Tuesday, August 26, 2014

UT4M: Chronicle of a DNF foretold

Well, it ain't 2000, this wasn't the Jordan Desert Cup. I'm no longer in the same mindset, evidently (some of it for the better for life in general, but not so good for finishing ultras), but most of all - despite my best hopes, 14 years and 15 ultra trails of varying lengths later - I don't have the same level of training.
After all these months - almost a year of anticipation - I didn’t finish the UT4M. I stopped after 94k (59 miles) and 5,200m (17,100ft) of elevation – just past the half-way mark at Rioupéroux (the course had been extended from the original course to account for bypassing one of the summits). Till then, things had been going quite well. Some niggles in my left knee and leg worked themselves out after about an hour when I removed my knee strap; the nausea I'd been feeling since the morning didn't affect me too much and dissipated after 10 hours; the first mountain peak was fantastic, great view of Grenoble and other peaks we had to climb; I was still jogging the flats and descents;... Then I started getting really tired. I tried a nap at Poursollet and laid down for 15mn but was unable to sleep. Got really chilly too... But then I put on the iPod (first time ever in a race) and that cheered me up a bit... until the massively steep (1400 meters in 4.5km), rocky and slippery descent into Rioupéroux which took me almost two hours and - just as I had read in some race reviews - beat me into a DNF.
Ultimately it was the right choice to allow me to live and fight another day, since it appears I have a stress fracture in my right foot (later update: actually it was cuboid syndrome). But since that only registered as another dull pain on my radar about an hour previously and did not bother me at the checkpoint where I debating whether to continue, I cannot claim that as a reason for stopping - and I know a few would continue with a lot worse! No, I have to admit that the main reason was: faced with a very steep 1700m climb in less than 9km,  I just couldn’t continue. I truly felt like I could no longer put one foot in front of the other. I remember telling Cyril who was meeting me at checkpoints, "If it was just a little flatter, I would head out".

This is partially true, because:
  • I was suffering from post-race-like soreness in my quads that indicated a definite lack of specific training.
  • I was in a state of general fatigue after 21 hours unlike anything I remember experiencing in the past; attempting a 3-to-4-hour climb seemed ludicrous: it was so steep, I thought I might slumber off and topple over backwards.
However, it’s also partially not true, because:
  • If the next stage had been flatter, I know I would have attempted to go a little further, in other words the really steep climb beat me mentally too: perhaps I should have at least attempted a few steps, taken literally the adage "one step at a time"...
  • My morale wasn't terrible, but I was in that funk where I was wondering what I was doing all this for, starting to believe that I really don't like races this long... I wasn't able to motivate myself (as I told myself I would before the race) with the prospect of a sunrise over the mountains and a cup of Lapsang tea.
  • I was sitting at the table in the rest area faced with another competitor in the same shape as me. Perhaps I could have suggested going on with him and we could have slogged through it together? I realize now that he lay down on the bench and closed his eyes, not so much to catch some sleep but to block out my negativity.
  • If the race ended at 100km, just over the next "hill", I know I would have slugged it out to the end. It was the additional 60k they had me mentally beat (along with that bloody hill, I should add; again). I couldn't fact being out on the course for another 20 hours - or longer. In fact, based on Jordan, I had somehow managed to fix the goal of 42 hours in my mind to the extent where I was not willing to contemplate taking all the allowed time of 53 hours.
  • Which means I didn’t actually segment my race, specifically into: first part of the climb, which would take me to dawn; and the second part of climb, which would bring me to 100km marker and a full view of the race course at its highest point, and the knowledge that the hardest terrain was behind me… Had I done that, perhaps at that point things might have gotten “easier”.
  • I tried to rest, yes, but I somehow thought that the time barriers were catching up with me – they were, but at that point, I still had almost three hours to spare.
  • I forgot to visualize the arrival. 
  • I wasn't going to be able to meet up with Cyril until I was over the 3rd mountain (of the 4 in UT4M...), which meant another 40km and some 2'000 meters of climbing - at least 10 hours considering the technicality of the upcoming climb and my current state. If I finished, it would be Sunday morning at the earliest; whereas if I quit now I could be home in time for breakfast and spend the whole weekend with the family. In the middle of an ultra, already wondering what I was doing out there, this thought, I think, was the kiss of death.
Still, after resting for a day and a decent night’s sleep, it’s very easy to forget how absolutely beat up I was. So my conclusion is that perhaps I didn’t try everything  I could have to see if I could continue just a little bit longer, but the fatigue and quad soreness are also due to inadequate training, which made the mental aspect that much more important (and evidently too much for me). This race required more block training and far longer runs (B2B) - can I find the time for those?

Still, when all is said and done, I'm feeling good. There's some wisdom and balance that has come with age and acceptance. I can enjoy the sense of adventure that comes with any ultra trail, without beating myself up for not necessarily having taken it past the limit. Is this compulsion to overcome extreme adversity in what is, after all, a fake environment really necessary?
I don't think so. Accepting to stop when it's painful to go on, even though perhaps you could, even though perhaps, many hours down the road, the situation might change and a huge exhilaration may overwhelm you as they do in these types of races if you push through enough barriers - well accepting to stop can be an important step in simply accepting who you are, regardless of what others thing or how you are made to think of yourself by outside circumstances or outside definitions of success. And the ultra community is certainly as guilty of that with regards to finishing or DNFing as other circles are of complacency, material wealth, career promotions, etc.

Mainly, however, back to the basics. My first MDS and the Jordan Desert Cup had been 90% about running and enjoying the unique experience, and 10% about the race (other runners, their experience, how I was measuring up to them, my performance). Over the years, that percentage has almost reversed in many cases. At the UT4M, it was about half and half, and my best moments and the reason I overcame stomach cramps and hip pain was because I was revelling in the moment. But I want it to be more about the running again; about the landscape, the experience, the camaraderie, the uniqueness... I want the purity of those first races. Forget about performance (including finishing at all costs) and just enjoy a) being there and b) finishing in the sense of "experiencing the whole race". If I hadn't finished in Jordan, I wouldn't have the ineffable memory of getting lost in the desert just past the Hedjaz railway of Lawrence of Arabia fame, or particularly stumbling through a candle-lit Petra alone at 2am after 42 hours of racing, hallucinating and seeing scaffolding on the 2,000 year old walls...
I have a few memories to take a way from the UT4M, and that's a start. I'm certainly not going to let a DNF take them away from me. I won't let a DNF compromise the moments of exhilaration that did occur during those 21 hours, particularly sharing moments with Cyril who joined me at three rest stops and followed me through the race (I'm pretty sure I would not have made it as far and in such high spirits without his presence). Though there are lessons to be learnt, I choose not to wallow in self-pity at not finishing and belittle my achievement by comparing myself to others.
I choose to consider the glass half full, draw an imaginary finish line at the checkpoint where I stopped, and feed on the sense of accomplishment at covering 60 miles and 17,000 feet of elevation in 21 hours - my longest race, after all, since the Jordan Desert Cup...

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