I ’ve often described my experiences with training and racing as the relationship I have with running. Honestly, I struggle to think of a more adequate term that so boldly encapsulates the highs and lows of this selfless pursuit, that at the most basic of levels we all understand so clearly.
Its not always high fives and hashtags. As with Social Media – constantly being served up highlight reels of those around us – in competition it’s success that garners the attention of the spotlight. But there’s another side, and therein lies the context for this post: far to seldom do we read (or even celebrate) the stories of failure, of disappointment, or frustration. There’s so much goodness there to be learnt from though, so why not? Perhaps fear of judgment, having put your expectations out there before the race? Whatever the case, personally I enjoy reading about the darker side of suffering in sports. There’s a purity in the confession of expressing one’s emotions and feelings into the considered word.
After DNF’ing (Did not finish / Withdrew) in my most recent race (UTCT) – for the second time this year – I thought it finally an opportune time to capitalise on some raw feelings by reflecting on the past 18 months of my relationship with running, which by nothing more than my own measure has been really disappointing.
It all started coming off a high with my first and only win at a wintery 50k race in Franschoek in July 2017. I remember my thoughts and focus being so clear, so convincing going into that race. Like I knew I was going to do something, and that I was ready to go. I’ve looked back a few times with a subtle hint of jealously at that guy. Where is he now?
“I remember my thoughts and focus being so clear, so convincing going into that race. Like I knew I was going to do something, and that I was ready to go“
It’s romantic going back in the past, and It’s taken me a while to learn that we tend to have a strong bias towards reframing an experience by forgetting that which isn’t convenient. I started lining up at trail-running races back in 2014, and have been fortunate to enjoy a number of podium finishes while having relatively zero downtime – a blessing in a sport where bone and ligament seem to blow out as often as the Cape Doctor. For the next two years, training, staying motivated and performing at races weren’t as much a big deal in terms of having to apply too much out of the ordinary; I’d do the work – often running the entire race route as a simple acid test – and when it was go time, things more often than not all came together on race day. Since my win in 2017 though, I seem to have let something slip along the line, and I’ve been struggling ever since to replicate what in the past seemed so easy.
After another DNF at Ultra Trail Drakensberg 100k earlier this year, I walked away with a bitter taste in my mouth that stuck just long enough for me to seriously review why I was lining up for these types of races – I came into 2018 with a desire to go big in distance. To be really honest, I actually didn’t know why. I think it seemed like the natural thing to want to “scale up”, but after that experience I really had nothing left to give to trail running, at least for a while. Why am I doing this if I’m only in it for the result and I feel this way if things don’t go according to plan? Shouldn’t I be thrilled with just being out here, enjoying the ride irrespective of the outcome? That definitely wasn’t the case. I patched up my wounds (including my ego) and let it be. I felt marginally content knowing I had another shot at glory a few months ahead, with my first title defence at the Salomon Bastille Day 50k. I’d be ready I said to myself. I’d come back fighting and make right all the disappointment I’ve cast over myself. No pressure. It wasn’t meant to be. Roughly six weeks prior to the race, enjoying some rock-climbing as one does, I had an accident and fell a couple metres landing squarely on my right heel, which literally stopped me from being able to arrive race ready and deliver on my promises. Ffs. I lined up anyway, did what I could and lasted a solid 20k before the obvious reality that I was no longer a competitor in the race sunk in. I guess reading that you might say “you don’t need to compete to enjoy it man”. That may be so, but for those that have experienced being at the sharper edge of the field, its quite a bitter pill to swallow knowing that your game is up. The mental shift to lets cruise and enjoy the ride is one that I haven’t fully yet mastered, but I’ve come to acknowledge that its about managing expectations in line with your preparations, and having a backup plan if shit goes south. I shuffled the remaining 30k of that race in, forcing a smile and a word of encouraging to those that past – Largely because I was embarrassed (and felt ashamed) to show how disappointed I was with myself. Even though my training leading up to race day on the 17th July had been impaired. Even though I said to myself that whatever happens doesn’t matter because this is where we’re at. It still did matter and I cared, too much. How many blows can you take, and how often can you comeback?
“I shuffled the remaining 30k of that race in, forcing a smile and a word of encouraging to those that past – Largely because I was to embarrassed (and felt ashamed) to show how disappointed I was with myself, again.”
T hey say the more you win, the more often you’re able to do it. Well at this point in my 2018 racing year it seemed I was proving to myself that the opposite was also true, and that for whatever reasons, it was becoming easier to walk away and accept mediocre outcomes.
Up until 18 months ago, my way of training, being and simply going about my racing antics had seemed to work well, and because of that there was no real reason to adjust any aspect of what I considered to be my formula for performance. Don’t mess with what works right? After a few conversations with myself, I decided that action was necessary if my love for running at all was going to survive. It was time to embark on a road I’ve been wanting to venture down for a while. Speed.
After spontaneously dropping into a 21k (gravel) in September, I felt something I hadn’t in racing in a long time. Similar, yet different. I felt fast. Moving at a pace where there’s only enough time to react, not think. Instinct over decision. Full gas instead of churning along. Hold on or die. I was sold. Perhaps I’ve been meaning to pivot for the longest of times but haven’t had the reasoning to do so given a decent set of results each year. I mean, why would you change a good thing? The same month this year I also made another large adjustment, and one which even today still makes me a little uneasy as I get used to the process – I started getting coached. Sometimes you need to roll with the changes and actually let go of the things you love the most in order to really test their resolve. I let go of (some) control.
After what feels like two years of underperforming and being okay with almost believing that my lack of results might simply be due to the natural swing of things I’ve decided to shift my training to focus on speed oriented workouts in line with specific road races I’d like to test myself in, like Comrades. I haven’t gone awol on trail running, and I’m certainly not leaving the mountains behind, ever. I’m simply being brutally honest with what I want out of my racing moving now, and more specifically, what I need to be a better person.
S o here I write only a few days after the last race of the year where I shouldn’t have been disappointed with how things turned out given my non-specific and relatively new training stimulus, but like I said before, It always hurts, and it never just goes away, at least for me. I’ve reflected upon this patch in my running “career” by offering up a few thoughts in what I believe to be some of the crucial elements to performing well.
I’ve learnt that in order to be able to leave it all our there on race day, there needs to be a strong foundation to do so, and the majority of the aspects in your life need to be in some kind of synchronicity in order to achieve your racing goals. The degree to which aspects such a love, work, friendship, contentment with yourself in this world, physiological health and belief in oneself, nutritional habits and so forth affect your performance plausibly correlate to the magnitude of balance within them. I firmly believe the more aligned your “non running life” is with your running life, the better the chances you’ll be able to deliver on what it is you’ve been training to do. For me it seems, the ability to dig deep depends on how deep my well for drawing water really is.
I’ve grappled for a long time with the concept of the athlete, and whether or not I was eligible of the status. As my running years have accumulated, I’ve felt a growing divide between the guy who trains and races and the guy who lives life and hustles hard. It sounds silly writing this down, but I guess I’m simply saying that I haven’t ever felt like an athlete throughout other aspects of my life and this is likely a source of weakness.
I’ve actually never struggled with this one, by and large it’s probably because I’ve never had to dig deep and assess why things aren’t going the way I’d like them too. Only now do I fully appreciate that, like your preparations for a race, you really need to take an active role in staying motivated. Motivation + Discipline = Consistency, at least that’s what Eliud Kipchoge says.
Keep coming back. Take the time to heal. Be honest with yourself and fully engage any feelings that pass by as you evaluate a disappointing performance. It could be as simple as setting a future date to restart your training, but what’s critical here is that you find the (right) reason to bounce back. I am my own worst critic, but I am also the only one that’s going to decide to get up and start again. There is no limit to how many times you can reset.
Arguably even more important than your physical training, because the mind makes it real. If I can offer up anything under this banner, its visualisation and belief in oneself. You’ve put in the time, now do what you know you can. Once again, this sounds easy, but in practice I’ve often sidelined this building up to a race thinking that I could squeeze some in a few days prior. The problem with leaving it late is you so aware that you’re not prioritising the mental stuff, and with that, you’re actually cheating yourself in your preparations. Leading up to my best performances, I recall using a simple strategy which involved using the taper period to fully engage with my mindset; using time during all those slower runs to kind of mediate through the race course, how I was going to navigate it, and how I’d be feeling throughout. Sounds funny, but come race day, you’ve almost convinced yourself that it’s actually going to unfold in that manner.
At a certain point you may need to do more than just keep coming back. At a certain point that water well you keep drawing from to stand up again and fight, can run dry. At such a point one may need to consider pivoting from long to short, slow to fast, whatever. What I’m trying to say is that you may very well be competing in a pond which you’re not ideally built for, and in the case of the competitive amateur, it may be worth reviewing your abilities and desires. In my case as I’ve written above, I’ve long wanted to “see what the other side of running was about” – the purist side. Road. It’s not a compromise, but a method to keep my competitive fire burning and comeback stronger.
How healthy are yours, and are they in line with what you’re looking to achieve with your running? Reviewing my own, there’s some serious room for improvement. I’ve found it challenging to establish new ones, like waking up early to do workouts before the start of the day. The more I read up about the topic of habits, the more clearly I see how the quality of your habits will improve the likelihood of your goals (and not just in running). Review your own habits, and decide whether they’re contributing to your own success.
All of this isn’t intended to be advice, just honesty. If anything at all, perhaps there’s a morsel of value somewhere within this post for you. I sit here wrapping up these words acknowledging the near end of yet another year. One period closes, and a new one dawns like an open canvas awaiting your brush stroke. In the end, we all fall down at some point, but that’s okay. Just keep coming back. Just keep coming back.
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