View from the Open Road: Behind the Sticks

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The first good advice that most of us receive, regarding the running of an ultramarathon, is to “break it down” into manageable pieces. And good advice it is. Once the discomfort starts to take hold, it can be quite overwhelming to think about all that remains, and runners will quit, when a finish is easily within reach.

However, no rule is without its exceptions. Living in the moment works best when the moment is tolerable. What is a productive approach to the game, can become counterproductive, when the moment, itself, is intolerable. Once again, it becomes too easy to drop from a race, when the finish is easily within reach…

By this point, you should recognize that I am using the term “easily” in its ultra sense; meaning that something can be done, although undoubtedly most people would not describe the process as “easily.” There might be some discomfort involved.

This is where the second good advice an ultramarathon runner receives comes into play. “It never always gets worse.” When it comes to the decline caused by fatigue, the ultra differs from shorter races. During a mile run, a 10k, or even a marathon; if the race goes south because we have gone out too fast, or made some other error, the race is doomed. What starts out bad will almost certainly only get worse. During an ultra, the time frame is completely different. Everyone’s race will go through cycles of good and bad periods. When we find ourselves struggling, it is generally just a matter of hanging on until things cycle up, and we will find ourselves running well again.

Armed only with these two bits of wisdom, any of us can complete an ultra. These are the basic fundamentals that go in our ultra toolbox.

However, like any fundamental skill, these mental tools are not just the stuff of beginners. The same tools can be applied to more advanced issues than just finishing. They are equally, if not more, vital when the ultramarathoner finds him (or her) self “behind the sticks.”

“Behind the sticks” is a football term that I have borrowed, because it applies so well to a situation that we all eventually face running ultras. In football, the offense has 4 downs to make 10 yards, in order to get a fresh set of downs. Most teams look at this as actually comprising 3 downs to make the 10 yards, or else punt on the 4th down. Therefore, it takes 3.3 yards per play to reach first down yardage. The “sticks” is slang for the yard markers that indicate where the team stands in relation to the first down goal. If a team has gained more than 3 yards per play, they are ahead of the sticks… and if they have gained less, they are behind the sticks. When a football offense gets “behind the sticks,” making first downs is infinitely more difficult.

Rather than first downs, in an ultra we are thinking in terms of our goal time, whether it is a course record, or simply beating the cutoffs. Much like in football, when we get “behind the sticks” our goals are more difficult to achieve.

Just as ultras are different than other running events because it is possible to make up lost time, there are also many more ways to lose time. We can find ourselves “behind the sticks” due to running off course, having to stop and address equipment issues, as a result of inclement weather (especially mid-day heat) during a portion of the race, or any number of other reasons. Regardless of the reason we find ourselves “behind the sticks,” most of the failures are ultimately mental. Few of us miss a time cutoff because we cannot run fast enough. Most of the DNF’s come because we lose faith that we can achieve our goal. We do not time out because we simply could not make a cutoff; we stop a cutoff too soon, with time still on the clock, because we do not believe we will make the next one, or we surrender, and allow ourselves to slow down until we are pulled. This is an act of self-preservation. No one wants to suffer longer, once failure seems inevitable.

What we should be doing instead, is falling back on those basic, beginner’s lessons. Run the race from checkpoint to checkpoint, or hour to hour. Regardless of whether the pace seems sustainable; refuse to go slower than what is required, just to reach the next cutoff. It is even alright to promise ourselves that we will quit… once we reach the next landmark. Because, once we reach that point, it is no longer the *next* cutoff, it is the *previous* one. As long as we still have time, we must obligate ourselves to continue. When struggling with the sense of inevitable failure, we must remind ourselves that there is going to be an “up” eventually, no matter how “down” the present might be, recalculate what is needed to reach the next checkpoint in time, and keep going.

Of course, all these things are so simple, sitting at a computer and typing. It is easy to forget the grimness of putting them into practice. I was inspired to repeat these oft repeated morsels of wisdom because I found myself “behind the sticks” at my last multiday run, and was forced to fall back on them. A combination of arriving at the race fatigued, encountering unexpected foot issues, a violent thunderstorm, and record breaking heat had me facing the reality that I was going to fall well short of a goal that I had been focused on for an entire year.

While it is still fresh in my mind, here is how the situation really plays out… I was faced with clear choices; I could give up on my goal, and simply run out the race at a reasonable pace and enjoy myself or I could calculate how many miles it took each hour to reach my goal anyway, and try to get that many miles every hour. Having urged so many others to take choice two, I felt almost obligated to follow the advice for myself.

The hours were interminably long. Forced to run out of the comfort zone, I was acutely aware of every step. While no one told me I was going to come up short (until afterwards), I could see the pity in their eyes. And, I knew that my chase was hopeless. For my own emotional state, I was angry much of the time. I was angry that I was hurting myself for no purpose. I knew that I could not sustain the pace forever, and was basing all my hopes on some miraculous point where I was going to experience a high, and run strong for a while. I told myself it would inevitably come. I told anyone who would listen, that presently I was going to feel good again. I wanted to make it happen by pure wishful thinking. Deep down, I knew that it was not going to happen. I was hanging on by my fingernails in a hell that was destined to end in failure.

Every hour, it was a fresh surprise to find that I was still on pace. I had not gained an inch of ground, but I was still hanging on. Of course, the only reward was starting another hour, certain that I would never make it through. There is no other way to describe these hours, except miserable. Step, Step, Step, Step. Push, Push, Push, Push. Amazingly, somehow, somewhere, I found the strength to endure the torture for some 20 hours. And then it happened. I found the proverbial second wind (maybe, in this case the 40th wind). My head, which had been bobbling along like it might fall off my neck at any time, seemed to come up of its own accord. My pace quickened and the pain seemed to recede into some faraway place. At last, the laps were fluttering by, like turning pages in a book. The next couple of hours fairly flew past, and when the inevitable return to trudging finally came, my goal was back within reach. I was able to run the last few hours at a reasonable pace and reach my goal with enough time to spare for tacking on an insurance mile.

People, who had been talking to me uncomfortably, with the expressions that are usually saved for the condemned or terminally ill, were all smiles. “I never thought you would make it!” “To be honest, I never thought I would make it, either.” As bad as I had felt for all those hours, now I felt equally as good. And, as long as those hours had been, it was the good feeling that would accompany me forever, whenever I think of this race. Had I done the sensible thing, and given up, it would have been the bad feelings that lasted a lifetime.

During those periods of hopelessness, I had forgotten one other bit of ultra wisdom, that we all learn early on… “You are stronger than you think you are, and you can do more than you think you can do.” Even after 40 years of running ultras, there are still lessons to be learned.

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About Author

Gary Cantrell writes the “View From the Open Road” column. Gary has written for UltraRunning more or less continuously since his column “From the South” first appeared in Volume 1, Number 1 back in May of 1981. He is perhaps most well-known as the founder of the Barkley, a trail race in eastern Tennessee. (Although some would comment that it isn’t really a race, and others would add that those aren’t really trails.) He is also the founder of the Strolling Jim 40 Mile and periodically organizes a 314-mile run across Tennessee, the Vol State Road Race. He is currently the race director of the Backyard Ultra. In the real world he works as an accountant.

1 Comment

  1. Gary,
    I so appreciate your article “Behind the Sticks.” You have managed to describe a phenomenon that I thought previously unexplainable. The phrase “It never always gets worse” is a good way to describe something that drives me on in the 50k races over the last 3 years. You have described something that is quite powerful and yet has hidden its self in my subconsousness until now. It’s a kind of “now that you mention it” moment. Some of my running partners and I talk about getting the groove. I’m tired and on a down turn in a race or a long run and just waiting for that groove to come along. When it finally happens it seems that the next few miles go well.
    –Greg