Monday, 12 May 2014

Hammer Trail - the mental part

Monday, May 12, 2014
This post is partly about the Hammer Trail race - but more so about the mental aspects about running an ultra when you do not feel like it.

What happens when you try to do too much racing in one season?
Of course the risk of injury goes up (I knew that already) but more importantly I found out that I run into a mental injury, in terms of loss of motivation which affects my physical performance.

This became apparent in my last race of the spring season, Hammer Trail 50K.
The race is a loop race consisting of a 25k loop with a total elevation gain of roughly 900 meters, meaning a total of 1800 height meters for the 50k race. To complete a race like this you of course need a lot of physical training but almost equally important you need to be mentally ready for race day.
In the two weeks leading up to this race I kept feeling uncertain whether or not I was ready for the race or whether I should take a bit more time to recover.
I kept feeling tired and small niggles in my body, such as a slight pain in my ankle, Achilles, knee or something else. On top of that my allergy was really annoying as my nose kept running and I could feel my breathing was affected. Especially during the evenings and mornings.
What I did not understand was that it was actually my body trying to tell my what my subconscious wanted to say: that I did not feel like racing anymore for the coming months.

I completely overheard all the warnings and made it to the start of the race.
I tried to built up some motivation but it was a shallow feeling of joy I felt as I toed the start line.

The build up
Knowing that you have to run for more than 6 hours straight when you really do not want feel like running even 10k takes some convincing. However I was determined to complete the race as I had signed up for it and I do not like to quit unless there is a good reason for it.
A lot of people had dropped out of the 100 and 50 mile races during the night, which only further decreased my motivation for the race as it was a sign that the new route was tougher than last year.
When I came to collect my race number from Kim (one of the organizers) I told him I felt as it was Christmas Eve and I could hardly wait to get the race underway. That was my first lie of the day.
Before the start I met up with a few of my trail buddies, which helped increase my mood dramatically. Speaking to them was really nice however I  still had a feeling that something would go terribly wrong during this race and that I was not supposed to be here. Which is why I told them the second lie of the day: that I was really looking forward to get the race started. However saying you do not feel like a race or that you feel terrible will only make you feel even worse. So I kept my poker face straight and lined up for the start.

The start
The race started and even though I did not feel like racing I had positioned myself rather close to the start-line, to ensure I would avoid too much queuing and troubles with overtaking people on the single-track. Once again I had been able to position myself perfectly as there was only minor shifts in the positions around me during the first few k.

However soon after the start I started feeling way to warm and already after 1.5k I had to stop and change from my race jacket to a race vest - annoying mistake and which just further affected my mood.
At the same time my stomach was starting to feel strange, as if it was kind of bloated . I think it was due to a bit too much food on the evening before the race, however I am not sure.
It was really uncomfortable to run on single track trail paths in a rocky environment with a body and mind that just did not feel like racing.

Picture from around 4k after the start. Showing the definition of a poker player, as even though I felt terrible I kept smiling.

After 6k I passed the Hammerhavn area and considered if I should simply drop out and call it a day, however the thought of having wasted so much time preparing for the race over the last couple of days refrained me from actually stopping. I ran past Mikkel who had moved from the start area to here to cheer us on. I made a big show out of showing how great I felt, even though on the inside my mind was screaming at my to simply stop running. The third lie of the day.
Instead I kept on pushing forward, hoping my mood would improve and I would get into a good rythm. I also slowed my pace slightly to try and give my stomach some time to get in order.

It continued like this for the following 10k and it was not until after 16k when I reached Jons kappel that my body felt really warm and ready for racing. My mind was still not fully convinced I was doing the right thing
so I had to keep pushing forward and focus on the positive scenery.

First round done - quit or not?
When I approached the start area I kept contemplating if I should quit or continue - though deep down I knew I would not be able to quit I could not help myself from toying with the thought of just pulling out and go back home to my family.
But when I reached the goal area my running buddies was there cheering me on saying that I looked great and in perfect condition. I saw one of our other buddies who looked like he too was having a real tough day out there. I simply asked him if he agreed it was a tough day at the office - he looked at me with a face filed with salt flakes from sweat and he said "oh yeah". The first truth of the day.
As I did not feel like I was having an injury or anything like that I quickly refilled my water bottles, grabbed some chips and made my way out on the track again. It really made a huge difference that Sonny and Mikkel was there to cheer for me and provide some motivation-
On my way out for the second round. Notice the smile, this time it was more genuine.

The race is on
Finally I felt like racing and I felt like pushing myself a bit, so I kept a good pace and was in a great mood.
I was able to enjoy the scenery and felt like it was a great race and that I would end up with a really great time. Finally the heavy clouds had left my mind and I "only" had to complete the second round and then I would be done.
This positive state of mind continued for the next 5k and they were by far the best 5k of the race, even though I was starting to feel tired my body still felt great. After a long downhill section this all changed.

Running downhill is extremely tough on your quads. I knew that before the race but I know that even more now.
After coming down from a long downhill section my quad muscles in my right leg started cramping. I could not help but feel really pissed of and annoyed with myself because I had not taken care during the decent and now I had to pay the price.
I was faced with a difficult decission: Continue the race and run the last 20k with a tense muscle that would continue to be on the border of cramp, or turn around and run the 5k back to the start area and call it a day. I decided to try and see if I could not loosen up the muscle by taking it a bit easier on the next few k.
I was able to keep a pretty steady pace for the next 5k even though I had to take extra care of my right leg as it kept threatening to go into a major cramp. However when I reached 35k and my left leg started cramping I was truly in a difficult position. I was faced with the choice of dropping out and trying to get a lift back or push on for the last 15k.
Trying to run with cramps is fun. Trying to smile while running with cramps is difficult.
The struggle
I decided to keep on pushing as I generally do not like quitting. I knew I would remember this race as my "stubborn" race, as it was only stubbornness and "stick to it" mentality that kept me going.
After going coming up from the stairs at "Jons Kappel" I met Santi who enthusiastically asked how I felt, I decided another lie was in order so I told him I felt great. The third lie of the day but I kept repeating it in an attempt to trick my body to believe it as well.

My legs were constantly on the border of cramping, and running down (yeah, you are right - I was walking) the granite quarry at Vang I constantly felt my legs being ready to go into cramps. It is difficult to explain how annoying it was having to walk down that section and allow multiple runners overtake me.
When I hit the flat section at Vang harbour I tried to run for a longer period of time, but my legs started cramping after about 500 meters. I had to stop and do my best to stretch my quads without my calf muscles going into cramps... At that point I saw a few spectators further up at the harbour area which I had seen at a few different sections of the course as well. So I knew they had a car and I suspected they would drive on towards the finish area shortly. In short, they were my "get out of jail" card. But I simply could not throw in the towel, even though my legs were in a mess and I knew it would probably take me 2 hours more before I was done. So as I passed them and they got into their car I did my very best not to focus on the possibility of simply getting back to the finish area within 5 minutes. So instead I kept moving forward, one small step at a time with two legs just waiting to go into full-blown cramps.

The cow path & final stretch
One particular section of the course is interesting as it is very narrow earth trail with a heavy incline. For some strange reason I feel very much at home on this particular stretch. Maybe it has to do with my friend Rene really just gave full throttle at this section back in October when we here on the trail camp. I was running behind him at the time so I simply followed him... as they say - the best way to be better at something is to learn from someone who is better than yourself, and Rene is absolutely BRILLIANT at running downhill sections. Anyway, when I approached it this time we had to up instead, but I still felt very confident and comfortable on the trail, so I was able to overtake a few people on my way up. But as soon as we made it to the top they quickly regained their positions, as my legs where still in a mess and I had to take it easy to avoid getting stuck on a trail with two legs that refused to take me any further.
It continued like this for the next hour or so, until around 45k where Santi overtook me. He showed great spirits and told me his legs where also terrible, but he simply had to get this over with as soon as possible. That kind of gave me a second wind, so even though we were now back in the most technical section of the course I started putting in longer run sections and actually kept a pretty good pace (all things considered).

Finally I made it over the last ascent and carefully found my way of that last decent as well. I could hear the buzz of the finish area and the people clapping. As I got round the last corner and could see the finish line I actually felt like sprinting, but there was no one to catch so I (wisely) decided to simply keep a steady pace and get over the line.
Across the line - the relieve on my face is real.
Once over the line Kim and Lene (two of the organizers) were ready with congratulations and a nice finisher medal. My trail buddies was also standing ready to congratulate me, already with beer in hands. I finished in 7 hours and 15 minutes which was around 45 minutes longer than I had hoped for, however had my legs not played tricks on me I actually think the 6h30m time would have been achievable. And still, 7:15 put me in the top third part of the field so I do not feel too disappointed considering the struggles I went through.
Trying to look as if I am super relaxed even though I feel like vomiting. (Santi on the left, already with beer in hand).

After finishing I felt as if I could have pushed my legs just a bit further, however at the same time it took me about 15 minutes to really get my body under control. After running for such a long time you have to force yourself to get something to eat and drink as you do not feel like it, but your recovery will just be so much better.
I called my wife and told her I was okay, but I could hear she sounded a bit concerned, most likely due to the fact I was feeling terrible and had not really enjoyed the race but had to fight my way through it. And I was done lying, so when she asked how I felt I had to answer I felt terrible. The thought of having to drive a car for one hour to get home was not something that really improved my mood.
However when I called her after another 45 mins or so I was in much better mood after some food and relaxation at the finish area. The organizers have a big BBQ for all participants and supports which really is a great way to end such a race!

Next year?
When I got back to my wife my immediate reaction was "never again", however after a shower it changed to "I have to do it again next year to proof I can do better if it's my focus race". After one nights sleep it had changed to "50 miles distance sounds tempting". And after yet another night it was changed to "100 miles is only 4 more laps than I already did"!
For now my focus is on Ultra Vasan but the goal of next year is starting to take shape. I can strongly recommend the Hammer Trail events (both Winter and Summer). Tejn IF is doing an excellent job hosting these races and Kim, Lene and Jakob are the perfect ambassadors for the club and the trail running sport community!

A few key learning points for myself: electrolytes, train for the terrain and do not race unless you are "hungry" for it. And being stubborn is not always a bad thing.

About the author

I am a 29 year old guy, who just loves running. I also love planning, order and goals. Which is why I am combining all of that into, The First Project..