Sometimes you win when you lose

This year our 100km Oxfam Trailwalker Sydney trail running team was unable to finish. It feels weird even writing that.

I’ve never been on a team that didn’t finish before. I’ve been on teams where we’ve lost one or more team members to injury or misadventure, but I have always finished. I didn’t realise how important that record of success was to me until I recorded my first Did Not Finish (DNF) in this weekend’s event.

I’d been taking success for granted, and as a result, I made a classic rookie error and blew it for me and the team. Ouch. But maybe I’ve learned something.

Training began in April, and from early on we agreed on a stretch goal of finishing in under 24 hours (I’d never been part of a team that had finished in less than 26.5 hours).

Not everything went according to plan leading up to the event. Both Marcus and Seb had to drop out for medical reasons, Marcus a few months before and Seb only a week before — that was hard on them after training for months and raising donations.

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(L to R) me, Maddie, 100k trail map, Sam and Tony, before the start.

But perhaps it was even harder on Tony and Sam, who agreed to be replacements for the first leg of the event, as we needed a full team of four to start. They’d both done Trailwalker before, but hadn’t trained for this year’s event, and Tony was also committed as our support crew chief for the whole event.

But Sam and Tony gave it everything for us, and we went rocketing off ahead of most of the 8am starters, chasing those who’d started at 7am.

We waved goodbye to Tony and Sam at the first checkpoint, and then Maddie and I continued on, moving so fast we were already overtaking many of the teams who’d started an hour earlier than us. It was perfect weather and we were feeling good.

Until I started to feel not-so-good.

The second section has the longest and steepest climbs of the event, we were moving fast and the day was heating up. From 25km my legs started cramping. This meant I hadn’t been replacing electrolytes as fast as I should have. I drank all the electrolyte I had with me but it wasn’t enough — the cramps lessened but persisted.

We pulled in to the third checkpoint at Bobbin Head in 63rd place of 544 teams, and I made a stupid mistake. I drank what I thought was a double dose of electrolytes but I realise now was probably more like 3x or more. Have you ever accidentally taken in a big gulp of seawater? Well, imagine taking two big gulps, on a fairly empty stomach.

Not long after we left that checkpoint, my stomach began to rebel. We had another 15km to go (roughly 2.5–3 hours) before we hit the next checkpoint. We were working hard and moving quickly, so my body was using fluids and energy but it wasn’t allowing me to take anything in, not electrolyte mix, plain water, and certainly not food. Instead, all it wanted to do was vomit up what was still in my stomach and then keep making me retch every time I took a big stride or twisted to avoid an obstacle.

Maddie was a great help to me, very patient and supportive, keeping my head up and my legs going fast, keeping aware of where we were and what needed to happen next.

We arrived at the next checkpoint at St Ives Showground still on time, but my stomach still wasn’t tolerating anything. It was the middle of the night, cold, and I was very unhappy.

I felt so nauseous I couldn’t even bend over far enough to change my socks. I rolled up in all the blankets and clothes the support crew could spare and shivered in and out of a restless nap. We had planned to spend 20 minutes at that checkpoint but by the time I got my act together it was more like an hour.

We were at 57.6km, and the next checkpoint was Frenchs Forest at 70km. I hadn’t kept any food or drink down in the past four hours. But we weren’t giving up yet.

Maddie led on, and I tried everything I could think of to get a little nutrition and hydration in — holding small mouthfuls of water in my mouth and swallowing them only when they’d come up to body temperature, chewing the plainest foods I had with me into a paste before trying to swallow a tiny bit at a time — but nothing worked.

We were still making good time, but I was running out of reserves. Only a few hundred metres from the next checkpoint, I had to sit on the curb of a quiet suburban street at 2am with my head between my knees for five minutes and retch repeatedly into the gutter. And I hadn’t even been out on the town!

We were still in the race and ahead of 3/4ths of the field when we reached the 70km checkpoint at 2am, but I was running on empty.

Maddie was still as strong as ever. She was more than capable of completing the course inside our 24 hour goal but was reluctant to go on without me. She’d have to find another team to go on with, and it would be hard to find another team moving at the same pace, and she was concerned about me.

In reality, I was already out. But I needed some time to admit it.

I’d never once registered a Did Not Finish (DNF) in more than ten years of endurance and obstacle course races. I never boasted about that but I have certainly boasted about how my goal was to complete ten Trailwalkers, and 2015 was to be my ninth.

But it had been about seven hours and 35km of rugged bush trail since I’d last been able to eat or drink anything. I wasn’t going to be able to continue that way; I was more likely to leave the event in an ambulance than make the next checkpoint.

Maddie had a hot chocolate while I shivered through some more cold and nausea. Then we talked some more and agreed: we were pulling out.

Tony very kindly drove me straight home, where I had a brief hot bath and then to bed. After a few hours I was able to keep a little water down, and by late morning, a little food. Gradually, I got better and a day after we’d pulled out I was feeling pretty normal again.

I’m a loser, baby

I felt disappointed in myself and frustrated. It was a DNF and I didn’t have the dramatic injury I’d always imagined it would take to force a DNF out of me. Instead I’d allowed a rookie error to end our race. And I felt fine — I had no blisters, no sore muscles or joints, not even a skinned knee.

In the past I’ve finished more than one event on a sprained ankle. One year I slipped and gashed my chin and completed the event with a beard caked with dried blood and a gash that later needed a few stitches, but not until I’d finished. The rainy weather leading up to the 2014 event meant our whole team was badly blistered and the soles of my own feet came entirely away over the next few weeks.

I’d been invincible and now I’m not anymore. And I don’t like it.

Is there an upside?

It’s taken a couple of days to work through it and learn a few good lessons from this experience.

Every time I finish, it is a big deal

I made a rookie mistake because I’d been taking this 100km of rugged bush trail for granted. I knew the trail well, knew how to prepare, and although I’d seen it happen to team mates, never really thought electrolytes could be a serious problem for me.

When you take a challenge for granted, even if you succeed, you don’t value it as much as you should, and you leave yourself vulnerable in future. Now I’ve experienced a DNF, I don’t think I’ll make that same mistake again.

Every Trailwalker I finish is a big deal. Every Trailwalker you finish is a big deal too — you’ve completed something really significant. Celebrate it, and if you do it more than once, don’t let repetition diminish what is still a difficult accomplishment.

Prep didn’t let me down, my decisions did

I was otherwise well prepared to complete Trailwalker in under 24 hours. Even when I was starting to lose my sh*t we were still on our target time. I was unscathed and uninjured the next day because I was well trained, had the right equipment, and knew the trail well, not because I didn’t try hard enough or quit before I should have.

I will use my team and support crew to help make decisions

Time pressures are real, but stop and think before you make a decision that could end your event early, and review it with your team mates and support crew.

I decided to take too much electrolyte mix all by myself. I didn’t consult with my support crew or my team mate Maddie, a fitness professional and gifted endurance athlete. I should have checked — this was their event too.

My donation supporters are counting on me too

So far, our team has raised $5,530 for Oxfam from friends and coworkers in donations of $25-$150 — a lot of people, maybe including you.

Telling you about the DNF feels like letting you down. Maybe you’ll say you don’t mind, maybe you’ll say you’re proud of how far we got, but Oxfam isn’t giving the donations back, so I’ve got more than one hundred people to apologise to. I hope you’ll understand.

I took my performance for granted but I absolutely didn’t take your donation and support for granted — thank you.

Oxfam brings practical, sustainable and efficient help to under-privileged communities in Australia and around the world, helping them gain access to clean water, nutrition, employment, education, health care and justice. And you joined the many other Oxfam Trailwalker Sydney donors this year in raising more than $2.6M so far in this single event. You helped in a big way through your donation, thank you.

More thanks:

  • Madeleine Pitkanen, source of strength, Suomi-savvy optimist, dedicated training professional, and great friend. Thank you for allowing me to shield you from jumping fish, startled birds, freaked-out possums and other mysterious noises in the dark of the bush.
  • Tony and Sam Burrett, for stepping into intimidatingly large shoes and filling them so ably and cheerfully. Thanks for your generosity, vigour and friendship. Thanks to Tony for his legendary chicken soup and for always making sure I make it home from this and many other foolhardy adventures. Thanks to Sam for being dumb enough to believe anything’s possible and smart enough to learn how to achieve it.
  • Sebastien Eckersley-Maslin and Marcus Marten-Coney, our two original team mates, reluctant withdrawals and great supporters from the sidelines. Thanks for covering for me at the office, contributing to the fund-raising efforts and your friendship.
  • Our support crew: Natasha, Mitch, Jim, Rennie, Trilby, Marcus and Tony. Thanks for the cheering on, the efficient change-overs, keeping the hot things hot and the warm things just right, in the dead of night, in the freezing cold, in the middle of bum-fck-nowhere, miles from where you parked the car, amongst the serenity of humming generators, lit by the gentle glow of those big lights they unfold above a road work site. Thanks for the leg rubs, the shoulder rubs, for surrendering the chair and the extra blanket, and for changing the world’s stinkiest shoes and socks when I couldn’t bend over to do it myself without vomiting all over my feet.
  • Thanks to Melissa and Boy14, the family I leave behind to train, train, train from the beginning of April through to the end of August. Thanks for helping me for achieving my goals, and for your unconditional love.
  • Oxfam Trailwalker Australia, you run a tight ship: some of the best-organised endurance racing anywhere in Australia and a vast volunteer and sponsor-driven organisation that is full of smiles, cooperation and passion for a great cause. You give about 2,000 people the opportunity to attempt something audaciously challenging, good for the world, and great for the community. Thanks, and see you next year!

I’m Alan Jones, an EiR for startup accelerators, GP at M8 Ventures. Previously investor, founder, and early Yahoo PM. Opinions mine (but should also be yours).

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