Browsing articles tagged with " ultramarathon"

TNF100 2015

May 31, 2015   //   by phil.ackland   //   Articles, Blog, Events, Motivation, Running Articles, Uncategorized  //  No Comments

There are a lot of big  trail running events springng up around the Australia but, in 2015, The North Face 100 in The Blue Mountains is still the biggest, and most hottly contested, on offer in the country

For me, this year was a chance to really test myself against my own performance here in 2014. Last year it was an event full of unknowns and inexperience. The North Face 100 of 2014 very nearly beat me into submission and I only just managed to hold onto a finish. Something which many starters did not acheive. It was a super-proud moment but a huge learning curve and experience.
I decided, towards the end of last year, that I would get a lot of value from lining up with a coach that knew this sport, and specifically, this event, inside-out and I signed on with Brendan Davies on the same day that I registered for the event.

This year, I travelled to the Blue Mountains with a team that consisted of my wife Nikki, Scott and Nicole Sawyer, and Justyna and Daniel Grosse. Scott and Justyna were both lining up for the 50km version of the event for the first time. It made for a fun and adventurous road-trip style extended weekend away. Friday was put aside for being tourists in The Blue Mountains while avoiding the tempation to do too much on the day before the event.

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Race Day

The day, like every other event day for me, started much earlier than it needed to. I’ve not once been woken by an alarm for an event and this was no exception. With an alarm set for 4:30am I was awake closer to 2:30. The biggest difference this year was that I didn’t let that stress me. I lay quietly and calmly, keeping relaxed and mostly thinking of the day ahead……..for two hours.

Start – CP1

Heading out from the start, the first 4kms of the course is a road section that works well to spread the field out a little before we hit the first stairs and narrow trail sections.
It’s a fairly uneventful through here but the course soon hits the Furber stairs downhill and onto the rainforest tracks that lead through the landslide section along and around the ridge to the Golden Stairs. This staircase leads up to Narrowneck on on to CP1 at just over 10km.
I was feeling pretty good with the run through here and settled in to the pace with the other runners around me. Not a lot of opportunity for overtaking and there’s a little self-imposed pressure to hold your place in the cue.
Arriving at the first checkpoint in around 1hr 15min I was spot on my esimated time. No need to stop I ran through the checkpoint and continued on.

CP1 – CP2

This section is mostly open fire trail with regular sweeping views of the valleys. The main feature being Tarros Ladders somewhere around the middle of the leg. There wasn’t much of a line-up here but still an opportunity to have a quick breather and a moments rest. There’s time for a bit of general discussion with other runners  and I overheared one runner ask “Is this the 14hr train?” (in reference to the sought after silver buckle cut-off time) I realised that I was currently on track for my “If everything falls into place on the day” goal at around 21km into the race. A little mental boost but still too early to make such a call.
There are also some scrambly single track sections through the scrub here that were a bit of fun to fly along. More fire trail and we were approaching Dunphys Camp. It was at this point I started feeling a bit “off” Getting towards mid-morning and the temperature was just starting to get a little warmer.
No major problem but I did bring my pace back and played things a bit more cautiously for a while. Still a long run ahead.
In hindsight, I may have been pushing a little to quick in the early stages even though it didn’t feel that way at the time? It’s a hard one to pick.
Arriving at CP2, I made a fairly smooth and to-plan stop. Refilling both water and Tailwind supplies and moving on.

 

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CP2 – CP3

Between these checkpoints, there’s a really interesting section that has you climbing to the top of Iron Pot Ridge. It’s a steep scramble to the top before making a rocky out-and-back pass along the top of the ridge.  The reward for the effort is the amazing views over the gully below and the sound of a digeredoo being played as you pass by.
I made the climb to the top ok but didn’t have the pace I would have liked across the top. It’s a shared single-track, meaning you need to negotiate the track with runners moving in both directions. I took a conservative approach and allowed runners moving in either direction, with a bit of urgency in their stride, to go past. It was frustrating but I had to consider the distance yet to travel and play it smart. The run down from the ridge is gravelly and steep. Taking corners like a mountain bike and aiming for trees to use as the occasional brake to slow the decent. On the dirt road stage into CP3 I began to utilise my run/hike startegy to keep a steady push forward before striking  a good downhill run  into CP3. The first stop that support crews had access to.

Arriving in at the checkpoint, I was glad to catch up with Nikki. I was feeling pretty flat at this stage of the race and I felt that I really needed to grab some moral support to keep holding it together. I was pretty much unresponsive for the first few minutes and just wanted to stop and regroup. Once I was ready to talk about things and discuss the situation, we stuck to the refuelling plan and worked towards getting back into the race.
One aspect of having run this course before, was that I knew what was coming up. This has it’s pros and cons but at this point, it was having a negative effect in terms of my headspace, being aware that the stage ahead had a particulary gruelling climb along the way.

 

CP3 – CP4

Beginning as a gradually building climb, mostly along access roads, I had a consistent run/hike strategy here. The plan involved counting 1-20 in continous loops. I would run for  (x)number of 20 steps, hike for (x)number of 20 steps with (x) depending on the terrain and how I was feeling. Running about 70% of the distance. It proved to be an effective strategy for getting more running in than I otherwise would have.
Moving off from the roads into the more winding trail section that leads to the stairs of Nellies Glen, I was certainly not forgetting what this section of the course meant to my efforts last year. If you’re not fimilar with my 2014 experience, this climb last year almost ended my race with it’s relentless incline and gruelling stairs.
A big strategy this year, was to fully take on Coach Brendan’s advice about fuelling up ahead of the climb. I had a flask of Hammer gel in my pack specifically for these “in-need-of-a-boost” stages of the course.
At the suggested course mark, I downed a slurp of gel and preared for the ascent. Ok, let’s not kid ourselves and say this was easy, it was really damn hard but, it was  a great deal less trouble than during the year before. I took the occasional quick breather on the way up and another shot of gel somewhere around the middle but made it to the final stairs, took a moment at the top and cotinued on.
Between the top of the climb and CP4 at Katoomba, it’s was mentally a case of consistently moving forward. I knew it was close, I knew I was now guaranteed of reaching that point. Beyond that…….let’s not think too far ahead just yet.

This next checkpoint at the Aquatic Centre, is a welcome sight….. It’s 57km into a mountainous course. Of course it’s a welcome sight!
It was great to see Nikki here again, even if I didn’t give her that impresssion when I arrived. Like the previous stop, I wasn’t being very responsive. I was drained, tired and feeling a bit fragile and emotional. Initially I just needed to stop, breathe and settle my thoughts before I was ready to talk about the race so far, let alone what the plan was moving forward.
Feeling better, I downed a cup of soup that maybe should have been the proverbial cup of cement instead.
In 2014, I  stayed at this point for just on an hour. This year, the plan was for 8-10mins. I was there for about 30mins. Not a bad compromise I thought. The major difference though, I was leaving this checkpoint more than 3 hours ahead of last year and in bright daylight instead of in the dark. I was feeling flat but this marked a massive improvement so far.

 

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CP4 – CP5

After spending the remainder of the course in the dark in 2014, it was a goal from the outset this year to see as much of this fifth leg in daylight hours as I could. Hoping to get to CP5 just after sunset.
It’s an amazing section of the course in terms of scenery and adventure with loads of weaving single-track, cliff-top views, and waterfalls.
With this though, comes a lot of stairs and climbing. I was definitely finding this section to be pretty tough going. I was being overtaken much more often than I was overtaking others. That, in itself, can be mentally challenging and draining. It’s certainly an aspect of an ultra-distance race that you need to be able to deal with and manage if you’re going to make it through. It was important to put any ego aside, focus on my own race, and hold focus on consistent forward progression. Even if I wasn’t holding the pace I had been hoping for at this point.
Just after passing through Leura, at around 70km, the sun was setting and the reflective vests and headlamps came into play. Only about 8km short of my goal of CP5 before dark.
Eventually hitting the road section that leads to the checkpoint, I found a bit of energy and picked up some pace to take it in. Pleasantly surprised to see a car of familiar faces driving by and shouting encouragement. Scott, Justyna, Nicole and Daniel had finished up their 50km roles for the day and made the drive out to catch up with me on the way through. Uncanny how good their timing was here considering the course layout and timeframe variables on the day.

Reaching CP5, 78km’s done and the trek through the valley ahead.
The mental boost you receive by seeing a familiar face at this point cannot be overstated. After the previous two checkpoint stops, I was feeling much more alert here. Nikki even got a conversation from me, having to wait for only about 5 minutes first this time.
It was great to have a drop-in visit from the rest of the team at this point too.
Not doing so well at staying focussed on the job at hand, the challenge here was working with Nikki on the important final-leg nutrition plan. By this point, it’s crucial to have flexibilty built into the original on-paper plan and be able to work together in response to current conditions. My nutrition plan had worked well enough so far to get me to this point but it was starting to fade. Nikki threw some ideas at me and we came up with a solution and packed a plan B and plan C into my pack as well…….ready to head into the valley and the final leg to bring it home.

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CP5 – Finish

Time of day was now 8:00pm. Still at least 3 hours ahead of the same point last year and heading into the valley below.
It’s a pretty lonley stage of the race as the feild has well and truly spread out over the course. I started off from the checkpoint with a fairly average pace, returning to the run/hike strategy to push on. My plan, and coach’s advice, for this long downhill stage was to make the most of it, even on tired legs. Use the downhill for some pace in this last stage ahead of the long climb that follows.
Good plan but my body had other ideas. Running the downhill, I developed a dull stitch under my ribs that meant I had to walk more often to stretch it out. The valley at night is so quiet, calm, and still with a constant hushing sound of flowing water. Now, imagine you were to buy a relaxation/meditation CD to put on at home…….rainforest sounds, flowing water?
With my now fatigued state, slowed pace, and soothing enviroment, the dreaded hallucinations and sleep-walking that plagued my final leg efforts last year where settling in again. This was a huge confidence drainer. Memories of last year and knowing what was still ahead had me seriously concerned that I was in for another all-night slog if I was going to see it through. This went on for the remainder of the downhill section but, before long, I was pleasantly surprised to find I had reached the creek at the bottom in much less time than I had anticipated. (Maybe because I slept part of the way?)
I’m pretty sure I was asleep on my feet as I approached the creek and the sound of the rushing water grabbed my attention. I hadn’t been aware that I was approaching it but, suddenly, it was about 10 meters away.  Before making the crossing, I decided to use the cold mountain water to refresh myself, splashing it onto my face and rubbing my eyes.
This was a major turning point. From here, I was wide awake and ready for the long uphill stage coming up.
It sounds weird to say, but I enjoyed the climbing section out of the valley much more than the decent into it. I set up a solid and steady rythmn and pushed through to the aid station at 91km, stopped to refill supplies and carried on. On a few occasions I took the time to look around and appreciate being alone, at night, in the amazing landscape of the rainforest.
With a little over 5km to the end, the course becomes an interesting and technical single-track section. It’s a really enjoyable stage. Even at the end of a long day.
900 metres to go and almost 1000 stairs to the top. Time to just dig in, grit your teeth and get it done.
All that’s left here is a short run to the last few steps the lead you to the finish chute.

Cheering crowds, a fist pump in the air to cross the line and a finisher’s buckle to top it off.

100km in The Blue Mountains in a time of 18:21:24
A PB time for me by 7 hours 20mins!

 

Huge thanks has to go to my wife Nikki for supporting me on these adventures.
Support crew, logistics manager, motivator, and event planner, to name a few of the roles she takes on and does so well. I doubt I would even get close to the starting line at all without her support.
I’d also like to thank coach Brendan Davies for his insight, direction, and coaching this year in the lead up to this event and getting me so much further ahead than I was 12 months ago.

Will I do it again?
Considering discussions on potential improvements for 2016′s event were taking place on the day after the race, I’d say it’s very likely.
I’m really pleased with my result this year but there’s definitely still so much potential for improvement. ……always a work in progress.

 

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Always Have A Plan B – The North Face 100 2014

May 25, 2014   //   by phil.ackland   //   Articles, Blog, Fitness, Motivation, Running Articles, Uncategorized  //  No Comments

The North Face 100. It has been my ultimate goal event for two years after first hearing of it’s existence back in 2012. A late night news story about these “crazy runners” working into the night to complete a 100km journey through The Blue Mountains caught my attention and, from that moment, the idea of attempting this myself never really left my head.
In 2013, TNF100 coincided with The Great Ocean Road Marathon event, at which I completed a longest-distance-ever challenge for me of 45km along the iconic coastal road.
Skipping through the story here to save this going on way too long, The North Face 100 was still a seemingly unattainable goal so along the way I sought out a few challenging trail run events to test myself. Marysville 50km, Two Bays 56km, Roller Coaster Run 43km being the highlights. All extremely tough and challenging but all completed.
Moving along again, there was a lot of training leading into the event along with a huge amount of researching of required equipment, nutrition strategy, and the terrain and course itself.
I’ve probably left out enough info from that lead-in story for a couple more posts in the future perhaps? ….We’ll see.
Onto the event itself……..

From the outset, there was never an expectation from me that I would be finishing this event inside the front half of the field, or even close to that. My placement in the 5th of 6 wave starts on it’s own was a suggestion that I would be closer to 80% back at the finish. This event for me was just packed full of unknown factors that I could train towards but truly only discover throughout the day. The distance, location, terrain, nutrition, equipment……..

With the event being what it is, it really starts on the Friday night. Check-in, gear check of all the mandatory equipment, and compulsory briefing are all handled the night before the race. Mandatory being exactly that. If you didn’t pass this check, you didn’t line up in the morning either.

Weather on race day at the start line was cold but not freezing. There was a lot of nervous, excited energy building as runners sorted themselves into their correct start waves awaiting the countdown that would set each group off down the road.
The first stage of the race started with an out-and-back section of road before then hitting Furber Steps and moving into the trail through the valley. Fairly easy going single-file through here until we reached the golden stairs. The first real sign of things to come. Just past the top of the stairs was the first checkpoint and the 10km mark. For me, well and truly time to discard and pack away the excess clothing of long sleeve and pants and mix up my second batch of perpetuem food/drink before moving on.

 

Stage Two crossed along the ridge tops of Narrow Neck and lead to Tarros Ladder. Along with the ladder descent were a couple of sections of rock face to repel down while holding a rope. On one of these ropes I didn’t quite get the strategy right and found myself gripping the rope waiting for the ride to end as it flung me onto my back against the rock face. My biggest concern was that I had just cut my race short at the 21km mark. Thankfully, it was just scrapes and bruises and nothing that I couldn’t shake off and I kept moving along through the scrub to checkpoint two(31km).

A little on from CP2 was the climb of Iron Pot Ridge. It’s a steep and rocky climb that then has a ridge top out-and-back section across the rocks at the top. Amazing views along here. The decent is equally steep and gravelly but became an enjoyable scramble as a downhill track leading into the farm areas along Megalong Valley Road. Once on the road, it was an uphill slog four about 4km. A walked just about all of this climb but felt ok with that as the rest of the field in my line of sight were doing the same. Once at the top, about 4km of downhill into checkpoint 3. I was able to run with good pace along here making good time while being conscious of using a comfortable pace and not pushing hard with so much of the event still to go.

Checkpoint 3 (46km) was the first opportunity to see the support crews and the family were a welcome sight. I felt really good coming into this point. Nikki made up another bottle of perpetuem for the road ahead (worth noting here that this is only my third of these and about 2 behind schedule already) and I downed a small bottle of coke and a banana before saying goodbye to Nikki and the kids and heading off. Feeling pretty good at this point.

Ok, now things start to get interesting. This next stage began with wide dirt roads, fairly flat, farm and bushland for about 5kms. At this point, about 50km into the course, we began the step and gruelling ascent through to Nellies Glen and Katoomba at the top of the ridge. This section is amazingly scenic through rainforest and alongside a creek. It does also contain around 500 winding timber steps and 400m elevation over about 4km. Now, combining this terrain, at this 50+km mark, with my earlier reference to being behind on my nutrition strategy back at the last checkpoint, in hindsight, it’s not surprising that my body just ran out of fuel. The tank was empty, the climb to the top was relentless. Any gains I had made earlier were lost here as I moved aside to let others pass numerous times. The closer to the top I got, the more people were checking to see if I was ok. I was starting to wonder here how I was going to pull this one off with so far left to go. “Just get to the checkpoint! You’ll get it back at the next checkpoint!” was the conversation in my own head.

 

 

Checkpoint Four did arrive, I even managed to get back to a run once the stairs were done. Nikki and the kids were there to greet me again along with my brother-in-law Michael who had ridden up from Sydney just for the support.
57km into the course and now officially my longest distance ever on a single run! Much recovery needed. I had let myself fall way behind the nutrition plan that I had for the day and was feeling it. I spent a full hour at this stop, longer than I had hoped to but as long as I needed on the day. Food (although not very much as it was getting hard to stomach), clothing layers, reflective vest and headlamp and I was good to go out into the dark and get back on track.

 

Night time trail running, my favourite. I felt pretty good heading out making my way through Katoomba to the Three Sisters and actually stopped here to pack away the beanie, gloves and long-sleeve top as I was getting too warm before descending the Giant Stairway down towards Jamison Valley. Somewhere along here I took a wrong turn and headed off down a trail that was leading deeper into the valley. This could have landed me in a whole heap of trouble. Thankfully, I picked up on the distinct lack of reflective tags along the way before I got myself in too deep and trekked back up hill to check out the last intersection a little closer. Ok. DON’T follow the red [X] sign. DO follow the arrows. Got it!
The next 10km of the course was spectacular by the light of a headlamp and in the daylight must be just amazing as it passed through waterfall and rainforest areas staying close to the rock face walls. Quite a lot of stairs scattered along the way made it hard to find any consistent running pace but everything was going well and I was enjoying the experience, making up ground on several runners ahead and pushing on.
Starting to become a bit of a blur through here in the dark but around the 72km mark I encountered another set of stairs that weren’t any different, steeper or longer than anything in this section so far. These stairs just drained me. Just like before, I had nothing left. The nutrition plan was so far off track and the legs just had no push left in them. This is the spot where my 20 hour time goal was 100% cleared off the table. I knew it, I thought about it briefly then changed focus solely onto Plan B and moved on.
6km to go to the next checkpoint. A couple of slow dirt track climbs and the rest of the stage was across Kings Tableland. At this point it was clear open sky and, without any pace happening, I stopped to put on the warmer layers to get me through to checkpoint five.

Checkpoint five was such a welcome sight after a shuffle along the road that lead to it.
My biggest problem at this point was that after being so far behind on the nutrition plan much earlier on, by this stage there was no chance of catching it back up. I had to eat but I was just not feeling like I could take anything on.
It was great to see the family support crew again for a bit of motivation support and to get advice from a clearer head than my own.
Inside the tent, one of the volunteers sorted out my drink bottles and backpack bladder refills, rounded up a cup of tea and a hot cup of noodles. What more could you want?……… Nikki insisted that I take another flask of perpetuem with me for the next stage despite me saying I wouldn’t bother as I didn’t feel I could stomach it anyway.

The final leg of the course, 22km left. The first half of that, a long descent to the lowest point of the course so far followed by the climb back out of Jamison Valley to the finish.

About 100m into this journey from CP5, I remembered that I hadn’t taken the endurolyte tablets that I should have at the last stop. Not a problem. Grabbed a couple and sipped at the water from my pack…….nothing…..the hose was twisted when it was refilled. I grabbed a bottle instead and used that. This should have been water but instead had been filled with sports drink. One small swig to get the tablets down and my stomach instantly returned everything back up. ……..*Note to self – always check your own gear at the checkpoints*. The backpack came off, I fought with the water hose until it flowed, threw the pack back on and headed off into the darkness. ….”That’s fine. I’m almost there now. Just get it done”…….Almost there?

After a disastrous start to the last leg I regrouped to start the downhill doing ok. My time goal had gone way back on that set off stairs in the previous stage and I was now only focused on completing the damn thing.

So if things got interesting before, they got totally surreal from this point.
Around the 80km mark after a dark and lonely couple of km’s, I caught up with another runner, Ming. He seemed pretty keen to see someone else on the track and I didn’t mind it either. It was a stark contrast to earlier stages of the event by now. Dark, quiet cold and lonely. We stuck together talking briefly but mostly just keeping each other company. As we went on into the night, I noticed I was starting to doze off as I was walking. The terrain was wide dirt road and so it was just steady, monotonous stepping forward. The urge to fall asleep grew greater and greater until I was sure that I was actually falling asleep and still walking forwards. The loose gravel at the edge providing a rumble strip that woke me up if I drifted wide. Further along, working by the light of a headlamp, I began to hallucinate, seemingly seeing the strangest collection of things off to the sides or on the road in front of us and having to shake them off.
…….”Is that a row of shop fronts along the side?”…….. “Why are there stairs in the middle of this road?” ……..”A drinking fountain?”……. “a coffee shop with outdoor seating?”..Hey, there was a video posted of Fran crossing the finish line with a coffee at the same time as me. Is that were she got it? (video in the link)
This went on for hours with forward pace being incredibly slow and then continued in the same way, as we commenced the uphill stage getting closer to the first-aid station at the 91km mark.
Just short of the 91km mark we took a break by the side of road, a few moments to to try and pull something together. Without any sign of warning, I emptied the sparse contents of my stomach aggressively. This wasn’t pleasant but did result in me feeling better and wide awake just in time for a visit from the first-aid patrol. A quick chat and he advised us that it was only a few hundred meters until the aid station with it’s warm fire, food and a cup of tea so of we went. A brief stop over at this one for a chat and refreshments and we moved on again.
We headed on from that point with only 9km left to go at about 5:30am. The same steady climb and the sleep walking was back before long.
Thankfully we hit some narrow trail eventually and the variation in terrain was just what I need to perk up and keep my eyes open.
Weaving along the trail past the base of the Three Sisters and onto the last few km’s was slow but bearable now. The sun came up along the way and we had the pleasure of a second Blue Mountains sunrise for our efforts.
Finally, with 3km to go, I was able to get phone signal and messaged Nikki to give her a location. The first she had heard from me since 11:00 the night before. It was now about 7. She later told me that with 3km to go she knew we had an hour and half to go.
1km left. The base of Furber Steps. A little over 900 stairs would get us to the finish line above.
Getting to the top, Nikki was waiting to meet me and encouraged me to finish it all off. At the top it was great to see the kids there as well and that fellow Mt Gambians Danny and Ange Habets had come out to see me in as well. Danny had completed the course himself during the evening before and it was great to see them there to show their support.
All that was left, the dash along the finishing chute and across the line.

http://www.thenorthface100.com.au/RaceInfo#TheCourse

  My official time 25:44:10. Cut-off time 28:00:00

You could say that I made efficient use of my available time for this event.
I experienced the sunrise in The Blue Mountains twice and the sunset once.
That’s some pretty good value for my entry fee!

What did I learn from this experience?
Nutrition for an event like this needs to be given a lot of respect. I set out with a plan but allowed myself to get caught up in the event itself. The course in most parts was so busy and engaging that I was easily distracted. Like a baby with a set of dangling keys. Staying on top of the nutrition plan early, even when you are still feeling good, is crucial. In a shorter event you could get away with this a little. Hitting a wall at the end of a 50km is manageable as it’s the end. Drop this in the middle of 100km and it’s a grueling day in the office ahead. I had read all of this before. I had planned to avoid all of this. But now I’ve learnt it.

On the upside, I’m really happy with my gear choices. I spent so much time researching the many options. The Salomon backpack sat comfortably, the soft-flasks that sat in front were real easy to use. For clothing I went with merino wool head-to-toe. Socks, underwear, leggings, hat, beanie, gloves, t-shirt, long-sleeve. The end result here, absolutely no sign of blisters or chafing even over that duration. Seriously, give the guys at I/O Merino a call if you want to check it out.

The trail runner community is just the best!
You can enter these events on your own, spend up to an entire day on course, and meet the friendliest, most inspiring people along the way, officials and volunteers included. For me, I spent the last 8+ hours with a guy that I had never meet before the day. We were both battling our own different situations at a time that lead us to meet up in the middle of the night, heading for the finish. Not a huge amount of conversation but we kept each other on task to the end.

Will I ever do it again?

Hell Yeah!

I’ve learnt so much from this time through. The maps and elevation chart make so much more sense now than they did before. I’ve already planned ways to make my training more specific. And the nutrition plan will be down pat. I’ve have to make a return to see what I can really do on this course with all that experience behind me.

It’s ok to be thinking “I don’t know how I’m going to do this” along the way.
Just stay away from “I can’t do this”
It could just be the difference between seeing the finish line and landed on the DNF list.