The Blog I Never Thought I’d Write. RR100. My First DNF.

This is the blog that I never thought I’d write. Not because I think I’m some amazing runner who is above DNFing. But because DNF just doesn’t feature in my vocabulary. I always hold my hands up and say I’m not a naturally fast or talented runner, but why I do ok in ultra running is down to my mindset and that behind the smiley exterior I’m very driven and determined. If I say I’m going to do something, I do it, end of. I also know that when races don’t go to plan, I can take pretty much whatever is thrown at me in an ultra. Violently sick for 50+ miles at the SDW100? No problem, I’ll just walk 30 miles to the end. Woefully undertrained at the TP100 and low in iron? No problem, I’ll just walk the 42 miles from Reading to the end. Faced with 80 miles of unrunnable rocks and boulders at GRP? No problem, I’ll have a little cry and then slog out a finish. A polite person might call it drive and determination, whereas a less polite person might call me a stubborn old cow!

I take the view though, that ultra running is like life. Sometimes everything goes perfectly, and sometimes things go a bit shit. And it’s how you deal with the shit bits. And if I quit an ultra just because it isn’t going to plan and has a few shit bits, then what does that say about me in life?

I’ve run enough ultras and been on the other side volunteering, pacing and crewing, to know that it’s normally our minds that give up on us before our bodies do, so if you keep a strong mind then you can generally finish an ultra.

Injury is the one thing though that I would DNF a race for. I love running and I have a very sensible approach to training and not over racing, for the simple reason I want to be running for years to come, so I’d never run with an injury as no race is worth jeopardising your health for. However, apart from a couple of falls in training over the years, I’ve always been lucky and pretty much remained injury-free through 9 years of running.

Pre-Race

I’d had a brilliant few weeks of training leading up to the race. I don’t tend to focus on finish time before an ultra as so many variables come into play on race day, but based on my previous results and with Ian’s course knowledge, we thought an 18:00-18:30 hour finish time would be achievable if I had the perfect day out there, but I wasn’t even going to think about that until I started my final lap. I need to caveat that now by saying after seeing the course, I think my best case time would be an hour slower than that. Whilst the course is mostly runnable, it’s tricky underfoot in places with all the tree roots – fine in daylight hours but becomes much more difficult in the dark, so I think even if I’d gone into the final lap feeling strong and with plenty of running in my legs, there would have been more of a slowdown than I’d anticipated in the dark.

The only slight worry that was hanging over my head was a very minor inner thigh strain where I’d slipped on some black ice on my final run before heading out to Texas, but I was confident that by taping it up (we bought ‘emergency’ Rock Tape at Walmart where I discovered you can buy Rock Tape and a gun in a supermarket in Texas, but not a vegetarian sandwich!) and taking painkillers if necessary, it would hold up. I also spoke nicely to my thigh and told it it just had to get through 100 miles of running and then it would get a week of total rest on a beach in Belize afterwards, so how was that for a fair swap?!

The day before the race was mainly spent making up umpteen bottles of Mountain Fuel for my drop bag and staying off my feet as much as possible to give my thigh another day’s rest, and then did ‘packet pick-up’ (translated as ‘race registration and picking your race number up’ if you’re a Brit!) at the Huntsville State Park to get our first taste of the park which we’d be running 100 miles around the following day.

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Obligatory race number photo

Race Day – Lap 1

RR has a 6am start time which is perfect for a pair of early birds like us and at 6am we were counted down….and the pace around me was frantic from the off. I’ve done enough long races now to know that people always race off, but it still always surprises me. Unless there was going to be a lot of sub 16 hour finishes (there wasn’t), there was going to be a lot of blow-ups later on. I’d done a lot of practice in training at my 100 mile pace, which on the flat is around 10 minute mile pace, so I know instinctly how it should feel. The course is a mix of flat and undulating, and also the tree cover was playing havoc with my Garmin, so I didn’t bother with what my watch was saying and just ran to feel, making sure it felt super easy at all times.

The first hour was in the dark, so I was using all my concentration to stay upright. At times the trails felt like a bed of tree roots just waiting to catch you unawares and trip you up….I managed to stay on my feet throughout, but when I saw Tom later he’d done battle with a tree root on several occasions, each time coming off worse by the mud, cuts and blood he became more and more covered in!

The temperatures had been forecast as 14 degrees at the start, up to 20 degrees at its highest – pretty much perfect running temperatures for a Brit coming from a UK winter, however the temperature felt a lot warmer than that, even early on as the humidity is so high. This wasn’t a problem though and I just made sure I was drinking more and adding extra electrolytes to my Mountain Fuel. For the last year or so I’ve taken all solid food out of my race nutrition as I find I struggle to chew and digest it, so I was taking a mix of Mountain Fuel jelly’s and Longhaul food pouches which were working really well, especially in warmer temperatures where I can never eat ‘proper’ food.

The early miles ticked along nicely, for the most part the trails were in pretty good condition, although there were some really wet and muddy bits, but it was simply a case of running through them and hoping that the combination of Drymax socks and my generally tough old feet would hold up. I was racing in Hoka Torrents and I think you’d struggle to find a better trail running trainer that can cope with pretty much anything. I could feel my thigh slightly to the extent that I wasn’t running as freely as normal, but it wasn’t causing me any pain and felt like it would be manageable for the duration of the race.

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Heading towards the end of the first lap

Because my Garmin was doing strange things with all the tree cover and turns, I had no idea of how far I’d run or what pace I was running, and because of the humidity I actually backed off the pace to keep things feeling really easy, so was surprised to finish lap 1 in 4:16, pretty much bang on my A target.

Crewing at American ultras is a massive affair with people setting up gazebos for the duration of the race and runners having a whole entourage of people helping them out. In comparison, I had a solitary small drop bag where I retrieved 2 fresh bottles of Mountain Fuel and food for my second lap, and was back out on the course in a couple of minutes.

Lap 2

Lap 2 started in pretty much the same way as lap 1 had finished. I was starting to feel my thigh a bit more but thought this was probably due to the paracetamol I’d taken at the start beginning to wear off. I’d planned to take painkillers every 6 hours if I needed to, so this was a bit sooner than planned, but I wanted to try and continue getting some more decent running in. After a few miles though the painkillers hasn’t dulled the ache and I was finding running, in particular on the ups and even more depressingly on the downs, becoming more and more painful. I was still ok running on the flat though and there are a lot of flat sections, so I figured I’d just change my goalposts so today was no longer about a time/position and would be just about getting the job done as quickly as I could under the circumstances. I’m an efficient hiker so thought with a new run/hike strategy I could still finish in 20/21:something which wouldn’t be a total disgrace.

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Thanks to Steve Spiers for the photo and being a friendly face out on the course

I’d obviously been over-compensating in other areas though as the whole of my right side, in particular my hamstring, glute and lower back started to get more and more painful and running became virtually impossible. I started to genuinely be worried that there was a chance I might not be able to finish this. I walked into the next aid station in tears; I’m normally the type of runner who passes through an aid station needing nothing more than a water top-up, so I did feel a bit needy and pathetic as I explained my predicament to the volunteers through my tears. The volunteers were absolutely wonderful and made it their mission that they’d do all they could to get me to the finish, so they sprayed the affected leg with all kinds of magic potions and gave me some really strong painkillers. I left the aid station with as much of a spring in my step as I could manage when you’re walking with only one fully functioning leg. I changed the goal posts again and decided I’d just walk the remaining 65 miles – in hindsight as I write this, I realise how ridiculous it sounds thinking I’d walk 65 miles with a bad leg, but I always say I’d much rather have a 29:something finish time, rather than a DNF next to my name. I started to convince myself it would be character building to be out for so long and it would be good practice for Spartathlon to be out for up to 30 hours!

The next section was an out and back and after a couple of miles I saw Tom running towards me; we were both running our own races, but he knew something was wrong as I was walking so early into my race and was so far behind where he’d expect me to be. He took one look at me limping slowly and told me in the nicest possible way that I’d be an idiot to continue and was risking making things much worse and putting myself out for weeks. Deep down I knew he was right, but I needed somebody else to tell me this. There’s a fine line between stubbornness and stupidity and I was close to crossing over it. I knew then that there was no way I could walk another 60+ miles at the pace I was walking at as even walking at 20 minute mile pace was painful, so I made the decision there and then to walk back to the last aid station where my RR100 ended all to abruptly as a RR39.

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Well done to Tom (who despite looking like he’d been in a fight and his feet looking like they needed amputating!) for making sure there was one Sawyer finisher at RR

Post-Race

I always thought I’d feel absolutely devastated with a DNF, but apart from a little cry at the time when I realised my race was over (I have a ‘rule’ in life that when something doesn’t go my way, I allow myself a 5 minute cry and wallow and then I give myself a good talking to as there are few traits I dislike more in life than self-pity), I feel totally happy and at peace with my decision.

3 days later as I write this from a beach in Belize I’m still unable to fully weight-bear on my right side – I knew at the time I was making the right/only decision and this has reinforced this, so there’s no ‘what ifs’ or regrets on my part.

The main reason though why I think I feel so completely happy with my DNF is my mindset. A few years ago I would have been distraught at a bad race, but since I started working with Ian 20 months ago he’s completely changed how I think about my running. I realise that as a runner I’m not defined by a bad race, but it’s how we deal with these setbacks, and if I can’t deal with a bad race or a bad training session then I’m in the wrong sport. Because for every ‘up’ we experience in running – for every win or podium place, for every PB, for every race where it feels easy and effortless, there are going to be the ‘downs’ – the races where you have to slog out a finish, the missed targets, the DNFs, the injuries and more.

It’s only running at the day and we do this for fun and enjoyment. I feel very fortunate in that life generally treats me very kindly, and if the worse thing I have to deal with is not finishing a race, then I certainly can’t complain, and if I sat here wallowing in self-pity, it’s being completely disrespectful to people who have to deal with proper adversity in their lives.

In every setback in life, there are always positives. My RR didn’t go to plan, but I had a brilliant few weeks of training leading up to it, which as soon as I’m back running, I’m positive will stand me in good stead for the rest of 2019’s races, but more importantly the whole experience taught me so much about myself. I had 4 wonderful days in Texas and I can’t wait to come back and race on American soil again. Some things about the country are completely bonkers, but every time I visit America I leave with such a happy heart, and that’s mainly down to the people.

A few final thoughts on RR the race

I only covered 39 miles on race day, but saw the whole race set-up, and Tom obviously covered the full 100 miles, so I have a few final thoughts on the race itself, especially as this was the first time we’d raced in America.

I expected nothing less, but the Americans put on a show and a half when it comes to ultra running. Organisation is slick, yet the race is much more laidback to most UK and European ultras I’ve run, volunteers are there truly for the love of ultra running, and the crew set-up is more akin to a festival than what we think of as a running race so there’s a lot of support out on the course.

I didn’t use the aid stations for food/drink apart from water top-ups but Tom is the complete opposite and mainly relies on aid stations in races, and he assures me they were up to his high aid station standards (he uses Berlin 100 and CCC as his benchmarks for what an aid station should be like!).

I don’t think RR is the fastest of 100 mile courses; if I compare it to Berlin 100, TP100 and A100 (three other fast 100 milers I’ve completed), then I’d say RR is probably about an hour slower than those. The course is pretty much entirely runnable with only about 6,500 feet of ascent over the 100 miles, but the terrain, in particular the tree roots, makes it slower going, particularly at night. Tom described it as two different races in daylight and then at night, so I think unless you’re a sub 16 hour finisher, then you’re going to be doing your last lap in the dark and there will be more of a slowdown than you anticipate. Tom had lots of good running in his legs on his final lap, but it still took him 6 hours in the dark. But if you’re wanting a relatively fast 100 miler in a fantastic part of the world, then I’d put RR right up there.

So there you have it, the blog I never thought I’d write, but on reflection the blog that was actually quite fine to write.

Thank you as always to Likeys, Mountain Fuel and Longhaul Endurance for the support, to Ian Sharman for the coaching and to everyone who sent such lovely messages to me after my race.

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