Sunday, 28 August 2016

Emptying The Tank

I just broke a record.

Not, as sometimes happens as a by-product of a battle for the win between athletes at the top of their game.  Instead this was totally calculated, planned meticulously, specifically trained for and executed effectively.  It was one of my key season's goals and I achieved it with time to spare.

My 3:36:04 clockwise lap of the iconic Seven Sevens race took exactly two and a half minutes off Stevie Cunningham's ground shattering 3:38:34 from 2010.  I really coveted this record simply because Stevie's time was so unbelievably quick.  To put it in context, only a handful of runners have ever been under four hours on this course and only two in the slower direction.  Four hours remains the benchmark time to aspire to and in most years is also enough to guarantee the win on the epic 19 mile assault on the Seven Mournes' peaks over 700m in elevation.
Some FAST splits there but some average ones too
I should be delighted so why do I feel so flat?

As is often the case I've been left bereft of the emotions you'd expect to attach to such an achievement.  For the sake of therapy and future understanding I've decided to try to explore my psyche to seek an answer.  Here are the possibilities.

1) I'm just a miserable person

Very possibly so!  I'm a complete perfectionist by nature and am unbelievably hard on myself.  So far this year I've been left utterly gutted with a third place in my first ever Ultramarathon (despite successfully hitting the World Champs qualifying time) and pretty annoyed when breaking my own record on Slieve Donard at Ireland's most prestigious race.  Unless I feel I've got everything right then I'm unable to shake a deep-seated discontent.  Bizarrely, the only race I was truly satisfied with this season was the Worlds where crippling cramp and extreme conditions battered me severely and cost me untold time.  The pleasure in that case came from destroying my legs to get a result and also allowing myself leeway as a relative newcomer at International level.  The intention with the Sevens was to put in the first ever sub 3:30 time and so 3:36:04 fell some way short.  I guess this was a disappointment even though training showed me that it was virtually impossible for me lapping in this direction, with required splits that would be ambitious for a team running it as a relay.  Nevertheless, I went all out and managed to stay on target for the first third of the distance before inevitably fading and having to consolidate mid-race.  It was a gutsy performance that saw me actually get back on to 3:30 pace for some of the later interim sections between the peaks despite the headwind and increasing heat.  Plenty of reasons to be satisfied!
Record breaking but unsatisfied on Slieve Donard
2) It wasn't a real race

Well, as a round of the Northern Irish NIMRA series it very much was a real race with plenty of people out to push themselves hard.  The problem for me was that, at risk of sounding like an arrogant prick, I knew that barring injury I was going to win comfortably.  I'd been training specifically for it since June and had been round the whole route four times in the preceding three weeks, more than most Irish runners manage in a lifetime.  I kicked hard off the start line and probably effectively sewed the race up before we'd even run the length of the football pitch that it started on.  I knew that nobody would be silly enough to come with me, borne out by my winning margin of over 31 minutes. 

There's little doubt that competing against people is fun!  The camaraderie, tactics, panted snippets of conversation and extra motivation that come from running in close proximity to your rivals can't be understated.  The temporary bonds of mutual suffering are powerful and racing against split times, stealing glances at my watch at key predetermined moments definitely lacked that poetry.  As a result there wasn't anyone to share my experiences with whilst collapsed at the finish line, instead I had a quick chat and then headed to the pub to watch the Olympic Steeplechase.

3) Post achievement blues

This is a pretty common phenomena when you become so focused on a particular goal that it can't help but be an anti-climax once it's all over.  I did get fairly fixated on this race, dragging myself out on some awful days to scope the route despite zero visibility rendering the recce almost entirely pointless bar the physical aspects.  The completion, satisfactory or not of an all encompassing target can leave me feeling empty until the next one is ascertained.  In this case though I already know my next goal and therefore lack this excuse, in fact I can get away with viewing the Sevens result as a stepping stone towards greater achievements, something that makes subsequent training easier to handle.

4) The shitty diet blues

As previously mentioned I'm a perfectionist and leave nothing to chance when seeking to achieve a goal.  I simply don't see the point of doing things half-baked and won't bother doing a race unless I feel I've prepared 100%.  That doesn't mean that I don't sometimes toe the line carrying injuries, or feeling leggy from recent efforts but I'll never sabotage my performance through poor nutrition.  What this means is that I eat a very regulated diet, denying myself the 'treats' that most people take for granted, the upshot being minimised weight and constant training without dealing with sugar lows or hangovers.  Unfortunately the human brain has a cheeky and self-destructive side that demands childish rewards despite knowing that they're toxic.  Like the Olympians that posted pictures of post-competition McDonalds binges I can't resist having a spell off the wagon after meeting a big goal.  For about a week after I'll ride the sugar rollercoaster with ice-cream, beer and buns back on the menu.  Needless to say this leaves me sluggish, sleeping worse and therefore mentally drained and low.  It's not long before I feel satiated and the logical part of my brain regains control but in the interim I can definitely experience post-event diet related mood swings.

5) Emptying The Tank

This is a big one and probably the most important discovery in this mini spell of soul searching.  Most athletes will have heard people talk of 'emptying the tank'.  It's associated with pushing the physical boundaries, often resulting in diminished performance or if timed right, cramping and collapse at the finish line.  I'm very familiar with stretching my limitations, taking for granted the pain, dizziness and occasional hallucinations that go hand in hand with extreme exertion.  From the physical perspective the regenerative properties of a good meal, hot bath and a gentle spin on the turbo trainer are pretty remarkable.  It never ceases to amaze me that even at my advanced age I can go from limping geriatric to near full recovery often in little over 48 hours.  What I've never previously considered is the psychological damage of digging so deep and putting such excessive pressure on my body.  There was a period about eighty minutes into the Seven Sevens that required a huge injection of mental fortitude.  I'd come over Slieve Lamagan absolutely flying, on 3:30 pace and surviving well.  The subsequent half hour saw me pick an awful line, nastily turn an already damaged ankle and then fade badly in the deep heather on the short cut to Binnian summit.  Hitting the top at 1hr 41 instantly put the nails in the coffin of my 3:30 dream and with my quads unexpectedly feeling the strain I could see my record attempt falling off the rails too.  At times like this you can either give up or raid the brain's precious chemical supplies.  I always opt for the latter.
Tank emptied, body and brain at their limits at my first Ultramarathon
The positive links between exercise and mental well-being are heavily documented and indisputable but I can't recall reading much about the potential damage of digging so deep during races.  Following the Wicklow Way Ultra at the start of 2016 I suffered a deep mental and physical fatigue that left me drained and demotivated.  Undeniably pushing hard whilst unwell accounted for the bodily tiredness but disappointment at my performance almost certainly prolonged the symptoms.  With body and brain being so ultimately symbiotic it's surely unarguable that over-extending physically will negatively impact mentally and vice-versa.

So What's The Verdict?
The post-Sevens funk has left me already.  I've just enjoyed a brutal session on the bike and celebrated with a largely healthy meal.  Of the five explanations I've considered I'd say that on this occasion numbers 1,2,4 and 5 conspired to deny me my righteous sense of delight.  It's definitely been a useful experience digging deeper into the reasoning behind my post-race blues.  I'd be really intrigued to hear whether other people ever experience this phenomena. 

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