In August 2014 I took part in the “CCC” (Courmayer, Champex, Chamonix) – a 100 kilometre long mountain race around Mont Blanc with 6,100 metres of cumulative elevation gain. The “CCC” is the “baby sister” of the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc (UTMB), and although not as challenging as the UTMB’s (a 168 kilometre battle over the Alps with 9,000 cumulative metres of elevation gain) it is still incredibly taxing on the mind, the body and the spirit.
Many people look at these sorts of challenges and think, “Wow, you must be nuts”. That, or a sucker for punishment. That’s partly true in some ways, but for me that doesn’t begin to encapsulate what these events, or indeed undertaking any personal challenge, is about. It’s difficult to convey the “whys”, let alone understand them, and each runner has their own motivation.
For me, running has always been about testing myself. It’s been about putting myself – purposely- in an uncomfortable situation to prove I am strong. To feel strong. To know, really know, that I am strong. I run so that I can take that conviction back into my life. I am humbled, over and over again what my body and mind enables me to achieve, and the views I see from mountaintops. Running allows me to grow and evolve. Most of all, running lends me the patience I wasn’t born with and teaches me to be grateful. I believe when I am grateful I am the most happy.
But this year, at this race, I learnt another important lesson. Learning when to stop running; the power of turning back.
Come race day, I was excited. The nerves had bubbled in the pit of my stomach all week. I had been stressed: there are so many little details to tend to before setting off for these sorts of adventures, from the important (like planning where I should be on the race and when) to the pesky (like making sure I had enough band-aids – seriously- to re-lacing my shoelaces with special laces and DIY adjustments to my race pack to make it “just right”). But on that morning, as I met with friends, danced in the streets to music before race start and cheered along with the crowds, I felt ready for what lay ahead.
Moments before the buzzer went off, however, there was confusion. My race number, in the 5000s, had me starting 15 minutes later than the first wave of runners. I had set myself ambitious targets for the race, and quickly realised that my race number – putting me in about 1000th place before the start – would quickly lead me to a bottle neck going up the first hill, quashing my ambitions. I tried to stuff the fears back down my throat as the buzzer for my start finally rang, but they quickly came back up again as I frantically fought my way forward to try and get ahead before the first hill.
As predicted, I spent the next 2.5 hours stuck in waves of runners. Because of the single track going up to Tete de La Tronche at 2,581 metres, I spent extended periods waiting. Waiting. Where was that patience!? I powered up the first hill as best I could, over-taking runners as often as I could, but got to the top already behind schedule. I felt frustrated. I started to feel weary of the thought of the 18, 20, 24 hours that predictably lay before me.
There is something so inspiring, so uplifting and yet challenging about being amongst the mountains. They are majestical and bewitching with their beauty. This is another reason why I run. But I didn’t even take the time to look around me, instead cursing other runners in my mind that surged ahead.
And so the next few hours played out. Frustration. Distraction. Disappointment. The thoughts tumbled through my head like a washing machine, until I suddenly realised how miserable I had become. My negative thoughts were clouding my race experience. And as I began to reflect on all the months of training, I realised I’d had a single, blinding, all-consuming goal to do the best I possibly could in the race. I reflected on the time I’d spent in training away from family and friends, away from the man I loved, away from my business; all the different osteo/physio/needling appointments I’d endured to patch back together my broken body and all the different vitamins I’d ingested to boost my energy after hard weeks of training.
Then came the reflections on all the selfish decisions I’d made because of the race and my ambitions – let’s be honest, grand ambitions require sacrifices, and sometimes they are selfish ones. I realised that, although challenges are important learning experiences in life – and I still believe this – one should take care in setting their sights blindly on a vision.
Ultra marathons are huge endeavours and are taxing on our bodies, our minds, and our spirits, and ultimately our lives. Decisions to embark on, and indeed complete journeys, must be made in context and with mindfulness. The CCC was my third 100-kilometre race in less than eight months, and my fourth in 10 months. This year I was blessed to have someone new and wonderful come in to my life, and when I saw him at the halfway checkpoint at 56 kilometres, having travelled and been awake for more that 24 hours and being prepared to stay up another 10 – 12 hours to support me, I crumbled. One of my best friends was also there, prepared to stay up another whole night to support me. I was overwhelmed by their support.
As much as I love the mountains, in that moment I didn’t like the person I had become that day in a blinkered pursuit of my goal. I realised I wasn’t there just to enjoy the mountains, the experience and be grateful, like I should have, and I knew it. And I just wanted to go home.
So I did. I wiped away the tears, handed in my race bib, and called it a day.
Everyday for the rest of my life, I plan to move my body through nature however I can. I still believe – perhaps more than ever – in the power of physical challenge to inspire, empower and transform. Races, and other personal challenges, are great testing grounds for our spirits.
But I’ve also come to realise how ego can cloud good judgement. Of the importance of rest. Of embracing life, not just for its peaks, but also for its valleys.
In mountaineering, ascending a mountain is never as challenging as the descent, and so they say that a mountaineer who knows when to turn back is perhaps stronger than the one that tries to climb, stubbornly, despite any pending storm.
This is the power of stopping – pausing, and reflecting. The power in turning back.
May you go forward and search out life’s challenges and embrace them, but also have the strength to know when to stop; the power to know when to turn back from your mountain.
*I originally wrote this blog post for my friend Stephanie on the Free To Run website, but the real story and message seemed a little better suited to my blog.