"Your toughness is made up of equal parts: persistence and experience. You don't so much as outrun your opponents as outlast and outsmart them, and the toughest opponent of all is the one inside your head." - Joe Henderson
The beginning - The 2012 North Face 100km
Although this race might have been the final destination for many - the end of a season of hard training, focus and preparation, I have come to view this race as my beginning.
The lead up to arguably the biggest race on the Australian calendar was overwhelming! I had been away from Australia for almost 2 years, and was really looking forward to running with old friends in terrain that felt like home. I thought I had been training well, and had felt strong on some of the longer runs out on the race course. I was planning every detail like I had never done before - nutrition spreadsheets, logistics maps for my crew (amazing friend Nicola, and wonder-mum Greta), and a pace chart to work out exactly where I wanted to be and when. Although this race didn't play to all my strengths (the long stretches of fire trails are where I hurt and really need to focus on my cadence and rhythm), I was determined to go for it and to see where my training had brought me before the start of my racing season.
It never crossed my mind that I would not finish.
It was great to attend the race as part of the Salomon Australia team, and to meet international athlete Ryan Sandes. The buzz around Leura was electric, and it was hard not to get mentally waylaid by all the media hype surrounding this epic event. My heart would race every time I thought about the start line, and although I tried to embrace the adrenaline and pre-race nerves surging through my body, I think one of the lessons I have learnt is to be less focused on what everyone else is doing/Twittering/Facebooking, and to concentrate on why I am running and racing, something I have never had to deal with before! Dan Bleakman summed it up nicely on the Ultra168 race report by saying that: "Running is as simple as putting one leg in front of another and appreciating what you have around you. Goals achieved or not, it's only running."
I think I have learnt more from the 4 hours and 36km of running that I did in this race, than from many of the training runs that I had in the lead up.
Last minute gear checks at the Fairmont Resort, about 15 minutes till the start (photo courtesy of Oli Wilson):
My start was fast, furious and I immediately focused on where the other runners were and on maintaining my placing, and completely ignored my body and my heart. The adrenaline was telling me "faster, faster," while my mind was telling me "hmmm, your heart rate is unsustainably high, maybe you should slow down, relax and settle into the race." To this the adrenaline replied "SHUT UP MIND, GO FASTER!" David Eadie once remarked to a friend that "at the start of the race, if you think you're going too fast, you're definitely going too fast. If you think you're going the right speed, you're going too fast. If you think you're going way too slow, your pace is about right."
So, my first lesson from the race is to never ignore my heart.
At an early stage of the race, running through Leura, still smiling and catching up with Sam Robinson from Suunto who was out cheering for us (photo courtesy of Oli Wilson):
By 18km, I could feel my digestion not working optimally. It's pretty obvious that my body was sending all available blood to my muscles rather than to help with digesting, a result of burning the candle at both ends (my dad loves this phrase). The result was bloating, as all the nutrition I was taking in just sat in my tummy instead of providing energy to my muscles. Instead of powering up the notorious Golden Staircase as I normally would, I crawled up at snail pace. During this climb my HR peaked 182bpm, which I think says it all.
My second lesson from the race is to always plan for the worst. If I was already feeling bad at 18km, I should have taken time to stop, rest for a few minutes, try a different nutrition strategy.
At the top of the Golden Staircase, the photo capturing just how hard I was working at this stage (photo courtesy of Lyndon Marceau):
The next 18km were so tough. By now I had completely used all energy, and had replaced it with nothing. My pace slowed, I had stomach cramping and I felt nauseated. I really wanted to stop. The 8km to the next checkpoint were awful as I was vomiting at this stage, a result of all that nutrition just not digesting. I couldn't stop thinking about how early on in the race it was. When I got in to the next checkpoint I went straight to the first aid station. In my mind I had finished. And so I had. After another small vomit, I decided to finish there. Now, I wish I hadn't. I recently read "to get through the hardest journey we need take only one step at a time, but we must keep on stepping." (Chinese Proverb).
My third lesson here was to KEEP GOING. I know this, I know that after the worst slump, things can always turn around. Walking is a good start, and invariably jogging will soon follow. One of my Salomon team mates told me this as I was lying in the first aid station, told me to at least walk to the next aid station, but in that moment the idea of walking shamed me. I forgot why I was running and the personal challenges that undertaking the hardest of journeys brings.
So, this is the beginning. I can move forward into my next races with these three, hard-earned lessons behind me. I don't wish this kind of race experience on anyone, but if you can learn from what went wrong then it is these kinds of setbacks that build experience and allow you to persist when the going really gets rough.