I don’t always treat my body as well as I should, and often push myself too hard. I discovered late into my running career that an equal balance between fitness and conditioning should be maintained. Fitness alone will not carry you forever, and when conditioning fails, problems arise.
I’ll never forget sustaining a leg injury in Nepal, about a third of the way into a 100km multi-stage ultra through the Himalayas. I had trained well, was feeling fit, had been enjoying the jaw-dropping scenery, and even chatted with a fellow competitor, as best I could while navigating the mountain trails.
The injury came on a steep downhill section (of which there are many in Nepal!). I lost my footing and my ankle started to twist. As I tried to compensate, I pulled awkwardly on the muscles around my right knee, which caused an overextension of my hamstring. I could still walk, but immediately I could tell something was wrong.
Instantly, I switched into survival mode and began posing questions: How can I complete the day? How will I continue tomorrow? What am I going to do about it?
This initial hurdle is one I’ve had to face on several occasions, both on the trails and in my professional career. Thoughts of uncertainty quickly exacerbate the severity of the situation, restricting creative thinking and stifling performance. It is imperative to maintain objectiveness, pull together the facts of a situation, and decide on a course of action, including a change of direction, if necessary.
In moments like this, a level head, and a sprinkle of optimism, go a very long way.
Back in Nepal, there were still two more days of running to come. If I wanted to complete the race, I would have to finish the day carefully. For the remaining kilometres, I compensated by putting most of my weight on my left leg, only using my right for balance as I descended the hills. Conscious not to hold up the fellow competitor who was walking with me, I probably went quicker than I should have, but perseverance helped me limp my way into base camp.
I’ve always struggled with injuries, never sure whether they are serious, or just minor niggles that can be ignored until after the event. My mind-set to complete an event has always driven me to continue, and I have only ever pulled out of a race a handful of times. This mind-set transcends into other areas of my life and I think contributes to my goal-orientated personality.
I had difficulty sleeping that night and was very concerned about how I would get through the next two days. I received some very good advice during an event in the Gobi Desert: Only consider the next day, the next checkpoint, and take it from there. The next morning, I was incredibly stiff, especially in my left leg. Thankfully the pain was less severe than it had been the day before, and I hauled myself to the start line. I fought hard against thoughts of failure and pushed myself through day two. My racing companion, also from Hong Kong, stayed with me most of the way. This was a huge help. At each checkpoint, I assessed my performance. I listened to my body, and focused solely on reaching the next checkpoint, regardless of time and approach. My initial strategy had to be adjusted, in some cases on the fly, but it was crucial if I had any hope of finishing the race.
My companion referred to me as bullet proof, which surprised me. I rarely receive feedback on my running or style, other than from my wife, who thinks I’m mental. In hindsight, I think I responded too quickly, accrediting my success simply to being stubborn. I’m sure my wife would agree, but on reflection, I’m not sure I was right.
I would describe myself as focused and goal-driven, but I think desire is the most important driving factor for me. Desire has enabled me to get through some very tough times, but also not be deterred from my objective due to unforeseen hurdles. Without desire, I find it rarely matters how much I wish for something to happen, it rarely will. This is something I also apply to people management. Aligning someone’s desire with an objective will always yield the best results.
During the final stages of the race, I tried my best not to dwell on the dull pain that had set in and remained confident it did not signify a more serious injury. I didn’t think about much at all, except for my family, who I was missing very much. This is often true when I’m out on the trails. My wife and two young children are my go-to inspiration when I want to achieve a new goal, and more importantly, when I need to get through a challenging time.
Thankfully, I completed the 100 kilometres and have a photo of me at the finish line framed in my bedroom, as a reminder of my perseverance and creative decision-making. The red bindi that adorns my forehead was initially mistaken for blood by my daughter, although I assured her that Daddy wasn’t hurt. I may have taken a tumble, but I completed my goal of conquering the Nepal trail.
Note: pushing through potential injuries is dangerous and can cause long term damage. You should always seek medical attention if you are in pain, particularly for prolonged periods. Knowing how to read how your body is handling something is a challenge both physically and mentally and neither should be taken lightly…