Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.
Ultra-endurance events are tricky; no matter how much you’ve trained, how patiently you’ve paced, or how dialed you’ve gotten your race day nutrition—you will eventually get punched in the mouth, and it is going to hurt. Your legs will feel like lead, your effort will feel unreasonable, you will start tripping over roots and rocks, and your stomach will be in knots. If you are especially unlucky, these infirmities will all happen all at once, and for many miles.
It might not be your next race, or the one after that, but lady luck’s evil doppelgänger will find you. Simply put; if you do these events long enough, eventually sh*t will hit the fan.
Fortunately, having things go wrong does not necessarily mean your race is over. Most ultradistance cutoffs are generous enough that you can have a bad patch (or two… or three) and still complete the event. And the more fit you are, the more bandwidth you’ll have to get through a rough patch.
Believe me, I would far rather my athletes never have to experience bad patches in their races; ideally, they’d just continually make progress down the neverending trail (or road), and never have any issues. Nonetheless, it’s wise to prepare yourself for some tough times. As the British writer and politician Benjamin Disraeli said, “I am prepared for the worst, but hope for the best.”
I have developed five simple steps you can apply to get yourself out of the proverbial hole, regardless of the situation you’re in. These steps form the easy-to-remember and appropriate acronym: A.D.A.P.T., which also serves as a reminder of what you need to do at your lowest of lows:
Accept things as they are. We all live in the present. In the exact moment that things deteriorate, you have to be in the present. Sure, you can hope that Scotty will beam you up to another place and another time where your stomach is not tied up in knots, but that ain’t going to happen. So, accept the fact that things suck at the moment.
Accept that your ‘A’ goal might go out the window. Accept that you might be stuck in the aid station for the next hour or even longer, or that you might need to curl up and take a nap (your water bottle or hydration pack makes for an outstanding pillow, by the way). Accept how you are, however bad that might be, in the present, and get over it.
Emotion clouds judgment. It pulls an opaque veil over the situation, effectively making you incapable of rational thought and action. Acceptance of the situation allows you to move forward. When you reach the point of acceptance, you forget the past. The rock you just stubbed your toe on for the fifth time? Gone. The fourth flat you just had costing you precious time and energy to fix? In the past.
You can’t change the fact that you’ve tripped and fallen three times over the last hundred yards or gotten lost, but you can change your outlook. Acceptance of the situation moves you from the past into the present. It lifts the fog of emotion and enables you to think and act rationally. Accept first, and then you are ready to move forward.
Make a quick and dirty assessment of what is going on. Don’t try to solve your problems yet, but do try to figure out what is going on. This step is easy. If you just rolled your ankle, then, duh, you have an injured ankle. If your stomach has turned, then your nutrition plan has gone awry. If you are frustrated because you have had a multitude of mechanical issues, then you are simply frustrated.
Don’t worry about the specifics of the issue just yet or how to resolve it, just diagnose the problem. Keep this step simple and to the point. “I have an upset stomach,” “I am lightheaded,” or “I am frustrated” (or a combination of these) will work perfectly fine. It is also fine to identify more than one problem, but resist the urge to roll right to analysis or planning before clearly identifying the problem. When people fail at this step they end up creating solutions to the wrong problems.
Now it is time to apply some thinking to the problem and enlist whatever synapses you have that are still working. You have moved on and accepted that things suck. You have diagnosed what the issue is. It’s now time to analyze the situation you are in.
Where is the next aid station? How much time do you have until the next cutoff? What tools, food, supplies, and gear are available? Create a mental inventory, because these are your means you are going to use to get yourself out of the hole you are currently in. The outcome of the next step depends on the analysis you do!
You have accepted the situation, diagnosed what is wrong, and analyzed your surroundings. Now it’s time to actually figure out what to do and plan to execute it. This is by far the most complicated step.
Of course, your plan should not require Mensa-level analysis, but it will require some brainpower. Incorporate your earlier analysis of the situation and the means at your disposal. Take the ‘wheres’ and ‘whats’ and weave them into concrete steps that can lift you out of the hole you have dug.
Depending on the situation, a simple plan might be to get to the next aid station and figure it out from there. If this is the case, you can share the results of your diagnosis and analysis with your crew, and they can help you formulate a new plan. One step at a time.
When it’s all said and done, you have to take action. Problems do not fix themselves. You as the athlete have to do something deliberate to fix them. If you believe in magic, like the Disneyland type of magic, then ultrarunning is not for you. Put your plan into action. Take action. By force if necessary.
“I have just rolled my ankle on a rock.”
“My ankle is going to hurt for a bit. I am going to be slower. This is fine. I’m over it.”
I have a injured ankle.”
I was 60 minutes away from the next aid station. Now I am about 90 minutes away if I walk. I do not have enough food or water on me for that length of time. I have crew at the next aid station.”
“I am going to walk into the next aid station. If I see another runner, I will ask them for some food and fluid. When I get to the next aid station, I am going to see if there is medical help there or some other way to tape/brace my ankle. My crew is there so they can help me with this.”
“I am going to walk down the trail now.” As another runner approaches: “I am going to ask this runner for some fluid.”
What Is Missing from the A.D.A.P.T. System?
Admittedly, the acronym ADAPT is a bit contrived. It represents a series of steps that are analogous to problem-solving techniques that have been used by Boy Scouts, mountaineers, adventure racers, and the military, among others. The point of using the acronym is to identify a series of concrete steps you can focus on when you are at the lowest of low points.
It is also important to understand what I intentionally left out of the ADAPT system:
Many endurance athletes are by nature analytical people. They are experts at doing easy math and determining their pace and how long it is going to take to get to the next aid station. While under normal circumstances it is a good thing to know when and how long it will take to get from place to place, when one is pulling out of a low, that thinking should be kept to a minimum. You should absolutely figure out how long it is going to take you to get to the next aid station, but the math should end there. One never knows how the day is going to turn out.
Radically change your race strategy.
The acronym is ADAPT, not PANIC. Making small, incremental changes is always better than drastically revising your well-thought-out race strategy all at once. Many times, small changes (or adaptations) from your original plan are all that are necessary.
Simply taking a stab in the dark to fix a problem should be the last resort. If you do a thorough job of analyzing and planning, the steps out of the hole should be quite clear-cut.
Fortunately for most of us, fixing problems in endurance events is not rocket science. There is typically a wealth of experience out on the course during race day. Your crew, aid station workers, and fellow runners can help if you get stumped. Use them if necessary!
This article has been ADAPTed (pun intended) with permission from Training Essentials for Ultrarunnning by Jason Koop.