When Races go to Sh*t

Let’s face it, we’ve all been there. Trained our nuts off, feeling quietly confident at the start line; you set off and even the first few kilometers just feel an absolute struggle. Have I overtrained? Have I undertrained? Did I get my taper right? Is it all in my head? Am I looking for any excuse in the book? Who’s knows… for some reason, our races can just go to shit without any explanation.

Thankfully, we have a cracking duo of Ben Duffus and Tom Brazier to help us out. Even at the pointy end and as a newly appointed coach with Mile27 for Ben, races can go wrong as these two fine fellows found out at the Surf Coast Century the other weekend. Being two of the race favourites, there’s a bit of added pressure to perform. Not too much mind you, we’re still an amateur sport, but even for these guys and gals, things don’t always go to plan. So with that, these guys very kindly offered up some thoughts as to why they felt their races turned a dark corner. Take it away gents…

Races don’t always go to plan, but can still be useful and fun! Largely thanks to safety in numbers, awesome support crews (Blake Hose and Gay Robertson), understanding sponsors (Hoka One One, Compressport, La Sportiva) and great hosts/volunteers/organisers (Rapid Ascent).

Ben Duffus: Having focused on mountain-centric races for the last few years, it was time for a change and I decided to return to the Surf Coast Century (SCC100). After what was probably the best training block of my life in the lead up to the Skyrunning World Championships (held in the Pyrenees 6 weeks earlier), but underperforming on the day, I needed a fresh challenge to keep myself engaged. Traditionally, I have actually found mountain races mentally ‘easier’ as the ups and downs provide natural land marks to aim for, allowing me to stay in the present (or at least not think much more than hour ahead). Hence, my aim was to find a comfortable rhythm and to stay positive on the many flat stretches. And other than spending the weekend before the race in bed shaking off an infection, I arrived at the start line feeling fit and ready.

Tom Brazier and I cruised along together as we set off in the dark (to ensure the tide was at its lowest), while watching many runners speed off ahead of us. With relay runners and solo runners all starting together, it was impossible to tell who was who in the dark, so we simply trusted our sense of pace and didn’t worry about anyone else.

The stretches along the hard packed sand were quite quick, but I felt like I had found a comfortable and maintainable pace. These stretches of faster running were broken up by short but technical scrambles over the rocky headlands. It was during one of the stretches that I seemed to lose Tom, but soon found myself instead running alongside (eventual winner) Francesco Ciancio.

Ben running along the beaches of the South Coast in the first 21kms of the SCC (Photo by Supersport Images)
Ben running along the beaches of the South Coast in the first 21kms of the SCC (Photo by Supersport Images)


For about 25km Francesco and I ran together, holding a nice and steady pace. But after stepping aside for a quick pit-stop, I lost sight of him and was forced to run alone. To be honest, I often prefer being alone during races as it allows me to focus solely on how I’m feeling and removes any temptation to run at ‘someone else’s pace’. I was feeling good as I made it through the mid-way check point, but it wasn’t too long afterwards that things started to make a rapid downward spiral.

Tom Brazier: I was pretty happy to cruise through 50km under 4hrs – with Francesco, Ben and Ross Hopkins up the road. Pacing had been reasonable, my nutrition was going down well. Everything was gearing up for a solid race in the back half, where I was promised there would be a few more hills. At 51km we had to do the infamous crawl/struggle underneath the Anglesea road bridge (see pic below). After surviving that, I set off to chase Ross, who I could glimpse on the horizon. We climbed up ‘heartbreak hill’ with a photographer at the top, and I remember laughing about how pathetic this little speed bump was. Ironically, this was about where I cracked.

Photo by SCC 100km women’s winner, Kellie Emmerson
Photo by SCC 100km women’s winner, Kellie Emmerson

The fire trail continued to undulate along the ridge line and all of a sudden I could barely even run on the flats/downs. I’d run 10 steps, walk 10 steps, repeat. Something was going wrong in my legs and I was shocked! My nutrition and pacing had been sensible/conservative, yet now it felt like I was bonking or full of lactic acid. I’d become a pathetic mess.

This was an unfamiliar feeling, but I started to assume that this was what heavy fatigue must feel like. I had raced 17hrs through the Pyrenees 6 weeks earlier, and since coming home my legs had never felt fresh. Any time I tried to extend myself to a fast or long effort, there was lingering heaviness. At this point I tried to take some of my own advice – keep eating/drinking/moving and things will get better. As I shuffled along and started being overtaken (on a downhill!) I pretty much gave up on this – if I couldn’t even maintain my downhill technique then I knew things were not looking positive. Around this point I realised I was actually catching another runner – must be a relay runner who has blown up! Alas, it was Ben, who was experiencing remarkably similar symptoms. We proceeded to regale our woes to each other.

It was refreshing to hear that someone else was feeling crap and undershooting their own expectations. This also meant that we could walk/recover together and experience less concern from passing runners – it always looks safer if you’re in a group rather than struggling on your own. Kellie was the first of a stream of runners to pass us with a quizzical shrug before shooting off into the distance. Sometimes they’d stop for a quick chat or photo. Matt Coulton (a mate from uni in the relay teams) laughed that he couldn’t wait to tell everyone how he had triumphed over us. After he had checked we were actually ok, of course. We briefly attempted to latch on to the Scott Chancellor train, but we were holding him back, so sent him on his way!

This gave Ben and me a few hours to contemplate why we felt so crap and what our goals/priorities were. In general we’re pretty switched on about overtraining, fatigue and motivation management. But all of us end up in situations where we’re telling people to ‘do as I say, not as I do’ because we think we’re special or exempt from the general rules. We’re in good company – the guys who went 1-2 at Buff Epic 105km Skyrunning World Championships (Luis Alberto and Andy Symonds) both DNF’d at UTMB 5 weeks later. It’s just hard (mentally and physically) to keep backing it up race after race – sooner or later everyone needs a break (or some special EPO juice/blood transfusions). So perhaps SCC100 was a good reality check.

In general, I don’t think anyone should be ashamed of DNF’ing. As illustrated below, if you want to keep your effort always in the safety/green zone, you run minimal risk but you will never realise your best results. If you are shooting for the optimal/amber zone, you are bound to occasionally overshoot and end up in the red/DNF/struggle zone. I think this applies on both a micro level (e.g. pacing in your races) as well as a macro level (e.g. training volume in your monthly program). If we are seeking to reach optimal performance, we are sometimes going to misjudge and overbalance. This can be a useful learning process and, for me, is much more exciting and rewarding than hanging out in the green zone.

On this particular occasion, Ben decided he would tough it out and march through to the finish. I was resigned to a DNF, but happy to spend a few hours hiking the trails and getting him closer to the finish line. My pre-race schedule meant that I had to finish in less than 10 hours, or DNF because my cousin’s 21st birthday dinner was starting in Melbourne on the Saturday night. It’s always preferable to have a successful race, but I’m suitably content with a solid 50km, a few hours theorising with a fellow Skyrunner/scientist/good bloke, followed by recovery time with the family.


Ben Duffus: Despite having relegated myself to walking the entirety of the final 23km alone, the high (both emotional and sugar related) of the 77km checkpoint buoyed my body and mind enough to jog the next 3km. Given this was 3km more than the previous 23km, I was quite happy with this, but eventually the same fatigue that had plagued me from the halfway point returned.

As Hanny Allston has previously written about on this website, it can be easy for runners to spread themselves too thin. I actually thought I had taken the three weeks leading up to SCC100 much easier than many previous races, but doubt had set in. Was I just cooked from all the hard training for the Worlds? Was that infection still in my system? Writing this article with the hindsight that I was bed-ridden for many days post-race with flu-like symptoms, I can be pretty sure the latter played a major part in my ‘off-day’. Yet I won’t be returning to hard training too soon.

As much as we love continually pushing ourselves to our limits, sometimes injuries, disease, or even just a constant lack of motivation can be a sign that it’s time to rest. This is sport I want to stay involved in for many more decades to come, and there is no point risking any long term damage or burn out now. That is why I am glad I made the decision not to break myself over those last 50km. One might argue that pulling out completely would have been the optimal strategy for long term health, but at the time I felt capable of continuing, so I stuck it out (and I am glad I did) and eventually finished the full 100km.

So although we would always encourage people to do all that they can to reach their goals, sometimes things don’t work out. There is a fine line between optimal performance and over doing things, and on the day, things outside of our control can go wrong (like rolling an ankle or getting sick). But by always keeping an eye on our long term health, and keeping any mishaps in perspective, we can pick ourselves up, brush ourselves off, and (slowly but surely) start working our way towards our next goal.

Feature image credit: SuperSport

Ben near the finish of SCC (Photo by Supersport Images)
Ben near the finish of SCC
(Photo by Supersport Images)
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I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

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