Friday, June 15, 2012

Fear Management

"Confidence: the food of the wise man, and the liquor of the fool" ~ Vikram, The Office*

(*Uttered, I'm sure, by someone else prior to him...)

Ultra marathons are scary.

No, really.

Yes, all races are "scary": you train hard, you want to run your best, you're nervous.  You toe the line and hope your shoes don't come untied.  You hope it doesn't hurt too bad.  You worry that, when you try to run your goal pace, that all works out.  

As a road and track runner, those things worried me.  But they weren't frightening.  In my first marathon, I hurt so bad that I laid down in the grass along London Road for several minutes (at the 1997 Grandma's Marathon - coincidentally happening this weekend, in Duluth, MN).  Track miles can feel awful.  10Ks are the worst pain.   But none of this was scary.

But ultras can be truly terrifying.  When bad things happen in an ultra, two things frequently happen that rarely, if ever, happen in road races.  

First, when you're hurting and're in the middle of the wilderness!  When I laid down for my "restie" during Grandma's, I was within sight of the "DNF School Bus" that luxuriously transported all my fellow road-kill to the finish line.  It was tempting, but before I could pull the trigger, I was strongly encouraged to get up and keep moving - either from an enthusiastic spectator, or from the homeowner whose lawn I'd extemporaneously squatted upon. 

When you're hurting bad, you can be in some scary places in an ultra: a 13K' ridgeline with blustery winds and sleet at Hardrock, or in the bottom of a searing hot canyon at WS, with no way out but up.  You could be the only one around for a two-mile radius, even in the middle of the race.  Decisions to quit or keeping going in ultras must be carefully weighed, knowing that once you leave that aid station, your next opportunity for respite might be an hour away.

Second, when you're hurting and stop...the hurting often doesn't stop! Even in the most intense track races, the pain lasts only a score of breaths before relief arrives.  In ultras, the body pain, dizziness, and nausea can last for hours.  

Ultras really are scary.  Some of the most frightening, gut-wrenching moments I've ever experienced have occurred amongst ultra running and racing, including:
  • Shuffling along the shores of Folsom Lake, in full suffer-mode, with 22 miles to go, at American River 50 (April, 2011)
  • Sitting in the Porta-Potty outside Green Gate, trying to get it together for another twenty miles at Western States (June, 2011).
  • Hobbling along Quarry Road in the pitch darkness at mile 91, unable to discern up from downgrade - also at Western States (June, 2011).
  • Doubled-over in gut-rot in desolate wilderness in sub-50 F and damp conditions with twenty miles to go and fading sunlight, solo on my Three Sisters Circumnav (October 2011).
  • Sitting at The Pump at Robinson Flat, too tired to yell or wave for a ride back down the Divide, with a full marathon of canyons to go, during our Squaw to Michigan Bluff run (October 2011)
  • Staggering along Lithia Park with Jimothy, completely cashed of carbs and unable to run another step, in Ashland, OR (February 2012).
Those were scary moments: to feel that down, and to be so far away from "home".  None of these scary moments resolved quickly; but eventually they all turned around.  And nearly all had a successful finish:
  • AR50: A strong rebound for 10th place; my first "resurrection experience"
  • Western States, 2011: 40th place in 20:02, in a race I was lucky to even race.
  • Three Sisters: a successful, but chilly, circumnavigation with daylight to spare
  • Squaw to RF: "Resurrection II" at Last Chance
  • Ashland with Jimothy: a well-timed Vanilla GU and a water fill equals a successful "Prickly Pete" sighting!
Ultras are scary, but perhaps that's their draw.  The degree of risk equates to adventure; the ability to rebound can be as exhilarating as a fast, problem-free race.  But they're still scary.  And risk management -- as well as fear management -- play a huge role in preparation and execution, especially for hundreds.

AJW has written several pieces on mental factors and preparation on iRunFar.  What he says is true: we train the brain as much as the body to race.  We train for pain, so that when problems arise - as they invariably do in ultras - we are able to cope.  Moreover, training harder lessens the likelihood severity of trouble.  Right?

Not really.  If anything, the opposite can happen.

I'm enamored with the book, "Deep Survival", about which I've written a pair of articles with its relation to hundred mile racing.  One of the many points author Laurence Gonzales makes is this:  We take risk relative to the degree of safety we feel.  That said, if we feel safer, we'll push the envelope farther - or faster - than if a particular activity was risky.  In many cases, perceived safety causes more trouble than if these safety factors didn't exist. 

Examples include:
  • Running shoes.  The more heavily cushioned and structured, the harder we land.  This has been proven in lab settings.
  • Football helmets.  Adding padding and technology to helmets have made football collisions more violent -- and serious head injuries have risen.
As such, going into a race such as Western States - especially buoyed by excellent preparation and good health -- it is easy to feel overly confident or, just as dangerous, under-estimate relative risk.   You run harder, sooner; or you ignore vital information about yourself or your environment.  And trouble is right around the corner. Indeed, then, to be confident without being wise can have severe consequences.

Consider:  looking back at more recent Western States races from 2006 to 2011, if you arrived at Robinson Flat* at mile 30 in the Top Ten, you had a 30-50% chance of...not finishing!  In a deeper look at 2011 -- a mild (82F in Auburn) and snow course (no 7k' ridgeline) year -- you had five DNFs in the top 11.  In addition to that, you had another three "blow-ups", or those who ran >21 hours, when they were in at <17-hour pace at Robinson.
(*or in 2011, Mosquito Ridge)

Why does this happen?  Are these runners unprepared or weak?  Not likely.  Most were strong, talented runners.  Some were inexperienced.  But that represents a rate of DNF that roughly 2-4x that of the race, at-large.

Did they go for the win and quit when it was out of their hands?  Maybe a few.  Or maybe they pushed big and got in big trouble. 

Perhaps they simply didn't manage risk - or fear - well enough.

Managing risk, as Gonzales points out, involves perceiving ever-changing reality -- fitness and pacing, nutrition, competition, trail conditions, temperature, one's own psyche -- and making constant adjustments.  Ultimate success rests not in making perfect adjustments all the time; rather, it may just be the recognition of your new reality, accepting it, and being willing to adjust in some way with the least delay.  

Geoff Roes ran low on calories at the foot of Devil's Thumb in WS 2010.  His choices included: pushing onward with Tony and Killian, ignoring the building misery in his legs; or backing off and taking care of himself.  He chose the latter.  As he told iRunFar, post-race: "I must've taken nearly a thousand calories in the next two-and-a-half hours" in response to the change in his body feel.  This made his second-half surge possible.  

But managing fear is just as important.  I've read of fear being referred to a "a bear in a cage", and that one must learn to dance around it - neither avoiding or ignoring it.  Running hard and fast early - or before the finish is within reach - can be scary.  So can simply taking another step when you can barely stand.  But indeed, there are times to identify risk and back away, and a time to embrace it.  To "wrestle fear to the ground!"

Fear has a face.  And it is Mose.
My follow-up survival article offered several strategies for both risk and fear management.  Giving the brain something to do is an important factor.  For me, there's a reason I've embraced "Top 40 Pop" in the Brain iPod during races.  These songs aren't scary.  They're fun, if not outright silly: there's nothing sinister or scary about Ke$ha spitting lyrics about getting ready to go to a club ("Maybe a Night Club!"), or of Nicki Minaj craving a Bud Light.  And for me, these songs help offset the weight and fear of the task at hand.

My hope for me -- and the rest of my competitors next week -- is that I can effectively manage risk, and ultimately fear, for a successful race.  I just hope that I can do it better then the rest of 'em!  :)

So without further ado:

I’ve got that glitter on my eyes!
Stockings ripped all up the side!
Looking sick and sexy-fied!
So let’s go-o-o