Running from Shadows

My Marathon des Sables . . . and beyond

Returning From DNF: Lessons

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Three multi-day ultra events: the Marathon des Sables (MdS) (2012); the Sahara Race (Jordan) (2014); and the Ancient Khmer Path (Cambodia) (2015).

Two DNFs (Did Not Finish), being the latter two races . . . why?

Once I recovered earlier this year it was a question worth looking at closely  because in March I entered for a second attempt at the AKP.


I’ve had at least one comment along the lines of “Why would you go back and put yourself through that again?!” It’s a fair one but, as with any failure, it’s not the end of the road: failures are necessary, vital even, to learn and allow for growth and change.

So, before I re-entered the AKP, I took a long, hard look at my training logs, carefully maintained since 1995, to try and work out if there were any common themes. There are, and it turns out they are blindingly obvious (or at least they are when you finally take the time to look at the obvious!).

Logic might say that multi-day extreme running events in difficult parts of the planet might not be for me based on results thus far, but my brain says “No” to that idea: I enjoy the unique perspective these races give in parts of the world that are well off the beaten track, the camaraderie of a small group for a week, the paring down to the bare minimum of what is needed for that period of time (okay, an Ipod isn’t really a need, but you get the picture). So it’s not a psychological block.

The answers seem clear enough, now I can look back with a detached view. While I shouldn’t be too hard on myself about last December’s attempt at the AKP, illness and general lethargy in the final 6 weeks to 2 months before the race saw my training intensity drop off a cliff.

July to August 2015, 2-4 months before the race? They were great training months. Thereafter? Lethargy, illness, a feeling that my target race should have been in September, not November/December: not a great introduction to the final couple of months of building up to run 140 miles in 6 days in 40C of heat and 95% humidity.

And it’s a good job I keep training logs, because I found a very similar pattern in the run up to the Sahara Race (Jordan) (but again, illness in that race didn’t help).

In all my years of running I’ve followed the same consistent treadmill: pile on the weight; enter a goal event to remove the weight; train for that event; complete the event (or not); fall into a mental fug about what to do next; pile on the weight . . . rinse and repeat.

These bouts of activity followed by famine don’t help anyone wanting to look at running over multiple years in a life. And, more the point, enjoy them.

In the absence of intermediate goals or objectives building towards The Goal Race the weeks of peak mileage and performance seemed to arrive too soon. They were followed by lacklustre weeks and the eye coming off the trail, at a point in time when the training really needed to be at least maintained or ramped up.

A case of being out running on the trails and seeing the brown, single mass of a wood in the distance, but not the individual hues of greens, yellows, reds and browns of the mass of trees within . . .

There are some lessons here.

Lesson 1 is consistency: exercise or train regularly.

This, I’ve found, is key. It is not solely about The Goal Race . . .

And, to train consistently, a more holistic approach needs to be adopted beyond simply putting on the running shoes and heading out the door: what we eat and drink; how much we sleep; minimising distractions; paring down aspects of our lives to only those activities that matter to free up the time to do the most important things in life which (THIS IS IMPORTANT!) do include keeping healthy and fit (by running or biking or walking or whatever’s your poison).

In thinking about consistency it is not just about The Goal Race: it’s tempting to see The Goal Race as the final destination of the journey, in and of itself, with a dark wasteland of “taking it easy” and “letting go” thereafter. Hence my historic peaks and troughs over my training years.

A better approach is to see a single journey that is continuously rolling along, every day, in all those pieces of a jigsaw and all those daily decisions made which mix together to create a far bigger picture.

With this approach there is no ‘point A’ and ‘point B’: there’s a single, continuous voyage.

Lesson 2 is having goals: lots of them. When was anything worth achieving achieved in the first place without goals? It feeds through to Lesson 1. Whatever the goal is measuring (time on feet; miles run/biked/walked; exercise hours per week; goal times at races; a 5K race; a new marathon course; weight loss, etc.) having a number of intermediate goals in the run-up to The Goal Race works wonders to avoid that peaking-too-soon scenario.

The brain can envisage a successive series of goals to be reached in successive short-term periods but struggles with the digestion of a single, all-encompassing goal in the long-term future: the risk of distractions is greater when facing just a longer term, one-off goal.



rather than this:


Lesson 3 is understanding “Why?”: what’s your “Why?” This might not be so easy to work out and it’s personal to all of us. The answer might simply be: because it makes me feel better. And that’s all you need.

Lesson 4 is understanding that how we think in any given situation, how much we sleep, what we eat and drink, feeds through continuously to deliver our outcomes. For example, after a further umpteen lessons on this in 2016, I can reflect back and see the effects of what a heavy dose of carbohydrates does to me: I struggle to summon the energy or enthusiasm to train (and consequently get grouchy); I feel like I’m carrying a bowling ball in my gut; I pick up illnesses; I feel heavy, not light. So I generally try and steer clear of them.

A number of changes have taken place since my last post: other experiments have been carried out, there have been reflections on my training diaries from years’ past and then putting into effect the conclusions.

The results?

A consistently lower weight: my usual post-The Goal Race of putting on up to 28lbs/12kg hasn’t happened. An 8lbs/3kg maximum gain, yes, but nothing like the previous norm.

A resting heart rate that began 2016 shortly after my first AKP in the 69-72 beats per minute range has for several months now been at the 55-58 range (with below 50 on the odd occasion of deep-sleep sloth!).

Very few minor illnesses.

Stronger running legs and consistent higher mileage weeks and, just a few weeks ago, my fastest ever (and 56th) marathon in 21 years of running.

By reflecting consciously on our inputs our outcomes can be vastly improved, in any walk of life. After speaking to my coach, Rory Coleman, last week he sent an unexpected message which gave me a smile: “You are in the best shape ever!”

Having said all that let’s hope I finish the AKP!








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