this, in spite of how much Noakes goes on about it being a proven physical trigger, is that I don't get thirsty. Not when running, not when doing mostly anything. I'll have a drink with a meal and the odd one between meals because it's convention - coffee at coffee time and so on - and I'll have a beer or a glass of wine because I'll look forward to the particular flavours that those drinks have, but I rarely if ever have the sensation of feeling "I'm thirsty now, I need a drink". To make matters worse I don't particularly like the flavour of plain water.
In races where you supply your own drinks via a support crew or drop bags, I'll have a variety of drinks - sports drink, flat or fizzy coke, ginger beer, fizzy water and so on, and this seems to work, at least for the first few hours of an event. But in events where the drink is provided, water is often the only option.
So I have two tasks: to find out how much I should be drinking, and to learn how to drink water.
How much to drink? Well, it must depend on how hot and/or humid it is, how much energy you are using, speed, height gain, and so on. I know that I can be happy walking most of the day in the Lakes (say 6-8 hours) in average weather with only a litre to drink. And yet on a warm summer's day, cruising easy ground at 9 minute miles I can sweat a litre in an hour (I've measured it a few times). I've tried several strategies in races, usually around the 3 to 4 hours per litre usage rate, and had difficulty maintaining either for longer than 8 hours or so. I don't think I've learned much, except that these rates are way below rates covered in Waterlogged. Noakes's advice is "drink to thirst and not more than 800ml/hr" - that is a litre every 1.25 hours, ie more than twice the rate than I've ever contemplating drinking. Yet I'm fairly convinced that I end every race dehydrated. I find it impossible to detect dehydration during an event, factors like colour and frequency of pee are notoriously unreliable predictors - but I do find I'm drinking more for a day or so afterwards. When I start running again (I'm having a four week break at the moment), I'm going to try using 500ml/hr as my benchmark for average conditions, and work up and down from there and see how it goes.
To get used to drinking water, I guess you just have to drink a lot of water. A bit like when your mother made you eat your greens and nowadays they seem quite tasty. I've tried putting all sorts of stuff in to make it taste better, some more successful than others, but in the end I think it comes down to the fact that water is often all you can get, so you have to get used to dealing with it.
I suspect hydration is one aspect of races that I frequently get wrong, so it's a thing I'm really going to work on over the winter.
Start time, Nerves and Luck
I've grouped these together because although they may individually or collectively have a significant effect on the outcome of an event, they're not factors that you can do much about.
I personally have problems with events that start in the late afternoon or evening. I always assume they're that way for administrative convenience, but given a choice I would always prefer to run through two days and a night rather than two nights and a day. Starting in the morning, most runners will have at least 50 or 60 trouble-free miles on the clock before nightfall, and you're then psychologically prepared to slow down as darkness and tiredness set in together, but with over half the race done. In an evening start you're quickly into darkness when everything goes slower, so you face the first "whole" day already tired and with seemingly not much distance as a reward. There are probably some sensible tactics here, I'll come to that later.
When I first started running I was trying to do a three and a half hour marathon. I got below 3.40 four times but couldn't get the last few minutes. Eventually, in a run which hurt most of the way, I made it in 3.24. I was satisfied, but because the experience was so unpleasant I decided I wouldn't attempt it again, I would just do marathons for fun. The next time I tried one I didn't bother to take a stopwatch; I enjoyed the run from start to finish, and got home in 3.17. It felt like a walk in the park. We all need a bit of pressure to perform at our best, but if we put too much on ourselves it becomes counterproductive. I often ask myself, have I had 5 DNF's in the UTMB because the event is too big for me, or is it now too big for me because I've had 5 DNF's?
I think it was the golfer Gary Player who first said "the more I practice, the luckier I get", but we all have days when things genuinely beyond our control just go wrong.
So I'm not sure what one can do about these aspects of running, maybe just accept that they happen, relax, and as Joss Naylor would say "just shrug it off". Time to get back to some factors affecting our ability to finish that we can maybe control.
Length and difficulty of the event
Weather conditions on the day
Race strategy and pace
I've again grouped these together but for a different reason, and that is because they're all connected.
About 18 months ago I published a post called "The toughest race in the world?" in which I compared the "difficulties" of various well-known races. I came to the conclusion that while of course a longer race is tougher than a shorter one, hillier tougher than flatter, and so on, the key factor which governs the overall difficulty of an event is the time you are allowed to complete it.
Now if you are in an race which is well within your capability and the only unknown is how fast you will complete it, then this aspect has no relevance to you. Unless something goes wrong way beyond your control, there is no reason for you to DNF. For example, if you run the 53 Mile Highland Fling and expect to complete it in around 9 hours, then the fact that it has a 15 hour cut-off is no interest to you - you know you won't run out of time. But if you know that you are going to be out somewhere near the full 15 hours, then it becomes an event for you that if something goes wrong you may DNF, and a race like the Lakeland 50, which on paper is slightly tougher but has a cut-off of 24 hours, would be for you a much easier event to complete. One of the reasons I was able to complete the Tor des Geants while never having finished the UTMB is simply that to beat the cut-offs you can go at a slower pace than in the UTMB, one that I was completely comfortable with and could keep up pretty well indefinitely.
Weather conditions can make any course easier or harder than "average", and although they're beyond your control (but not beyond your control to be prepared and equipped) they will affect how close you are to your limit in being able to complete. I decided to run this year's Hardmoors 55 as a "training" event, aiming to take maybe an hour longer than my normal 11 to 11,5 hours. On the day, the fairly extreme weather (below zero all day with a fierce wind and a lot of powder snow) added at least another hour to that. In the tougher events with demanding cut-offs, the DNF rate rockets when the weather is adverse (hot, wet, cold, etc).
So here is the key. If your expected pace for a race takes you well inside the cut-off times, you don't really have a danger of a DNF. You might get strategy or tactics wrong and hit some low points, but you will have enough time in hand to tough it out to the finish if you choose to. I made a complete mess of my first attempt at the 95 mile West Highland way race and ended up walking the last 40 miles and stopping for a longish sleep , but was still able to complete the event in 32,5 hours, still 2,5 hours inside the cut-off. I've subsequently finished the race in a time 10 hours faster than this, so the cut-off was never going to be a problem.
But if your average pace takes you near the cut-offs, your strategy and tactics need to be very different. In the Lakeland 100 (cut-off 40 hours) and the UTMB (46 hours), a very high proportion of the field finishes in the last allowable 5 hours or so, and they both have DNF rates around 50%, so for well over half the runners entering, these events are not about getting a good time but about avoiding a DNF.
If you want to complete an event that's near your limit, you can't adopt the Stu Mills "start fast because you're going to slow down anyway" approach. That's OK in races where you personally have plenty of time, because you will slow down - you just don't know by how much, and you should have enough to spare. No, if you know you're near the time limit from the gun, I believe you should plan your race to meet the intermediate cut-offs safely, but with the minimum of expended effort. I think that's the best way to avoid running out of time later on. I have been really guilty of not adhering to this strategy and I think it's cost me several finishes. I have always wanted to build up to a couple of hours or so ahead of the cut-offs, but I have frequently tried to do this too early in the race. The cut-offs always get easier later in the race so long as you have preserved enough energy to keep going. I have on several occasions got to Braithwaite in the Lakeland 100, or Chapieux in the UTMB (both about 30 miles in), an hour and a half or so faster than I needed to, and I'm convinced that I paid for that extra effort later in the event. It's especially hard to judge whether you are going easily, comfortably, or just a bit too hard early in the race at night, when everything seems that bit more effort anyway. Another reason that I am stressing the need to go at minimum effort when you are near your cut-off limits is that then you can eat and drink better, and so keep going for longer. Another reason for my TdG success was that at the pace required I could eat and drink more or less as if I was hillwalking, with proper meals at regular intervals.
So my take out is that if I know that a "finish" is my only goal, I must not get carried away by thinking that I can do better than that when I'm in the early part of the race, no matter how comfortable it feels; I'll pay for it later.
Training and State of Fitness
Tim Noakes makes what I think is a very telling observation in Waterlogged. I'm paraphrasing because I can't find the quote (it's a long book - and pretty difficult to search on an old Kindle!) but he says something like: "By now (when the idea of "drink before you're thirsty" had full sway) runners were blaming their failures on failing to hydrate properly, but maybe they just weren't sufficiently trained for the event they were undertaking".
I was quite happy when I finished my last ultra, the Ultimate Trails Lakeland 100k. I finished in reasonable shape. John Kynaston was there too, and finished a couple of hours ahead of me; he was looking in fine form at the finish. I could probably have made some inroads into that two hours if I had decided to push a bit harder through the race, but I then wouldn't have finished feeling so good. It was a choice on the day. But why was John able to get those two hours and still finish in good shape? He was simply fitter than I was, better trained for the event. Something we often forget.
So the final point for me is that you can get everything right in terms of nutrition, hydration, pacing strategy and so on, but if you're not sufficiently trained for the adventure you're taking on, failure is so much closer.
One factor that I didn't put in my list of possible contributors to a DNF is event overload. It's been put to me a few times by friends and acquaintances that if you run too many events you invite failure by not recovering sufficiently between them. While I respect their views, I don't buy the idea for two reasons:
(a) I don't suffer from muscle aches or soreness after events, even long ones. I'm usually running again a couple of days after the finish. Luck maybe, but my limbs cover a lot of miles (maybe just not at a fast enough speed!) in training so I don't think I'm suffering damage. I just need to recover the calorie and fluid deficit and then I'm good to go.
(b) Guys like Jon Steele and Nick Ham have shown that it's possible to run far more races than I do and still perform well in them - and they suffer the inconvenience of having to make a living at the same time!
No, I won't be convinced.
I said a couple of posts ago that I knew why I had to stop in this year's UTMB and that I would maybe explain in a later post. Well it's all here (mostly). But just to put it into a sentence or two, here's what I think went wrong;
1. I wasn't trained appropriately for the event. Because getting a PB in the West Highland Way was a priority for me I trained for this, which is very much a running race with gentle climbs. It was only after this (end of June) that I started on proper hill training, and then because I had a knee problem which was making downhills uncomfortable I only managed 8000ft of ascent a week in July and August, sufficient for some people I'm sure but not for me. In the previous year on the run-up to the TdeG I had averaged 12000ft a week from May onwards.
2. On the day I ran a poor race by trying to build up too much of a cushion on the cut-offs too early on. I could have taken an hour and a half longer to Chapieux which would have put me in much better shape. On the ascent of the Col de Ferret then again up to Champex (where I retired) I was passed by numerous runners going steadily who had just got their pacing right.
Are these things that I could put right in future. Possibly, but I haven't yet changed my view that even with more sensible pacing, the overall speed you have to go for the first half is still probably too fast for me.
Well, we've eventually reached the end. My four weeks are up on Saturday so next week I'm intending to start a bit of gentle running again. Tour de Helvellyn in about 10 weeks, I'm really looking forward to it.