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.


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.

Arts and Culture, Running

The Essence of Running

What is the essence of running?

To run is to be fearless
Listen to the multitude of voices on the web
From all types of runners in this world
One community
One common trait – fearlessness.

Runners are not afraid to try –
And fail
Runners are not afraid to cry –
They will.

Runners are not afraid of the elements
The sun, the wind and the rain
The snow, the sleet and the hail
Are inconveniences, not barriers.

Runners are not afraid of pain
DOMS, blisters, chafing
MTSS, ITBS, plantar fasciitis,
Are just some risks we are willing to take.

To run is to say: I am not afraid
Of setting out in search for more
Of finding myself along the way
Of challenging my pre-conceived limits
Of humbly respecting myself
Because I wasn’t afraid to give 100%.


Running Motivation

Hello, and happy St Patrick’s Day! Since the Ninja Turtle is neither Irish, nor Catholic, it seems a little strange to be hat-tipping this festivity, but she never says no to one more reason for a cold beer, which seems to be the real point of today. Like all runners, she is also somewhat superstitious and ritualistic – no hunting for four-leaf clovers or wearing horseshoes, but she certainly wore green while out running today, and the thought crossed her mind to go around pinching those who didn’t, so she would be chased into picking up her pace.

We’re halfway through March, and now seems as good a time as any to re-evaluate how this year is coming along. This time last year, the Turtle was training hard for the Marathon de Paris, her first, and having a bucket list goal to work towards is one hell of a motivation in itself. Having achieved the goal however, the Ninja Turtle has decided that there is a lot more to running than just marathons. Sure, they are nothing to sneeze at, but 2014 is the year she’s going to diversify her running experiences. She aims to do more festival and music runs (because she loves dressing silly and scoring high-5s from the children), as well as trail racing. Of course, she’ll go back to the marathons if something really attractive comes up, but for now, there are other priorities.

It must be said that with a less solid goal, it can be challenging to stay focused. When you’re aiming to complete a marathon, you have a mantra on your runs, it sounds something like “42.195… 42.195… if I don’t make it, I’d rather die… 42.195…” (or if you use miles, “26.2… 26.2… I’m going to run faster than you… 26.2…”) When, like the Ninja Turtle, you’re an amateur runner without a coach or a tailor-made training plan, and all you want to do is have fun/run through rugged terrain, mantras become less evident. They sound a little bit more like “kill the hills! kill the hills!” or, while running on the grass in Anywhere, France, “do NOT step on dogshit, do NOT step on dogshit”.

Nonetheless, there is plenty to get her lacing up and out the door; as mentioned before, spring has sprung early this year. The riverside trails that were closed over winter due to floods have reopened, and she did most of the 8 miles alongside two rivers – the Seille and the Moselle.

The best feeling in the world can only be attained by outrunning the ducks on the river.

The best feeling in the world can only be attained by outrunning the ducks on the river.

And along the way, she was treated to views like these:

La Seille, as seen at the Porte des Allemands.

La Seille, as seen at the Porte des Allemands.

Of course, scenery aside, this runner has a few other “carrots” to keep her running. In no particular order, they include:

  • A new running playlist
  • A large post-run meal featuring a LOT of peanut butter
  • Enrolling for an upcoming race
  • A running magazine that GodzillaPin bought for her

How do YOU motivate yourself to run?