By Jason Koop, author of “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning”
“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” —Mike Tyson
If you do one single thing at a high enough intensity for long enough, every once in a while everything goes wrong. As much as you have trained and prepared, you will eventually get punched in the mouth, so to speak. Your legs will feel like lead, your effort will feel unreasonable, you will start tripping over roots and rocks, and your stomach will be in knots. If you are especially unlucky, these in infirmities will all happen at once. And for many miles. Maybe not in your next race, or the one after that, but if you remain in the ultramarathon game for a long enough time, lady luck’s evil doppelgänger will eventually find you.
Ultramarathons are long enough that you have the opportunity to go through (many) highs and (hopefully fewer) lows. Some of the highs will be amazing; some of the lows will be excruciating. For many, that’s part of the attraction to the sport. However, having things go wrong does not necessarily mean your race is over. Fortunately, most ultramarathon cutoffs are generous enough that you can have a bad patch (or two) and still complete the event. Nonetheless, it’s wise to prepare yourself for some tough times. As the British writer and politician Benjamin Disraeli said, “I am prepared for the worst, but hope for the best.”
I have developed five simple steps you can apply to get yourself out of the proverbial hole. These steps form the easy-to-remember and appropriate acronym ADAPT: Accept, Diagnose, Analyze, Plan, Take action.
Situation: “I have just rolled my ankle on a rock.”
Accept things as they are. In the moment things deteriorate, you have to be in the present. Sure, you can hope Scotty will beam you up to another place and time where your ankle isn’t rolled, but that isn’t going to happen. So, accept the fact that things suck at the moment. Accept that your primary outcome goal might go out the window. Accept how you are in the present, however bad that might be, and get over it.
Emotion clouds judgment. It pulls an opaque veil over the situation, effectively making you incapable of rational thought and action. Acceptance of the situation allows you to move forward. It lifts the fog of emotion and enables you to think and act rationally. Accept first, and then you are ready to move forward.
Accept: “My ankle is going to hurt for a bit. I am going to be slower. This is fine. I’m over it.”
Make a quick and dirty assessment of what is going on. Don’t try to solve your problems yet, but do try to figure out what is going on. This step is easy. If you just rolled your ankle, then, duh, you have an injured ankle. If your stomach has turned, then your nutrition plan has gone awry. If you are frustrated because you have fallen, then you are simply frustrated. Don’t worry about the specifics of the issue just yet or how to resolve it; just diagnose the problem. Keep this step simple and to the point. “I have an upset stomach,” “I am lightheaded,” or “I am frustrated” (or a combination of these) will work perfectly fine. It is also fine to identify more than one problem, but resist the urge to roll right to analysis or planning before clearly identifying the problem. When people fail at this step, they end up creating solutions to the wrong problems.
Diagnose: “I have an injured ankle.”
Now it is time to apply some thinking to the problem and enlist whatever synapses you have that are still working. It’s time to analyze the situation. Where is the next aid station? How much time do you have until the next cut-off? What tools, food, supplies, and gear are available? Create a mental inventory, because these are the means you will use to get yourself out of this hole. The outcome of the next step depends on the analysis you do in this one!
Analyze: “I was 60 minutes away from the next aid station. Now I am about 90 minutes away if I walk. I do not have enough food or water on me for that length of time. I have crew at the next aid station.”
You have accepted the situation, diagnosed what is wrong, and analyzed your surroundings. Now it’s time to actually figure out what to do and plan. This is by far the most complicated step. The plan should not require Mensa-level analysis, but it will require some brainpower. Your plan incorporates your earlier analysis of the situation and the means at your disposal. It takes the wheres and whats and weaves them into concrete steps that can lift you out of the hole you have dug. Depending on the situation, a simple plan might be to get to the next aid station and figure it out from there. If this is the case, you can share the results of your diagnosis and analysis with your crew, and they can help you formulate a new plan. One step at a time.
Plan: “I am going to walk forward to the next aid station. If I see another runner, I will ask them for some food and fluid. When I get to the next aid station, I am going to see if there is medical help there or some other way to tape/brace my ankle. My crew is there so they can help me with this.”
When it’s all said and done, you have to take action. Problems do not fix themselves. You as the athlete have to do something deliberate to fix them. If you believe in magic, like the Disneyland type of magic, then ultrarunning is not for you. Put your plan into action. Take action.
Take action: “Enough waiting, I am walking down the trail now.” As another runner approaches: “I am going to ask this runner for some fluid.”
The example above is a simple and straightforward application of the ADAPT system. For a more comprehensive look at the ADAPT system of problem solving, check out Kaci Lickteig’s experience at the 2015 Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run in Training Essentials for Ultrarunning. After making a bad food choice in an aid station, Kaci endured a 50-mile battle with her digestive system. By using the ADAPT system and making a long series of informed decisions over several hours she fought her way back to have the best performance of her career: a 2nd place podium finish at Western States!
Book Excerpt from Training Essentials for Ultrarunning