Adjusting Expectations

Let me say this up front. The title of this post is an unashamed riff on one of my favourite videos from the fabulous Ethan Newberry, aka The Ginger Runner. You should all watch it.

This is the 4th year I have toed the line for Race to the Stones, my first ultra back in 2015 and a consistently fabulously supported and incredibly beautiful race on what is, essentially, the closest thing to a local hilly trail you get when you live in the flatlands of Oxfordshire.

In that time the race has evolved subtly. Most of the time for the better (wave starts from last year and rerouting the first section to avoid what used to cause up to 20 minute queues at early gates; the introduction of watermelon at pit stops; and this year’s basecamp food was definitely better than last year’s already fine fare); occasionally not so much (the removal of fresh milk from basecamp last year was a cruel blow – though maybe the fact I necked about 5 pints of it each of the previous two years has something to do with it).

selfie of me in running kit with running vest and race bib

One of the things about Race to the Stones (maybe it’s the close calendar proximity to Wimbledon) is the possibility of pretty much any kind of weather – last year unforecast drizzle that lasted 6 hours turned the early course into a skid pan. This year, for the first time since I’ve been running it, we had heat. I was excited about running in the heat.

One of the things about having the kind of mental ill health that makes every waking hour almost impossible to cope with is that you can become the kind of person who relishes extremes. There are two reasons for this. First, when most days are a battle with your darkest thoughts to stay alive, a few more millimetres on the mercury hardly feels like a challenge. Second, there’s the issue of differentials. I find simply existing in the world takes my life-difficulty level up to around 70-80% of “what a person can manage” pretty much every hour of every day. That leaves me next to no battery space to handle any additional challenge. Pit me against a field of people who operate at 10-20% on the same scale, and the sheer physics of it means they have me every time, with minimal exertion. Add on extreme conditions, though, and that gap suddenly works the other way. That 80-90% of potential difficulty most people never feel leaves a lot of space for them to suddenly find things get hundreds of percentage points harder. For those of us who struggle desperately every day, you could turn the Ridgeway into Death Valley and you’d struggle to make our lives more than 10 or 20% harder. In other words, tough conditions disproportionately affect those whose everyday lives aren’t so tough.

The stats tell the story when it comes to the heat. Last year, 114 people ducked below the magic 12 hour mark for 100k. This year that figure was 39. I was lucky. The heat, as I’d hoped, didn’t affect me – you don’t want to know the details but this year was the first time that the, er, bodily indicators suggested I got my hydration right.

And I was helped on my way immensely by having the wonderful surprise and honour of a good luck tweet from one of my heroes, the ultra runner and filmmaker Billy Yang (check out the incredible Life in a Day). His words were just about the soundest advice I think I’ve ever read:

“Remember: during the first half of the race, don’t be an idiot. In the second half, don’t be a wimp.”

I’ve always tended to go out way too fast and then hang on. This time, although I was comfortably running the lovely stretches of the first couple of sections, away from Lewknor and then the glorious mile or so of Grim’s Ditch from Nuffield, I eased slightly back, shouting (in the times I had the trail to myself) “this is for you, Billy” and feeling, all told, remarkably in control.

a trail covered in leaves running under overhanging trees
Grim’s Ditch – the most beautiful running trail.

Which brings me back to Grim’s Ditch. I love Grim’s Ditch. The first mile or so out of Nuffield is just about the most beautiful trail I’ve ever run on, a lovely downhill through ancient woodland. And that’s the problem. Woodland. Specifically the kind of canopy that makes for stunning dappled sunlight. I have only ever taken a tumble 5 times in my running life. 4 of those have been on a two mile section of Grim’s Ditch where root sand soil dance to tease my eyes in the spots of sun. A couple of weeks ago I removed much of the skin on my left shin but without doing real damage. Yesterday, I managed 2 of that total of 5 falls. And while I avoided any grazes, my ankles didn’t come off so well.

I knew the moment I hit the deck the second time that my beautifully controlled race had gone. One of the things I’ve learned in my “brief history of spills on the trail” is to perform a very quick instant diagnostic – from head to toe to make sure whatever the pain from the fall, it doesn’t increase with motion and pressure (but that I can still feel both motion and pressure) – before I continue. The pain in my ankle DID increase with pressure.

a path with tree roots
a couple of miles before Grim’s ditch and not in sunlight, but indicative of the roots’ cunning disguise

This was 18 kilometres in. Instead of carefully carving a personal best, the next 88k would be about preservation. And minimising damage – in particular minimising damage before my first ever 24 hour race in just 3 weeks’ time. I could already feel I was in really great shape. This was shaping up to be a summer of PBs if I just managed things sensibly.

But what does sensible mean? It’s a strange, vexing question. Fortunately the fact that I was now moving at a slow walk rather than a controlled run meant I had plenty of time to contemplate it.

For me, sensible is the canvas upon which the superlative is painted. I hear people talk about being sensible all the time as though it is a goal in itself. To me that makes no sense at all. The only reason not to go out and thrash myself until I drop in pursuit of something special is the thought that if I don’t, if I’m “sensible” that will help me do something even more special down the line.

It was like juggling as I hobbled. I was still making progress, however slow. That was helped by another great change for this year – kilometre markers every k of the way. But the further I went I increased the chance of doing longer-term damage, while my chances of a PB were now receding. Though I know that grinding something out against the odds is as much an accomplishment as any fastest anything.

By kilometre 36 though, 7k short of the next pit stop, I was down to painful 13 minute kilometres. That, in itself, wasn’t the issue. The real issue was that my footing was getting less and less sure. I was starting to trip as my ankles became less good at taking weight. And each trip made them more fragile.

By the time I reached the next pit stop I sat down to chew it over with the (excellent) medics. I explained my assessment – I could get the 7k to half way and base camp. I could not get 57k to the end. More important, I thought being out at night with unsure footing would be reckless, and potentially mess things up for more than just me.

voew of a llama over my shoulder
Got to love a race with a llama at the start

I left that pit stop fairly sure I would hit basecamp and convert my 100k non-stop to an overnight camp, and reassess in the morning. Thanks to a very strong ibuprofen and a finger of fudge (which really was just enough) I was able to find some reserves from somewhere and, although walking, make decent hiking speed of 9 minute kilometres. And then I sat down at basecamp and the moment I did, I realised that had been stupid. As the adrenaline wore off, even the ibuprofen couldn’t mask the pain. It was also clear the only reason I had seemed surer footed was that the last section’s trail is pancake flat (the trail, not the profile!).

a bag of chunks of mashed potato
Baked potato in a bag of salt – the perfect ultra running food

I asked myself what I would gain by starting again in the morning. I would, probably, get my 100k finish. But probably at the expense of a DNS for the 24 hour in 3 weeks. Would that really be a glorious act of bravery? Maybe it would. Then again, I could tell, injury apart, I was in the best shape of my life by far (the last section had shown me that as much as the first). I was in the shape where I should be trying to set PBs.

And as I sat there I thought of Billy’s words

“Remember: during the first half of the race, don’t be an idiot. In the second half, don’t be a wimp.”

And I thought, this is a season with two big ultras. A season of two halves. Carrying on for another 50k could be the biggest act of idiocy of all. And so I said heartfelt thanks all round and slunk off into the night (well, a taxi to Wantage where the bus back to Oxford awaited).

I woke up with soreness and a small blister but no lasting damage. I felt both furious with myself that I hadn’t carried on given the lack of major injury, but also relieved that I had pulled the plug in time. It took me 2 and a half hours by bus to get to Avebury and pick up my abandoned drop bag. It felt sad and strange being among the celebrations (it’s weird what exhaustion-addled brains conjure up – for me it was “because I haven’t finished I won’t get my end of race hot dog”), but by the time I was changing buses at Swindon that had been replaced by determination – to prove I’d made the right choice by crushing it over 24 hours; and to come back next year, maybe do the 50k and see just how fast I can go when not pacing myself (and see if I can actually run Grim’s Ditch stumble-free!).

Thank you Threshold for another great year (especially for moving me on the results from a 100k DNF to a 50k finish – I wonder if that’s to help with what was a heat-induced very large number of withdrawals!). See you again in 2019. I hope with milk restored to the basecamp menu! And thank you, Billy Yang!

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