The year was 2019, and I had just finished my 3rd UTMB qualifying race. My race application was sent. My gear was prepped. I had my training plan ready to get me to and from start/finish line in Chamonix in tiptop shape. I started my specific race training in February 2020 after the pandemic started. In March 2021, we were confined to our homes, but I was lucky to have a treadmill in our basement, so nothing was going to stop me. Oh, how wrong I was. After more than 3 months of gruelling training and uncertainty, on May 20, UTMB announced the event's cancellation.
I was devastated. It felt like all the work I had put in was for nothing. Once quarantines were lifted, I threw myself hard and carelessly at weight training, and injured my back. I was barely able to walk for a period, let alone train for an ultra marathon. It felt like multiple doors were being shut in my face. It took a couple of months to recover and get back into running shape.
A friend and colleague of mine were talking about Kilian Jornet's attempt at breaking the 24-hour track running record. I was still facing some back pain, but I am always up for a challenge, especially when it is something I have never done before. The thrill of taking on something new drove us both to take on the challenge with no real preparation. It was tough. It was stupid. And if I were to go back, yup, I would do it again.
The fire was reignited! I confirmed my registration for the 2021 edition of UTMB and I had last year's plan ready to take me through once more. This time, my training was outdoors. I was able to simulate race conditions on my long runs (as best I can in our climate) by running the trails in Wadi Hanifah and the "Camel Trail". I was replicating the quad busting climbs of UTMB, the long hours on my feet, the race nutrition plan, the sleepless running and power hiking needed to finish this race. All was going perfectly. I was conditioning my body to endure the seemingly never ending UTMB trails. What I did not realize was how much of an impact this would have on my mental strength.
Ultra marathons are never a straightforward undertaking. There is more often than not, challenges along the way that will derail you from your perfectly laid out plan. If you are an ultra runner, you are likely to face gastrointestinal issues, dehydration, blisters, chafing, cramps, muscle strains, knee pain, heat stroke, altitude sickness, sleep deprivation, and the list goes on and on. To avoid these issues, proper planning is key, but no amount of planning will get you through 100%. You have to be able to problem solI for one, faced many, if not all of the above listed issues. I recall an instance while running down one of the hilly trails in Wadi Hanifah. It's a narrow "trail" running from the top to the bottom of the Wadi. This trail was off the beaten path, and didn't have any light posts like the rest of the trails in Wadi Hanifah. I had to rely on the light of the moon, and my headlight. My long run started at 2AM that day so that I could make it to work on time. My weekly long runs ranged from 2-3 hours on rest weeks, and built up to an 8-hour long run. My legs were heavy after many hours on my feet, but I was making great time, and hitting my pacing goals. As I was striding my way down the hill, I clipped my foot on a rock and found myself hitting the hard rocky ground. Much experience with trips taught me how to take the fall sideways onto the shoulder and roll into the fall. The jagged rocks ended up giving me a few cuts, bumps, and bruises here and there. I can't lie, I took a moment to myself to lay there on the ground, look up at the stars and the moon and reflect on why I was doing this. Why am I putting myself through so much pain and suffering? However, this was no time to reflect, but it was time to work. So after about 5 seconds of zen-like reflection, it was time to get back up and finish the job I set out do.
I can give you a laundry list of tips and tricks for your upcoming run, race, marathon or ultra, but it is much more valuable to know how to tackle problems, rather than how to solve any specific one. Way too often to I find myself panicking with raised anxiety levels over things out of my control. It can be hard to face things with rationality when emotions are involved and all you can think about are the consequences.
To put it simply, whenever I face a problem, not just in running, but in life in general, I typically try to:
Define the problem: understand what is going on, and what caused the issue.
Find solutions: think about different approaches to solve the problem.
Evaluate different approaches: rule out any poor options, think about the consequences of the different approaches, and identify the optimal solution.
Run with it!
Move forward regardless of whether or not you can see exactly where that takes you. By doing so, you will discover things in yourself and in others that you did not know were there.