The Art of Failure

Not everything always goes according to the plan … many would say this is the norm rather than the exception. Sometimes we feel bad about our failures, so they might not be the most publicized stories, especially in sports. However, there are usually really important lessons in almost any failure, so there is value in sharing them. Here are some of my favourite errors.

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One of my favourite race photos (by Jordi Santacana) and I remember this moment well. I was taking a moment to take care of myself and loved it. 

HTMCD 2013 – Energy. This was my first ‘ultra’. It wasn’t a long race, only 47km or so, but 2,800m+ climbing. I did a number of mistakes, but the biggest one was that I had no idea how to fuel for an ultra. My experience was from road marathons, so the plan was to have a couple of gels and pick up some stuff from the aid stations. I was bonking crazy hard by half way point and then finally figured I need to eat lots, so I gorged on some Nutella croissants and other crazy stuff, until I felt really sick. It took a long time before any of that helped and I was in the high point of the race, in a snowstorm with sleet raining in my face vertically. I have never felt so weak and I had to put on ALL the mandatory gear I was carrying and was very happy that I had it. I had been joking with several people about the ridiculous list of stuff we had to carry when it’s +15 and sunny (at the start). I decided to drop out of the race as soon as I possibly can, but still had to make my way to the next aid station. Several people stopped and asked me if I’m ok. I told them I’ll survive and I’m just walking to the next point to drop out. After maybe 1hr, the food kicked in and I felt all right again … once I actually got to the aid station, I saw no reason to quit and just carried on and finished. That was my first experience of getting over a serious bonk, really getting back into the race from a very deep, miserable state. It was important.

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Broken … but still determined to get up. Kiki looks worried. 

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Dehydration looks like this

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And can easily lead into this

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… and then it’s hard to get up

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But if you do, you can still get the job done!

UTMCD 2015 – stomach / water – Still not 100% sure what happened here. I started the race conservatively, but didn’t feel that great from the start. I fell at km16 or so, in a very easy part, which was the first warning sign. My fueling plan was a weird mix of all kinds of stuff, which probably wasn’t a good idea. I didn’t feel any better after the first aid point and things just slowly kept getting worse. I was going pretty slow, but it felt hard and I couldn’t figure out why. I usually did far better in training, but now everything was just hard. I realized I was having dehydration issues and then ran out of water. I drank a lot at the next aid station, but perhaps it was too late. I struggled on, made it to the half way point and sat down properly until I could eat something again. I got some stuff down, but it was very hard to eat or drink and just felt pretty bad. After spending quite a bit of time at the aid station, I moved on and felt a little bit better. After the next big climb, I had a nice good moment in the race and picked up lots of places and was getting near to the top 10 again. It was still hard to eat and drink and I was running on fumes. The next big climb then got me and a lot of the people I just passed flew by while I was having hard time just staying up. Once I made the aid station, I tried to eat a bit, but after 15 minutes or so, managing to get 1 piece of pasta down per minute and still 25km to go in the race and still at 0 energy, I decided to call it quits. In retrospect, I’m pretty sure I was dehydrated from the start and ate too much too early and didn’t drink enough water. The proper solution would have been to stop eating and just drink pure water. Again, I learned something that has helped me since then.

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In one race, I had so bad cramps I could not change my shoes, so I had to take 5 minutes of massage. I still won in the end. 

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Nuuksio, Finland. In a race where I think I fell down 4 times. 

Transvulcania 2014 (and 2016) – stupid falls. I experienced a proper runner’s high for the first time in Transvulcania. I had gotten over a low point in the race and was back with tons of energy, heightened senses and strong legs at km 55k… the start of the legendary monster downhill (21km and -2,500m or so). I was flying past people, yelling and feeling invincible. Then I fell in a soft spot and had a bit of a WTF moment … but I still felt great and figured I’m still a superman and can just keep going at close to autobahn speed. Then I fell really bad on some sharp volcanic rocks in full downhill speed. I instantly knew things were pretty bad with blood everywhere (chest, knees, hands, arms..). After taking an inventory of my body, I realized I was bleeding pretty hard, but that my knees and legs were still ok. I was in 1,900m altitude still in the middle of the forest with several kilometers until the next aid station. The only option was to keep moving and to my surprise, I still felt great and could move pretty fast. I was still passing some people, while being pretty much completely covered in blood and I though it was pretty comical. I was probably giggling as I went past these people. I made it to the aid station and was immediately taken to the first aid tent and was attended by 4 doctors / nurses simultaneously, who did a super job of cleaning everything up and bandaging it. We were still in 1,200 meters and the nearest hospital was sill 9 or so km away. They asked if there is any way I can continue going down. I was thrilled, I just wanted to finish the race and was pretty happy that they would let me continue. They fixed me up as well as they could and got the bleeding more or less stopped and then let me go again. It was +30 degrees hot and full sun and I had stopped to eat an drink since the fall and I kind of forgot to start that again. I made it to the coast, but was now totally out of my mind from dehydration, shock, low energy, but it was such a great race that I was still having a good experience. I grabbed some watermelon and water from the next station, but otherwise just ran through .. people were shocked to see this bloody, giggling guy still continuing.

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In the hospital, about to get stitched up. 

Trail world championships (2016) – logistics / water issues

This is a very humiliating story. The race in Portugal started well and I was well positioned at km30. Katri, my wife and our team aid station manager tried to hurry me through the aid station quickly (as was her job). I wanted to hear who’s leading, how the other Finns are doing etc, so it was quiet a chaotic pit stop. Just 5 minutes after I moved on, I realized I had forgot to fill my other water bottle. I remembered that there is a stream that the course crosses some distance ahead, so I planned to just fill my bottle there. This little snafu was the beginning of a race-ending disaster. I proceeded to fill the bottle as planned, but was a bit worried because there was cow shit all around the fields nearby, so I wasn’t 100% sure about the water quality. I thought I would replace all the water I now had in the next village if I could see a water source. Arriving into the village, I spotted a water fountain with some tourists around it, so I went there, poured all the water I had on my head and went to fill the bottles. The tourists tried to help me, but it turned out the fountain didn’t work at all. I cursed, having just poured all my water away. The only thing I could do was to take some water from a not-very-clean looking pond. I had to move on and face the biggest climb of the race in the full sun with no drinkable water. I was looking for water everywhere, houses, people, but nobody had any. I begged water from the organizers, who were very reluctant to give me any because of penalties in the rules. I told them I don’t care, I’m not sure if will get to the next aid station at all. I got a couple of sips from them (and was never reported). I dreamily looked at mud ponds, wanting to go see if I could drink that somehow. I stumbled on for kilometers and kilometers and it felt like a desperate life-and-death battle. When I finally reached the next aid station, I had to stop and drink and eat for 10 minutes. All this made me very sick and for the rest of the race, I could hardly walk straight and had to finally drop at km65 and quickly fell asleep in the sun in one of the villages. This was a really a freak incident and shows how a series of small errors can lead into a total catastrophe.

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In Portugal, shortly after finally finding water again. I would drop an hour or so later …

I like to have a positive viewpoint to most things and the silver lining with all of these has been that each failure has made me a better runner. I’ve learned from these far more than from the smooth races. And in ultra mountain trail racing, avoiding problems is often the most important thing and I’ve become much better at it.

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