May 05, 2014

The Fine Line Between Race Successes and Failures

There's a Japanese proverb that goes "He who climbs Mt. Fuji is a wise man, he who climbs it twice is a fool."

Photo Credit Yuma Hamayoshi
Why did I return to UTMF this year? What were my true motivations in travelling around the world to run a 100 miler in which I'd already had my day and already experienced the journey around Fuji? The answer is simple, it was to run against a perceived deeper field of runners and to ideally have my day on what was going to be a much more public stage this year. That was the main driving factor in my choice to return. After Krissy Moehl won UTMF last year she gushed "Wow, this is a huge breakout race for you!"

I felt the same. I had shown, at least to myself, that I could run with and even ahead of such great runners as Seb and Julien as I found myself in second place at mile 85. I definitely faded before the finish, but snagging fourth simply felt incredible. It was one of the absolute highlights of my 2013. Upon returning home however, I was surprised to see how little attention UTMF had gotten. If you weren't directly paying attention or emotionally invested in the race, you likely didn't even notice. My main motivations in returning this year were rooted firmly around simply replicating my 2013 run in front of a much more engaged ultra community. Though these motivations are not flawed per se, they are fairly far removed from the usual driving factors that draw me to international events. By no means am I saying that I did not want to return to Japan for all that it offers outside of the race itself, just that I very likely would have waited at least another year before returning, had I not seen just how competitive the race was going to be and as such just how much of a following it would garner.

I've struggled to move past what transpired at Mt. Fuji for UTMF, primarily because I know that even though I was forced to drop out when a foot injury flared up, I was in no way shape or form having the race I was capable of having on that day up until that point in time. Even if I had managed to continue to rally and to have somehow fought my way back into the top ten, I would have been left wondering how and why I was unable to have pulled off a near top five performance on the day. I was fit enough, I was rested enough, I was primed for a great race. So what went wrong, before it all went wrong? What could I have done differently? How much was beyond my control and how many small consecutive errors had I made to eventually bring down the ship?

Photo Credit Yuma Hamayoshi
I watched a documentary once about how the average plane crash is not caused by one major failure, it's caused by up to a half a dozen small errors that when combined can lead to tragic consequences. It raises the question of how many near misses are we never aware of? To parlay this into ultra running, and my own ultra running, how many mistakes did I make in Japan? How many mistakes are maybe typical and preventable going forward? Are there some that have become habitual, yet in their own right have not lead directly to race failures? Basically, it's time to slice and dice things a bit more as these thoughts won't be put to rest in any other manner. 

I figure the best way to do this is to take my five best efforts and contrast them with my five worst, my DNF's and "I should have DNFeds"...yes, that's a word.

First and foremost though to dispel one thing in regards to UTMF 2014 vs 2013. I did not start off any faster this year than I did last year. In 2013 we had the lead runners blasting off the front at near sub six minute mile pace. I held back in 12th or so in six minute thirty pace. This year the lead guys weren't blasting off quite so quickly and when I found myself mimicking my 2013 start I was much higher up in the field at the very start. Through the first mile I was in second place, high fiving all the spectators and attempting to take in as much positive support as possible. I continually referenced my watch to ensure I wasn't getting carried away and as I stayed on a high six minute mile pace eventually a few more runners caught up to and surpassed me. My first two miles in 2014 were about ten seconds faster than my first two in 2013. I did not start out faster than I had already proven I could upon that course. But is there still a lesson to be learned here?
Also worth mentioning is just how well the returning top ten runners from 2013 did in comparison to the much more famous group of runners that showed up this year. Outside of myself, Hara and Seb, the rest of the top returning runners all had similar or better performances than they did just one year ago. I show this to make a point, that this year's race, outside of Francois D'Haene's simply astonishing run, was no faster than last year's field. The race was a bit deeper, but if I had even come close to my race from one year ago I would have been right where I knew I could have been, and that was fighting for a top five finish.


So here we go: Best Five Races vs Worst Five Races (I settled on six races in the end)

Worst six are relatively easy as all but one are a DNFs. Listing DNFs in this format is to explore the idea that these DNFs could have been prevented with a better race day and pre-race strategy 
-UTMF 2014
-UTMB 2013
-Speedgoat 2012
-Knee Knacker 2012
-Miwok 2010
-49th place finish at Western States 2009

Best six results
-UTMF 2013 - 4th
-HURT 2013 - 1st CR
-Knee Knacker 50k 2013 - 1st
-HURT 2010 - 1st CR
-WS100 2010 - 6th
-Mountain Masochist 50m 2009 - 3rd
-I purposely left out more top local and close to home results in an attempt to get a better cross section

How best to assess the similarities and differences in these races and these results? I've come up with a standard list of questions and a point score associated with them. A lower score is better. The highest/worst score would be 41 while the lowest/best score would be 14, though that would only be possible by running a local race that you've run before while having zero expectations and zero stress, both internally and externally. Pre-race is the combined sum of the eleven questions posed that can be answered before you even line up, and Race Day is the combined sum of the three questions surrounding your own race day decisions.

The questions and associated points:

Travel/unknown and unfamiliar surroundings 
(1: no travel 2: continental travel 3: international travel)
Jetlag / time change 
(1: no jetlag 2: different time zone 3: proper jetlag)
Familiar with course / run it previously 
(1: run it before 2: trained specific to terrain 3: no course experience)
Internal stress/pressure/expectations 
(1: low 2: med 3: high)
External stress/pressure/expectations
(1: low 2: med 3: high)
Motivations / what lead to the choice to run that event 
(1: new area/beautiful course/travel 2: mix of travel and competition 3: competition, to compete against best)
Environmental, heat, elevation, fast, mountainous
(1: similar to home 2: slight challenge 3: major challenge)
Competition, how deep was the field of runners
(1: not super deep 2: reasonably competitive 3: internationally recognized runners)
Pacing, specifically pacing in the first 30 - 45 minutes of the race
(1: started slow 2: started reasonable 3: started fast)
Own race vs getting caught up
(1: throughout 2:  reasonably influenced by other runners 3: completely influenced by other runners)
Fueling during race
(1: wasn't an issue 2: some issues 3: major issues)
Training leading up to race
(1: solid training block 2: average training block 3: low training block)
Tapering into race
(1: normal taper 2: abnormal taper)
Confidence
(1: overly confident 2: reasonably confident 3: self doubt)
Music during race
(can't effectively assign a number ratio to this, I have become a big believe in the benefits of music while racing and simply have this here as a personal reference)

The Findings
A full list of more specific race breakdowns is below should you care to delve further. The results are interesting but not surprising, and all around fairly predictable, though it's much more meaningful when you lay it all out like this.


My best races have a statistical overall score of about 17% lower than my worst races.
My best races have a statistical pre-race score of about 15% lower than my worst races.
My best races have a statistical race day score of about 35% lower than my worst race.

What does it all mean?

The very first conclusion to draw from all of this is of course the glaringly obvious race day mistakes. In all but one of my best races I had a score of about half that of my worst races. Race day mistakes, by and large, are the number one contributor to race day disappointments.

My best races also have a pre-race correlation to success. There is an obvious link that can be drawn here between lack of major travel, and lack of true depth of the fields. The further you travel, for the more competitive events, the higher stresses you place on your body and mind. Knowing this in advance of the races may allow you to address things differently or at the very least to anticipate things better. If I'm going to travel to the ends of the earth for competitive races, I'm going to need to give myself ample travel time, and to learn to deal with all the additional stresses that come with big time events. Gaining course insights in advance of a race is also hugely beneficial if at all possible.

I think the biggest thing I'll take away from this mini-study of my own racing habits is just to know that I have rarely had racing disappointments around events where I've run my own race and started conservatively. To compete in ultra running today you absolutely have to take some chances and to lay it all out there from time to time, however, going into my future events I am going to reel myself in a bit at the beginning. There is very little detriment to starting conservatively, especially when you're looking at races with average finishing times of over fifteen and close to twenty-four hours.

I think my UTMF 2013 race had an anomaly in it in terms of the fact that I started off fast and still had success. I think I took a race day chance and it paid off, though I took that information to mean that I could always successfully start 100 milers at six and a half minute mile pace. Even if this information contains some truth to it, it is still not an effective racing strategy. I need to slow it down a bit off the start in my upcoming 100s.

Not readily available within this small data sample is just how difficult it is to run your own race while lined up at super competitive events. A primary example is UTMB. These races start off far too fast for 90% of the runners, yet everyone just gets towed along for the ride. The level of confidence in one's own abilities and racing strategies to start conservatively at such events is one of the hardest skill sets to attain in ultra running. A fairly unknown runner by the name of John Tidd is a master of this. In 2013 he finished 6th at UTMF and 10th at UTMB, both times coming from way back in the race to snag top ten positions. If the average runner had as much insight and confidence into their own abilities as John does they'd end up with better results across the board. I possess this insight and confidence, but I seem to have temporarily misplaced it.

I want to continue to show up and compete at the most competitive of mountain ultra races, but I am ready to turn a corner in my own racing to start running smarter, to own my results, and to move past these race day debacles. I'm glad I took the time to look at this a bit further. It's exactly as I'd expected, but it just hammers home the point so much more while looking at it all in this light.

So, what race day mistakes do you seem to continue to make?

What strategies do you have in place to prevent race day errors?

What questions would you have added or removed from my personal assessment above?

Have you ever broken down your successes and failures in this manor? If so what did you find and did it allow you to address it going forward?

Full list of race assessments below.
GR
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

BEST RACES



UTMF 2013
4th, 20h20m
Score 31/41
Pre-race 24/32
Race Day 7/9
Travel: (3) / Jetlag: (3) / Familiar: (3) / Internal: (3) / External: (2)  / Motivations: (1) to run in Japan on a course that was known to be techincal / Environmental: (1) a beautiful spring day / Competition: (3) a very deep field of European runners / Pacing: (3) I started way faster than I usually do / Own Race: (2) / Fueling: (2) some issues eating later in the race / Training: (2) was pretty much sustaining fitness off of HURT / Tapering: (1) / Confidence: (2) I was stressed but confident in what I could do / Music: yes, for five hours during the night
Assessment: I stared off much faster than I normally would, and I was rewarded for it with a strong race. In hindsight though, this is against my normal running strategy and likely against my best interest. In comparison to my other best races this race was the one where I took the greatest chances early on. Taking chances like this can go either way though, especially over the 100 mile distance, and the best racing strategy, for me at least, likely resides somewhere slower than how I started here and a step faster than how I have started at other races.
I faded significantly late in the race and dropped from 2nd down to 4th, while 5th was closing ground on me. I believe that had I started slightly more conservatively I would have been rewarded with a stronger finish and potentially a higher placing. I believe this one off, though not blind luck, would be the exception to how I should run and may have contributed to me believing that I could and even should be starting faster in my longer races. I have not come to terms with this until just now as I've only looked at this race as a successful template and not critically assessed it prior to today.

Knee Knacker 50k
1st, 4h41m
Score 24/41
Pre-race 19/32
Race Day 5/9
Travel: (1) / Jetlag: (1) / Familiar: (1) / Internal: (3) / External: (3)  / Motivations: (2) / Environmental: (1)  / Competition: (2) a very talented albeit local field of runners / Pacing: (2) / Own Race: (2) / Fueling: (1) / Training: (1) was in the middle of my largest training block ever / Tapering: (2) I didn't taper at all. I ran 120m the week prior / Confidence: (2) I had questions going into the race around if I'd simply not taken enough/any recovery time leading into the race / Music: yes, for full second half of the race
Assessment: A unique race in the fact that I did very little in the way of tapering. The week prior I ran 120 miles and the day before the race I had my hip seize up and briefly make me question if I'd even be able to start. A low stress race on home turf allowed for very intelligent race day decisions. Lack of external variables such as travel, unfamiliar terrain, external pressures all allowed me to completely run my own race and to not make any race day mistakes.

HURT 2013 
1st CR, 19h35m
Score 22/41
Pre-race 18/32
Race Day 4/9
Travel: (2) / Jetlag: (2) / Familiar: (1) / Internal: (2)  / External: (2)  / Motivations: (2) I broke my foot on the HURT course and this was a very emotional and pure journey. I wanted CR but just finishing would have been a success / Environmental: (2) a fairly hot and humid day / Competition: (2) I ran within six minutes of Jason L for 85 miles / Pacing: (1) / Own Race: (1) / Fueling: (2) / Training: (1) / Tapering: (1) / Confidence: (1) I was in a very good head space heading into this race / Music: yes for final 20 miles
Assessment: The perfect day. A comeback race over the very course that I broke my foot on, while running toe to toe against the runner who'd won the two years I was away. I doubt I'll ever see another 100 mile race go as smoothly and almost as effortlessly as this one did. It's probably best to assume this race was a one off in all the positive ways a race could possibly go. 100 milers should be and almost always will be tougher than how this race played out for me.

Western States 2010 
6th, 17h06m
Score 29/41
Pre-race 24/32
Race Day 5/9
Travel: (2) Yes / Jetlag: (1) No / Familiar: (1) yes, I'd finished 49th one year prior / Internal: (3) yes, I was looking to prove to myself that I could succeed in high pressure, highly competitive environment / External: (2) yes and no. I was there as a part of the Montrail team but had recently suffered from overtaining symptoms and DNFed Miwok 100k/ Motivations: (3) To run the race I knew I was capable of against one of the deepest fields or runners/ Environmental: (3) a very hot race, and overall a very runnable course / Competition: (3) as per usual, the most competitive 100 in NA that year / Pacing: (2) I started off conservatively and worked my way up throughout the day / Own Race: (2) / Fueling: (1) Very good. I was on it from the start and all day long / Training: (2) After DNFing Miwok I didn't run a step for three weeks. In the month of May I ran less than 100 miles, while everyone else in top ten ran at least 400-500 miles / Tapering: (2) kind of a reverse taper, I ran everyday for the two weeks leading up to the race, though most were short runs / Confidence: (2) I knew the course and I'd prepared for the heat better, but I ran very little in May after my Miwok DNF / Music: yes
Assessment: I had a very questionable final seven weeks leading into the race but a very strong year of training otherwise. I had nothing but top ten aspirations but was still very much an underdog on the day. I ran an intelligent race while allowing the lead pack to separate as I forced myself to stay calm and to work myself into a good race pace. It was a very solid race for me but in all likelihood I was helped along by my Miwok DNF and therefore eliminating an element of expectation both internally and externally.

HURT 100m 2010
1st CR, 20h12m
Score 21/41
Pre-race 17/32
Race Day 4/9
Travel: (2) / Jetlag: (2) / Familiar: (2) the HURT course is identical to our North Van terrain/ Internal: (2) I was shooting for and attained Geoff Roes CR / External: (1) absolutely nobody knew who I was / Motivations: (2) to run in Hawaii / Environmental: (2) some heat issues / Competition: (1) there were some very talented runners but from 20m to the finish I ran alone in the lead / Pacing: (1) / Own Race: (1) / Fueling: (2) / Training:  (1) I had a then best ever training block heading into the race / Tapering: (1) / Confidence: (1) nothing to lose and everything to gain. I felt very quietly confident heading into this race / Music: no
Assessment: I was so confident that I'd have a good day on the HURT course, in just my 3rd ever 100 miler, that I let everyone go off the start and just did my own thing. I need to get back to this. This is the only way you should ever start a 100 miler.

Mountain Masochist 50m 2009
3rd place 7h00m28s
Score 24/41
Pre-race 20/32
Race Day 4/9
CR before Geoff Roes killed it on that day was Dave Mackey 6h48m
Travel: (2) yes / Jetlag: (2) not noticeable, three hour time change / Familiar: (1) yes, I'd run it the year prior and finished 2nd, though with a slower time / Internal: (3) yes, I was shooting for top two and auto WS entry / External: (2) yes, I had finished 2nd one year earlier / Motivations: (3) WS entry, to improve upon 2009 time, to run sub 7hr / Environmental: (1) very runnable course, cool fall day / Competition: (2) / Pacing: (1) I started off conservative as I did with all my races at the time / Own Race: (1) / Fueling: (2) I remember struggling with calories in final two hours but fudging my way through it / Training: (2) Not crazy, I took down time in months leading up to race, but I knew course was all runnable and trained more for running all of my long runs / Tapering: (1) I don't recall, likely two weeks / Confidence: (1) I knew the course and had trained more specifically for it. I knew I was fit enough for my race goals / Music: no
Assessment: I had a great day and came within 29 seconds of breaking the seven hour mark, something only a handful of other runners had done. I completely ran my own race from start to finish and that's why I had success.

**Miwok 2008 (I fully accidentally assessed seven races. I'll leave this in since it only help to reaffirm the overall findings)
12th place 9h22m
Score 23/41
Pre-race 19/32
Race Day 4/9
First question might be why I'd chose this as a top result. This was beyond the unknown for me at the time. I'd only run a handful of 50k races plus one 67k race. I had calf issues in the months leading up to the race and spent two full months training only on a bike. I would have run sub nine hours and finished in 8th place if I had not taken a full five kilometer detour. The top four runners that year were Dave Mackey, Jon Olsen, Geoff Roes and Scott Jurek. I knew none of them. I knew f#@k all and yet I ran an incredibly well balanced race while up against a fairly deep field at the time. If there was ever a race I'd run where I would have had every excuse to mess it up, this was the one, yet I pretty much nailed it right out of the gates.

Travel: (2) yes, first time to San Fran / Jetlag: (1) no, same time zone / Familiar: (3) not at all / Internal stress: (2) I had expectations of myself by zero pressure / External: (1) nothing / Motivations: (1) new challenge, new area, travelled with great group of friends / Environmental: (1) a very runnable course on a hot day in May / Competition: (2) very competitive but I didn't even know / Pacing: (1) I started off way slow as it was such an unknown distance for me / Own Race: (1) /  Fueling: (2) I don't recall the specifics / Training: (2) I trained hard but a lot of it was on the mountain and road bike / Tapering: (2) I was kind of rushing to get time on my feet, off the bike in the weeks leading up to the race / Confidence: (2) I was scared but excited, confident but hesitant, it lead to holding back just enough early on and running a very smooth race / Music: no
Assessment: I was too inexperienced to make the mistake of trying to do anything I didn't already confidently know my body could handle. I ran my own race from start to finish and had a great 100k debut.


WORST RACES
Photo Credit Glenn Tachiyama
Western States 2009
49th, 23h07m
Score 32/41
Pre-race 23/32
Race Day 9/9
Travel: (2) / Jetlag: (1) / Familiar: (1) / Internal: (3) / External: (2) / Motivations: (2) / Environmental: (3) / Competition: (3) / Pacing: (3) / Own Race: (3) / Fueling: (3) / Training: (1) / Tapering: (2) / Confidence: (3) / Music: no
Assessment: I ran a dumb race on a hot day and paid a price for it. I got caught up in the hype and by the third mile my fate on the day was likely sealed. I'm still incredible proud of even being able to gut this one out just to claim a finish. My kidneys were shutting down and I was peeing blood. It took me over a month to recover from this one.

Miwok 2010 
DNF around 50km mark
Score 29/41
Pre-race 21/32
Race Day 8/9
Travel: (2) / Jetlag: (1) / Familiar: (1) / Internal: (3) / External: (3) / Motivations: (2) / Environmental: (1) / Competition: (3) / Pacing: (3) / Own Race: (3) / Fueling: (2) / Training: (1) / Tapering: (1) / Confidence: (3) / Music: no
Assessment: I set out to run a race I was incapable of running, and I pretty much knew it all along. If I had set out on a more reasonable 8h45m'ish run pace I very likely would not have DNFed and not ended up getting the blood work done that told me I was having iron deficiency issues. The bad with the good I guess.

Knee Knacker 2012 
DNF after first climb
There's little need to dissect this race as I woke up with a fever on race morning and shouldn't have even started.
Assessment: Shit ass bad luck

Speedgoat 50k 2012 
DNF around 40km
Score 36/41
Pre-race 28/32
Race Day 8/9
Travel: (2) / Jetlag: (2) / Familiar: (3) / Internal: (3) / External: (2) / Motivations: (3) / Environmental: (3) / Competition: (3) / Pacing: (3) / Own Race: (3) / Fueling: (2) / Training: (3) being sick all of July didn't help things / Tapering: (2) was hardly training and just attempting to get better / Confidence: (3) being sick more of July let me know I wasn't fit enough for what I was hoping for / Music: no
Assessment: I did just about everything wrong for this race and it started with signing up for a super competitive race at altitude and just hoping for the best on race day. Though I made race day mistakes at Speedgoat there is very little, if anything I could have done differently to have prevented this DNF due to severe altitude sickness

UTMB 2013 
DNF after 30kms
Score 34/41
Pre-race 27/32
Race Day 8/9
Travel: (3) / Jetlag: (3) / Familiar: (1) / Internal: (3) / External: (3) / Motivations: (3) / Environmental: (2) / Competition: (3) / Pacing: (2) / Own Race: (3) / Fueling: (2) I was already struggling with calories by the time my race ended / Training: (1) / Tapering: (2) directing the SQ50 less than three weeks prior throws a kink into things. In two years of directing I have yet to sit down for over 40hrs on race weekend / Confidence: (2) / Music: no
Assessment: I managed to get sick around race day but there's still a part of me that thinks I could have at least finished the race even while being under the weather. I headed in with high hopes and plenty of self imposed and perceived external expectations, though I was fully confident in my fitness and abilities. I still think of this as a lost opportunity to perform on a big stage. I had top ten fitness but was was likely still shooting for a result just beyond my fitness level. I should have gone into this with the goal of finishing 8th, 9th or 10th, not 4th, 5th or 6th.

UTMF 2014
DNF after 105km
Score 32/41
Pre-race 25/32
Race Day 7/9
Travel: (3) / Jetlag: (3) / Familiar: (2) I knew the course but it being run in the opposite direction made it slightly less than completely familiar / Internal: (3) / External: (2) / Motivations: (3) / Environmental: (1) / Competition: (3) / Pacing: (3) I started out at the same pace as last year, though I think started slower would have been beneficial to my overall race / Own Race: (2) / Fueling: (2) / Training: (2) / Tapering: (2) I had some funky issues with my legs after Salomon's Advanced Week / Confidence: (1) I had already succeeded on this exact course / Music: yes, for twelve full hours and it's all that kept me alive and from dropping out of the race early on.
Assessment: I was equal parts stressed and excited, but I never would have expected to not be in the mix for top five. I absolutely had it within me to be in the top five mix. If I could attempt the race all over again tomorrow I would start slower and just do my own thing. No matter the foot injury would have stopped my race, but at least I would have likely been having a better race when that all occurred. I was incredibly proud to have fought so hard to make it to 105km. This is one of the few positives to take away from the race. There's an element of misfortune and confusion over why my climbing legs / hamstrings never seemed to show up on race day though. I was doing great on the flats, the downhills and even the gradual grades, but the super steep terrain felt impossible on race day.

5 comments:

D. Landry said...

Awesome analysis, Gary!!

LukeD said...

Interesting points, Gary. We middle-of-the-packers have it much easier, I think. For instance, when I travel to a more-competitive field I have less stress, knowing that I won't be anywhere near the front and just being consistent and steady are my main goals (Miwok last weekend, for instance). At a local event where I might be top-20 (that's a high place for me), then I feel the added pressure of running around people I know (and whose relative speeds I can guess, within reason). The jet lag and health factors are pretty consistent for everyone, IMO, but putting those mental stresses out there for us to read is much appreciated. Thanks.

Best of luck in bringing those numbers down over the rest of the year!

Author said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tim B said...

Last year I started taking my preparation much more seriously. It paid off and I am improving it this year.
I've heard that Julien Chorier is meticulous at race prep. Some commentators don't associate that with his success, but it is related.
There's a lot of decisions you can make ahead of the race. I like to write them down and review them several times leading up to the race, maybe even put a note in a drop bag as a reminder. Problem is you don't know what better planning is until you experience it (same goes for better training).

Good luck. See you on Mtn Hwy.

garobbins said...

Tim B, you're absolutely right, and though each person finds a different path to success I too am meticulous in my preparations for running 100 miles. Last year Julien and myself shared a crew in Japan and they commented on how both of us had put so much into our pre-race planning. I think that's a huge component of the mental conditioning around tackling 100 miles as well. It needs to make sense in your head before your body can fight through the motions.

GR