Sunday, August 7, 2016

Dissecting a DNF

Dissecting a DNF
So why did I DNF my first race at the Lakeland 100 last weekend? 

The short answer is probably "I didn't want it enough".  The long answer is probably various versions of "I didn't want it enough because.....".
I use the word 'probably' in both sentences because the mind is a funny thing.  A few months back I had a conversation with James Adam's about post-race justifications for DNFs.  We talked about people who would come up with all the reasons outside of their control that they DNF'd and how the mind can alter reality to stop it being the individual's fault.  If anything I think my post-race thought process goes in the other direction and even in races that I've won I've been very self-critical of my performance after the event.
So I'm not sure you can really write an objective view of a DNF.  Even if you were to write it at the moment that they cut the dibber from your wrist your mind would still have had the hours running up to that point to justify your decision.
If you'd asked me 6 weeks before the race how my physical preparation was going I'd have told you that I was in the best shape of my life.  I'd been using the artificial intelligence TrainAsONE service to give me a structured training programme that was making me a faster and more efficient runner than I'd been before.  So far in 2016 I'd run PB's at 5k, 10k and marathon (not a marathon that 'count's but you know what I mean).  The TrainAsONE algorithm is still in Beta though and is still learning about ultras.  My long runs were all around 20 miles and the concentration on speedwork meant that some of the hillier offroad runs that I might have done I was now doing on flatter tarmac - my choice not TrainAsONE's but relevant nonetheless.
Lesson Identified – don’t be a slave to a training programme – use your brain as well.
 I'd planned on doing a block of race specific training largely focussed on hillwork in the 6 weeks before the race but then I picked up a bit of a niggle - I'm still not really sure what it was - possibly linked to an old back problem.  Running didn't really hurt but the day after running hurt quite a lot with random pain in various places in my right leg.  I then had some unplanned dental work - root canal surgery that absolutely knocked me for six.  I got really run down and in the end trained very little in the next few weeks. 
Physically then I was going into the race largely relying on the large base I'd built up in the first half of the year with finishes at The Spine and Hardmoors 110 and hoping that the decline in fitness from 6 weeks before wouldn't impact too much.
Lesson Identified - if I'm focussing on a race I need to get the race specific training right.  In this case I should have focussed more on hill work earlier even if it was at the expense of some speed.
On a purely transactional basis this was a free race for me.  I'd helped out the year before and had a free place.  So I hadn't spent either the money or the effort to be sat at a laptop trying desperately to get a place in the race the previous September as I had done in the previous two years.  Looking back on it having less invested in the event either financially or more importantly personally had a lot to do with not finishing it.
Life in the run up to the race was exceptionally busy. Not only was it one of the busiest times of the year at work but I was also in the process of leaving the army, setting up my own business and working with another startup company.  Throw in two teenage children with active social lives and I was generally mentally quite tired going into the event.  Looking back on it I hadn't done anything like as much race planning as for most of my other races and was relying too heavily on the fact that I'd completed the Lakeland 100 before to get me through.
The final mental factor was that immediately after the race we were going on our annual family holiday.  This wasn't going to be 2 weeks lying on a beach but 2 weeks of being fairly active.
Most of these things I could have predicted ten months out when I cashed in my free place.  With hindsight I should have opted for the 50 rather than the 100 and it was only pure arrogant bravado that made me sign up for the 100 when all this stuff was going to be going on.
Lesson Identified - I need to be fully committed to big races - 'cuffing' it won't work.
The Start Line
Stood at the start line I still wasn't really sure I wanted to be there.  I'd being toying with the idea of DNSing all week.  I'd run on the niggle on the Monday and could feel it a lot on the Tuesday. I had real worries about causing some serious damage or suffering the ignominy of DNFing with an injury just a few miles in.
However, Marc Laithwaite in his pre-race briefing had highlighted the fact that many of us there wouldn’t have trained as well as we'd hoped or would be carrying niggles.  His advice - "make the best of what you have to get to the finish".
My pre-race goals 8 weeks out from the race were (A) Sub-30, (B) Quicker than last time and (C) Finish. Marc's advice was for all of us to focus on C. My only worry with this was that finishing close to the cut-off was going to make it fairly tight to make the ferry that we were booked onto for our holiday - this was to become a factor that played out during the race in a big way.  It reiterates the point that to be fully committed to the race you probably need to not be committed to anything else immediately afterwards.
The Race
I won't go into all the details of the race but in general terms it went something like this:
·         First 8 hours - leg hurt a bit, didn't really want to be there.  Lots of fairly shitty mental activity involving calculating a 'reasonable DNF point to stop getting too injured' BUT enjoying being out the Lakes with other runners.
·         Next 8 hours - growing into the race.  Enjoying myself, enjoying the challenge, dealing with the leg, congratulating myself on digging myself out of the low start point and not letting it beat me, being a bit disgusted with my thoughts about 'manufacturing' a DNF.  Hitting the Dalemain checkpoint I felt really strong and was ahead of my time for that stage two years previously.
·         Next 2 hours  - because of the niggle going into the race I hadn't been running naturally since the start - to what extent this overworked some muscles and how much it was to do with my lack of hill training I don't know.  By the time I reached Howtown I was struggling to run on the easy downhills as my quads began to stop working.  The final tarmac descent down to the Mill was the first time my leg wobbled and I thought I might fall over.  Heading up Fuzedale I felt tired but was still moving ok - those ahead of me weren't really pulling away and I was nearly at the top before the first 50 mile runners overtook me.
·         The last 6 hours - a hundred metres of so before the top of Fuzedale it was like a switch had been thrown - mentally and physically.  My legs started wobbling, my pace slowed to a crawl, I was suddenly absolutely exhausted and everything felt hopeless.  As I hit the gentle decline down from High Kop which is usually one of the most pleasant runnable sections of the whole 100 miles I tried to get moving again but it just wouldn't come.  I became less and less confident that my left leg would take my weight as I loaded it – not just my quads but hips and knees felt like they were going in odd directions.  Never mind a death march it rapidly descended into a Walking Dead March.  In a very short space of time I suffered not only a massive drop in physical ability but I lost all confidence in my ability to the finish the race.
I didn't quite keep count but somewhere in the region of 30-40 other runners who passed me over the next 5 miles stopped to check I was ok.  Some of these were people who knew me, others stopped after I'd decided to have a little nap to try to get my head back in the game.  The majority though just stopped because I looked in shit state.
I'd pretty much decided to drop before I got to the checkpoint.  I half heartedly told myself that I would give myself an hour to sort myself out and then make a decision but I think it would be dishonest to think I was going start out of the checkpoint.
Lesson Identified – need to find a way to force myself to revaluate where I’m actually at after a ‘recovery’ period at a CP.  I could have left Mardale Head after a 90 minute wait – I just didn’t want to.
Post Mortem
So what went wrong?  I think it was probably a combination of things.
Physically although I'd been feeding really well throughout the race at some point going up Fuzedale I think the tank must have hit empty.  I did manage to take get some stuff down on the descent from High Kop but not enough to turn things around.  Maybe stopping and spending some time refuelling might have got enough energy to my brain to think rationally about what I was doing.  As it was the emotional part of the brain took over and I didn't have enough energy left to come up with a plan to get me to the finish.
5 days on and my left quad and hip are still much more painful than usual and I'm still a bit unsteady descending anything - not ideal when I'm holidaying on the Isle of Man!  Was it enough to stop me finishing - in isolation probably not but coupled with what was going on in my head I felt unsafe enough on my feet to not feel justified in carrying on.
Mentally was where I really lost it.  Being unsteady on my feet triggered my brain into catastrophising - I had plenty of time to come up with unpleasant outcomes that all ended up with me in hospital or something similar and the family not going on holiday as planned.  Trying to run 100 miles the day before our holiday was epic stupidity on my part.  Take this out of the equation and I don't think I'd have had enough excuses not to set out from Mardale Head - after that who knows.
Probably the largest factor in not finishing though was that I just didn't want it enough.  This was a mixture of having other things on my mind in the run up to the race, the idea of the holiday going wrong and maybe a little bit because the race wasn't costing me anything and I'd finished it before.
I'm a big fan of the book The Chimp Paradox and I'd recommend any ultrarunner read it.  In Chimp Paradox terms the race not being important enough to the Human to finish meant that when the Chimp took over it was always going to win.  Throw in some physical factors like the niggles and probably some nutritional stuff and it was a bit of a perfect storm.
Things I Really Need To Sort Out Long Term
·         Weight - I still need to weigh more going into these races than I currently do.  I think this would give me more of a cushion when things start going wrong.
·         Leg strength - I keep promising myself I'll work more on my strength and conditioning.  I really need to keep this promise.
·         Brain stuff - I need get a Chimp Paradox script running in my head to help me stop, reset and then plan for when things go wrong.
Race Positives (Good feedback always ends on a postive ;-) )
·         I learnt a lot.  Well I identified a lot of things I'd do differently - the jury will be out on whether I learned from them or not.
·         I'm another 75 miles closer to an Eddington Score of 75.
·         I got to run in the Lakes - my favourite place.
·         I got to meet some more great people even if I'd have liked to have run a bit more with some of them.
·         I enjoyed myself for for much more of the race than I didn't enjoy myself.

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