I have learned a lot this year. I always expected that it would take me a long time to understand the fundamentals of ultrarunning and the way the body reacts to it, but I am always surprised at how much more there is to get to grips with. My biggest learnings this year revolved around injury and illness pre/ during and post race. I hope anything I can share will help someone somewhere to avoid venturing down the same path.
I should add before I start that a lot of people have told me during and subsequent to events unfolding that I set myself up for a fall this year by entering too much in too short a space of time. I still disagree with this assessment. My race schedule was full but achievable on a healthy body - if 2011 were taken on 2010's training, I have no doubt I would be sitting here with 5 successful 100s and Comrades under my belt rather than a very mixed set of race results and 2 x DNS's.
I can see now that this year was a write off from even before Rocky Raccoon in Feb. During Badwater last year I pushed my body beyond it's natural limits for such an extended period of time that I didn't recover for a couple of months. Things just didn't feel right. Apart from the usual night sweats and general lack of sleep in the immediate aftermath of a massive race where your body is pushing the crap generated during it back out of you, I felt totally out of whack with my usual self. General symptoms included lethargy, lack of motivation to run, loss of appetite. The elation at finishing was tainted with a feeling of heavy fatigue. We went on holiday, came back and, as what now appears to me to be a blessing in disguise, UTMB got cancelled just a few hours in to the run. I didn't feel myself until late September and very quickly after on very little training, ran Caesars Camp 100 which is a pretty hard race. Once again I had a very bad time of it there with similar issues to Badwater (chaffing) and finished in a lengthy 27 hours.
What I realise now is that during Badwater I had stressed my muscles to the max but also my endocrine system. The endocrine system is the body's mechanism for producing hormones that help maintain normal bodily function. Recently a bit more has come to light about ultrarunning causing stress on the endocrine system and depletion of it is a by-product of massive training mileage or over stressing it during very long races. Reading the list of symptoms in articles like this and problems resulting from such stresses it has become obvious to me that I have been suffering the longer lasting after effects of over stressing my body over long periods of time. 18 - 20 marathons/ ultras in the first 6 months of 2010 left me feeling as strong and as fit as ever. Badwater totally wiped me out, Caesars Camp came at a time when I was just pulling myself back out of the hole I'd dug and I started training properly for Rocky Raccoon shortly after. Osteoperosis is one of the longer term symptoms of endocrine depletion. The diagnosis we finally reached regarding my two stress fractures pointed clearly to the fact that my body has not been generating bone properly for a long period of time. In short I have been putting little in for the level of output I am demanding of it - particularly in races.
So almost 14 months after Badwater 2010 I am only now able to properly rebuild. If I had stopped racing and training hard for a decent period of time I could have rebuilt a successful year in 2011, but I over shot my bodies ability to recover. As each year of my running career has passed I have taken on more racing and many of those are longer in both distance and duration. It is easy to look at somebody like Mike Wardian who races a large amount, never tapers, never heeds recovery too greatly and yet wins almost everything he enters from 5k to 135 miles - and think that it is normal to be able to achieve that. It isn't. My good friend David Snipes is another example. This year 'Sniper' will go on to complete 10 x 100 milers including the Last Great Race when he finishes at Wasatch next weekend. In between times he has raced a bunch of other ultras. The difference between the above 2 examples and somebody relatively new to ultras like me is purely and simply - experience. By experience I refer to two factors - knowing how your body responds during races and being able to manage it to finish as you started. More importantly your body's experience with handling physical stress, these guys having developed running over decades, not years and thereby equipping their systems with the ability to function better on the run.
None of this is scientific, in fact it's almost all my own personal conjecture and therefore could be deemed irrelevant but when you look at a lot of the fall out from UTMB this past weekend, arguably the last major race of the summer, some of my own experiences begin to crop up in others, be it elite or back of the pack runners. Many of the lead guys have spent the spring racing hard over 50 miles/ 100k, followed by mountain 100s (at least 1 or more), before taking on UTMB, a 100 miler which ended up having a total accumulated elevation change of 70,000 feet (source: Scott Jaime's altimeter). However good you feel coming in to a race and however well your training has gone, you cannot underestimate the longer term effects that the previous race/ races have had on your body. It isn't to say that everytime you back 100 or even 50 milers into one another you will find things starting to unravel as the race drags on, but eventually it is extremely likely it will catch up with you and a race like UTMB will take no prisoners.
Some of my advice following a hard year is this:
- Rest and recover for longer than you think you may need. When you have finished a long race (100 miles) and have experienced heavy training in the lead up to it, take it easy for at least 3 - 4 weeks post run. It is tempting to jump back on the horse and use the extra fitness to drive on harder and faster. There is no need to be sedate for that period of time but it is important to let, not just your muscles, but your endocrine and immune systems to recover properly.
- Give your injury every chance to heal. If you are injured in the lead up to the race, particularly with a stress fracture, and cannot run train, don't panic. If you are able to ride a bike and protect the injury whilst keeping your CV up you CAN get through the race in question. It will be a very long day and a tough one at that but if you can stay strong mentally then should your injury hold up, you will get there.
- Be realistic. If you are injured going in to a long day then don't schedule anything else for a while afterwards. The major problem you are going to have is that your muscles will not be used to running and your muscles which are out of practice will take a battering. You need to manage your hydration and nutrition even more carefully than normal during a race or you are likely to end up with muscle breakdown quickly, which can lead to rhabdomyolisis and in extreme cases - kidney failure. My own experience at Vermont was a steep learning curve. The breakdown of my muscles at Western States was severe leaving me largely immobile. Three weeks was not enough time for things to repair, meaning that as soon as I started running my muscular-skeleto system began collapsing even faster, releasing myoglobin into my blood stream and clogging up my kidneys. Dark urine and lower back pain (plus passing out if you really do it properly) are all symptoms to be aware of and however much a DNF hurt, with 43 additional miles to go in that condition it was highly likely I was headed for the ER. The race will be there next year, and the year after. There is no need to put yourself in hospital, however much others would encourage you to believe that it's unacceptable to drop unless you are hauled off the course in an ambulance (as a race director please heed this advice).
Some runners more experienced than I will rubbish some of what has been said here but if you train big miles, hard miles and race often, it is highly likely at some stage that you will fall off the horse. The only thing I can say is take it easy, pick and choose the races you want to do well at and focus on them 100% and you WILL get through them. This is a great sport and sometimes it is hard to look on but you KNOW when you should and shouldn't be joining in the fun yourself. Take your time and you will benefit in the long term.