Running, Travel

Lessons from a DNF Race

On 2 May 2015, the Ninja Turtle attempted her first ultramarathon trail. The following video tells the story.

After a week of grieving and moping, the Ninja Turtle exhausted her emotional response to the disappointing outcome, pulled herself together, and made that video.

Six months of preparation, discipline and sacrifice; hundreds of euros spent on the trip, and her race was truncated by bad weather. She has cried, she has sulked, she has mulled over it. She has cursed the gods, her fate, and the ill-aligned stars. She has rehashed the event in her mind over and over, trying to draw some lesson from it – something, anything, to pinpoint her errors, her faults, her weaknesses. Something to blame, and to avoid repeating the next time.

The thing is, there’s probably none. She has followed her training plan to the T (save for a week after her accident of falling onto concrete from a loft 2.5m high), fighting against incredible pain on several occasions. She’d run in the heat of the Australian summer, the humidity of Singapore and the frigid winter in Europe.

She’d cut back on alcohol, modified her diet to become fat-adapted, sorely missing out on beef hor fun, curry puffs, Hokkien mee, sushi rolls… (it’s a list too heartbreakingly long to continue so she’ll stop there).

She’d trained in the prescribed heart rate zones. She’d done the mileage she had to do, and for a while, she celebrated PRs for her 10K, 10 miles and marathon distances all in the same racing season. It seemed as if all the fatigue, sleeplessness and ravenous hunger were worth it, promising a celebratory finish to an amazing race season.

The DNF was thus an incredibly bitter pill to swallow. The Ninja Turtle’s boss, an ultramarathoner himself, told her there are many reasons for DNFs, and indeed, the weather is one that’s truly beyond the scope of runners’ control. She’d trained well, toed the line in peak condition (no injuries, having tapered brilliantly), and stuck to all racing conventions: nothing new on race day, stay hydrated, poop before running, smile for the cameras, enjoy the experience and make friends with fellow trail runners.

She did all that and still she DNFed.

After 7 hours in the relentless rain, having covered 49.4km and about 1000m+ elevation according to her GPS, her clothes and shoes were soaked through, and she’d lost her gloves. Despite all the noodle soup, sandwiches, coffee, cake, tea, chocolate and bananas she’d eaten, her temperature dropped. With the winds picking up in the darkness of the night, the rain still pouring and the temperatures dropping even further, she suffered her worst defeat ever when a gust of wind blew just as she turned around a corner, making her feel so ill, like she’d been violently punched in the guts, and her knees buckled.

Thankfully, GodzillaPin was there to witness it all. He’d come to St Julien du Sault to meet the Turtle for a moral boost, and was in fact, holding her hand and walk/jogging alongside her the very moment she’d caved, remarking only 2 seconds before that how icy cold her hand was.

The volunteers arrived, and shortly after, the medics whisked her into a heated ambulance where her pulse and breathing were measured. She hadn’t stopped shivering, and was begin to feel slightly drowsy and a little confused. Her bib was removed and she was declared out of the race, and brought back to Sens in the vehicle, with GodzillaPin following behind in his car.

The heartbreak came slowly, in waves. That night itself, the Ninja Turtle was simply numb with cold and the only thought she had in mind was: DNF. Sitting in the hot bath back at the hotel, having washed away the mud, she could only console herself with the thought that at least she was not passed out in the forest between St Julien du Sault and Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, in the rain, in the middle of the night.

Over the following two days, the physical ache of running almost 50km of muddy trails was frequently matched by the emotional devastation of failing to finish. The Ninja Turtle felt betrayed by both the inclement weather, and a constitution too weak to handle the rough elements. Mentally, she was certain she would have made the 85km, but physically, despite the 1000 miles she’d logged on the hills of Moselle, in the valleys of Meuse, along the coasts of Sydney and on the sandy beaches, in gorges and ravines of South Australia, along the highways of Frankfurt and Marseille, through the villages on the outskirts of Paris and on the country roads of Lorraine, the canal networks of Singapore and Metz, morning, noon and night, she was still unable to support the cold rain in wet clothes and shoes. She had found her limit.

So that’s it. Life isn’t fair; if it had been sunny like last year, no doubt she wouldn’t have cracked, but there is no point speculating. She couldn’t possibly have trained for these conditions, so she’s not sure she can regret anything. That’s the lesson out of this race – she’s given her 100% and she has failed through no real fault of her own. Sometimes, we cannot seek to blame anything or anyone, but rather, we must simply accept how things are, learn to let go, and move on.

Above all, her spirit has not been beaten by this experience, and she shall rise from the ashes to try and try again. One day, the stars will align in her favour and she shall be ready to claim the victory of daring to chase a dream.

In the meantime, all that’s left to do is to turn away from her grief, and properly thank every single person who has supported her on this remarkable journey with their faith, confidence, and words of encouragement when the Ninja Turtle needed them most. Rod Lowe, Baby Turtle, Sonic the Hedgehog, Krazy Cow, Yellow Jersey, and above all, GodzillaPin.

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Running

Measuring Progress as a Runner

A while ago, the Ninja Turtle came across a few blog posts of runners showing off their impressive collections of running medals. While this blog occasionally features a race that the Turtle had participated in, the truth is that she blogs about 100% of all her races. They aren’t a selection of the “Best of the Best” – if you can count the number of posts about her races, you know how many races she’s participated in.

This got the Turtle thinking about how or what she’s got to show for her progress as a runner, if anything at all.

Like all relationships, runners have a love-hate thing going on with running. From the first step on the treadmill back in September 2012 to the present, the Ninja Turtle’s relationship with running has profoundly developed, and her identity as a runner has thus, evolved. What started out as a necessity has grown into a compulsion. The Ninja Turtle has transitioned from running for the sake of good health, to running as an interesting hobby, to not being able to imagine her life without running.

As with all good and lasting things in life, the changes came gradually, of course. Initially, she spent 6 months on the treadmill, working towards her first ever marathon. Believe it or not, it took another 2 months after that for her to dare to venture running in the local park. To be fair, a large part of this was being so unfamiliar with the dreadful climate in Metz.

Once at the park, she developed one running route, and stuck with it for another 6 months. It was a sort-of lap that came to a beautiful 1 mile (1.6km) exactly, and she simply ran the loop multiple times to make her distance for the day. On days she was feeling adventurous, she ran the route in reverse.

Fast forward a whole year and she’s added various cities around France, Germany, Luxembourg, Switzerland, the UK, Singapore and Australia on her list of places where she’s completed a run.

While she likes to measure her distance on her RunKeeper GPS, she sometimes has no mobile data on her phone when crossing borders. Her sense of direction is atrocious, but she’s learnt to memorise street names in foreign tongues, and recall the route when she goes back, to plot it onto RunKeeper manually.

She used to be pedantic about running first thing upon waking, for it was the only way to make sure running was crossed off her to-do list in the day. Now, she’s willing to remedy insomnia by commencing a 20-mile run at 3am, or pushing the workout back till midday to suit the schedule of a running buddy. Basically, she’s comfortable with lacing up any time of the day.

She’s seemed to make a reasonable transition of running at 6am on holidays in Australia and Singapore to avoid the heat, to running at 11am back in Europe to catch a glimpse of sunlight (except the two runs in Paris and Frankfurt, which were executed at 6am in complete darkness and the freezing cold because she wanted to run while GodzillaPin was still asleep, and free the rest of the day for sightseeing).

She used to spend hours ensuring she’s got the perfect running playlist, and not so long ago, she just completed a 32km run listening to nothing but the sound of her footsteps and breathing. (To be fair, she didn’t really want to do it, but her mobile phone only had enough juice for either GPS tracking, or music, but not both to last that distance.)

The first week back from halfway across the world, she completed 5 runs (one on the treadmill, most reluctantly, but she wanted to do some aggressive hills).

She has found herself running in weather like this:

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Still, the Ninja Turtle is human, and there are just some days when running is a struggle. GodzillaPin has been ill with the flu all week, and the Ninja Turtle’s been functioning on jetlag and interrupted sleep as GodzillaPin coughed through each night like he had tuberculosis. Worse still, upon returning from Frankfurt last night, poor GodzillaPin suffered a dreadful bout of gastro, and spent 4 hours projectile vomiting. Even the rice porridge that the Ninja Turtle boiled up for him was promptly brought back up.

This morning, with a weekend backlog of work to be done, the Ninja Turtle found herself staring at the computer screen at 7am. By 11am, she’s decided to take a break, and get that 10 miles in. Of course, with full concentration on her work, she’d forgotten all about breakfast and tried to remedy the situation with a cup of black coffee (thankfully, she ate a LOT over the weekend). There was no rain, but the wind was gusting 65kph (40mph) outside. She knew at that moment that all the odds were stacked against her favour, and it was easy to throw in the towel and say “you know what? nah…”

Instead, she laced up a brand new pair of trail shoes, and was determined to get them filthy. She found herself shuffling into those awful headwinds – yes, of 65kph – and hated every single second of it. Her eyes watered and her vision was blurred. Her lips were numb with cold, and her nose was running faster than she was. She no longer felt her legs, nor her feet, nor her hands. All she sensed was the mighty roar of the wind as she ran through a naked field, and she never felt more alive.

It’s not always possible to measure progress, but sometimes, progress cannot be measured, it must simply be felt.

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Running

A few simple thoughts that got the Turtle on the podium

About twenty-four hours ago, the Ninja Turtle received, for the first time, some public recognition for her running. Before you all think she’s some super pro, she is not. From our schooling years we all know it’s easier to be the best student in a class of twenty than it is to be the top of the year with 2000 students. Likewise, a small race stacks the odds in your favour for coming up ahead.

In all honesty, she wasn’t even sure if there was going to be a race at all, as the publicly available list of enrolled runners showed ONE team (hers) and ONE solo runner. Since she had to switch from the team to the solo component, she believed it was only going to be a race of two runners. You know what racing against one other person means? It means if you don’t win, you lose. The Ninja Turtle has never felt any pressure whatsoever to cross the line first, but then she’s never really had to consider what it meant to cross the line last either.

It became a torturous week of debating strategy. She had not completely recovered from those killer hills at La Champenoise de la Marne, and she had completed a 14-mile long run on the Monday of race week. Should the Ninja Turtle:
a) Run comfortably, treating it like a novel experience – first time in the forest!
b) Run slowly, deliberately saving herself for her fourth race (15th June, 27km of trail) and graciously acknowledging she is a noncontender as she approaches the starting line
c) Run as fast as she can, since she’s paid money to “run a race”; after all, with no knowledge of the other runner’s skills/background, she technically has a 50-50 chance

She spent a few agonising days psyching herself into a funk. On one hand she didn’t care to win, on the other hand she didn’t want to lose either. On yet another hand (GodzillaPin’s) if she was going to win, she’d like to win against an opponent that gave her a good run for her money, and on the same token, if she were to lose, she wanted to lose knowing that she drove a hard challenge and her opponent beat her satisfactorily with killer skillz. After about half an hour of struggling to verbalise these conflicting thoughts to GodzillaPin in broken French, GodzillaPin very simply replied “what about running for the pleasure of it?”

That silenced the Turtle.

Of course, her fears were moot when she saw the number of runners on Sunday morning. It wasn’t going to be a black-or-white, win-or-lose race. She could find herself, quite happily and comfortably, in the middle of the pack once again. Still, the psychological scars of spending a week believing she could come in last lingered. This was why she elected to stand right at the very back of the small pack of runners when they were called to approach the starting line. Maybe in a twisted way, she was trying to turn it into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Once the runners entered the woods, the Ninja Turtle focused on settling into her own pace. It took a couple of minutes, by which time she realised that not only was she gaining on the runners ahead of her, she was starting to overtake them. Without much effort.

The biggest concern in the forest shifted from finishing last, to not getting lost. For the first lap of the race, she elected to run close to one or two other runners, permitting them to go ahead of her at times, so they can do the work of leading the way while she focused on not tripping on roots and hurdling over fallen tree trunks. The Ninja Turtle was quite easily the shortest runner, so while everyone else was gracefully clearing these obstacles, she was handicapped by short legs that made her feel like a hobbit.

After the first lap, the Ninja Turtle had overtaken a good 2/3 of the contenders. Mentally, she had shifted gears from “let’s run for fun” to “let’s run for a PR”. She skipped a water station despite immense thirst, as it was the checkpoint for relay teams to switch runners. She found herself saying things like “this is a tempo pace, surely you can keep this up for another 6km”.

Towards the end of the second lap, she was delirious from thirst, and her usual strategy of starting out empty and fuelling mid-race was beginning to backfire as she realised she was not running for endurance, she was running for speed, and her vision getting fuzzy was a sure sign of plummeting sugar levels. Right before approaching the fuel station she had just overtaken another solo runner, and although greatly reluctant to lose time, she was forced to drink 2 cups and grab a bite before stealing the giant 1.5L bottle of water from behind the counter and running off with it.

By the beginning of the third lap, the Ninja Turtle knew that the rest of the race all depended on mental strength, for she had reached her physical limits. She was plagued by nausea and the dried apricots and chocolate cereal bars were making her all mucusy. Breathing was a chore. She realised belatedly that she didn’t have her Ventolin.

Every half a minute, some part of her body begged her to slow down, and her mind fought back to silence the pleas and the excuses. She had one thought, and only one thought in her mind: whatever the outcome, she wanted to reach the finish line knowing that she had given nothing short of 100%, emptied her tank, and found she had another 10% more to give. As tears of strain started streaking her sweaty face, making her nose even snottier, she felt fear, pain, desperation, grief, rebellion, defiance, hope, and finally, elation. She was going to finish with absolutely no regrets.

Upon crossing the finish line, the Ninja Turtle collapsed and for three sweet and holy seconds, laid immobile on her back until some volunteers came rushing over, asking if she needed first aid. She hurriedly pulled herself up, insisting she was fine, just overwhelmed by the emotional experience. The sweat, snot and tears had washed her mind of all negativity, and she was reborn into the promise of all possibilities.

When we make “I can’t” statements, we are the creators of our own roadblocks. What does “I can’t” even mean? Does it mean that I am not capable? How will I know this until I have tried? The other meaning of “can’t” means “not allowed to”, and that’s exactly it. People sometimes fear success as much as they fear failure, and “I can’t” simply means they refuse to permit themselves to discover what they actually are capable of doing.

It was sweet to receive second place in a race, but it was even sweeter for the Ninja Turtle that day, outrunning the demons that lurked in her mind.

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Running

Strive for Progress, not Perfection

Set goal. Start off highly motivated. See initial results. Positive feedback maintains level of motivation. Keep at it (whatever it is). Start seeing diminishing returns OR life gets in the way. Motivation starts flagging. Keep at it (maybe even try harder, to try and induce the same fabulous! initial results). Frustration sets in. As a last-ditch attempt, some crazy scheme is resorted to. Progress stalls completely. Throw in the towel and sit down to a bar of chocolate (because chocolate really DOES solve every problem that ever exists).

Sounds familiar? It doesn’t matter what the initial goal is, be it clearing one’s debt, giving up a vice, learning a new skill, some sort of health-related goal, or vanity-driven pursuit; chances are, we’ve all been through this wash-rinse-repeat cycle. During the goal-setting stage, it is easy to create a fantasy of how things will be once we have achieved our goal, by the deadline we have set ourselves, of course.

There are several problems to this mentality. Like a race, we rush to get from Point A to Point B in the shortest time, thinking that when we arrive, what? Like an inanimate object we will permanently rest at Point B, and life has no influence on us? That once we “get there”, everything will be perfect, and stay that way?

This is the reason why a lot of people who embark on weight loss regimes don’t get lasting results – they hurry to drop the weight without giving any thought to creating lasting healthy habits to maintain it for a lifetime.

This is a case of the journey being more important than the destination, and it’s sometimes really hard to remember this when we desperately want to attain what we’re after.

The other problem is believing that once the job is done, it’s done for good. That we can rest on our laurels and call it a day.

This is the reason why debts are never entirely cleared off – simply fixating on the negative balance as the sum to catch up on does not take into account that new expenditures are constantly being added to that sum.  This also is the reason why despite 10 years of piano lessons and multiple examinations, the Ninja Turtle today is unable to play more than a few repertoires on the piano – because she spent the subsequent 9 years going nowhere close to a piano.

Reaching Point B is really just the beginning.

Or rather, to not discourage people, Point B is just the first checkpoint in a series of checkpoints for the rest of one’s life. The ultimate Point B is the moment one dies, because unless one is dead, there really is no reason or excuse to stop trying. The sooner we realise that life is nothing but one big continuous and perpetual motion, the sooner we will stop rushing towards that end goal.

Whatever that end goal may be, here is a universal truth in every situation. Believing in perfection is likely to be the biggest obstacle in the journey. The Ninja Turtle spent her adolescence in a haze of perpetual disappointment because she bought into the idea of perfection, until GodzillaPin taught her to see that good enough is good enough. Feeling defeated because one fails to attain this imaginary “perfect” inevitably makes one suffer from what’s-the-point-itis. Dangerous disease, that.

There is a cure for this, however. If ever you find yourself in a position where, despite having put in a great amount of effort for a period of time and feeling like you’re still impossibly far away from your goal, simply pause and take a look back at how far you’ve come since you’ve started on the journey.

Look back once in a while - you'll get quite a remarkable scenery.

Look back once in a while – you’ll get quite a remarkable scenery.

Recognise the effort it took you to get this far.

Rejoice in the distance you’ve covered thus.

Respect the distance before you and commit to giving as much as you did when you started the journey.

Recall how you felt at the start of the journey.

Remember that “perfect” is the devil of a word, and if you wish to succumb to its tempting notions, you may as well use it to your advantage. You are perfect as you are. C’est vrai.

It’s saying something when in the process of searching for synonyms, the search yielded the following results for progress:

Advancement

Improvement

Development

Growth

Amelioration

When a search for synonyms of perfection was subsequently made, the computer froze for a good ten minutes. It then had to be restarted. I think this basically encapsulates the entire idea of what we’re trying to say.

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