Long distance ruminations on the choices you face in multi-day trail ultramarathons (with apologies to Irvine Welsh)
You can read 100 race reports that can give you the impression that this race (or others) is inevitably an incredible ordeal of suffering, damage, emotional torment, a march through hell, and so on. And it can be, but it is, at least to some extent, a choice – your choice.
Choose constipation because you’re sticking to your day-long ultramarathon diet and avoiding fibre, so your belly swells with twin basturds. You don’t have time for this shit, or any shit. The labour pains are incredible. When your poop-babies are born you’ll name them Chokito and Kaka Channel, or Craply and Deuce if they’re boys.
Choose dehydration because you don’t drink much anyway on your usual four-hour runs, or you want to cut the weight you carry and there are checkpoints with drinks every 10km (max.) anyway. Besides, if you get thirsty, there are heaps of pools of water and run-off streams around, and that water couldn’t have gone through that many cow pats, right?
Choose losing all memory of great swathes of your privileged journey through a stunning part of the Alps, because you sleepwalked through it.
Choose hallucinating instead of sleeping, because with the amount of money you spend on running shoes, race entries and gels/powders, you can’t actually afford drugs. Just don’t be shocked when River Phoenix beckons you to follow him over the side of that drop-off.
Choose endurance over speed in training – all the time – because you’ll never have a need to rush to meet a cut-off time or keep warm, or beat a storm to some shelter, or meet your support before your torch batteries run out. Until you do.
Choose pusculent blisters that rip and develop into craters that feel like hot pokers stuck into your feet because ignorance is blis… ters. Choose limping because it’s good training for your future career as a pimp and because moisturising and lubricating and taping feet is for pussies – who has time for that crap at checkpoints?
Choose scoffing down painkillers because you embrace the inevitability of the pain, but you don’t actually want to feel it much, and your kidneys will recover from the strain afterwards – besides, you’ve got two, don’t you?
Choose freezing in the biting wind that’s no surprise because it’s frigging September in an Alpine region but you thought the extra 175g of that microfleece and 200g of food bars was going to slow you down too much, especially since you didn’t bother doing much strength training in the two years of prep for this race because you just ‘didn’t feel like it’.
Choose hypothermia because this business of putting clothes on and off all the time just gets a bit old and slows you down.
Choose chundering because that salami and toe-fungus cheese that’s been out in the sun for hours and touched by 500 hands that have wiped noses and maybe butts is so good when it’s washed down with half a litre of warm Coke at 1800m that you just have to experience it again, but in reverse direction.
Or choose disappointment, disappointment from your support who have carefully sourced or prepared your food, but you eat too fast because you run too slow, so up it comes.
Choose injury because you train to push your body through pain instead of training it for resilience.
Choose rushing through checkpoints thinking you’ll last just a little longer, ignoring the battalion of medical crew just waiting to lay their hands on you.
Choose crying like a bitch under the weight of your own expectations and the Sandman hammering on your eyelids, but you mistake the tornado of emotions for what it really is – the Godzilla of all sleep monsters and a deep lack of carbs.
Choose chafing. Choose sunburn. Choose crotch-rot. Shit, have you ever been out on a trail for more than eight hours? Just work it out.
Choose headspins, nausea and shortness of breath because you thought you would just adapt to the altitude after a day or two, and somehow, forgetting that you spend the vast bulk of your time in the race at 2000-3000m – it’s not that high, at least not if your pulse rate is under 120 – but at 150+, it’s plenty high enough to knock you about.
Choose the dramatic story, because stories of pain and suffering make for better telling. I mean, look at the Old Testament.
OK, sometimes it’s not a choice. We all make mistakes and sometimes circumstances get in the way or our body rebels against us, but this is a sport about risk minimisation. If I was a sponsored runner doing races all the time, under pressure to perform, then the need for speed would come before some of these considerations. For the rest of us, finishing is the important part – we do races to see places in the world and say we finished something. I also wanted to prove that this could be done and you can still be well at the end.
I have now met too many people who have come to the Tor Des Geants twice and failed to finish (40-50% of race entrants finish), and my heart breaks for them. Hopefully some of this tough love and chewy logic help you through this race, or whatever your big 100-miler+ goal race is.