Rambling on DNFs

by Team Marchant coach Mark

So less than 24 hrs after a DNF whilst I am still watching the other athletes’ trackers and FB updates I thought I’d start to put down a few words about my training, the lead up to the race, a little bit about the event but more relevant at this moment, how it feels after. It’s a bit weird writing a blog, for me it’s a way of rationalising what has happened over the last few months by means of an internal argument…. should I, could I, What if etc.

This weekend I attempted my biggest racing distance to date, the 214 mile GB Ultras Race Across Scotland.  I didn’t complete it, could I have done things differently on the day? Maybe, would it have made a difference? Maybe.

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The beautiful Southern Upland Way – the route for the Race Across Scotland


The months prior to the event

Training was going pretty well, I had set backs like most people involved in this sport but nothing too dramatic….. how an insect bite can change everything. About 3 months prior to the start date I was bitten by an infected tick on the back of my knee, nothing too exciting there I suppose millions of people are bitten by parasites each year so nothing to worry about. Wrong, it turns out: there are 3,000 cases of Lyme disease recorded in the whole of the UK each year, I was one of the lucky ones who had been bitten by a tick carrying the disease…. Hurrah!

I won’t bore you with the details but Lyme disease can be rather unpleasant and has a variety of symptoms all of which I could do without whilst my training was reaching the peak…. Fast forward to a few blood tests later and some industrial strength antibiotics and I seem to be on the mend, or am I? and back to some gentle training… Yeeha!

After a couple of long back to back training weekends on the race route I feel totally exhausted with a sore right nipple and wondering if I am doing too much too soon.  Am I just generally tired? Is this the Lyme disease hangover? Is it down to the fact that we are having the greatest summer heatwave that I have ever known? Who knows – either way the results were the same and another week off from training was all I could do to try and re-charge myself.

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Training run on the race route

My right nipple continued to be sore for the coming weeks, and I just assumed that it was down to a combination of a new T shirt or my race vest moving around too much or the heatwave, it turns out it was neither of those things and on further investigation I’d developed a hard lump in my right pec just to the side of my nipple….. Brilliant. Another trip to the doctors, then via the NHS 2 week oncology referral scheme on to a hospital appointment for some blood tests and scans.  The fast track process is amazing and one we are lucky to have in this country, but wouldn’t you know the appointment to get my results at the breast clinic was scheduled for Friday the 17th   , the day I was due to make the 5-hour journey to Portpatrick ready for race day on Saturday the 18th.

Whilst I was worried about the possible outcomes, statistics suggest that men are highly unlikely to get breast cancer (less than 400 cases each year from 33 million men in the UK) so there was very little chance that I could be so unfortunate to get Lyme disease (3,000 cases in 66 million people in the UK), AND male breast cancer.  I was always taught to hope for the best but prepare for the worst and so mentally this is what I was doing.

Thankfully the results were all positive and I don’t have cancer which is an amazing relief.  It is not my intention to gain sympathy or to use this as justification for not completing the race.  Neither of these issues had anything to do with what happened on the day, I don’t have cancer and I didn’t fail because I was bitten by a tick!

However, I do feel like I was robbed of the excitement in leading up to the race, I didn’t have the dreams or nightmares that big events bring, there was no constant kit checking or visualization of the race and what would be happening and when. To me I was going through the motions, tapering, eating, hydrating and packing kit etc and even trying to seem excited about the event for my crew when in reality I wasn’t and on the morning of the day I was travelling to the event it was possible that someone would tell me I wasn’t going to be able to do it.

The race

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The journey of 214 miles starts with.. LOADS of steps!

This surprisingly is going to be fairly short, I’m going to save you from all the bits about who I ran with and what a great guy or girl they are. It goes without saying that generally Ultra runners are a decent friendly bunch of people, this bunch were no different. I ran with a few different people at different stages of the race but spent most of the race alone with my own thoughts.

We set off at 6am on Saturday 18th ; up to 17 miles everything was good, I felt physically well, and was running at a pace which I know I can maintain all day so was happy enough. I can’t quite put my finger on what went wrong… I just didn’t feel great- I had a sore stomach which is nothing new to me when racing but I felt like my batteries had just gone flat, I was eating and drinking but not feeling very well at all. The self-doubts started to creep in, had I been kidding myself on, me run 214 miles? Was I really over Lyme disease? Was I suddenly just feeling all of the stress of the last couple of weeks?

In truth I don’t know other than to say I had already resigned myself to quitting at Glentrool at mile 45 and even called my wife and Crew Boss Hazel to tell her so. My crew had been briefed already about when it was acceptable for me to quit… in short there were no circumstances that this was acceptable and I was promptly told that. Hazel must have called my coach Kim Cavill who called me to give me a talking to.

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My fabulous crew at Glentrool

I arrived at Glentrool and the cheers of the supporters and my crew were a big lift. I was tended to by my Team Marchant mates Paul and Peter, and Hazel who directed proceedings with military precision. Hazel accompanied me to the toilets to inspect some rather tender areas of chaffing which turned out to be far more serious than I thought.

I was turfed back out of the checkpoint after about 30 minutes and have to say I was feeling pretty chirpy.  Seeing the new Team Marchant car signs on my way out of the checkpoint gave me an extra spring in my step too.

From that checkpoint we had pre-arranged places for my crew to meet me so things in theory should have been much easier. Things went like we had planned and I was running well and felt much better from having had some proper food. The chaffing injuries were now raw burn like wounds on my groin, back and outside of my quads which was starting to hurt a lot.

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Staying positive at 62 miles

Despite this, I was still feeling pretty upbeat about things, I was gaining places in the race and passing other competitors as opposed to them passing me but I decided to amend my race strategy and sleep at 77 miles instead of 92 until first light then go again on Sunday morning once I had had a chance to air my wounds and rest.

When I arrived at the campervan it was clear that the wounds were a lot more serious than anticipated and this is when I appreciated most when having your partner, wife or relevant other leading your crew becomes so important. The application of Bepanthen and Sudocrem to places I’d like to call private areas is maybe a duty which Paul and Peter would have refused but Hazel had her mobile operating theatre all ready to go and this race would continue if Hazel had something to do with it. The plan was to smother me in cream, sleep in the nude to allow some air to get to the horrid bits and try some different pants the following day and see what happens.

Saturday night and Sunday morning

I woke up at 5am on Sunday 19th and got dressed in my new pants, leggings and clean kit and set off at 5.45 with the intention being cover roughly the same distance as the day before then stop and rest again. I was moving well, by that I mean I was making “relentless forward progress”, I wouldn’t win any awards for my technical running ability at this point but moving forwards is all that counts on these races so I was happy enough. I was a little bit stiff but my legs still felt strong which is a testament to my own great coach Kim Cavill…. Coaches need Coaches by the way! but my nether regions had me wincing with every step, again I called ahead to Hazel to say I thought my race was over as I couldn’t bear the pain and rather than accepting defeat she made the 50 mile round trip to Tesco to purchase the entire medical department to be ready for surgical procedure number 2.

Despite the best efforts of the crew and head surgeon Hazel my race couldn’t be saved.  My clothes were cut off as they were stuck to my wounds and in removing them we just exposed more raw flesh, the location of the worst wounds meant that applying dressings was impossible. Lucky for crew member Doctor Jenny that her shift hadn’t started yet and so she was able to escape medical duties (although provided sterling moral support to the rest of the crew via mobile phone).  It was suggested by Peter that we simply wrap my injured parts in cling film and send me back out…… it was decided that the custodial sentence which would surely follow was not worth it and so I retired from the race.

Am I sad about it.. yes, but could I have done anything to prepare for this… No. I ran in the same kit I have done so many times before without issues.

The aftermath

As I write this my fellow competitors are still racing, lots have DNF’d some have a couple of days still to go and the winners are almost done. How does that make me feel? Most people who have been training for an event for a long time- the “A” race of the year, when it’s over be that a win, finish or DNF there is a void left. It’s often referred to as post-race blues and a couple of the athletes that I coach have experienced it, I on the other hand don’t feel that way. I am probably feeling the same way as lots of other people who have “failed” at something.

What could I have done differently? Hazel and I had a conversation today whilst walking the dogs in which I was asking her about whether I was really justified in stopping, she tells me that if she thought it were possible she would have patched me up and sent me out again and that’s good enough for me.

24 hrs or so have passed since I pulled out of the race and now whilst pottering around I don’t feel so bad, I feel like I could continue now but of course I do, I’ve had a day to recover, to apply copious amounts of nappy cream, eat proper food, have a bath, sleep in a bed etc.  At that moment in the race when you decide to quit, or your crew pull you from the event it’s how you feel right then, not 24 hrs later. I didn’t achieve my plan on the day but was it something that I could really control?

Ultra-racing is a delicate sport, to have a great race lots of small things have to fall into place all at the right time, most people at some time in a long distance races are going to have times when things feel pretty rubbish but how It’s dealt with is what counts, the psychology behind what keeps us going when things get really tough, when everything in your body wants you to stop but you just keep going… that’s the difference.

Does this mean that I am not as tough as some of my fellow competitors? Maybe it does or maybe just more of the little things have gone right on the day for them, maybe they have trained better than me, they are maybe more experienced or simply just better runners than me- who knows. I am confident to say they haven’t tried harder than me though- I would never say I’d be beaten on effort.  Either way they are still running whilst I am typing this so something for them has gone better than for me.

This is my first race over this distance and it’s been a great experience.  A race which potentially takes 100 hrs to complete means that the competitors will have different strategies to one another and it’s quite difficult to get your head round. I went to sleep in around 20th place but woke up in 35th ish, and retired in the top 30 but with lots of the racers in front of me yet to rest. You really don’t know where you are in the race until a lot closer to the finish I suppose. The winners of races of this nature are not about who the fastest runner is, it’s the athlete who can go for the longest with the least amount of sleep, someone who has the mental toughness to keep going when others do not.

I’ve always been a great believer in self-belief. Believe you can and you will, self-doubting is accepting that you can be beaten, right?  I’m not just saying have self-belief, I’m saying believe in the process, your training, coach, hydration, race strategy and don’t worry about what others have done, you can’t control that so there’s little point in concerning yourself with it.  In truth you never fail – you either win or you learn, and both are positive outcomes.

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Self-belief still intact

I’ve finished my race with my self-belief intact, I believed in the process and had faith in my coach and crew. Sadly for me this time it wasn’t to be, the things which went wrong were beyond my control so I guess I’m as happy with a DNF as I’m ever likely to be.  As a very wise friend of mine says, all it means is that I haven’t done it – yet!

Teachable moments

It’s a tough one, ordinarily when things don’t go to plan there’s something you can put your finger on – if you go off too fast for example.  In this case there’s not much I could do differently in terms of preparation or race strategy. There’s always something to be learned though, and for me on this occasion the lessons are as follows:

1. Find a better shorts/pants combo.

2.Have a more comprehensive first aid kit available so that your crew don’t have to buy things on the go.

3. This is the most important one of all! Always have a loved one in your crew, your friends may not be prepared to apply medicine to places which don’t see daylight!

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