(“Now I’m not going to sit here and blow sunshine up your ass, Lieutenant. A good pilot is compelled to evaluate what’s happened, so he can apply what he’s learned. Up there, we gotta push it. That’s our job. It’s your option, Lieutenant. All yours.”)
We are only a few weeks into the Florida ultrarunning season, and already, we’ve been fortunate enough to witness some amazing and inspiring performances, such as Aly Venti running 140.88 miles in 24 hours to (almost surely) secure a spot on the U.S. team, Noelani Taylor introducing herself to Florida ultrarunning with a 7:04 50-miler, and the numerous people who dug deep and gutted their ways to their very first 100-mile finish lines at the deceptively-difficult Wild Sebastian 100 this past weekend (including Jeremiah Hartz, Dave Fausel, and Yvette Yu, to name a few).
But for every runner who reaches his or her goal on race day, there are probably at least two runners that fail to reach theirs. Because let’s face it, folks, this is a really f#@king tough sport. So for those runners who came up short in meeting their own goals, how do you turn the page, learn from the quote-unquote “failure,” and become a stronger runner? (And remember, no outside judgment from the peanut gallery please — let’s all practice the Tao of Taylor Swift and “shake it off” when it comes to judging others and DNFs).
Learning from setbacks and applying those lessons to future training/races is what this article is all about. And I think the necessary first step after failing to meet a goal is to channel your inner Michael Jackson…
2. I’m Starting With The Man In The Mirror.
(“Take a look at yourself and make a . . . change! Hoo! Hoo! Hoo! Hoo! Na na na, na na na, na na nah . . . oh yeah!”)
Like any runner who has been in this sport for long enough, I’ve had plenty of experience in failing to reach a goal I set for myself before the race, whether that goal was to win the race, finish within a certain time, or simply finish at all. And in order to move on and move forward, it is critical to take a hard and brutally-honest look at yourself and your race and objectively diagnose what went wrong. First, though, I think giving yourself 48-72 hours after the race to let the inevitable range of emotions run their course is a good idea; you need to be thinking completely rationally in order to effectively self-evaluate.
3. Look Inside, Not Outside: Pre-Race Considerations.
When we fail to reach a goal — in running and in life — we have a natural tendency to want to place the blame elsewhere, on some outside factor beyond our control. It’s just human nature. It was too hot outside. It was too cold outside. The course was more technical than advertised. Etc. Etc.
There is also the tendency to want to only look at what you did wrong on race day only. And while you very well may have made some in-race mistakes that helped contribute to failing to meet your goal, I would venture a guess that well over 95% of the reasons for coming up short can be attributed to lack of proper preparation well-before race day.
This is — by far — the hardest part of a “brutally-honest” self-evaluation. But in order to make sure you learn from your setback and move forward, ask yourself if you were truly as trained and prepared as you could have been when you toed the start line at your race. Between the day we start training to the day of the race, we have a million opportunities to make choices that will either help us or hurt us on race day, and it starts at the beginning of the day. Here are 10 questions to ask yourself:
- Did I routinely wake up early to get in my training run, or did I decide to sleep in?
- What was my diet like? A hard tempo run followed by cheesecake, perhaps?
- Did I have a specific purpose for every training run I ran, or did I just basically run the same pace each run to hit some arbitrary weekly mileage goal?
- Did I routinely skip/modify workouts or cut them short?
- Did I make sleep a priority?
- Did I routinely stay out at happy hour or on a weekend night longer than I should have?
- Did I do my homework on the race course and the conditions I would encounter, and train accordingly?
- Did I go into the race with an objectively reasonable goal based upon my training and fitness level?
- Did I go into the race with a smart pacing plan, or did I run like a bat out of hell from the start, hoping to “bank time” for later in the race?
- Did I go into the race with a smart hydration/nutrition plan?
In-race considerations, which we will talk about next, are certainly important, but not nearly as important as showing up on race day both (1) well-trained and (2) with a realistic goal and a realistic plan to meet that goal.
While this type of self-evaluation is usually a bit painful — as we are admitting we were not as prepared as we could have been — it is also empowering because it is on us. In other words, we control our own destinies in this sport; not some outside factor such as weather, course conditions, etc. (After all, everyone in your race experienced those exact same conditions…)
I say this all the time (because it’s true): Ultrarunning is the fairest sport on the planet. The races are just too darn long to rely on natural running talent alone. I have no doubt I could beat Meb Keflezighi tomorrow at a 100-mile race; any of us who could finish a 100-miler tomorrow would beat him. Obviously he’s an infinitely-more talented runner than we are, but for long ultras, training, preparation, and mental fortitude are far more important factors than talent alone. It’s just a question of how bad you want it: you control the outcome, no one else.
(“So it’s on me?” “Always has been…”)
4. “Stopping is not an Option”: Race-Day Considerations.
Once you have thoroughly evaluated what you may have been able to do better before the race, it’s time to look at what actually happened during it. As I’ve repeatedly written in the past, there are many, many rational reasons to stop running an ultra that will surface during the race, from your legs locking up, to muscle fatigue/soreness, to having literally no energy, to blister issues, etc. etc. No one — least of all me — is here to judge any decision to stop based on any reason. But if your goal is to finish the race (and I think that IS the goal for the vast majority of ultrarunners), then it serves you well to adopt a “stopping is not an option” mindset during the race. Obviously, acute injury is a totally different story, but acute injury accounts for a very small percentage of all race DNFs. This past weekend at Wild Sebastian, the runners who would up finishing the 100-miler — to a person — basically all said “I am GOING to finish this race; nothing is getting in my way.”
All that being said, there definitely are some in-race considerations that will exponentially help your chances of succeeding:
- hydration: especially in Florida ultras, it is vital to stay hydrated at all times during the race; this is the quickest way for your race to go south here in Florida…
- nutrition: if you aren’t consuming 200-300 calories an hour, you will hit a calorie (energy) deficit at some point in the race, and it is very tough to recover from it
- chafing: make sure that you are properly lubing/using compression shorts/etc to take care of those areas where the sun don’t shine
- electrolytes: as with nutrition, if you get into an electrolyte imbalance, it will significantly slow your pace (basically to a crawl), and it takes a while to get back to normal. So stay on top of it.
- blister prevention: this is always a popular topic in ultrarunning, and everyone seems to have his or her “pet” strategy to prevent blisters (toe socks, powder, pre-taping, etc etc). For my money, the best blister-prevention strategy is running as many miles as possible under the same conditions you will experience at the race. Training in Florida — i.e., hot and humid conditions — on a daily basis, I didn’t get a single blister when I ran Badwater last year. And I had one small pinky toe blister at the 153-mile Spartathlon in September. Keep in mind that when you are running your first 100-mile race, blisters are pretty much inevitable, as you’ll be running far longer than you ever have before. Feet don’t tend to like that :)
5. Beware the Rebound Race Mistress.
After falling short in a race goal, people — including myself — often forgo the above self-evaluation, and instead just simply try and “turn the page” on the bad race, and sign up for another ultra in the near future. The siren song of the Rebound Race Mistress is just too alluring.
Usually, that “rebound” race turns out just about as well as a rebound relationship. Speaking from experience, believe me, it’s much better to take some time off, and truly address and fix what went wrong at your last race (both regarding training, preparation, and in-race execution), so that you can show up at the next race with the proper training base and necessary attitude so that you reach that finish line!
Remember, it’s on you.
Great moments . . . are borne from great opportunity. And that’s what you have here today, boys [and girls]. That’s what you’ve earned here today. One race. If we ran it ten times, the course might win nine. But not this race. Not today.
Today, we run with them. Today, we stay with them. And we keep moving forward because we can! Today, we are the greatest ultrarunners in the world. You were born to be runners (in both the McDougall and Springsteen sense), :) every one of you. And you were meant to be here today.
This is your time. Fear and doubt; their time is done. It’s over. I don’t know about you, but I’m sick and tired about hearing how hard these courses are. Screw ‘em. This is your time. Now go out there and take it!!!
Have a great weekend, and if you happen to be at the Azalea 12/24 hour race in Palatka, I’ll see you tomorrow!