The Darkness Within: Pre-Race Meltdowns

I signed up for this race knowing I would not have the opportunity to prepare well for it. “Even if I have to walk half of it, I don’t care. I’m in it for the sightseeing anyway,” I confidently announced. Now  my ever increasing aspirations are haunting my troubled mind like ghouls.

I knew that this 100km foot race falling nearly four weeks into a holiday that included ten nights eating and drinking in Sardinia with my immediate family; the rest of the time eating and drinking with my extended family in the UK; topped off with, only a week out from race day, one massive night for my brother’s 40th birthday party, was hardly a recipe for success. I also signed up for this race before running my first ever 100km race, so at that time was not even sure of my base ability. So I set the expectations low.

In the intervening period, I ran the 100km Oxfam course in 14 hours 40 minutes and ended feeling very fresh; I went running the next day and the day after, raced my fastest road marathon (by 40 minutes) a few weeks later at Great Ocean Road and haven’t really missed a beat since. My preparation then included running a back-to-back off the very difficult trail ultra, Mount Macedon 50km (admittedly, the run the next day was only about 26kms, but I counted it as a back-to-back after what was easily the toughest race I’ve run). After touching down in England, I managed a 53km jaunt along the Thames, off the back of three consecutive days of fast 11km runs (with jetlag and drinking), and then found myself putting in some really solid hill runs in the beautiful boulder strewn, cacti covered mountains of Sardinia, managing to somehow keep it all together despite the radical changes in my diet and the daily alcohol consumption.

Keeping a long story long, my expectations changed. Not only did I suspect I was about as well trained as I could ever hope to be, but after reading a little more about the course it became clear that a reasonable time would be up to two hours shorter than the target I’d originally set myself. If the first across the line were expected to be closer to 8 hours than 10 then surely, I reasoned, I should be shooting for at least a sub-12 hour time, based on my average performance across a number of races, including the recent 100kms Oxfam Trailwalker, where I never really felt I was pushing myself. To do myself full justice, I reasoned a few weeks ago, I should really be driving more towards a time that starts with a “10:”, this from an original target of 13 hours!

But here I am now. Half-way across the world from home, two days out from the inaugural Race to the Stones, and not actually sure if I could get up and manage a 4km jog right now. A graph of my confidence levels over the last few days would look like the NASDAQ since 2007, so extreme are the fluctuations, and so low are the lows. In one week, every little niggle I’ve ever had in my legs has sprung out of a dormant state and threatened me with rebellion, along with a few new ones. We’ve all been here before.

Luck really has been against me this week, though. I woke up a week ago to find two lumps in my groin. “Hernia”, said the internet confidently. “Lymph glands”, said the doctor, less confidently. “No reason not to run, you probably just won’t be at your best, due to whatever infection or virus is causing this”. I can feel these lumps as I run, they seem to exacerbate the adductor issue I’ve had on that side since I first started running. On an 8km run yesterday the sun dazzled me (forgot my trusty cap) as I was leaping a small ditch and I landed my full weight onto a very sharp rock, which of course punched straight through the thin layer of EVA on the bottom of my Saucony Hattoris and badly bruised the ball of my left foot. My knees hurt (of course). My ankles hurt. Either hayfever or the virus is making my nose stream and my eyes almost glued shut and stinging badly. Basically I’m a mess. I should be pre-emptively disqualified from any ultramarathon that upholds the worthy ‘no whinging’ rule.

But I should know better. Anyone who has run ultramarathons has almost definitely been here before, and I certainly have. Some people go through it before pretty much every race. The phenomenon of both physical and mental decline immediately before a race seems to be as common as DNFs in 100 milers. I thought I had moved beyond the stage of letting my confidence wane so badly, though. After you’ve experienced these last minute wobbles a few times and then also experienced the sensation of waking up on race day feeling like a million dollars and breezing through the ultra you thought you couldn’t start, you eventually set aside the weaker voices in your subconscious and ignore any little aches, pains and that lethargic ennui in the lead up to your subsequent races.

There are obvious drivers of these pre-race meltdowns. If you’ve tapered a bit, your body seems to react with aches and pains that are probably just the result of usually tight muscles loosening up a bit. If you’re also diligent about watching your calorie intake when your training kilometres are reduced, the lack of carbs can bring you down mentally as well as physically, which I’m sure contributes to the psychological challenge of maintaining some degree of confidence in the face of negative data being fed to your mind by your rebelling body (now that my three days of carb loading have commenced, I am hoping this position is about to be reversed, along with the lethargy that could be caused by a virus, or is perhaps just an extreme version of the lethargy I’ve felt in the lead up to races in the past).

I am beginning to suspect it’s all for a good reason. The net result of my woeful and rather pathetic state over the last week is a response that, when you look at it clinically, is probably exactly what my body needed. I have rested. A lot. I have run with caution (apart from that moment when I dropped my guard and bruised my foot). I have had three alcohol-free days in a row. I have done a lot of soul searching, as I mope about the house here in Oxford, asking myself the big questions that often come up in the latter quarter of an ultra, and which must invariably be answered with an unwavering Yes.

Perhaps all this time spent ‘digging deep’ before the race will allow me to save vital mental energy during the run? There’s a good chance all this additional sleep and rest will be helping me bank up energy reserves I might otherwise not have had. Inactivity will also no doubt have made me pretty toey to get out into the open and run for half a day. Indeed, the inertia created by this lethargy keeping me largely immobile right now, could on Saturday easily transmute to that other inertia, that almost magical force you feel when in the zone, where you can just keep moving at a steady pace, relentlessly forward, seemingly forever. That’s what I’m hoping! Alternatively, I could be on track for my first DNF.

Postscript: it was my first DNF. Mostly beaten by the heat and the unrelenting sun on a course with very little shade on a 32 degree, humid day. Ankle played up. Knee played up. Groin was crampy on both sides. Not my day. I had a reasonable time at the midway split – 5h47m – but called it quits there. I went back a few days later and ran the rest of it solo, hoping to find water along the way (I didn’t). Somehow that ended up being a 62km run, my longest unsupported solo mission so far. My knee hated it.


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