Saturday, 17 September 2011

UTMB DNF: Responding to Comments


Thanks to all of you that have left on the blog and e-mailed me comments following my UTMB race.  It is pleasing to know that runners are finding my blog posts both interesting but also beneficial. Receiving feedback, it appears that there was equally disappointment amongst the readers regarding my UTMB DNF, however, before I move on to other topics I just thought I would respond to some of the comments left.

Firstly Bill.  Yes, running frequently within the mountains could be an advantage, however, I don't see this as a main factor regarding DNFs for those with less mountain running within their preparation.  With regards to my preparation, I do not do specific mountain training, in fact I don't even do specific hill training.  I simply run up hills when I encounter then during my training, but I do not specifically go out and 'search' for them.  This is mainly due to my believe that it is self confidence/self expectations that are the benefits from specific mountain training, not any actual physical benefits.  So if you are able to develop the self confidence regarding mountain running in other ways then no essential need to run within the mountains.

The key issue with this year's UTMB for me was I feel the 5 hour delay, rather than the at times wet and cold weather conditions.  When preparing for a race the key aspect of my preparation is to prepare the mind and body as one, actually the subconscious, for what it is likely to encounter during the race.  So within this preparation it is all about looking at the course details, the elevation gains/losses, the checkpoints, the terrain, likely underfoot conditions, likely weather conditions etc.  It is building up this information about the event so when you actually come to it on race day, what you encounter is reasonably similar to what you have given thought to, what you have considered, or what you have visualised during the preparation.

So running a race for the second time, can therefore be an advantage as you have more information available regarding what you are likely to encounter, so the considerations, the visualisations can be stronger, can be more accurate, more likely to resemble what you will actually encounter.  However, as was the case this year for me, and for others, having past experiences of the event can also be a big disadvantage!

Within my preparation, I was totally aware of the terrain, elevations, distances between checkpoint etc. based on my 2009 race, and from the available race information, google earth flyovers, video clips, photos etc.  I have run in wet and cold conditions many times.  I have run over trails, up hills etc. many times.  The Hardmoors 55 from 2010 springs to mind in terms of extremely demanding conditions.  Having seen video footage of the 2010 UTMB, and read race reports, I was well aware that weather conditions could be wet and cold at the UTMB.  So although I do not actually train in the mountains in unpleasant conditions I am able to visualise these situations quite clearly, so I don't see this lack of training specificity as a problem.

As I highlighted above, having run the event in 2009, I feel this ended up being a disadvantage for me due to the 5 hour delay to the start.  Within my blog post last week I commented on the cold and the rain, and how the conditions were so different to the warm night of 2009, however, this wasn't really the key issue as I had visualised running the UTMB in wet and cold conditions.  What I hadn't visualised was starting in the dark, and especially running to Les Houches and running the first climb in the dark.  As I am an 'emotional' runner, and really perform on emotion, perform due to the positivity of the event.  I had spent many hours preparing, focusing on, visualising the first 2 hours of the race, from the start to St Gervais.  For me, this was the key to the whole race.  Start well, get into a good position, get the 'buzz' from running well, being right amongst it within the first 30 or so runners, so then able to progress through the field, as others drop out!!!  Yes how ironic, that my race strategy involved moving up the field due to others dropping out.  Well this was because there is such a large drop out rate of around 40% at the UTMB.  Never, for one single milli-second, did I ever consider that I would be one of the 40%, actually ended up being over 52%!  Back in 2009, at the top of the fourth climb. Arete Mont Favre I was in 55th place.  I ended up finishing in 22nd place.  From that point in the race (69km and 10 hours 01 minutes), nobody overtook me.  I howevr only overtook 13 runners, as 20 runners who were at that time ahead of me dropped out.  Quite an amazing statistic really!  It would be interesting to see how many runners from the top 55 at the same point DNFed this year.  Probably more than 20 I would expect!

Anyway, sorry about that distraction, where was I???  Yes, I was commenting about this visualisation of the first two hours running during daylight, 'feeling' the surrounding runners around me, being in total appreciation of the beauty and spectacle of the mountains, and just taking in the whole amazing atmosphere of the competitors, the mountains, the spectators.  And then 'feeding' of this emotion, to propel me into the night, and then throughout the next day.  So this vividness, as a result of my extensive preparation was what totally threw me 'astray'.  It was just so totally different to what I had prepared for, so in essence I was totally unprepared.  I was in a situation which my subconscious had not planned for.  And looking at the photo of me on the start line, it was clearly evident then, that I was already struggling with the changed situation, even before the race had started.

I signed off my post last week with some words from Nick Clark, as he ended up having to DNF due to a similar reason. i.e the race was different to what he had prepared for.  For him, it was not the difference of being daytime or night time, but it was the route change, not going up to Bovine, and having to descend to Martigny.  Now he is one of the best there is in 100 mile trail ultras, as evidenced by his 3rd place at this years Western States 100.  Physically, an extra hour onto the race duration, and a few extra 100s of metres of climbing, isn't going to be a problem to him.  But as he highlighted "A huge part of being successful in completing these events is an understanding of what lies in front of you. (He seems to have the same approach regarding the importance of preparing the mind and body with an expectation of what it is likely to encounter during the event). Your mind prepares your body, and your body delivers an output that is sustainable for the mileage and elevation change that remains. If the mind is checked out, the body follows."

So for me, this mismatch between what I had prepared for, what I was expecting to encounter, and the actual reality of the race caused my mind and body as one, "to check out"!  And at a very early stage of the race, to some extent before the actual start, but I think mainly during that first climb in the dark!

Interestingly, from what I have read, this 'checking out' from the race, for whatever reason seemed a familiar story.  To my surprise, during the race, after I had 'checked out', climbing the fourth climb of Arete Mont Favre rather slowly, I was overtaken my Krissy Moehl, the twice winner of UTMB, including 2009, finishing in 11th place overall.  So seeing her so far down the field, and barely going any quicker than me was a real shock.  On her blog she makes the following comments:
"1). I visualize.  When possible I like to visualize sections of the course, what it looks like, time of day and how I will feel.  ...  2). I am a planner, and maybe to a fault. ... Because of 1 & 2 the nature of the race this year threw me.  With the crazy rain storm that blew in Friday night, I woke up at 10am to a text message alerting us that the race start time had been pushed back 5 hours to 11:30pm.  This changed all crew plans, clothing plans and time of day where I would be on the course.  It also created a much longer wait on Friday and we would now have to run into the second night (where before if all was going well it is possible to finish just before dark on Saturday).  We tried to see positives in the fact that our night time wouldn’t be as long the first night, that this push back helped avoid time in the harshest part of the storm, but I realize hindsight that for all my planning this really changed my head game.  ...   Funny thing is I think I normally do a pretty good job with rolling with the punches, but this time I just felt defeated.  When times got tough I didn’t have that edge that I am used to drawing on to push through."
Yes, I was really amazed as well when I read her blog post, after I had typed up mine, on just how similar our interpretations were of what went wrong.  And like her, I tend to consider myself as being able to deal with situations when they get 'tough'.  Usually the tougher the conditions, i.e. cold, or heat, or wet mud/bog, I tend to perform better, but just like her, not this time!

And also similarly like me, she knew early on, that things weren't going well:  "When the going gets tough, there has to be that something more, that something deeper that you can find to get you to the finish.  I knew it wasn’t my day when I arrived in St. Gervais (this is at 21km, after around 2 hours) - Zoe said she could see it in my eyes.  I wanted to resolve to finish no matter what.  But I didn’t have the fight."

So getting back to my race day performance, yes, one could conclude, that I was 'soft' pulling out from the UTMB this year, as after all on the 'surface' it appears that the only problem was that my race experience was different to what I had expected.  I wasn't injured, or I wasn't ill, as I was reminded by one reader: "You couldnt dictate, you were not in the area of the race you thought you would be, athletes you expected to beat were doing much better than you, and your predicted position from an elite start was not going to happen,  you pulled out WHY, were you injured, or could you not deal with a lowly finishing position,"  Hopefully above I have been able to clarify what the problem was for me.  I guess it gets down to having too much faith/belief in the inseparable link between the mind and the body, in that they act as one.  To me, this faith, this belief, is what 'makes me' the ultra trail runner I am.  And yes, it can result in things not going right all of the time, but it also does appear that two of the very best ultra trail runners in the world, seemed to have a similar problem as mine.  Maybe it could be described as being a bit soft in the head, or too arrogant to accept a lowly finishing position, but I prefer Nick Clark's description: "I had lost the mental fortitude to keep my legs from seizing up."  Yes, the mind can create amazingly fantastic experiences, but it can also create amazingly difficult experiences!  As Nick highlights, it is the mind that actually controls whether your legs seize up or not.  And usually when one is in the right state of mind, the legs just don't seize up, the mountains just don't seem steep. the running just feels totally easy, and everything just cruises along, within the flow, within the rhythm, within the joy of running.  Unfortunately UTMB 2011, for me, and for others was just not one of those days!

Well!  I thought tonight's post was going to be a quick short post, offering a quick simple response to reader's comments.  Oh well, I do feel better, for hopefully clarifying my situation.  Please excuse me!

Back to the comments.  Hi Johny, I don't know what your performances are when it comes to running, race performance is definitely not a criteria to determine whether people's comments are worthy, or are from a 'fraud'.  I welcome all reader's comments, as I know I learn so much from others, from runners of all abilities.  That is one aspect of the ultra running community that I really appreciate.  The willingness of others to share their experiences in the hope that others can gain from them.

But getting back to your comment regarding race expectations.  I see race expectations as being crucial to performing well within ultra trail running.  During the preparation stage, it is essential that you have developed clear, and confident (and realistic) expectations of what you will encounter during the event, but more importantly how you will positively respond to the different situations within the event, which will then result in a successful performance.  But the key thing to remember, and what I forgot to adhere to at UTMB, is that the focus on the expectations ONLY occurs during the preparation phase.  Come race day, the self expectation should be now well ingrained within your self-conscious, so you don't need to actually think about them.  You don't need to consider them at all.  For come race day, the key is to simply enjoy the journey, to be 'within the present moment', to simply enjoy the running, and the underlying self expectations, now at a subconscious level, they will simply 'do the business' if you just allow it to happen, without forcing it!.  I wish I had reminded myself of the above paragraph, on the Friday night, 3 weeks ago.  But, as I mentioned in last weeks post; "Everything happens for a reason", and maybe one of the key things I will learn from this year's UTMB is that the above paragraph is so important in dictating the likelihood of having a successful performance.

This moves on very nicely to the comment left my Tom (Living on the Trail).  I totally agree, absolutely one hundred percent with the comment that Tom as left.  In fact I like it so much, I think I will adopt his take home message in future blog posts:
"Maybe we can forget to trust and not separate training from the joy of racing.

Training = build the physical off the mental
Race Day = Trust and enjoy"
I already knew this message that he has left.  It has been my philosophy for the last three years of trail racing, However, it does really help when someone recognises what the issue is and spells it out so clearly.  Thanks Tom for your input.  I will remind myself come future races, "Trust and enjoy", as simple as that!

Now Andy, firstly, what's this you stating that you "don't buy into all of my ideas"!  Just joking!  It's nice to know that you have bought into some of them.  And again, I am in total agreement with what you have written.  Yes, one does have to always remember why we run trail ultras; because they are enjoyable.  Not just enjoyable afterwards, but during the actual journey!  For many, many years I focused too much on the destination.  I was focused on the finishing time, setting a new PB for the marathon, or half marathon,  Finishing in a certain position.  The enjoyment would come afterwards, from the reflecting upon the good result.  Well having this approach to my running for so many years, without knowing at the time, really restricted my running.  It prevented me from running successfully, as there just wasn't the actual joy from the running.  The joy was all dependent upon the result.  For me, for my running to be successful, I have to experience the joy of running, WHILE I AM RUNNING!

Now that doesn't mean that running can't get challenging, get tough.  In many ways, dealing with the challenges, overcoming the toughness, the difficult 'blips' in races can be extremely satisfying, and extremely enjoyable at that moment in time.  But then there are situations, like I experienced this year at UTMB where due to the state my mind was in, there was not any enjoyment.  And, yes as Andy points out, one can endure this in races, if there are only a few hours to go, however, when faced with many, many hours of un-enjoyment, the question whether to continue does arise.  Fortunately for me, I don't recall this question being asked of me very often during the last 30 years.  With the last time, when the question was answered in a yes, time to pull out, being 26 years ago, after capsizing for a second time, and being extremely wet and cold, and hence definitely not enjoying the present moment, way back in the 1985 Rimutaka Triathlon.  So yes, I am fortunate that I experience the joy of running whilst running, nearly all of the time!

Hi, Graeme.  Congratulations on completing this year's UTMB.  I am so pleased for you in that your "Dreams Came True".  Can I strongly recommend to those of you that haven't been to Graeme's "Running Dad" blog, if you want to read a thoughtful and inspirational post, then click this link.  It really sums up what ultra trail running is all about, and how the positivity that is so evident within ultra trail running can be transmitted into your own and other's lifes.  Have a read, and thanks Graeme for you comment, and your great post.

Lastly, in this much longer post than I expected, thanks Alan for your comment, and congratulations on your tremendous effort moving up from 850th place after 2 hours 1 minute into the race, to finish in 44th place overall.  You specifically ask did I have a plan B?  Well, no, I do not have a plan B, as usually for all of my races over the last three or four years, my one and only plan is to run as hard and as fast as I can, being within the moment, and enjoying the journey.  So what other plan is needed?  But you are right, I did get "caught up with the idea of feeling out of place with the elite runners".  I simply forgot my plan A, even though my signing off message from my last post prior to race day was all about enjoying the journey.  Amazing, subconsciously I was telling myself, to get my act sorted out!!!  So yes, I did probably let how other runners were performing "interfere with the ability for me to run my own race".  So thank you for your interpretations of my writings.  Sometimes, all what is needed is for someone to simply raise your awareness to what is happening, because sometimes you can be 'too close to the situation' to actually see it. With regards to running "conservatively", either fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, that goes against my philosophy.  It just doesn't work for me, as I 'live' on the excitement, the risk, of pushing myself to the limit, each and every moment!  Well that's my aim!

Time to sign off with a quote from Graeme's great post:
"You need to make your own luck and have a hand in your own future and to grab the chances that present themselves to you. Enjoy these moments when they come, savour them and embrace them and recognise the fact that you made them happen."  Graeme Reid, 2011, Running Dad: Here's to the Dreamers - God bless us all!
All the best with putting your dreams into reality,


1 comment:

  1. Thank you Stuart for your kind words and I am pleased the point came across despite my poor explanation.