Stop, Learn, & Don’t Look Back – Escaping The DNF Dogpile

It took me months to post anything here on my failed Wainwrights attempt and my Tor Des Geants DNF. Partially, I didn’t really know what to say, or if there was anything worth saying. And partially, things just kept getting in the way. When I first started I didn’t even finish the first paragraph because I had a rather sudden onset of symptoms from a virus I got from one of my kids.

I thought about combining everything into one post, but instead I kept things separate with this post to tie them together and look at the bigger picture. According to Robbie Britton’s excellent 1,001 Running Tips, my posts should be kept below 1,000 words. I thought that by cheating and splitting it into three posts I could get by. Spoiler alert: I failed miserably… they’re all over 1,000 words. 😅

If you’d like to just have a look at what happened at Wainwrights or Tor Des Geants, those links are below. The summary is that I carelessly neglected my feet on the Wainwrights and was unable to continue halfway through, and at Tor Des Geants I ended up with a case of rhabdo. If you run ultras or do anything similar I highly recommend at least skipping to the last section of the posts and learning from my mistakes. As I clearly found out, “it’s never happened to me” or “I’m in too good of shape for that” aren’t valid.

Disclaimer

The rest of this post is largely my own personal thoughts trying partially to work through those running failures but moreso other life circumstances. None of it is advice, and I am far from qualified to offer any such advice. I understand computers and data, not people. But I thought that writing it down, just like the Wainwrights and Tor Des Geants reports, could help organize my thoughts into something useful for me that could provide some lessons and closure. I strongly considered keeping them as my private thoughts, and nothing here is some earth shattering novel idea, but sometimes a little increased visibility and openness on these topics can be useful to others who are dealing with setbacks.

There is also no part of this that is a sympathy ploy or an excuse for any of my results this year. It’s always important to try to determine the reasons for any outcome. When those reasons are used to try to cast blame elsewhere or avoid responsibility, rather than to try to improve, that’s when they become excuses.

Failures Aren’t Independent

This isn’t the first time I’ve come up short. It’s actually kind of the norm for first attempts at my big goals: qualify for Boston, qualify for Kona, Barkley, Grand Round, Pennine Way, winter Paddy Buckley and Bob Graham Rounds, and now Wainwrights. I figure ~50% success means my goals are about the right difficulty: right in that Goldilocks zone where it’s difficult enough to spur improvement but not so difficult that it leads to quitting out of frustration.

This picture will never get old to me – struggling to hobble up a tiny final hill in “just” a marathon in 2013 at a pace that I now do for longer distances on a fun day through the mountains carrying gear while eating and navigating.

Normally these failures are the best possible way of learning and reaching eventual success. The problem is when they start to stack too closely together. Mental development isn’t much different from physical training with respect to the need to cycle between working hard and recovery. Without sufficient recovery between big stimuli the result is degradation rather than improvement.

It’s also important to remember that running goals aren’t mentally tucked away in their own nice little bubble separate from the rest of life. There isn’t a tag team effort from a separate family me, work me, and race me – there’s just me. These types of adventures are major undertakings: physically, mentally, and logistically. It’s easy to think that we can compartmentalize them or even use them as an escape from everyday life, but the reality is that things blend together. If a running goal is a success then it might provide a temporary escape, but otherwise it just adds to the pile and feeds into a vicious cycle.

This year has had a few obvious highlights and many things to be thankful for, but beneath the veneer of social media this has not been a good year for me. It’s not really due to any single thing, just a relentless firehose of mostly small to medium things. There are also of course people who have had far, far worse years – something that can nearly always be said for nearly anyone. While recognizing and remaining compassionate to that (something else that’s often lost in social media), it’s important to also recognize how our own life stresses affect us, even physiologically, in unpredictable ways.

Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.

We have to be aware of and adapt to life events even when taking on seemingly unrelated challenges – especially ones in which a poor mental state can put our safety at risk. I have little doubt that they were a contributing factor to my rhabdo at Tor Des Geants, and it’s not a stretch to say I wouldn’t have made the careless oversight of not caring for my feet at Wainwrights if I had mentally been 100% there.

Also, I’d like to apologize for any delayed or missed responses, lack of activity on social media, not doing your podcast, or other general forms of e-disappearance this year.

I’m not an art person, but the exhibit below hit pretty hard, especially with this person’s description of it. Sometimes there’s no time for dancing. We all have those stretches. But when that becomes a continually worsening chronic condition, maybe a different approach is needed.

Stop the Cycle

As a perfectionist who grew up with video games, I’ve found that it’s extremely difficult for me to accept flaws in any result. Even if I were on track to beat the game, if things hadn’t gone just right I would often hit the reset button and try again. It at least led to a lucrative middle school business completing all the impossibly hard objectives to unlock all the bonuses on other people’s Goldeneye game cartridges.

The closest I ever came to making real life like a video game was running the Boston Marathon dressed up like Link. Even then, my belt came undone somewhere along the way, turning my tunic into a dress, and there wasn’t a reset button in sight.

But in life, there’s usually not a reset button. So instead I find myself trying to come up with a way to “make up” for anything that goes wrong: to learn from it and as a result achieve something that brings me at least back up to where I would have been otherwise. Unfortunately that’s not always possible either. Really, it becomes the mindset of a losing gambler – becoming more absorbed in it in an effort to “just break even” and taking on more and more risk, usually ending up in a deeper and deeper hole. Or going back to the overtraining example – someone who fails to recognize the root problem and thinks a failure caused by training too much means they need to train even more.

Just like there was no good way to make up the lost time after my wrong turn at Tor Des Geants, the only viable approach is often to accept the damage, stop the bleeding, and move on.

Learn

Failure can be an incredibly good teacher… but not always. Sometimes it just sucks and there’s nothing we can do or learn. In any case, before completely moving on I do everything I can to pull lessons out of the wreckage, looking for anything to improve and to keep the same thing from happening again. For Wainwrights and Tor Des Geants, my main takeaways are below.

  • Just because something hasn’t been a problem before doesn’t mean it won’t be next time. Most problems in ultras are the outputs of complex equations with many variables.
  • External, seemingly entirely unrelated factors can feed into those equations.
  • Once time is lost, it’s lost. Trying to make it up usually doesn’t end well.
  • Never ignore the little things or become complacent to them. Always address things when they’re still risks rather than waiting until they’ve developed into actual problems.
  • Outcome isn’t the sum of planning, preparation, and execution – it’s their product. If any of them are zero then so is the result no matter how good the other two are.
  • In isolation failing a challenge is fine, maybe even a positive in the long term. But failures stacked together can be a downward spiral.
Image

Don’t Look Back

This is the absolute hardest part for me. I’ve come to the conclusion that long term regret and guilt is the most useless emotion, but also one of the most powerful and devastating. The real sucker punch / irony of it is that its usefulness is inversely related to its power. Good people suffer from it the most but don’t need the guilt and self-punishment to do better in the future. Terrible people who have done truly awful things will continue to do so without feeling one bit of regret.

It’s so easy to keep revisiting, to play the what if game, or to think there’s one more tiny lesson that can be extracted. It’s almost always counter-productive. Once the lessons have been learned, move on. Dwelling on what’s done does absolutely zero good. Most of us know that, and it’s easy to type it here, but it’s so incredibly hard to actually stop. The excerpt below is from Gary Cantrell, AKA laz, in a message to people who did not achieve their Barkley Marathons objective.

because when we do not achieve our objective
where most people blame outside sources,
the nature of the endurance athlete
the immediate reaction of successful people
is to blame themselves.

this is why they are successful.
there is no more important attribute for overcoming obstacles
than to immediately ask;
“what did i do wrong. what can i do different?”

Tapping myself out after not achieving my Barkley Marathons objective in 2015

Those who need to question what they did wrong the least are the most likely to do so, but that’s why they need to the least. 🤔😕 The only possible way I see around this contradiction is to time box it. Take some set amount of time, and do every bit of questioning and soul searching possible. Commit the lessons to memory, maybe even play the what if game a bit if it might help apply the lessons in the future, and then when time’s up: full stop and try to move forward. It doesn’t matter if it’s something that was an actual mistake, or if it was bad luck, or just an inevitable unfortunate part of life that we all have to deal with.

One of my good childhood friends is on the PGA Tour. He has had life changing outcomes (both good and bad) determined many times by a single swing of a golf club. Something useful he told me is to step way back and look forward at where I am from the past, rather than looking back at recent progress and setbacks from the present. For him, staying massively upset about a missed putt is difficult when considering he’s on the PGA Tour after years of scraping by in developmental tours and regional tournaments. For me, a DNF now might seem like a setback but to that guy in the first marathon picture even being able to attempt something like the Wainwrights or Tor Des Geants is a completely unfathomable, incomprehensible step forward.

Granted, that approach won’t always work. Some things are bad viewed from any direction. For those, all we can do is look forward.

What’s Next

So that’s that, moving on… clearly it’s not that simple, but I at least attempt to not project current worries forward and focus on positives instead. As far as running goes, I have a number of challenges coming up that I’m excited about (this last section is less general, and pretty specific to me).

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

First up, I’m going to attempt the big 3 rounds (the same ones from the Grand Round) solo and unsupported in mid winter. The mid winter window gives me roughly three weeks to do them all, which would also be the shortest amount of time anyone has done all three rounds in under 24 hours each. I planned on doing this last winter but Covid scrapped those plans. I did have a go at Bob Graham just before lockdowns were announced, but I ended up stopping with only the short final leg left due to severe dehydration. I’ve also previously had a solo attempt at Paddy Buckley in the winter, but ended up face planting into a bog, everything on me getting completely soaked all the way through, just before night fell and bad weather rolled in (not exactly good circumstances for being alone in the mountains, so I chose to stop and not freeze).

I don’t know that these attempts will be successful either – the outcome and even being able to set off in the first place will be quite conditions dependent. Storms Arwen and Barra dumped a lot of snow in the mountains recently, and when my time window opens up I might have to redirect my adventures elsewhere. I don’t think there are any mountain hazards that terrify me more than avalanches, and it’s not one of those fears I’m interested in overcoming.

I also plan on having another go at the Wainwrights, this time probably in May when it’s a bit cooler and the bracken hasn’t grown up yet. Between those, I’ll have The Butcombe Trail Pub Crawl. For all of these challenges I have left during my stay in the UK I plan on continuing the fundraiser for Action Medical Research that I started for the Wainwrights this year. That’s something a bit more meaningful than running around the mountains, and not something I’m willing to move on from with a DNF.

Then, I have Hardrock. I’m incredibly fortunate to have gotten in next year – this has long been at the top of my list of dream races (much higher than Western States for me) and I wasn’t expecting to get in for at least a few more years, possibly past my competitive prime. I don’t have the luxury of being able to focus on running as my top priority, but I’m planning on making the most of this and have already booked a place for me and my family for a stay at altitude the few weeks before the race.

Next year is a stacked field, and while I have no delusions of keeping up with Francois or Kilian on one of their good days in a race like this, I’m excited to see how I can do against that level of competition. Then maybe afterwards we can change things up a bit and go running through bogs or briars for a few days. 😅 I think the closest comparable race I have under my belt is TWOT (The Wild Oak Trail), which most people have never heard of. I managed sub 24 hours there, and it’s 12 miles further than Hardrock with nearly the same amount of ascent/descent, but it’s not at altitude (which has a been a major problem for me before).

Altitude has not been kind to me at races in the Alps or Pyrenees, and the high points at those races are about the same elevation as the low points at Hardrock. 😬

12 thoughts on “Stop, Learn, & Don’t Look Back – Escaping The DNF Dogpile

  • December 10, 2021 at 4:19 pm
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    Thanks for posting this John.

    Reply
      • December 11, 2021 at 7:37 pm
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        Not sure what your thoughts are on luck John (that would be an interesting blog post to read from you 😁) but I wish you all the best of it for your upcoming events. Your posts are always an enjoyable and inspirational read.

        Reply
        • December 12, 2021 at 5:37 pm
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          Thanks Marc, and it definitely helps to have a good amount of luck on these things! As Thomas Jefferson said, “I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.” 😉

          Reply
          • December 13, 2021 at 10:33 pm
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            Thank you for the post John. The thoughts on perspective, taking a look from the past, and not dwelling on the what if, are appreciated.

          • December 14, 2021 at 5:41 am
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            Thanks Brian, glad you found it helpful and all the best for your future!

  • December 12, 2021 at 3:57 am
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    Another really excellent post, John. I’m keeping it to read again as it’s stuff I need to get into my stubborn and self critical head. Good luck in your next endeavours – we ‘re looking forward to more dot watching.

    Reply
  • December 13, 2021 at 5:22 am
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    Very thoughtful and thought provoking. I especially appreciated ‘looking at where you are now from the past’ – a useful tool I would say. Enjoying your posts very much John, thanks. By the way while you are still UK bound and given that with Kelly as your surname there must be some Irish there somehwere, did you ever consider the Wicklow round in Ireland ? 🙂 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wicklow_Round

    Reply
    • December 13, 2021 at 5:00 pm
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      Thank you very much, and the problem for me is that there are too many Kelly’s… we haven’t been able to figure out which part of Ireland our family came from over 200 years ago! 😅 Would love to do a Wicklow Round sometime if I can fit it in.

      Reply
  • December 14, 2021 at 4:34 am
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    Yep Kelly and Murphy are the two most common names, I can appreciate the problem. Where I grew up my next door neighbour was a farmer by the name of John Kelly – colourful character 🙂 Best of luck in your next endeavours.

    Reply
  • December 26, 2021 at 7:28 pm
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    Fab post John. Until this year I had only ever had 1 DNF in 7yrs of ultra running incl multiple mountain 100milers (and even that was a time-out at a cutoff, not a couldn’t/chose-not-to finish). I then had a 5 from 5 DNF streak this year (admittedly one was TDS which was kinda outwith my control, and of course ironically I was feeling really good and strong at the time it came!). I have found your post hugely helpful as I can certainly attest to the downward spiral and hyper-analysis you mention. Looking forward to 2022 now. Best wishes & Thanks

    Reply

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