~ Gautama Buddha
You really have created the world's finest masterpiece of ultra-running, a canvas of 72 hours long by 333 kms wide in the Indian Himalayas. Upon this canvas are the runners, the artists who paint their art as they make their way over the most beautiful of majestic mountains. But I have a problem. I spilt the paint, I was clumsy and the art I left behind on your perfect canvas is flawed. The paint ran over the edges and that just won't do. Art is meant to be perfect and anything less just isn’t art. It is a mess. I will have to start this painting again.
Your good friend, Mark"
I wrote these words to Rajat, the Race Director shortly after La Ultra – The High. I had actually covered the 333 kms in Ladakh, the Indian Himalayas on foot but I had arrived late, 54 minutes to be precise on top of the 72 hour time limit. This was my second attempt at this distance in the Himalayas and my second failure. Last year I had even been in the lead at km 317 but I had collapsed, totally exhausted and spent. I had gone into shock. This year should have been my year; I was extremely well prepared and very, very fit. During the build up to the race I was quite able to run; and I mean run, uphill up to 5400M.
Whenever we feel that we underperform on a race it is a natural thought
process to look for the reasons behind why we failed to perform. This isn’t the same as finding excuses. Excuses are nothing else but false reasoning to make up for otherwise inadmissible weaknesses that the runner cannot actually come to terms with. In writing this little piece I am certainly not making excuses, on the contrary, I am seeking to understand what went wrong so that I can correct the weakness and come back stronger. Like I said; I should have blown the race out of the water. So why didn’t I?
The race truly fell apart for me on the second day where I lost a lot of time. When I finally managed to gain control again, and in spite of making good progress afterwards, I was unable to make up enough of the lost time to enter within the time limit. What I think happened is interesting, because it exposes a weakness that I never thought existed in my own repertoire. It all started in the first leg of the race on the way up to Kardung La at 5400M.
During this first leg I felt incredibly strong and even though I was consciously pulling myself in from going too fast by the time I had got to North Pullu I had already gained half an hour over what I had done the previous year. By the time I had got to the summit I was a full 2 hours ahead of last year’s schedule. In running at altitude, pace is everything and going too fast exposes you to serious health risks, mainly a pulmonary edema. When I summited, I was already questioning myself as to if I had gone too fast or not, whether I had exposed myself needlessly to the ravishes of altitude and would I pay the price later on. Last year a couple of talented runners had really flown up Kardung La and had subsequently ended up in hospital for precisely that reason.
So on the second day, when I was climbing Wari La at 5300M and I started to have difficulties breathing, the little seed of paranoia that was sown the previous night started to take root in my brain. My breathing became more and more laboured and bore nothing in resemblance to how I had performed at the same altitude during training. Interestingly I also started to have severe pains in my legs, particularly with the tendons on the outside of my left knee. But by far the most alarming symptom was the difficulty I was having breathing.
So the thought started to go round and round my head, all the false logic backing up the original false premise. The mind is absolutely wonderful at circular arguments and within a short space of time I managed to convince myself that I had a pulmonary edema. And the more I convinced myself of that then the more difficulty I actually had breathing. When I got to base camp I promptly checked in with the doctors and they gave me a thorough examination. But there was just one problem; they didn’t actually find anything wrong with me! Now that really threw me, and to be quite honest my original reaction was that they had gotten it wrong. But they checked and checked and checked again and I had absolutely nothing wrong with me. Accepting this was difficult; I was so convinced that I was sick that undoing the false logic and circular arguments took some time. Besides, I was still finding it difficult to breath.
Eventually Rajat, the Race Director gave me a tough order and simply told me to get on with it and that I was making excuses. My wife helped him out.
So, I got up, actually felt OK and started running again. I even felt good and started to run at a decent pace. Ultimately my recovery wasn’t enough to recuperate the time I had spent down, I finished but just outside the time limit allowed.
After the race Rajat wrote this message to me: “I want you to read this transcript of an interview with Prof Tim Noakes. https://www.bulletproofexec.com/podcast-transcript-3-hacking-fatigue-with-tim-noakes-plus-more-4-hour-body-fun/
A bit that you'll definitely enjoy is below:
I have this really interesting explanation for why an athlete comes second, and particularly if it’s a close race. In my view, the athlete who comes second justifies the performance by producing symptoms which are more severe than they really need to be. “Oh gee, this symptom, I really tried my hardest but I was exhausted.” In fact, that’s a justification.”
Could it be that the mere thought of something going wrong caused it to
actually go wrong? At least in the brain? The overriding physical evidence was that I was fine, in spite of how I felt. In short It certainly does look like I managed to invent it all, a little catastrophic fantasy all in my own little head that bore scat resemblance to reality. But what still impresses me is the power that it had over me. It went far beyond the intellectual.
As part of my own race plan I planted little prayer flags at the start and at the major peaks along the race. I did this out of respect for the mountains and for the Ladakhi culture and people. On each one I wrote a little message. One of them wrote “Fear is the mind killer” Oh the irony.
Huge thanks: To my crew Stanzin, Nono, Priyanka and the driver Tundup. Only they know what they had to put up with; but they got me to the end. I finished totally broken, the realisation that inspite of giving it everything I had on that final descent, that I wasn't going to make it in time was just heart breaking. I went to a very dark place before accepting reality and just aiming to finish the distance.
I now have to go back and take care of my inner self again. I have always been
mentally strong and taken it for granted. Alas, it has also been something that I have neglected in recent years which I must again nurture back to full strength.