Wednesday, 16 November 2016

"It was brutal!"

You may take this as the ramblings of an old duffer wanting things to be a bit slower in an age where everyone expects to be able to do what they want immediately; you may be right and I won't be offended. Equally if I offend anyone, it is not intended. If it makes you think a bit, even if you disagree, then that's enough.

We live in an age of hyperbole. In almost every sports interview or report you come across nowadays, nearly every aspect of the story is "incredible" (incredible: beyond belief or understanding - Collins English Dictionary) and performances are frequently "epic" (epic: an episode in the lives of men in which heroic deeds are performed or attempted;  heroic: distinguished by exceptional courage, nobility, fortitude, etc). We've got used to this over the years of course, but I had sort of thought and hoped that the quiet backwater of ultra running might have escaped the trend.

When I somehow drifted into this world about 10 years ago my daughter, who had watched a lot of my progressive immersion from the sidelines, observed that ultra runners appeared to be "a sociable bunch of rather attractively deranged characters who behave as though what they are doing is entirely normal." I warmed to the description and I think that's how it was. A bit like rock climbing before it became establishment. You went out and did what you did, learned from the relatively few people who were around in the game, had a beer and went home. No fuss, no hype, no Facebook.

Now don't get me wrong. I welcome the explosion of the ultra running scene over the last ten years, lots more events to go and enjoy all over the place, and without a doubt the top practitioners these days are real world-class athletes. But.

A couple of weeks ago I participated as a running marshal on a Lakeland 100 "recce", an activity which I'm now in my third year of enjoying. You cover a section of the Lakeland 100 course in the company of runners who have turned up to get a bit familiar with the route and your brief is to deal with any safety, injury or major navigational problems (don't let people get too lost). It's always a good day out with nice new people to meet in a beautiful area. This time the section was from Coniston to Buttermere and we had the normal well-organised outing. Some found it a bit harder than others but that's what recces are for, to give you an appreciation of what the event itself involves.

Afterwards though I heard and saw one or two comments describing the course as "brutal" (brutal: cruel; vicious; savage; or harsh; severe; extreme) Well actually, no. We had near perfect conditions for the time of year and followed paths that are used frequently by many Lakeland visitors who would describe themselves as walkers or ramblers. I'm not singling out Lakeland participants in particular, I recently saw Offa's Dyke described as brutal, and similarly extreme descriptions have been used about many other relatively benign courses.

Ah, but you will say,  it's not the ground that makes it extreme.  It's the distance we do in a day, the weather we're likely to meet, it's the overall package that puts it out of the ordinary.  And I might have to agree; even on our modest Lakeland recce, 26 miles is probably a bit more than the average rambler would cover between tea shops; and while many of us have enjoyed a gentle sidle up the Pennine Way in September, the same path in the middle of January is an altogether different proposition. But these are difficulties that we introduce for our own enjoyment; and here's the rub.

Up to now you could pass me off for poking some gentle fun at a bit of natural over-exaggeration in a fast-growing sport; but there's a more serious point here. We participate in an activity that we can engage with at a variety of levels to suit our preferences, skills and experience. As the difficulty level of the event rises we willingly accept a bit more discomfort and potential hazard because we believe for us that the rewards of achievement are worth it. But the more we use extreme language to describe our activities, the more we promote the idea that extreme effort and its consequences (extreme fatigue/exhaustion, injury, long recovery times) are a natural part (sometimes the major part) of the game. We recall with pride how we pushed on close to our limits, enduring screaming joints and muscles,  eating and drinking problems, navigational extra-curricular activities, sleep-deprived losses of judgement and other demons, to arrive broken but triumphant at the finish. And the more we do this, the more it becomes it accepted that this is the norm for the game.

My concern with this is that as the sport grows, with more and more near-exhausted competitors being out in potentially hazardous conditions, accident rates to both runners and those required to get them out of difficulties are going to rise. We have had mercifully few deaths in this game so far, but I think we've been lucky; and if they do start to arise, the individual tragedies involved will not be the only consequences. The media attention they would generate would have a significant detrimental effect on the sport.

Trail and mountain running is an "adventure" type sport that needs a bit of learning to build up skills and experience for progressively more difficult events. Parallels that I have some background in are mountaineering and ski-touring, but there are many others  - ocean sailing, diving, and so on.  To a certain extent these are "Catch 22" games - to survive you need experience, to gain experience you need to survive. Courses help but can only scratch the surface of real knowledge won by the individual. The key is to progress at a rate that gets you out of your comfort zone sufficiently to extend your knowledge but not so far as to put you at unreasonable risk.

The elephant in the room here is that trail running involves organised events whereas the other games I have mentioned are normally played by individuals or groups devising their own outings. An event has a set course (wholly or in part) or covers a known area which is covered in general by marshals "for your safety".  You can afford to push yourself to your limits because if it goes wrong the organisation will get you out. Make the phone call, push the button on your tracker and all will be well. Except that it doesn't work that way. Get into trouble in the less accessible areas of country covered by some of our UK races in bad conditions and you might as well be on the moon. The race co-ordination may have some idea of where you are but be powerless to extract you without significant further personal risk being involved.

We all get unlucky sometimes; accidents happen; while in full control we can still make bad judgements. Everyone in the outdoor game understands this. What I think is unacceptable though is to get yourself into trouble by attempting an undertaking that was beyond your capabilities right from the start. Other than making use of the facilities available to every competitor (food and drink at checkpoints/aid stations, etc),  I think that if you have to resort to the help of others to get you to the finish (navigation, decision-making, provision of food, organisation of kit, etc), then I don't believe you can honestly say you completed the event.

My view, and as normal I don't expect everyone to agree (but I'll try to convince you nonetheless!), is that any competitor about to enter a race should ask themselves the following questions:
1. Have I the competence to complete this event with something in hand?
2. If things turn out more difficult than I believed, have I the judgement to stop before I become a liability?
- and be able to answer a completely honest "yes" to both.

What do I mean by competence to complete?

I think this falls into three main areas.

1. Fitness. If you've never done it, it's an illuminating experience to be at the finish of a demanding event when the leading runners come in. These guys are tired for sure, but almost without exception you get the impression that after a bit of a sit down and a cup of tea they could go out and carry on performing at the same level. Whatever else happened along the way, lack of fitness wasn't going to compromise their race. At whatever level you perform, I think you need to be fit enough so that at the end of the event in normal conditions, you could actually have gone on for several miles and a couple more hills if you had to. I'm often amazed by the amount of heavy breathing I hear in the first quarter, or even the first ten percent, of a long race. Now, it may just be that it's just the individual's particular style, but it doesn't sound good or give me any confidence that they will finish. You need to have enough in the tank to see you through in good shape, and then a bit more.

2. Navigation. We all make mistakes - but the key is can we recognise and correct them? I've been in events where I've seen  lots of runners whose navigation was so sketchy that they were clearly relying on those around them to show them the way. I don't believe they can be considered to have completed the event. Now I'm not denying that when conditions put you up against it then two brains are often better (or to be more precise, faster) than one in solving problems, but that's where both are contributing, not one relying on the other. I think before you enter an event you need to ask yourself "Can I navigate this course totally alone? In whatever conditions are thrown at me. And when my GPS fails. If you can't answer an honest yes to these, then you shouldn't go.

3. Staying safe within the conditions, for the duration of the race. For 30 miles along the coast or around a lowland forest in summer, this is not likely to require a lot of thought or experience. If you set out on a multi-day trip through the mountains in uncertain weather with checkpoints maybe only coming once a day then you need to ask a lot more questions. Have I got the right kit? Not the mandatory kit which is sometimes there only to meet the organiser's insurance requirements, but the right kit which will keep me warm enough, dry enough, and in good enough shape to keep making progress. Have I tested all this in the conditions in which it might be critical? Do I have a proven food/liquid strategy that I know will carry me through the duration of the event? Have I the experience of the amount of sleep deprivation the event is likely to present? How will I react if it rains for 24 hours, if I face gale force winds, if my water bottles freeze at night? Do I have a plan if I have to abandon my race but I can still walk? And if I can't walk? You get the picture. And between these two not-quite-extremes lie the vast majority of events that need an honest assessment of your ability to cope. 

As a final comment on competence, I'll reflect on where I came in. I really think we have to get away from the idea that the hallmark of success in an event is to battle on "heroically" through pain and exhaustion then somehow get to the finish through a supreme effort of will.  For me, the way to finish an ultra is to understand the challenge, decide honestly whether you can meet it, prepare for it fully and execute it competently.

I have huge respect for anyone who has the energy and commitment to organise an ultra event. Without them we would not be able to go out and play. My only comment to (some of) them is that they should be a bit more consistent in attracting and managing entries. "This will be the hardest thing you have ever done" combined with a non-existent (or token) experience qualification does not make sense. I can't see how running events with a regular drop-out rate approaching 50% benefits anyone (one or two "designed to minimise finishers" events excepted!). Most good events these days are fully- or over-subscribed, so I personally think more stringent entry requirements would not only up the completion rate but allow organisers to sleep a bit more easily in that there will be fewer runners out there approaching (or over) their physical or technical limits.

And from our side, we the runners should be a bit less driven by the publicity and status of the race, than by an honest assessment of whether we actually have a chance of completing it safely in the worst conditions. 

In short, runners should attempt events that are going to provide a real challenge without putting either themselves or others at significant risk.

It wasn't brutal, it was just beyond our experience at the time.

1 comment:

Robert Osfield said...

A great post Andy, I totally agree with all your points.

Being realistic about your own capabilities and taking responsibility for your own safety is crucial part of ultra-marathoning. Being pragmatic and realistic isn't "glamorous" or obviously "heroic", even though it's the foundation of being a good ultra-marathoner.

I do wonder if hyperbole might be a sign of lack of nuance in us of language. Modern lives are so wrapped up in cotton wool that you can easily go through many years without ever hitting any level of serious physical hardship, that we've lost the ability to convey in language how we actually feel - so anything above a 5 out of 10 in difficulty is labelled "brutal".

For a seasoned outdoor enthusiast you'll be familiar with the various levels of discomfort and hopefully less prone to reaching for the hyperbole to describe your experience.

Like you I can see a danger in relying upon hyperbole, as it really gives the wrong ethos amount what we are undertaking as well as not providing a framework for others to start gauging there own effort/risk levels. If everyone is claiming extreme levels of discomfort then it normalizes it without giving any way to quantify things.

I guess we need "50 words for difficulty/discomfort" rather than easy, hard and BRUTAL.