This post was inspire by a Somali nurse featured on Desert Island Discs selecting the Edith Piaf song ‘Non, je regrette rein’ as one of her choices. The thoughts and ideas had been swirling around inside my head for some considerable time. Hearing that song coalesced them into something coherent. Perhaps because it provided a title to hang those ideas from.
For the last ten years in October I have travelled to South Africa to take part in the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon. This year I stayed at home. As the time of the event approached friends asked me if I was going to miss being there and during the week of the race it reached a crescendo, with many people asking if I had withdrawal symptoms. I didn’t miss being there, I didn’t have withdrawal symptom; I had no regrets. There is a reason for that; it was planned and I have a very good reason for not going.
Last year, before I went out to South Africa, I decide that, if I finished and thereby completed my tenth race, I would not be back the following year. During the race in 2016 I took the time to re-examine that decision and decided it was the right decision. At the awards ceremony, when I was presented with my permanent number for completing ten events (the only person to have ever done that), I gave a short, emotional speech and announced to my fellow runners, the support crew and the race organisers, my very good friends, that I would not be back in 2017.
Why did I decide that? The Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon has provided me with the most amazing experiences, I have met many wonderful people and made some very deep and enduring friendships. Those things are like bold, colourful brush strokes on a canvas. In 2017 the picture was complete, to add any more would have at best obscured some of what had gone before and may have even ruined that wonderful picture. That canvas now hangs on my memory wall in a very special place. Non, je ne regrette rein.
The break has also opened up a new opportunity. I now have a blank canvas on which more colourful brush strokes can be applied to record the next ten years of taking part in the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon. I am going back in 2018 to start that whole process again; it will be a different picture, but I am confident that it will be just as beautiful as the first.
I have noticed a growing trend on Facebook. People are posting about the races they did not complete starting with the words “Sorry, I failed”.
Now there could be a number of reasons for this: people are not finishing races more often, people are talking about not finishing more often and people are being more harsh on themselves than they used to be or maybe they enjoy public self-flagellation. You may be able to think of more. I find it disturbing that the think they have failed. Perhaps they are bringing a 10k and half-marathon mentality to the wonderful world of ultra running. When you line up for a 10k or half-marathon it is almost certain that you are going to finish, the only doubt is what your time will be, whether it is a pb and where you are placed. When you have run a few marathons the same applies, finishing is never in doubt. However, every time I stood on the start line of the 56-mile Comrades ultramarathon there was always a significant doubt in my mind as to whether I would finish. Ultramarathons are a different breed of events; ultrarunners are a different breed from more normal runners.
Not to finish an ultra is not a failure, it is a sign that you are moving outside your comfort zone and attempting something difficult. It is a learning experience, a chance to change and come back stronger or, perhaps, to realise that this is not one of your strengths. To those people saying “Sorry I failed” I encourage you to change how you look at the world. For example, you might say “My knee failed me” when an existing problem stopped you from finishing an event. Think about saying “I failed my knee”: you entered the event knowing it wasn’t 100% sound.
If you have trained properly are in good health and did not finish an event, you did not fail. You were brave enough to get to the start line and test yourself. That time you were weighed in the scales and the balance was not in your favour, but, because of that experience, the next time the result will be different. You may still post a DNF, but you will be one more step closer to your goal.
People often ask me why I love multi-day races as a competitor and a volunteer. That is a hard question to answer because there are so many reasons and many of them are hard to put into words in a way that those that don’t know can understand. One of the reasons is that I meet real people. That probably needs some explaining.
When you run with someone for a long time on a difficult stage, or you are a sweep and spend time with someone who is grinding it out until they get to the finish, the talk often revolves around what the race does to you. Most people talk about it stripping them down to the basics, removing the layers that we allow other people to see and that hide the true us. They talk about being deconstructed, of looking into very dark places to find answers: Do I have what it takes? Can I go on? Do I want this enough? It is then that you see the real person: the barriers, the defences, the glossy exterior is stripped away. These are very special moments; moments when you really know each other and a bond develops that is deep and profound.
Sometimes you can help, but most of the time the individual has to find their own answers and if they share that with you it is a very humbling experience. I have had many such moments and will share just one with you. I was talking with someone towards the end of a tough desert race, the long day was over and the end was in sight, it was then that she shared with me what had got her through when it got very, very tough and she wanted to quit. She had been in a relationship where her partner belittled and beat her. She told herself that she had survived that and that what she was going through in the race was not as bad as that; she could keep going. It angers me that someone so gentle and so strong should have been so badly treated. Unfortunately, I have heard similar accounts from several people, however, there is a very good ending. Yes multi-day events strip you down, but they also reconstruct you into a much better person, more able to cope with whatever life throws at you. They build you up, put you in control. You see yourself in a different light and want to go through that rebuilding process again to continually improve, to live life, to know yourself and to be with beautiful people.
Why the photo of trees. I love trees and I love multi-day races; it is much easier to find a photo to represent trees than it is to find just one to represent mult- day races.
During big races everyone has low periods and doubts. I like to practice coping with those so that I am resilient.
I practice this by setting off on a run into the countryside going where the fancy takes me, then, when I am tired, I try and find my way back along a different route without the aid of a map and compass.
It can get very disheartening when having run a long way down a hill you discover it leads nowhere and you have to run back up again and look for a new route.
I have doubts about whether I will find my way back and I certainly have low periods, but I cope. Having been there and survived makes it easier to handle problems in a big event.
If you are going to try this take some precautions (at least until you are expert). Pack a map and compass in the bottom of your rucksack to use as a last resort. Or chose an area where you know if all goes wrong running in one direction will lead to a road you cannot miss. You can then work out where you are.
The photo was taken at a point when I had no idea where I was. I still smiling. About a mile later I came out of the forest and could see river in the valley below. All I had to do was reach it and follow it downstream to get to my car.
Take risks responsibly to build resilience.