should one run a 100k race unprepared?

Whatever the answer, I did, would do it again, and do not see anything wrong with it. I have to warn you though: unless you are comfortable with the following two mirror image statements of the sentiment that underlies this, the rest of my argument will not make much sense to you.

  • There’s nothing wrong with DNFing
  • There is more to life than persistence and grit

Runners hold strong opinions about these things. As our species is strongly subject to confirmation bias, if you’re a no-pain-no-gain believer, my arguments are not going to change your mind. Even more probable: I am only going to convince you of my ultimate whimpishness – which would not be an invalid conclusion – and give you ammunition to believe ever more strongly in your own views.

Anyways, the attitude that I want to defend here is that persistence and grit are honourable qualities but elevated to absolute goals in let alone of life they turn into a very dumb way to die.

By way of intro, let’s first define my understanding of unprepared. I didn’t do much running the last couple of months in Nepal. Then I moved to Cairo after a stop over of a month in The Netherlands (no running at all) and Cairo didn’t prove to be a very running friendly environment. After a spring of hardly any running, I did a 55k circuit in the Angkor Heritage park in Siem Riep in Cambodia in June, so longer distances were still in my legs, as well as a half marathon in The Netherlands in what I thought was a very decent time, so I hadn’t lost all speed either. I ran both in my five fingers. After the holidays I started running again in Cairo from late August onwards and logged 618 kilometers in the 13 weeks until 16 November; an average of 47.5k/week, not very impressive, but with a steep curve of increasing weekly k’s because I did 260 in the last 3.5 weeks (a weekly average of 74 and a bit). All not according to the books (slow build up, consistency etc. etc.) but as I don’t really look at it as training in the first place, as long as injuries don’t come into the picture I am not bothered. However that may be, I don’t think the above counts as proper preparation for a 100k. Although it is not ridiculous either, just way too short. To give but one example: Norrie Williamson, author of one of the classic ultra distance guide books, published a 100k training schedule for a newbie to the distance, aiming to finish within 13 hours. His 28 weeks (excluding the last tapering week) average 52k, not too far off my average during my 13 weeks, and his last 11 weeks averaged 61k/week, below my average but that is because of including an easy-going 36k week every month. Anyways, my preparation wasn’t proper but enough for me to be happy about.

In case you wonder: I participated in the so-called Pharaonic race. And I dropped out at 80k. I’m not going to describe my personal experience, for those interested some of it can be found  on my everytrail site. Here I want to focus on the quitting. Could I have gone the full distance? Yes, I think I could. The day after I feel fine, nothing much hurts, my feet are ok, one toe would have been somewhat messy had I continued for another 20k, but nothing dramatic. I felt vaguely nauseous at the time, but slowing down would have taken care of that. My monkey mind started giving in to the possibility of quitting around k 73-74, but I feel I could have resisted. But would that have made me a better runner, a better person? I’ve quit before in a 100k race that I was equally unprepared for ( at 50k that time), but I’ve also finished one, although that wasn’t a race but a journey with a friend.

For me, the heart of the matter is that I didn’t feel like finishing….this time, and, also in hindsight I see nothing wrong with that. Yes, it certainly felt easier to quit than not, and yes, I had doubts, persist or not persist, wasn’t it too easy to just quit?  Who knows, I might indeed have quit too easily, but what I am not prepared to doubt is the wisdom of going easy on persistence. Thus, a recent announcement of a five-part series on inrunfar.com by educator and elite ultra(trail)runner Andy Jones-Wilkins of what this authoritative voice sees as five skills that are essential to success in ultramarathon running bothers me:

  • Persistence
  • Resilience
  • Patience
  • Courage
  • Grit

It bothers me because he might very well be right. To perform well in races that is. But there is much more to running than races (and there is more to life than running – see below). Is this really the skills set you need to be a successful runner? Mr. Jones-Wilkins seems to think it is.  He, and with him many others apparently, even think this is what kids need to be a constructive, functioning member of 21st-century society. So called meta-cognitive skills that US universities and employers seek in their students and workers. Without wanting to down talk the importance of the qualities on this little list, I would argue for extending the list a bit: what about imagination and creativity, what about humility, what about compassion, what about scepticism, what about open-mindedness, and I could go on for a while…mmm, employers might not like some of that? Well, have a go at Foucault and you’ll understand why they prioritize this limited list, but why accept such a dystopian vision for what makes for a good citizen?

Sorry, got carried away a bit there, back to running. I think Anna Frost is spot on: it’s just running, if it defines who you are you’re crossing a dangerous line.

She just completed two multi-stage runs in Nepal, the Everest Sky race organized by the chevaliers du vent and the Manaslu trail race organized by my friend Richard Bull whom I finished that one and only 100k with. I really hope they returned this great runner to her feet, by getting her out of her head.

Fair chance you don’t believe any of this rambling and consider me a spineless twat. You’re quite correct. However, having a spine is not all that counts in life. There is so much more to it. Although hanging in there is sometimes a good strategy, at other times going with the flow is the way to go. How otherwise could Mr. Hendrix have arrived at this most accurate version of the US national anthem ever played?

About roger henke

Still figuring out the story line that would satisfy myself here. Listening to what my family and friends evoke, what the words I absorb, the images that move me, the movements that still me, point to.
This entry was posted in (trail) running, psychology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to should one run a 100k race unprepared?

  1. Paul says:

    Of course you should run unprepared! But your whole life should be about being prepared which means there is no such thing as unprepared, for anything. Live life as if every moment is preparing for the next, that way even if you don’t finish you know you can start. Proud of you. Px

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