A blog on the “Dreaded DNF” which was first published in Ultra Tales Issue 14

Well this was an article I didn’t really ever want to write but I can’t ask others to write about their own experiences if I’m not prepared to do the same.

As you will have seen from the recent race report I didn’t finish the T184 Endurance race and this blog looks at the reasons why and my lessons learned from this experience.

The DNF Moment

The T184 is a new race on the Ultra running calendar and something a little different, the event involves a 184-mile run/jog/walk/crawl the full length of the Thames Path from the Thames Barrier in London to the source near Kemble. This is a self-sufficiency race with competitors being required to carry all food and equipment with the exception of water, which is provided at Checkpoints approximately every 25 miles although there are locks along the route, which can also be used. No pacers, or support crew are permitted either. It’s basically a long tough old slog.

I took part in the T184 two weeks after a miserable effort at the North Downs Way 100 and got to the 100-mile point in about 25 hours. Mentally and physically I was fatigued, my feet hurt, my ankles were swollen from carrying the weight of a pack and my Achilles was sore. I wasn’t happy, I wasn’t that usual smiling cheeky chirpy chappy, I wasn’t enjoying ultra running… I was pretty much ready to throw in the towel here.

However, the checkpoint was being manned by my local running club and it’s pretty hard to admit defeat right in front of your fellow club mates and I dozed for half an hour, ate, sorted out my gear and then trudged on for another 14 miles before eventually giving up and quitting. I wasn’t having a great time physically but don’t expect any of the other competitors were either and I’ve finished races pretty beaten up physically, this time, I just didn’t have the mental strength to get it done on this occasion.

2014 T184 Sleeping Photo

Photographed at the 100 mile Checkpoint of the T184

The 5 hours it took me to walk 14 miles towards the next Checkpoint was spent in a dark place, thinking those negative thoughts, thinking about the 70 miles I had to cover, thinking that it could take me up to 30 hours to complete this event. I was gradually sinking into a black hole of despair. I worked myself into a such a state that I couldn’t see myself finishing the race and convinced myself that quitting was the only sensible option. A couple of phone calls to a couple of people at the time was not enough to give me a lift, a bit of motivation or desire at all.

There are no excuses that I did it because of an injury and there are no excuses that I am saving myself for the next race, I quit because I wasn’t mentally strong enough on this occasion. I do accept that I wasn’t physically ready for this race after lots of recent races and a lack of training but with 70 miles to cover in 30 hours during the race I could have walked it in.

The Next Few Days

After a good nights sleep and some rest there comes that period of annoyance and regret. When you look at the cold hard facts and rational thought of how far you got into the race and the time you had left to complete it you start to question why you gave in so easily.

The T184 race had each competitor GPS tracked and following the race online and seeing Facebook updates from people there was a mixture of emotions from satisfaction and delight to seeing other competitors finish this race and complete their journey along with some regret at my own

to think about some of the lessons learned from the experience. This really is the point of this article to give people a heads up about the lessons learned from the experience.

* The obvious point is that the T184 was one race too many for me this year. In all honesty this result has been looking more and more likely with a lack of proper preparation and training due to too many other races. I had trained well for my first 100 miler (The Thames Path 100) in May and since then I have run the GUCR, South Downs, North Downs and due to these races have not put in my usual levels of training since then. A look at my training log showed I hadn’t run over 13 miles in the two

lack of effort and a slight tinge of jealousy that I had failed and others had succeeded. It was tough to accept this for a couple of days. I spent the extra time I had at home updating the Ultra Tales website so at least I was doing something constructive!

I was pretty open with my failings and it was nice to receive a few messages of support from people along the lines of “It sucks, but you’ll get over it and learn from the experience”. To put things in perspective it’s no big deal when compared to other hardships or challenges people sometimes face in the real world. However, for someone who is passionate about their running it does hurt for a bit and I experienced several moments of regret over the next week when I had a little flashback to that moment I quit.

A few people suggested it was the “right thing to do” if you were feeling beat up. I appreciate the sentiment but I disagree. For me, it was the wrong thing to do as completing the race was possible and I will regret it… but I will have to accept it.

2014 T184 Paul Ali 12

Not a happy chappy during the T184

Lessons Learned

That feeling of regret fades over a period of time as you start to get back into training and focus on the next event. After a period of reflection, it was time

months before the T184, not ideal. Nor was completing another 100 miler less than two weeks before this one!

The lesson learned from the experience is to spread out your races and give yourself time to recover, train and taper. My original plan for 2014 was the Centurion Grand Slam, I should have just stuck with this and need to start saying “No” when a few race ideas are suggested.

* Race approach. Due to other races, this wasn’t an ‘A’ race and I went in with a relaxed attitude, no proper race plan just a broad window of when I think I would finish and just to enjoy and finish the event. I did the same with the Thames Ring and suffered mentally, I did the same at this race and quit.

This follows on from the above point. Greater focus on preparation on a race of this nature is required. I was simply too casual about it, knowing it wasn’t a focus race and thinking I could “walk it in” regardless of how I felt. I think I lacked a bit of desire, motivation and purpose.. it was simply another race on the calendar. This was a world apart from my approach to say the Spartathlon last year where it was my absolute goal for the year.

* Sleep breaks. I hadn’t really slept when I stopped but with my (lack of) form with nighttime events should probably plan to try and get some decent sleep breaks. I was probably in a sleep deprived state heading into a second evening leading to irrational thoughts. Before the Thames Ring I was given some advice for a multi-night event to get at least an hours sleep on the first night when your body is most tired (around the 4-5am time) and I survived 3 nights on 1hr, 1hr and 2hrs sleep and this worked ok for me.

So my lesson learned is probably to plan for more of a sleep, consider sleeping when I most need it and not just at an arbitrary Checkpoint and perhaps psyche yourself up for actually being out for the full duration of the event. I was thinking I would be done by 55-60 hours and wasn’t expecting or prepared to be out for longer.

* I was pretty happy with my kit and food selection, I had my pack down to a decent weight and wouldn’t change much here. My best piece of kit was the Montane Fireball Smock insulated jacket which kept me warm when I needed (stopping or going slowly during the night) although I might add a very lightweight sleeping bag if I’m planning on using sleep breaks more.

* Looking after your feet, ankles and Achilles. These were the issues which starting to cause discomfort and create the doubt in my mind. I should have worn a slightly bigger shoe as my toes rubbed and blistered and my feet had swollen despite taping my feet/being hydrated/taking electrolytes.

Practicing with the full kit more would possibly get you more used to the weight. Perhaps there’s even an argument for using poles if this helps takes a % of the weight off your feet.

The lesson learned is to practice more with my kit and get used to the weight. In future, I should spend some time running or even just hiking with a heavy pack.

* One thing which is overlooked for this sort of race is the strength you get within a group of like- minded people. I had run with a couple of guys for the first 15 hours but we decided to go our own way on the first night. 15 hours later after hardly speaking to a soul I was craving some company. You have to be prepared to complete these events by yourself but if there is an opportunity to buddy up for an event of this nature I would consider that an advantage. How often do you run with someone

and one of you says, I’m feeling good I will go on ahead and then for the next couple of hours you are running by yourself and can see that same person half a mile ahead or behind you? Is it worth it being a few minutes ahead or behind?

To summarise, I didn’t do the things I would normally do to prepare myself for this sort of event. I got a little complacent thinking I could walk the race in and it didn’t work out. I’ve just got to accept the reasons for my failings and make sure I put this result right in the future.

When I used to play football, you sometimes lost games but there was always that chance to put a result right the very next week. With ultra running, you’ve got to wait at least a whole year for a race to come round again and that can feel a little frustrating but it’s something I will use as a motivation when I tackle the race again.

Whilst the lessons learned are the key points of the article for the audience. No matter how much you want to, you can’t change the result and writing this article gives me the opportunity to draw a line underneath this experience and move on.

I think I’m ready for a few wisecracks from Messrs Adams, Chambers, Pinnington & Stout now!

Update: Well as you may have seen from the Winter 100 report, the last race went pretty well with a new 100 mile PB. Would I have put in such a good effort if I had “ground out”the T184, who knows? I’m sure deep down, there was a little extra motivation somewhere to get a good result after a couple of bad results.