What do you think about when you race?

It’s a question I often get asked so I thought I’d give you a peek inside my brain to see what was going on when I ran the 56km Yurrebilla Ultra Marathon recently. Some would argue not much but you might be surprised!

For those that haven’t heard about YUM (as the locals call it) it’s a fantastic, short (56km) ultra in the Adelaide hills – a great mixture of single track, fire trail, very little road, approx 2000+m of ascent and descent and with some of the most enthusiastic volunteers anywhere who have a preference for dressing up in fancy dress!

I was using it as a bit of a test to see where my training was at for the upcoming Great North Walk 100 miler in November. 56km is the shortest race I have run since a marathon in 2005 but the chance to combine a well regarded ultra with a trip to see family was too good to refuse.

I can’t vouch that all ultra runners think like I do but here’s my recollection of my thoughts throughout the race.

Race Time – T minus five minutes
Time to start lining up – I’m a good runner so I’ll make sure I am at the front – I don’t want to be caught behind any slower runners.
(That’s my ego talking – I am a good runner over 100 miles but the last race I won was back in 2010 and that was over 114 miles – why did I think I was competitive over a much shorter distance of 56km three years later?).

Race Time – Two minutes
Why are there so many people in front of me – look at that guy – I’m sure I am a better runner than him – what’s he doing in front?
I need to pass a few people or I’m going to be left behind.
But this pace feels pretty fast and I’m not sure I can maintain this without blowing up.
(At this stage my ego has just taken a bit of a knock – deep down it thought it was top ten material but judging by the number of people who have sped off in front that’s unlikely).

Race Time – 20 minutes
I’m still getting passed by people – am I going too slow? It doesn’t feel slow.
Maybe I’m just not that good anymore? Maybe I’ve lost any speed I used to have?
Am I too old for this?
Forty four’s not that old. Why can’t I keep up with these people – they don’t look like they should be faster than me?
(At this point my ego has taken a real hammering and I am unfairly judging people’s ability on how they look).

Race Time – 40 minutes
Right enough of this, time to practise what you preach – ignore everyone else – settle into your own pace and enjoy the race.
Whether you come 10th or 50th doesn’t matter, don’t let other people’s race affect yours.
(I stopped trying to hang on to the back of a group of four – we were going up hill and I felt it was steep enough that walking would be a better option so I reverted to a walk and got the heart rate back under control. I dropped off the back of the group but they remained in sight).

Race time – 50 minutes
Okay – this is more like it – that group of runners is staying in sight, my heart rate has come down and my legs are feeling better, I just need to stick to my own pace, if that means I come 50th or 5th so be it – that’s out of my control.
Time to start enjoying myself.
How does one enjoy themselves when running 56km? For me it’s letting myself connect with nature. I know that sounds a bit vague. I mean what the hell does connecting with nature actually mean? It probably means something different for everyone but for me it means taking in the surrounds and letting the present moment dominate my thoughts rather than thinking about what I’m doing tomorrow or should have done yesterday. You can do this anywhere but when you are running along beautiful trails with views over the whole city it’s a much easier task to distill your thoughts down to the present moment. Being in nature and trying to cover long distances on foot also reminds me how insignificant we are. A tiny speck on a tiny part of the planet in a massive galaxy in an even bigger universe. When running on trails I always get a glimpse of both the insignificance of human existence on one hand and the interconnectedness of us with the planet on the other. Both bring a sense of calmness and peace within me and is a big reason that I like running the distances that I do.

Race time – 75 minutes
This is more like it, me, the trails, ticking off the kilometres.
I’m finally alone, the runner ahead is far enough ahead that I don’t feel compelled to try and keep up and there is no-one immediately behind me that compels me to keep the pace up beyond a pace I feel comfortable with.

Race time – 1 hour 30 minutes
Someone’s catching me. It doesn’t matter – what speed they are running is of no relevance to me. I am running my own race and will no longer be drawn into anyone else’s race. My perception of whether I am having a good race or not will not be dependant on anyone else but me.
A runner slowly pulls up along side me and makes a comment about passing me in slow motion and very slowly pulls away – I don’t even try to keep up – I’m happy with the pace I am running. It is just uncomfortable enough to know that I’m not going to be able to go any faster without digging very deep and since this race isnt my main priority for the year I don’t want to push myself to that level.

Race time – 1 hour 50
Checkpoint coming up – I wonder what time I am on for?

Race time – just under 2 hours
Here’s the checkpoint – just under two hours – I think that’s 5.30 pace – would be happy with that.
Catherine tells me as I run past that Bec (my sister-in-law) is well ahead of me and I am going to have to work hard to catch her – she started an hour before me in the slower group but her goal was a time around 1.5-2 hours slower than mine so I should be catching her soon.
That’s great news – must mean she is having a good race.
Quick check of all systems:
legs – feeling good
heart rate – comfortable
hydration status – think I’m drinking enough
energy levels – all ok – regular sips of perpeteum keeping that under control
mental status – feeling completely in control and looking forward to the next 36km
running form – feeling light and relaxed.
A systems check is something I do regularly throughout any event. In fact I’ve got into the habit of doing it almost every 5 minutes but this blog would be far less interesting than the riveting prose it is now if I wrote down the systems check every five minutes!
It was at this point in the race that my mind finally switched into ultra mode – it had shed it’s ego, was focusing only on me and not on what other people were doing – I was focussed only on the section of trail I was currently running on – and the kilometres started to go by without much effort at all.

Race time – approx 2 hours 15 minutes
I am now starting to catch and pass a lot of the earlier starters (YUM is unique in that the runners start in three different waves with fastest runners starting last so they get to pass all the other runners).
I wonder if that person ahead of me is from an earlier start group or same group as me. He looks like he is running faster than most other people but I am definitely catching him – I must be doing ok.
Whilst its best to ignore what other people are doing you can’t help feel a bit of a surge in positive energy when you pass someone. I think this is healthy as long as that energy level doesn’t die if they pass you back – take whatever positives you can but leave any negatives behind.

Race time – approx 2.5 hours
I recognise that top – it’s the second place female who ran off ahead of me earlier in the race. I must be doing ok if I am catching people.
This again gives me a surge of positive energy as I realise I am starting to catch up with some of the runners who ran ahead of me in the first 10km. In an ultra I always look for as many positives as possible – there is no point dwelling on the negatives. If I can find anything positive at all I will try and focus my thoughts on that for as long as possible until hopefully another positive thought arises.

Race time – approx 2 hours 45 minutes
The course descends steeply down a rocky single track and I am right behind Emily.
This is fun – this is what I have trained for – I love this feeling of dancing down the trails.
Downhill running is something I have worked very hard on – I’m still nowhere near as good as some of the really good technical descenders but I can hold my own with most – I love the pure focus that it forces you to have – you can’t think about anything else except where your foot will land next.
The descent finally finishes and we are heading back up again. Emily continues running and pulls away from me slightly.
Should I keep running or start walking? I’d like to keep the heart rate down a bit so I think walking is the best option. But is that me just being soft? Should I push harder?
Mmm…. not sure. Wait, this is interesting, Emily is not pulling away from me – in fact if anything I am gaining on her by walking. The steeper it gets the more I gain on her.
Think I’ll stick to walking.
Wow – I am actually walking faster than someone who is running.
I’ve said this to my clients many times – walking can be a better option than running when ascending steep climbs but it’s rare that you get an opportunity to see two people side by side, one walking and one running, to see the difference.

Race time – approx 3 hours 40 minutes
I see next checkpoint coming up – systems check time
Hydration – think i need some more water
Temperature – getting warm – think I’ll pour some water on me to cool myself down
Body – legs feeling great – knees a little achey but other than that legs feel like they haven’t run far at all
Mind – in complete control of the body
Energy levels – 100%
Okay – pour water over head – drink two cups of water and let’s get going.
Where’s Emily – still at checkpoint – I’m sure she wont be long – she’ll probably catch up very shortly.
Five minutes further along the trail on a switchback section.
Where’s Emily? There she is – several hundred metres behind.
Okay so on my own now.
Look at those two ahead – they must be over 60 but they look great – nice economical running style, chatting away as they run up the slight rise.
“You two look like you are doing it easy!”
“Not going anywhere near as fast as you though”, comes the reply.
Giving out some positive energy to other runners only results in more positive energy coming back to you – the interaction between fast and slow groups due to the staggered start time allows both groups to encourage each other and is a highlight of the race.

Race time – 4 hours
Only 14k to go – I’ve just run a marathon – time check – 4 hours on the dot – that’s not bad for a course that has all these hills in it.
So 14k to go – 1.5 hours to make 5 hours 30 minutes – that sounds doable but how much time will the infamous Black Hill take out of that?
Don’t worry about that – the success of this race will be judged on your experience alone – not an arbitrary position or time.
Should I be walking or running? This climb is steep but I’m not sure if I’m taking the easy option or smart option by walking – let’s try running.

Race time – 4 hours 2 minutes
Okay – that didn’t last long – walking may be a better option – it does feel pretty steep so maybe walking is the best option – just make sure you start running again as soon as it levels out.

Race time – 4 hours 4 minutes
Right let’s get running again

Race time – 4 hours 5 minutes
Time to walk again – right this is getting frustrating – I wish it was either steep enough to just walk or level enough to just run so I can keep a good rhythm going.
I just want to run.
Enough of this – don’t let it frustrate you – find a different rhythm – get in sync with the course rather than try to change the course to suit you – the course is never going to change.
I know – let’s focus on my breathing – that stays constant whether I walk or run – breath in – breath out – breath in breath out.

Race time – 4 hours 45 minutes
This feels good – legs are feeling strong – I must be doing sub 4.15 minute kms running down this hill and it doesn’t feel that hard – but breathing rate is a bit higher – why is that?
Think… pace feels okay – I know … must be running low on carbs and burning more fat.
(fat needs more oxygen to burn so as you start burning more fat in a low carb environment your breathing rate will pick up).
The next checkpoint is 1km away so I will make sure I get some coke in for the last leg.
(As I run into the checkpoint I get a few comments on how fresh I look and the pace I am running at).
I dont care if they are saying that to be nice or they really mean it – it’s something positive so I’ll gratefully accept it.
Now let’s get some coke into me.
Catherine tells me I am still on time for 5.30 which gives me another boost and that Bec is only a few minutes ahead and looks like she might be starting to struggle.
So there’s 7km to go and 40 minutes to do it in and one very big hill that’s going to take 20-25 minutes to climb – I think it might be cutting things a bit fine to make 5.30
Don’t worry about the time – just get moving and see what the clock says when you finish.

Race time – 4 hours 53 minutes
Someone’s passing me – good on him if he can run up at that pace to the top – I won’t be joining him!
There’s Bec – she looks like she is moving okay.
I’m so pleased for Bec – she’s both a client and my sister-in-law and looks like she will exceed her race expectations by significant amounts – I have a quick chat and give her some positive encouragement and then press on.
This hill really does go on for a bit … focus, breathe in, stride, stride, breathe out, stride, breath in, stride,  stride, out, …. run this bit… back to walk, breath in, stride, stride …….
There’s the top – finally – okay now just have to run down the other side – wait that’s not the top at all – bloody false summits – stay positive.. that’s definitely the top now.
Cramp… what the? I never get cramp – let’s give that a quick stretch before it gets too bad – that feels better – right let’s get down this hill and finish this off.
There’s the guy that passed me on the up – he isn’t looking too good now – hope he finishes okay.
Last downhill – let’s fly down this – legs feel surprisingly good – let’s push the pace a bit and see how close to 5.30 we can get.
“Less than 2kms to go,” comes the call from a volunteer.
“Really – is that all?”
“Yes – you are almost there.”
Mmm 2kms to go approx 8-9 minutes to go – this is going to be tight. If the trail stays like this nice wide trail I should be fine.

Race time – 5 hours 23 minutes
Trail turns to rocky single track.
This is going to make it more difficult

” Less than 2km’s to go,” comes the call from another volunteer.
What the? It was 2km to go 4 minutes ago, who’s right?
Doesn’t matter – focus.

Race time – 5 hours 27 minutes
Cramp – bloody hell not again – this is getting annoying – another quick stretch.
Let’s go – cant be far now.
Back on good fire trail – must be close – there it is – just make sure you don’t cramp and face plant in the finishing straight.

Race time – 5 Hours 30 minutes and …… 1 second

Finish – 7th place
Well thats a surprise!

So what did I learn from that?
Nothing I didn’t know already but helped re-enforce a few key points.
Stay focussed on your own race.
Don’t let other people’s speed affect your race.
Stay positive no matter what.
Look for positives everywhere you can.
Give out as much positive energy as possible.
Don’t judge your performance by the speed of other people or the position you find yourself in.