When I stepped on the start line at the Bondi to Manly Ultramarathon recently I had not only 80km of terrain in front me but an unprepared body and fragile mind. Unfortunately the result of this was a DNF, and looking back it was an unsurprising result.
I’d documented my recent Supraventricular Tachycardia diagnosis on these pages and going into the race there was a lot of doubt. Firstly whether I’d race at all a
nd then self doubt about whether I was ready for this event. When I wrote about my SVT I was waiting for an appointment with a heart surgeon to tell me the course of action I should take moving forward. My SVT’s weren’t worrying me too much, I have an episode of a fast heart rhythm about once every two weeks which lasts about a minute and can be controlled with breathing rate exercises. My cardiologist had issued me with advice to ‘moderate’ running, whatever that means I’m still not 100% sure. My consultation with the heart surgeon came at the beginning of race week, his advice was to go ahead with the race but I should treat it like my last race of this type of distance. I was deflated when I left that consultation but satisfied that i could do this race.
With the SVT diagnosis I’d missed some vital training in the last 4-6 weeks before the race. I’d been ‘moderating’ my running and missed some key long runs or reduced their distance and had some inconsistent training in this time. When I stepped on the start line I knew I was under prepared physically, however I’ve been here before when training hasn’t gone to plan and always managed to get to the finish. I thought this would be no different and I’ll lower my time expectations and rely on guts and determination when it gets hard.
Race day came and I was happy to get to the start and prepare to run. I felt good on the morning and looking forward to what lay ahead. The race started very early at 5:30am which meant a very early start getting to the start and some time to think about the day ahead. The race start comes in light rain and I settled into a comfortable pace from Bondi along the coastline to Sydney Harbours South Head. It’s a picturesque coastline and as the sun was rising I felt great during this time. As we made our way around the Harbour towards the city I took in the natural beauty of the area. In my mind during this time I was constantly monitoring my heart rate, eager to see it as low as possible. This course is a mixed bag of terrains, road, trails, sand, pathways and board walks. Plenty of short ups and downs, hills and stairs. Over this course my heart rate is changing rapidly, as I go uphill it rises and I’m conscious (possibly too conscious) to see it lower when I go down hill and maintain a low heart rate on flat roads.
I’ve never had a SVT episode while running, but my mind is constantly on my heart. I’m thinking of my family and what happens if a medical episode happens during the run. Throughout the race I’m its on my mind. After approx 15km I feel a pain in my chest, I slow down presuming it’s my heart, it’s on my mind. he pain goes away in 2-3 minutes and doesn’t return. It’s just a feeling of discomfort that happens from running long distances, but today it worries me more than it should.
I get to the checkpoint at 20km feeling good. I’m well positioned in the race and running comfortably. I’m well stocked from hydration and nutrition so I just run through the checkpoint and continue. About 5km later I take a wrong turn with a couple of runners and run off course for a few hundred metres, we backtrack and get back on course. It’s no big deal but I think of the extra distance and it adds stress.
About 28km into the race I start to feel a pain on he outside of my knee. It’s not too bad but over the course of the next few kilometres gets worse. I slow down and try and ease the pain, it’s one of those things in ultra running, often we go through bad periods. I’m very adept at riding out these bad periods, I’ve been there many times, narrow your focus and just do what you can do at the time, the bad period will go soon and i’ll be fine. Today the bad period didn’t go away and I didn’t help myself in this moment.
I got to the Sydney harbour Bridge and running over there was difficult. The pain had reduced me to bouts of walking and then running. Running downhill still felt good but uphill was not possible and flat sections were only okay. I decided to walk for a while and see if it felt better. It didn’t feel better and I was reduced to walking for a while. My goal at this stage was to get to the checkpoint at 40km and assess from there. I walked and run for over an hour and the pain was not subsiding.
When I got to the 40km checkpoint I sat down for a few minutes. I had been contemplating dropping out when I got there but I couldn’t do it. I’d never had a DNF in running life and getting to halfway and calling it quits at a checkpoint was a weak way to exit this race and also my ultra running life. I had to go on.
I started running again as I left the checkpoint, however this only lasted a few minutes before the pain reduced me back to walking. My unprepared body was letting me down and my mind really started to look for the ejector seat.
On a course like Bondi to Manly its pretty easy to tap out, I looked at my phone, I could be in an Uber in five minutes and back at the hotel in Manly in 15 minutes longer for $25. In a trail ultra in the middle of the forest you may have to wait hours if you tap out at or between checkpoints. The Uber felt enticing, I kept walking and tried to run a bit and then just walked for an hour.
At 45km I’d had enough. I was doing the maths, if I kept walking I had 35km ahead of me which could be 6 hours. I got to a volunteer on the course and told them I was going to drop out, he asked if I was sure and then asked if I wanted him to buy me a coffee (we were next to a rowing club with a coffee shop), I declined and told him I’d been walking for an hour. I walked to the end of the street, sat down, had a few tears and ordered an Uber. My first DNF in my last ultra…..Fuck.
I was pretty disappointed as I made my way back to the hotel, but resigned to the fact that I just couldn’t get it done today. I’d gone into a difficult race under prepared physically and fragile of mind. When the difficult moments came in the race I wasn’t mentally strong enough to face the demands of the race. I couldn’t believe how weak I was when I needed to be strong.
In reality, I’ve been in more challenging moments in other races and easily came out the other side and thrived. This one hurt, in part because it’s a DNF I didn’t want on my results list but mostly because I felt I took the easy option when it shouldn’t been an option.
Over the course of the weeks post this race I’ve come to terms with the result. We can’t rely on our past moments of being mentally strong to get us through the next challenge. Yes, every difficult moment you overcome forms part of your evidence that gives you confidence that you can succeed. But every hard moment is a new hard moment and you need to find the correct tool for that day to overcome this moment. I wasn’t able to find the right tool that day.
While future ultra marathons are unlikely there will be more running goals ahead. Next time I won’t be underprepared physically and fragile of mind.