By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning
This weekend I had the opportunity to attend the latest edition of the 128-kilometer Transgracanaria and support CTS Athletes Kaci Lickteig, Dylan Bowman and Gediminas Grinius. It has become a feature race on the ultramarathon scene and this year’s edition featured athletes from 56 different countries taking a crack at traversing the rugged island, beginning at the northern tip and ending at the picturesque beaches on the south end of the island. With the timing of the race in early March, the race has a tendency to take athletes by surprise, almost as if it were a harried last minute decision without the prior proper preparation usually required for the arduous nature of running a 128k race.
Both Kaci and Dylan fit this pattern as they accepted entries into the race with short notice. Kaci put this race on her radar in mid-January after receiving support from the Ultra Trail World Tour. Coming off of a needed break at the end of 2019, this left a scant 7 weeks to get back into reasonable shape. Similarly, Dylan gained entry into the race quite late into the game. After a horrendous 2019, which included 2 DNF/DNS stemming from different pre-race illnesses, an ankle fracture, stubborn Achilles injury, and concussion as a result of crashing on his bike, Dylan decided to do this race after his initial plan of racing Travsvulcania later in the year had to be cancelled due to a sponsor obligation. As irony would have it, that obligation was canceled the day before the race over fears of COVID-19. Both athletes had great races on less than ideal training.
However, these tales of last-minute racing opportunities are not limited to elite athletes. Contrary to popular belief, many elite athletes lead relatively normal lives. They have obligations and real-world constraints just like the rest of us. Chances are, if you have been running for long enough, you have had to deal with a last-minute race shuffle as a byproduct of travel issues (as I type this sentence, my flight back to the US has been delayed by 3 hours… oh the sweet irony), life and work prioritization, or maybe even you got off course early in the race. Each of these situations can leave you with that hollow, empty feeling inside stemming from what could have been. Furthermore, as race directors are wrestling with whether to cancel or continue their events as the COVID-19 outbreak looms, I feel there are going to be more stories like this coming down the pipeline.
So called ‘make up’ races are a classic trap. Left with a hole in your calendar that was previously filled with an event circled with a yellow highlighter, it’s easy to get caught up in a ‘Woe is me. NOW what do I do?’ mentality. You relentlessly search ultrasignup.com to fill the void, and something pops up that fits the bill. But, should you actually jump on the opportunity or let it go? When last minute opportunities surface, whether it is a race, an epic run, or even a training camp, before FOMO and its ever-present sidekick YOLO kick in, slow down and think about the following points. I went through nearly this exact same process with Dylan and Kaci as they placed Transgrancanaria on their calendar for the season.
First, do you still WANT to do it?
Ultras are hard, regardless of the distance and elevation gain. The initial race you had planned likely had some meaning to you other than just being some long run. Maybe it was the area and scenery, the fact that after several years trying you FINALLY got in through the lottery, or perhaps it just logistically worked in your busy schedule. Your make up race, should you decide to do one, should be similarly meaningful. Obviously, it’s not exactly as you had planned, but there should be some features of the race that genuinely excite you and emotionally engage you in the process. If you are struggling with attaching meaning to a make up race, it’s likely a poor fit and could be a recipe for disaster.
It does not have to be perfect
Sorry to burst anyone’s bubble, but your training is never going to be perfect. Even when you have all the runway in the world, are highly motivated, uninjured and nail all of your long runs, you still will be able to do a postmortem on your training and find areas where you could have done better. Even in your best races, where everything magically seemed to fall into place, I will give you an iron-clad guarantee that your training was not perfect. It simply never is. When you add in an unexpected race, this is also going to be the case, but it’s OK. Realizing that your training will never be perfect, even in the ideal conditions, will clear your head and help you decide if the new race is the right fit for you. Realizing your training will have natural imperfections also will help you to…..
This is actually the biggest mistake I see athletes make when they line up an unexpected race that is earlier than they expected. All of the sudden the perfect (remember that word) training plan they had previously laid out needs to be thrown out the window and eschewed for something markedly more aggressive, with more volume, more intensity, more vertical and more of just about everything. Instead of just piling on more miles, think strategically about your remaining training. With Dylan and Kaci, I made very few changes to the volume and intensity progression of their original calendars. If anything, they simply made the training more specific by tailoring the elevation gain and loss as close as possible and including any gear and nutrition specific elements into their long runs. I would do the same for any other athlete and stay the course of training when the event date changes.
The ability to adapt a training plan to refocus on a different race, on a different timeline, is one of the best reasons to stay fit year round. That doesn’t mean maintaining the razor’s edge of peak fitness all year, but it means being fit enough that you can redirect your fitness to a new race with only minor changes to your training.
Prioritize the process
In coaching, we put a premium on the process of training compared to the outcome. This becomes particularly important if you have to deal with a last-minute race shuffle. If you are overly focused on the outcome (i.e. finishing a specific race), it’s all too easy to get lost when that goal is no longer achievable due to circumstances out of your control. A process-focused orientation on your day-to-day training allows you to stay the course even when faced with a changing outcome.
Your fitness won’t evaporate
One of the biggest reasons athletes feel the need to replace races – rather than just let them pass – is that they feel they will lose the fitness they have so dutifully built, as if it evaporates into some black hole never to be seen again. This is generally a pretty terrible reason to do a race, yet it happens all of the time. Unless you hibernate for the next several months, your fitness is not going anywhere. You still will be able to tap into it weeks, months and years down the line. Don’t use the rational of ‘wasted fitness’ to give you an excuse to enter a race you have no connection to and derive little meaning from.
If you do decide to do a replacement race, go in wholeheartedly. Approach the race with just as much fire and passion as you can muster. If you have done your homework and ensured that your make up race is meaningful to you, that’s a good start. Continue your training with just as much rigor. The finish line can be just as sweet for a last-minute race as it would have been for the race you originally planned for.
Last minute race cancellations and the subsequent adjustments are going to happen. It’s just an inevitable in today’s world. Finding a replacement race is a delicate balance between seizing an opportunity or letting it pass. Before you decide which way to turn, stop, pause and think about what the replacement race will mean, and how you are going to train for it.