Many people look at a race distance as just a lot of numbers, allowing themselves to be intimidated out of even starting by getting overwhelmed by the thought of the big distance at the finish. In fact, many people are put off starting to run at all because they are defeated by the thought of the aspirational distances (half-marathon, marathon, ultramarathon, Comrades) that dominate running in the public mind, so they don’t even get off the couch.
The reality is that as intimidating as those big number distances sound, they are also just an accumulation of single steps. Assume a person’s stride is a half a meter. 10km becomes 20,000 steps, a marathon becomes 84,400 steps, and so on. You might be reading this thinking that this is not helping, and that 84,400 steps is still a LOT, and you’d be right. The best way to illustrate the principle is by way of personal anecdote.
Years ago, I participated in the wonderful Whale of Trail race, a 55km ultra trail run of the famous Whale Trail Hike in the Western Cape’s incredible De Hoop Nature Reserve. I was in pretty good condition, but my day was a disaster from the get-go. At the start I discovered I had an hydration pack failure and was not able to get water through the pipe into my mouth. With hindsight I can admit that the problem was runner failure and not equipment failure, but nevertheless I spent 11 hours taking off my pack and holding it at a particular angle every time I needed water.
Then, distracted by the hydration situation, I tripped and went over my chronically weak ankle within the first few kilometres. The pain was intense, but I’d been here before. I knew I would just have to let the initial agony subside and then run through the pain for the rest of the run. The problem was that once my ankle went once on any run, it become that much weaker and more likely to go again. Which it did before 10km was complete.
Now the Whale Trail route structure is very cool, with the first half running on great trails through wonderful fynbos covered hills inland towards the sea. The second half is along the coast, taking in dramatic rocky cliffs and glorious beaches (glorious for beachgoers, gruelling for runners), and much more technical. I hit the coast still in OK shape but knowing that my ankle was dangerously weak, with the technical stuff still to come. I took the time to stop and put on my orthotic support brace. This added stability, but it came at the cost of flexibility. I paid the price.
At about 30km, limping along some razor-sharp coastal rocks, I got to a ledge that needed a bit of a climb-down. No problem. I wasn’t jumping anywhere, so, taking a conservative approach, no one in sight ahead of me or behind me, I squatted down to negotiate the drop like an old lady. Boom, my quads cramped violently, I started over, stepped out to catch my balance, my ankle had no give whatsoever, and down I went. It was about a 6-foot drop onto a big and luckily mostly flat rock. I didn’t fall badly (a valuable skill to work on as a trail runner), but I was hurt. I lay on my back, not moving for a while. In my head my race was over. I remember thinking that, everything taken into account, no one will judge me for the DNF (Did Not Finish, in trail vernacular). I knew that there was a guy not too far behind me. My plan was to
lie there, and when he came over the hill and saw me lying there, I was going to ask him to call the Race Organisers, ask them to send the medics, and my day was done. I was happy to have bailed in my head.
I lay there. “Where’s this guy?” Nothing. Nobody came over the hill. No medics to the rescue (I guess I could have called the Organisers myself but somehow this didn’t fit in with my sense of the dramatic at the time. What can I say?). No guy. After a while I’m starting to feel foolish, just lying there. I start to do a systems check. Fingers, wrists, arms, nothing broken. Ankle throbbing but nothing broken lower down either. Lots of blood from some bad but superficial knee scrapes and a cut on my calf, and some blood in my eyes (pause for effect) from a (minor) cut on my forehead. I guessed I could stand, so I did. I was sore, but alive. I had to make a decision. I had one last lingering look for the guy coming over the hill, but nothing (I was to discover later that the guy, Hannes, had completely cramped out and had bailed some time before). I took a single tentative step with my good leg. I wobbled a bit but stayed on my feet. I tried the bad ankle. It was very sore but held up, and I knew from experience it would loosen up, as would the rest of my stiff, aching body. I decided to start moving forward. Limping, shuffling, not running by any definition. 2 steps became 10, 10 steps became 100, 100 steps became half a kilometre, half a kilometre became a kilometre. Step by step.
At this point I honestly had no thought of successfully finishing the race. I had more than 20km to go. The race cut-off of 11 hours had sounded comfortable at the beginning, but I was now looking at the sun and my watch and thinking that even if I did make the distance, I wouldn’t make the time. I kept moving, forwards, step by step. What other options were there? I decided in my head that as long as I could keep moving forward, I would. I didn’t care if I missed the cut-off, I didn’t care if I got pulled off by medics or the Organisers, but I was not going to put up my hand and say “I give up”. One kilometre became two, two became five. Step by step.
The rest of the race was uneventful. The beach sections were brutal but also a relief because I could shuffle-run a bit without worrying about falling and doing more damage. I passed a few people and a few people passed me. It turned out that I was amongst the back markers who had been cut off some time before but had been short-coursed – transported by vehicle back to a point further down the route. A nice work-around. The company helped.
A huge boost was getting to an aid station and checkpoint, where I was not only allowed to carry on but told, optimistically, that I was on track to finish. Limping, walking, even some running. Step by step.
I remember the cut-off time of 5pm coincided with the winter sunset, and I remember crossing the finish line with 10 minutes to spare and the sun already below the horizon. I think I remember an overwhelming sense of relief rather than any heroic sense of triumph or victory. But I have never forgotten this race. I have since come to conclude that we learn so much more from the bad days, even the disaster days, than the days where everything goes smoothly. I learned that it’s not over until it’s over.
And I learned about the Inevitability of Step-By-Step. The end might seem like a million miles away. On another planet, in another universe. But one step becomes five, ten steps become a hundred, a hundred steps become a kilometre. Yes, you might run out of time. Yes, you might be pulled off the course, but for as long as you are putting one foot in front of the other, you are getting closer with every step.
So, get off the couch! Graduate from Parkruns to 10kms, to 21s, to marathons, to ultras. It’s all just an accumulation of steps. Take the first step, the next one will follow.