Thursday 17 November 2011

Ah... Push it... Push it good!

There's a great article at by Andy Jones-Wilkins regarding Brian Morrison's "winning" finish at Western States in 2006. Brian pushed incredibly hard on this race and came into the Placer High School track at Auburn 12 minutes ahead of his nearest competitor... and promptly collapsed 200 meters from the finish. He was helped across the line by his friends and pacer Scott Jurek to cheers from the crowd, but was unfortunately disqualified for receiving physical assistance. It's heart breaking to watch:

The article itself asks the question "how much is too much?". Brian has apparently admitted that he pushed himself too far for the conditions of the race (it was incredibly hot that day), and says that he was probably out of gas much sooner than this really. Somehow he was able to push himself on by sheer power of will alone but, when he entered the stadium, his brain relaxed and thought he had finished, causing his entire body to finally give it up just before the actual finish line.

This is one of a couple of such articles that I have read recently giving first-hand experiences of runners pushing it too far and suffering for it. Andy himself recounts ending up with acute renal failure following Angeles Crest in 2004, and there are many more comments at the bottom of the article of other runners with their own (often terrifying) tales of post-run issues. James Elson, RD of Centurion Running, discusses the issues that he has had attempting to run a packed 2011 season, including the Grand Slam in America (WS100, Vermont 100, Leadville Trail 100, and Wasatch Front 100), having not allowed himself time to recover from injuries and a tough race in Badwater last year.

As a newbie to the whole ultra-running world, candid discussions such as these are incredibly useful for me. I am both competitive and stubborn, and I know that Jen's biggest worry with me taking on bigger and bigger races, and pushing myself harder and faster at each one, is that I will eventually push it too far and really do some damage. If something happens on the trail, will I do the sensible thing and pull or will I force myself to keep going to the detriment of my health? If you had told me 2 years ago that I would be running half marathons in the future I probably would have laughed at you - never mind 100 milers. But I never would have gotten to this stage without pushing myself further than I thought that I could go.

I have definitely been improving incrementally, pushing myself a little further every time and doing better and better. I believe that I have not yet reached my full potential as a runner, and I don't even mean in relation to further training. I have finished most of my races so far with plenty left in the tank, generally with a strong sprint finish and comments of "you look like you could go again". So each time I feel that I can push it a little bit more than the last time. In that sense, I believe that I have to keep pushing a little harder to improve.

But there must be a limit. Eventually there must come a time when I will have nothing extra to give, and pushing it will eat into reserves that just aren't there. And what about when things go wrong? Will I be sensible when I run into an injury in a race? Or if I do not watch my hydration and nutrition correctly and bonk badly? I have been incredibly lucky so far, and have yet to run into any serious problem that has made me even consider pulling, but such things are inevitable. I guess that everybody DNFs eventually.

The closest that I have come is suffering from a dodgy hip 80 miles into the SDW this year. It was tough going, but I made the decision to keep going, and eventually recovered allowing me to run the final 10 miles faster than the first 10 miles of the race coming in fifth. My hip was a little sore for a few days after, but soon got back to normal. I believe that I made the right decision in this case, but it could easily have gone a different way.

I think that it's very easy for me to say that I know my own body, and I know when enough is enough, but the truth is that I don't know for sure. However, reading articles such as these is incredibly useful for identifying the warning signs and, more importantly, the consequences of not heeding what your body is telling you. I am at least now over the hurdle of actually having run the distance for the first time. I suspect that I would be more likely to pull out of my fifth 100 miler than my first! What happened to Brian at WS100 was heart-breaking - but his friends and pacers absolutely did the right thing in helping him. They could have left him to crawl over the line, a la Ironman 1997:

But they were more interested in his well-being than in the race. I like to think that I have my priorities in check, and it's not like I'm racing for a podium finish anyway! It's all been food for thought for me, and I am very appreciative to the ultra runner community in general for their candor and openness in discussing the more negative side of the sport. Fingers crossed that, by following the racing plans, nutrition routines and training regimes that have kept me in good stead so far, I will never experience these issues first hand.

Speaking of not racing for a podium finish, I saw this on the Ultra Runner Guy website (also used in Bryon Powell's "Relentless Forward Progress", an essential purchase for anyone looking at getting into ultras) which made me chuckle!

Now to prepare for the Brecon Beacons ultra on Saturday! Really looking forward to this one.


  1. Sam, that WS 2006 winning finish that wasn't was a heartbreaker. I was there. It was my first WS100 and I can testify that the conditions were unbelievably brutal. I've never experienced heat and humidity in the canyons like it, before or since.

  2. I can't even imagine how that must have felt. We're not exactly acclimated to heat in this country! How did you get on in that race Nick?


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