Finishing is not always everything, except when it is.
An unplanned but appropriate follow-on of my previous post, “The Beauty of Starting.”
As important as it is to have the desire and drive to start something new and the courage to say ‘yes,’ it is equally important, if not more so, to be able to see things through to the end. Part of committing to whatever venture we begin is also committing to completing it. Often, though, this is easier said than done.
All of us are individuals with different motivations for both starting and pushing through to finish that which we start. Some rely on the inspiration, support and assistance of others, while some have the need for independence and revel in the ability to “go it alone.”
I for one usually take the Viking approach – an all or nothing attitude. Burning the boats as I get to shore, so to speak, and knowing that there is simply no turning back, no retreat. The only way forwards is onward and upwards. It’s a theory riddled with flaws, I’m aware. I have experienced the challenges of this mindset, but I have also relished in truly meaningful accomplishments achieved through this approach.
Finding what enables you to keep pushing when times get tough, to keep giving your very best and never giving up, is a journey in itself. But it is one worth seeing through to the end. For once you discover the intrinsic motivators that drive you from the core you will supersede all expectations of yourself. You will find that the sky is truly your limit.
Finishing, however, isn’t always the only option and neither is it always the best outcome. In some cases it may just be wiser to call it a day, take what you can from the experience, and start building towards the next challenge. After all, you haven’t failed as long as you’ve learned something.
It was at a low-key ultra trail race that I came to the disappointing realisation that sometimes, no matter how hell-bent you are on finishing, it’s just not going to happen. Four loops of 22km with about approximately 2000m of vertical ascent per loop… Heaven & Hell was the name of the game. No trails, no contour paths – just up, up and up, one high point after the other, only to thrash your quads on the straight-down descents, and then do it all again. Oh, and if the elevation and terrain didn’t scare you, I might add that the race was run at an average altitude of above 2000m. Not to be sneezed at if you hailed from sea level, or altitude, as it turned out…
Leading up to the event I was quietly confident and feeling stronger than ever before thanks to a solid and consistent training block. In my mind I also had the advantage of living at a similar altitude to the race course and training on almost identical terrain. Needless to say, I was excited for the challenges that this Heaven & Hell was going to throw at me!
Fast forward 5 hours into the race…Unable to control my heart rate and sweating profusely although it was a pleasantly cool evening. I was feeling light-headed and floundering about uncharacteristically, my usual sure footedness apparently having abandoned me. Fast forward another 5 hours and my condition had deteriorated further. Unable to climb, struggling to breathe and shivering, my trusty mountain partner advised that I call it a day, or rather a night, as it was around 2am. I was just not myself and to be honest, probably not in any state to make sound decisions. If I had been running alone I would most likely have forged on until I don’t know when, and somebody would have hopefully stumbled over my space blanketed form near their chosen trail. The problem with this event was that only 8 people started the race, and by this stage only 5 of us were left on the course. With me at the back, it would’ve been hours before someone came past…
Either way, I headed off the mountain and back to race village for my first ever DNF. It was tough, mentally, and I truly struggled to accept and deal with the fact that I had not succeeded in finishing something I had started.
In short, I felt lost.
Somehow I needed to overcome my DNF and so a good dose of revenge running ensued. Skyrun was next up and I was dead set on being even stronger than before. But after only two big weeks of training I was surprised with an Otter entry birthday present from Nicolette and so began an immediate taper phase. The majestic Otter Trail is run along a most spectacular stretch of coastline in the Tsitsikamma National Park. It turned out to be exactly what I needed. The beauty of the trail reminded me why I run, and that whether or not I finish a race does not define me as a person. I ended up having a great time at Otter and not only achieved but surpassed my goals of firstly loving the run (cliché, I know) and secondly a sub-5 hour finish. I managed a 4:48 and squeezed into the top 10, in 8th place.
With two weeks between Otter and Skyrun I was feeling confident and relaxed. I had done the training and grown as a runner and a person. I was very excited indeed for the annual pilgrimage to Lady Grey, this being my 5th consecutive year of involvement in the Skyrun 100. I had finished 3 runs of my own and also seconded my mountain partner in 2017. You can read her history of Skyrun in her blog, Skyrun - A History, it makes for an insightful read on just how special the Skyrun is.
This year I had high hopes and without much of a thought process, my goals were set. I’d finished in 17:15 last year and now being better trained, with improved route knowledge, I picked a 15-hour target. Two hours off my previous time and a daylight finish. Yes, I thought, that would do.
4 AM arrived after the standard sleepless night and we lined up in Lady Grey for the start of the Skyrun 100. Nicolette and I started out side by side and perhaps by default, we maintained a comfortable pace together. Neither of us was feeling super strong, but everyone at Skyrun knows it’s a long day out and plenty can happen, so we just moved along consistently. Within a couple of hours, however, the same symptoms I’d experienced at Heaven & Hell started to plague me. I was struggling to breathe, especially after consuming food, and so I stopped eating - basically a death sentence on an ultra. But for the moment at least I felt better.
Heading up the ‘Wall’ was when things really started to go south and finally I had to face the questions - do I turn around and head back down to Balloch? Or carry on over the wall to finish at Wartrail as a 65km runner? Both options are popular amongst suffering 100km runners; such is the grueling nature of the Balloch Wall. I told myself it would be acceptable, that nobody would judge or laugh at me – after all, much stronger athletes than me have called their races on the slopes of the Wall...
These were the first of many doubts I would face that day, but from somewhere deep within came a blind desire to finish this race. I could not turn back. I fought to the top of the wall and the descent and flatter section that followed offered some respite. Without thinking I bypassed the road to Wartrail – the quick 2km road to the finish of the 65km was no longer an option. I was going to the finish, via the 100km route.
Upon reaching the Bridal Pass matters again took a turn for the worse. I was in a terrible space. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t formulate words to respond to passing runners offering encouragement. I could barely focus on the path ahead. But again, I was suddenly consumed by a blind need to finish this thing.
How is it that with all my goals out the window, my hopes dashed, and in the worst physical state I have ever been on an ultra, that I was able to continue?
It’s a good question, and one that ultra runners often have to deal with. You’re hours or days into a run and have a million good reasons to quit. Every joint and muscle is painful. Every step saps energy from an already-depleted store. No food or fluid is staying down. Your body is screaming for you to stop. It says you’re doing damage, long-term or maybe even permanent. You’ve been stripped bare by pain and fatigue, and you are the most raw and honest version of yourself that you will ever be.
This is the defining moment of an ultra; the reason ultra running is “all mental.” This is when you really need to know why you are doing this – why you’re out in this ridiculous heat, ascending a never-ending mountain, only half-way through your journey. Why you’re going to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Why you started, and why you want to finish.
These are the times where true self knowledge pays off. No amount of extrinsic motivation will get you through this situation in an ultra. You need to have a deep intrinsic reasoning for wanting to go on. And even that can sometimes fail… But not for me - not at that point in my Skyrun journey. My intrinsic motivator was too strong.
“I cannot deal with another DNF. I have to finish.”
This thought was constantly in my mind as I pushed through the deepest and darkest moments of that day. I was choosing to deal with the immediate physical pain of pursuing the finish line, rather than having to suffer the mental and emotional pain of a DNF later. In ultra running, as in life, we choose our own pain and it is then our responsibility to see it through to the end; to deal with the outcome of our choices. This was my choice. Simple. I was marching to the finish.
Relieved and fairly broken, fifteen minutes before midnight, quietly and in the dark with headlight off, I crossed the finish line. I finished hours off my previous best time, but that was irrelevant. I was finally free from ‘needing to finish’. Blissfully relieved and happy indeed. And I’d be amiss not to mention that I’d finished with my partner at my side, for she had refused to leave me on the mountain. In a way, it was the most meaningful race finish I’ve ever experienced.
‘Often the result of daring is not a victory march, but a quiet sense of freedom mixed with a little battle fatigue.’
A quote by Brene Brown that resonated with me after our little Skyrun adventure. It really sums up ultra running so beautifully.