Always learning

Following her amazing win at the World Championships in Spain recently, Kirstin Bull very kindly pulled together some thoughts for Ultra168 about her decision to go for the win and what she learned during and after that race. We’re very grateful to Kirstin for taking the time to write down her thoughts and hope you enjoy an insight into the mind of Australia’s leading lady on the road.

‘Always Learning’ is the title I give this piece as I share with you my recent racing experience at the World 100km Road Running Championships in Los Alcazares, Spain. There are many aspects of the race that I could share, however I wish to focus particularly on what I learned on race day.

Let me start by sharing some wise words my very experienced coach, Tim Crosbie, once told me. ‘You learn something new in every race, be it a good or bad race.’

My love for running has been an ever evolving learning process. From my very first days running as a child, attending Little Athletics, or during my primary and secondary school days, running cross-country. I have learned. Moving through my teenage years to young adulthood, running for fitness on the treadmill at my local gym, I continued to learn. In fact, if you’d asked me a few years ago, I probably would have said that I have learned the most during my transition from a recreational runner to more competitive runner after meeting my much-loved running family, the Crosbie Crew. Yet, if you ask me that same question today, I believe that I am still in fact, learning.

In this phase of my running life, I am learning more about myself. Whether it be 5km or 100km, training or racing. I’m still learning my physical and psychological limits. I’m continually learning new race tactics and in more recent times, I’m now learning the huge impact some decisions I make early in a race have on me later in a race. However, despite all this learning, during both racing and training, I believe there are still some things we as a collective group of runners will never know, unless we are prepared to take a chance and even then, we may still never really find out.

The chance I talk about is that conscious decision to push our physical and psychological selves into the unknown. This is where I believe most of our learning takes place. It is in this place where I find out I have more to give than I physically thought possible. It’s a place of surprise, excitement and of course, pain. It is where one’s true potential and ability is found. I’m sure many of you reading this have been there before.

Fast forward to Sunday, November 27th, 2016. Race day. Here I am, standing at the start line of my second 100km World Championship. A million miles from home with my lovely team mates, Marita, Tia, Andy, Barry, Brendan, Dion, Garry and Scott. We’ve had our final group huddle, shared some final inspirational words and wished each other all the best. I can feel the excitement and nervous energy in the cool morning air. I am ready to race.

The gun fires and we are away. As most runners do, I have a race plan. Run even splits for as long as possible, aiming to hold strong in the second half. I’m normally very disciplined and patient when I race, letting the fast runners take off and do their thing. However, on this particular day, things were very different from I’d contemplated. Instead of being middle of the field, I find myself to be one of the faster runners, sitting in third place after 20km. I know it is way too early to get excited. I try to relax, pull back the pace a little and stick to my plan. An annoying but unavoidable toilet stop, a few more laps and at the 45km mark, I find myself slightly ahead of my planned race pace.

I feel very comfortable, great in fact! My muscles have warmed up, my energy levels are high and it’s here I realise I have a serious decision to make. I’ve remained in bronze medal position and it is really time to race. I’m aware this might sound a little strange to you, but in my own mind I had come to this championship to attempt to break my own Australian record. Of course my dream is to finish on the podium or as close to it as possible, yet realistically I never imagined that I would be in medal contention. I still believed I had a lot to learn about racing this distance.

With a serious decision to make, I felt I was at a cross-road. Am I prepared to take a chance, knowing that whatever I choose will impact my end result? The many hours of training, the mental preparation, over twenty-four hours travel, the beautiful people who have supported me, wearing the green and gold singlet alongside the best 100km runners in Australia. The list goes on.

Yet there it all is, right in front of me. I want to do my best. This is a time in my life where I can put all my energy and passion into doing what I love most. A day to discover myself. But hang on. My thoughts are abruptly interrupted. Another part of my brain kindly reminds me that this is only running. Yes, just running. I smile to myself, some relief. I know after many years working as a nurse, we are not talking life and death here. I just need to live with my decision I make at this point in time. Simple.

I ask myself two questions. Do I stick to my original plan, drop back my pace a little to run even splits, with the hope of winding in the leading two females? Or do I take a risk, a big risk, run to ‘feel’ and really race this race? What I mean by ‘really race this race’, is to ignore my GPS splits, disregard my plan, take a chance and try to catch the two leading competitors ahead of me now while I’m feeling good.

My head tells me to stick with the plan, my heart tells me to just go for it as I might be at risk of not being able to catch the leading two women later. So here’s what I did. I picked up the pace and overtake second place, a British runner, who has been in my line of site for some time now. Not long after, I overtake the Dutch runner who has lead the entire race. I feel alive, strong and in my happy place. At 52km I have the lead, yes the lead. I try not to get too excited as there is a very long way to go, anything can happen and the race has really just started.

Not surprisingly, ‘things’ did happen. A huge thunderstorm struck and we are drenched in a matter of minutes, so too were all our supporters. The rain is initially welcoming as it cools me down, yet it also means I am dodging, weaving and jumping giant puddles. Not ideal for someone with short legs, like myself. Actually, not ideal for any of us at this point in the race. The small puddles soon become little lakes and the beachside tiled section of the course became somewhat slippery, especially on the bends. It was time to be extra careful as one slip and my race could be over.

In the back streets of the course, a race official moves some of the course barriers to help us avoid puddles on a bend. What may have been a good idea, nearly proves fatal as Brendan and I (As we discover later), nearly ran straight into a pole around a blind corner! The unpredictability of racing! We laugh about it later over a post-race drink.

The rain clears, I’ve reached 70km. Fatigue engulfs me. At 80km my legs aren’t playing the game anymore. If I could trade them in I would. The last 20km of this race is now a mental battle. I have the lead, yet I can see on the hairpin turns, the Croatian runner is chasing me down. She looks fierce and determined. I’m in so much pain, yet I keep telling myself just to run. Did I make my move too early? I will never know. Just keep running I tell myself. I have been here before, this painful place.

My amazing support crew are giving me all the encouragement one could hope, as are other competitors and spectators. I mentally draw on my friends and family back home, staying awake until all hours on a Sunday night. I’m not going to give up. Brendan passes me on his final lap and gives me the strength I need. He has run a superb race and well under his PB. I am so happy for him. Soon after, Marita and I cross paths and we run together for some time. She is amazing and gives me the final encouragement I need. I am going to do this. I am going to take home the gold medal for Australia.

You can never predict what will happen during a 100km race. Well any race for that matter. There are so many variables, so many unplanned events that may not have been part of your race plan. This is where you need to be dynamic and ‘go with it.’ Don’t let small things upset your ultimate goal. Whether it be a toilet stop, stomach problems, chaffing, rain, a shoe lace, uneven splits, other competitors breathing down your neck, the list can go on. It is how we learn to adapt to these variables and what we take away from these races that makes us better runners and competitors.

The lessons I learned that day will forever be valuable in my life. The best lesson I have learnt is that sometimes you must take a chance. You must throw away the plan and really see what you have deep down inside. Go with how you feel. It is a risk but you’ll learn a great deal about yourself. I certainly did.

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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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