I started this sport to run 100 miles. It was that simple, really. After realising ultras existed back in 2011, I said I would run 100 miles.
In 2012 I ran my first 50 and in 2014 I finally finished my first 100 mile race and it was every bit as sweet as I had imagined, day and night for three years. It was all the more sweet because it didn’t come easy and came at a race I tried, and failed, to finish in 2013.
The thing is, that first attempt at the 100 mile distance was the first race I had ever failed to finish.
I am by no means quick, but I am stubborn and I tend to get things done. It took me a year to bounce back and it took everything I had- and a lot of what I didn’t realise I had- to fall across that finish line.
To date I have stood on the start line of eight 100 milers and only finished four of them. I’ve still not dropped from a race of any other distance so what is it that’s consistently tripped me up here?
I have done a lot of thinking about this these last few months, because if you had asked me four months ago I would have said I have started six 100 milers and finished four, but two 100 mile DNF’s in a row knocked my confidence and I have subsequently hit re-set, had a break, got a bit fat and started again from scratch.
I’ve spoken to friends and fellow runners and whilst I wanted to write this piece primarily for me, to clarify my thoughts with my first race of 2017 just 3 months away, I thought it might help others either stepping up to the distance or trying to better their performances.
Insufficient Mental Strength
The vast majority of drops from 100 mile + distance races are because of mentally checking out. I have lost count of times in races of all distances where I have been scripting my excuses for a drop at the next aid station.
With a hundred miler, its not that I necessarily get any different thoughts to a shorter race, I just have longer to think about them. And let them fester. And let them slowly pluck my race from my feet. Everything can be working well, but if you don’t choke off that thought, that thread that keeps begging to be pulled and pulled, you will check out and when that happens you are done, no matter what you have left physically.
In 100 milers, I’ve sometimes taken over 3 hours to go 10 miles between aid stations. When you’re cold and exhausted and you realise you could have used those 3 hours for a Nandos and a movie and driven home, you’ve got to remember why you signed up in the first place and have been excited about this race for weeks. Precisely because you are not doing what everyone else is doing on a Saturday night and that Nandos coleslaw is rubbish.
Often it will manifest itself as a physical injury such as a strain. That initial pain becomes a strain and then the worm creeps into your brain that if you don’t stop, you’ll do yourself some serious injury.
Other times it’s a reaction to the climate- too hot, too cold, too thirsty, not pissing enough and so on.
They are all threads and need to be stopped before they start. Learn to tell a thought to do one. If it’s a real issue, it’ll come back of its own accord and really needs no encouragement or nurturing.
Two of my four drops have been for mental reasons. I blamed the first one on the heat and the second on a knee injury. Because that was easier than calling myself a wimp.
Not to be confused with insufficient mental strength, this is going into a race with something else heavily weighing on your mind. We all run these sorts of distances, at least in part, as a means of escapism. Not just the races themselves, but the discipline it takes to train for them. I know I do.
But sometimes I have something on my mind that wont leave during a race or on other occasions it will be a problem I have been suffering through which has now gone away and meant some of the ‘fight’ I had had up until recently had left me.
My third dropout at UTMB in August was partially down to this and partially down to being undertrained for such an endeavour. A huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders two weeks before race day and whilst this was magnificent, it also was like a boxer losing concentration mid-fight and being landed a shattering blow. UTMB was that blow and knocked me out.
UTMB wasn’t actually a drop, but I was timed out. Regardless, this meant I was not good enough to finish. I was mentally exhausted and physically unprepared for the endeavour as a consequence.
I remember an interview with Anton Krupicka a few years back where he said he would seriously need to re-think his nutrition strategy because what got him through 50’s was making him bonk on the 100’s.
Like daily nutrition I believe variety is key but that also one can get into zombie mode mid-race and lost focus on strategy. If you get nutrition wrong, you will lose mental focus and you will then drop. You might wing it through a 50 miler on bad nutrition or just fruit and coke, but in a 100 that is virtually impossible.
We all know how bad we feel when we miss breakfast and rush around and eat lunch late- pretty rubbish. So magnify that by ten and that’s how you’ll feel if you cant eat in an ultra.
The biggest problem with nutrition is that very few of us will run more than 30 miles in training for a 100 miler or maybe the odd 50 miler thrown in a month or two before the big day. What works on a 30 miler may not work from mile 31 and you just wont know it until race day.
I have learnt that the best way to combat this is to not have just one nutrition strategy but be open minded to having to switch things up mid race. I’ll have a plan, but I will be open to deviate from that plan as soon as it no longer works.
The last race I dropped from in September was the Cotswold Way Century. It’s a midday start and I took the two hour bus ride to the start and saw this as a sensible time to stuff my face. Big mistake. I started bloated and heavy and felt rubbish from the first step. This also wasn’t helped by still, with hindsight, having slight gut issues from drinking from streams at the baking hot UTMB. I was puking from mile 30, moved quickly on to sipping gels and coke- which got me through the Thames Path 100 a couple of years back- albeit from mile 60- and started slowly bonking. I was still exhausted from UTMB and I couldn’t keep food down. I was pulled at mile 50 a broken man.
Whilst I haven’t dropped from injury myself, those who have are either carrying an injury into a race or sustain one during the run. The latter happens sometimes and it’s a risk we all take, but carrying one in is just stupid in a 100 miler. I get that races are few and far between and often it’s a qualifier that you need to finish to accumulate lottery points, but if it hurts on a 10 mile training run its going to put you in danger- and possibly others- in a 100 miler.
Yes, there is the usual ‘suck it up, buttercup’ and ‘man up’ bravado all over social media, but I have learnt ultras aren’t about being hard, they are about being sensible and knowing when you really are pushing that little bit too far.
A friend of mine summed it up perfectly a few years ago and I always have this in my mind during a race- if the pain is so bad that you need a painkiller, then drop. I’ve only taken a painkiller once in a race and I never will again as its just dangerous. Either carry on without one or step aside (but bearing in mind the insufficient mental strength- is it really that bad or is it your excuse?)
For me, it has been a very humbling experience this year. I wont be so hard on myself to improve next year like I always was, but will focus more on the completion and enjoyment of each step. Once you finish a distance, you have nothing left to prove.
Yes, you can improve your time but whether I am 109th or 67th no longer matters to me- its whether I ran smartly and whether I enjoyed the experience. I’m never going to compete at the sharp end and whilst PB’s are always a pleasant reward, a smile and knowledge that I did my best that day is what I am after next year.