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.

Running, Travel


A quick recap on last Sunday’s Marathon de Marseille 2015: it was raining, it was windy, there were 499 sleep-deprived marathon runners who woke up ridiculously early for the shuttle-bus to the starting line, of which service terminated a whole hour ahead of the starting time despite the small number of runners.  They sat around in a pub and were fed a winning pre-race breakfast of coffee, biscuits and sardines. Despite the beautiful coastal scenery, the route illogically looped around downtown twice. The signage was inadequate and there was no salt to be found in the first-aid tents. In short, not quite a bag of giggles.

Still, remember how the Ninja Turtle was waffling on about keeping a positive attitude in the face of the absolute worst circumstances? Well, here’s why it’s always important to be wearing a smile: you never know when you’re going to be caught on camera! (See if you can spot the red beanie.)

And here are some photos from the organisers (apologies for the watermark, but the Turtle has already paid more than she cares for to participate in the race, so she’s not paying more for the photos.)




Running, Stories

Staring Down Evil In The Eye

As the Ninja Turtle has been rather ill, and all those drugs certainly do not help either, finding the motivation to keep up with her running has not been easy. It’s also demoralizing to see such poor performances compared to her pre-holiday runs. Nonetheless, she’s been trying her very best to get on with life and get back into routine. Yesterday morning, she even found a little incentive in the back of her pantry cupboard, to go for a run.

It was a sports bottle, given to her at the exposition prior to the Lyon semi-marathon (don’t you love sports-related freebies?) As the water taps in the Parc de la Seille have mysteriously stopped providing water (why? it hasn’t been that cold in Metz for the water to turn into ice, surely?), she armed herself with two bottles of water for her 4-mile tempo run. The advantage of doing laps around the park is that she normally puts her water on a bench, and after each lap she stops to take a sip and then continues, thus freeing her from carrying the bottle the whole way like on the longer runs.

Well, off she went, feeling pretty chuffed to be out running at 9am, and there was even a single ray of sunlight peeking through the dark clouds, lifting her spirits and encouraging her on. She looked at the frozen landscape, the barren treetops that pointed jagged branches accusingly at the grey winter skies, and watched the ducks splashing quarrelsomely. It was shaping up to be a beautiful morning, and she was settling into a nice rhythm – hard, but not uncomfortably so. From the other side of the river, she saw a train rumbling by, its red, yellow and blue paint appearing artificially gay in the otherwise drab setting. Somehow, the bright colours were more depressing than the dull grey all around. As she approached the bridge to cross the river back to the original side, she eagerly anticipated a sip of water. She watched a group of rowdy high school students leaving the sports complex and thanked the fact that her own schooldays were over. One lap down, two to go. Awesome!

Except. When she arrived at the bench, her brand new sports bottle was gone. Vanished. Not in sight. The other bottle, a plastic Volvic container, stared grimly back at her, all alone. In an instant, she felt both panicked, dismay, angry, and naïve. Of course, what else would one expect, leaving a beautiful brand new water bottle unguarded in a park, right?

Except it’s not the first time she’s set her bottle down on that spot – she’s done it a million times before, and nothing of that sort had ever happened. Also, for crying out loud, it’s a water bottle! Think about all the germs and viruses that the Ninja Turtle had been suffering from these last few weeks! It was too disgusting to contemplate.

For a very brief moment, her spite made her say “well, if they fall ill, that will teach them to steal water bottles”, but even that was a bit too unkind. So she hastily checked herself, and considered the situation. She was left with less than half the original amount of water she had brought out with her, and must now thus ration what is left. Two sips from the 500mL, and on she went on Lap 2.

On Lap 2, the outside world was forgotten. The Ninja Turtle stopped observing the sky, the land, the plants, the fauna and the beautiful river. She was lost in an internal dialogue of Good Turtle versus Bad Turtle. It went like this:
Bad Turtle: Those bastards! I can’t believe it, stealing water for fuck’s sake. I get so thirsty on harder runs too.
Good Turtle: It’s your own fault, really. You left it there unguarded.
Bad Turtle: But what kind of world are we living in, when there is no respect for private property? People are evil. The fact that it’s a water bottle makes it even worse. Why would one stoop to that level for a bloody bottle? I bet it was those students. They must think it’s so bloody funny, or something.
Good Turtle: Now STOP. You cannot make false accusations with no proof. You saw nothing but a bunch of kids and immediately pinned it on them. That’s not right.
Bad Turtle: Who else would it be?
Good Turtle: I don’t know, but as you’ve pointed out, it’s a pretty desperate act for such a small reward. Remember, crime is always motivated by desperation. Look at it this way, it’s only a water bottle when all is said and done. Sure, brand new. This is your first time using it – hell, you haven’t really used it properly. But let it go. It was given to you free anyway.
Bad Turtle: Fine. Fine, don’t take my side. You’ll be sorry, and really thirsty after this.
Good Turtle: That’s OK, we were clever enough to bring two bottles, remember?

Thus, Lap 2 drew to a close, as the bridge came in sight once more. The Ninja Turtle was pretty thirsty now, as nothing makes her run harder than anger (nothing, not even the promise of cold beers or $10). She was fuming, and needed a gulp to calm her down before she tackled the final lap.

Well, the bench this time held another surprise for her. It was empty. The Volvic bottle, still 85% full from her previous careful rationing, now laid 4 steps from where she had left it on the bench, in a puddle of what she assumed was the water within it. It was emptied, and strewn right where she could see it when she was in great need of water. The Ninja Turtle howled.

Internally, of course. Outside, she kept her stride. She knew immediately that it was no longer merely theft motivated by envy or a perverted sense of humour, it was pure and simple spite. It was evil. Someone had been watching her, and was trying to prompt some sort of a reaction out of her. Half of her wanted to go home, panting and defeated. The other half, the less rational half screamed out: THIS IS WAR, MOTHERFUCKER.

She went on to Lap 3. She was very thirsty, and the thirst was starting to affect her speed. She was fatiguing and her breathing was becoming labored. Still, she soldiered on, every step forward a mental “fuck you” to the person who had done what he/she did. The Ninja Turtle wasn’t just angry, she was furious. She was boiling mad, and this rage was like rocket fuel. It just pushed her on when everything else wanted to stop and go have pizza. Lap 3 featured no landscapes. Lap 3 featured no internal dialogue. Lap 3 was nothing but a blur of red, hot, fury.

When she finished the 3 laps, she staggered up the steps to the sports complex, and burst in through the heavy doors. A man in uniform immediately approached her, no doubt wondering what danger this lunatic might pose to all those “innocent” school kids inside. The Ninja Turtle briefly explained in gasps that her two bottles of water were stolen and would he kindly give her some water? to which he replied, there are some toilets downstairs. She tripped down the stairs and as the faucet gushed, she lapped up the sweet, sweet relief.

The Ninja Turtle had a lot to reflect on, walking home. The theft of the sports bottle, her original anger, paled in comparison to the spiteful deed of throwing out her water right where she could see it. When all was said though, the loss of the second bottle of the water still didn’t cause as much pain as that of the first. And at the end of it all, surely there must be some moral to be taken out of this? Do not leave your water bottles on a park bench, as they will be stolen or emptied? That seems ridiculous. Do not bring bottles of water on your run? That makes even less sense.

Ultimately, the Ninja Turtle came to the conclusion that shit things happen in this world, and it could happen anytime, anywhere, and to anyone. There is no way to avoid it, no way to foresee it, and no point regretting something that is completely beyond one’s control. While it may have been one step in the right direction (away from the anger and bitterness), it left her with an alarming sense of powerlessness over her life, and she really resented that.

After a hot shower and coffee, the Ninja Turtle felt good enough to think clearly about it. There was one way she could reclaim jurisdiction of her life, or at any rate, her outlook of it. So, something really evil and malicious happened today? Fine. She had to correct that imbalance with something really gracious, and if it wasn’t going to happen on its own, she would simply have to create it. She raided her pantry and found a box of assorted chocolates and sweets, and filled a little ziplock bag with it. Then she took a walk down to the train station, where without fail, a gypsy accordion player sits and plays daily by the entrance. She approached Mr Accordion and said to him “I’m sorry I haven’t got any money for you today, and I know it’s a little late for Christmas, but here are some chocolates I would like you to have.”

Brighter than a million Christmas lights, his smile and “thank you” was enough for her to say “those two water bottles? oh, never mind about that”.


Measuring progress with various yardsticks

As all runners know, there are good runs and bad runs. And then there are terrible runs. On good runs, you feel strong, you run as fast/long as you set out to, and when you finish, you feel refreshed. Heck, you may even go the proverbial extra mile. The Rocky soundtrack is playing in your mind as you cross the mental finish line.

On bad runs, you don’t make it to 100%, for whatever reason (snow, fatigue, injury… you name it). You start off with a particular goal in mind; two steps in, you start having doubts that you’ll meet it, two minutes in you argue/bargain with yourself, two kilometres in, if you make it so far, you start believing that it was a complete mistake to get out of bed.

The Ninja Turtle had a terrible run on Monday morning. Nothing is a bigger kick up the backside than seeing the scales move in the wrong direction after a super indulgent weekend. (Although neither the Ninja Turtle nor GodzillaPin are “overweight” in the clinical sense, they like to keep an eye on body fat percentage, which is a far better measure of health.) Feeling well rested and recharged from a few days away, her motivation was high and she was keen to return to routine. So despite the grey skies, she knew it was imperative to get off her backside and out the door.

Despite starting out strong, she soon fatigued. Too soon, in fact. In the span of ten minutes, she was finding it difficult to breathe, which in and of itself isn’t exactly alarming, except she’s asthmatic. There was nothing to do but slow down, and slow down she did, that it added an extra ten minutes to her usual 4.5-mile circuit. It was frustrating, it was demoralizing, and it was raining. Her face betrayed the effort of the run, but oddly enough, her clothes were almost dry by the time she reached home, thanks to wind speeds that reached 60kph.

The GPS tracking gave a frankly disappointing report. She had intended to cover six miles, and only managed 75% of it. She set off with a specific pace in mind (her tempo run pace), and fell short by a good deal. Basically, it was blah. For someone who’s starting to take her running seriously, it was cause for concern.

Until… until. Although runners are generally aware that running in high altitude is much tougher, this runner wasn’t completely familiar with the reason why. Turns out in higher altitudes, the air is thinner (lower barometric pressure), which means one is basically gasping “air! air!” as there is less available oxygen to be absorbed into the blood. This makes running hard. It was only very recently that the Ninja Turtle started looking at barometric pressure on the weather page, in addition to noting temperature, wind speed and cloud cover. She’s not so good at converting mb to mmhg – heck, she can’t even tell you what it means but she can tell you that at 1024mb she runs great, and on Monday when it registered 991mb, she wasn’t feeling all that flash.

So, the conclusion out of all this is that there are certain variables beyond one’s control, and these things do impact on the outcome of whatever it is we are doing. Choosing to look at the GPS report on that one particular run alone is taking it out of context (weather, slippery roads, etc). Without the context, it is very easy to conclude that performance is backsliding when in fact, that is not true (the Ninja Turtle ran again today and her performance was back to what she expected).

Our behaviours, motivation and thoughts have an impact on one another, which is why it is very important to maintain the right attitude. Countless times people have lost heart because they did not see an expected outcome, and how often is it because of things beyond one’s control? Take the classic example of weight loss – not seeing the scales budge can, and do, lead people into a spiral of what’s-the-point-I-see-no-change, and then the next step is often self-sabotaging behavior that sets them back. It’s a shame to give up just because gravity is a bit stronger than you liked today. Likewise, it wasn’t worth spending a whole day moping over one lousy run.

It helps to maintain a positive attitude when one is armed with more than one yardstick when trying to measure progress or change. It becomes so easy to fall into the trap of reductionism, and one quickly becomes tunnel-visioned. People who wish to acquire wealth, look up from your financial statements and balance sheets, and take stock of other measures – your health, your sanity, your friends and family. Think about the true legacy you want to leave behind (trust us, it’s definitely not a stack of dollar bills). People who want to lose weight, ask yourself if it’s the number you wish to change, or your entire approach to living and how you take care of yourself. The weighing scale cannot measure the sense of physical and mental wellbeing after sharing a nutritious and balanced meal in the company of friends, nor the joy of playing in the autumn sunshine with your children.

In the spirit of measuring progress differently, here are some yardsticks the Ninja Turtle have come up with to measure her progress as a runner.

Running is such an integral part of her life, she runs while on holiday. It's never a chore, but an immense pleasure. It's a great way to go sightseeing.

Running is such an integral part of her life, she runs while on holiday. It’s never a chore, but an immense pleasure. It’s a great way to go sightseeing.

She trained her partner for a semi-marathon, and by sharing her passion, the relationship became stronger.

She trained her partner for a semi-marathon, and by sharing her passion, their relationship became stronger for it.

And oh, when she sees cars slowly accelerating as the lights turn green, she’s always filled with a strong impulse to race the car. Sometimes, she does it, and no doubt looks ridiculous.