Friday, 30 November 2012

Piece of String Fun Run - Unravelling the paradox

I've been holding back my opinion on this race for a while now, partly because as usual, I hadn't really made up my mind about it. If you haven't got anything useful to say......;-)

However, some of the recent discussions and race reports from the event itself have given my ideas a bit of context. I thought perhaps that now might be a good time to get them down. As a very poor analogy, I suppose my aim of this blog is to unravel and straighten out the this conceptual 'piece of string' through the medium of my theoretical knowledge of sport psychology. Lets hope the collective mass of my theoretical approach is greater than that of a piece of string! (for reference check out the below video - a funny little link included at the end of Mimi Anderson's report on the race - I love Stewart Lee).

The Concept

So if you are interested enough to have read this far, you will know what the concept of the race is. If you don't, here is a link to the race description. In short, it is a race where the end point is not known. The theory behind this, as discussed by James in his pre-event blog, is that this format will:

  1. reduce certainty, thereby inducing anxiety and hinder performance
  2. undermine the credibility or confidence in ant given pacing strategy
  3. disarm the influence of any beneficial outcome motivation (i.e. 'only x more miles to go!!!')
In addition, there was also an:

     4.  application process 

where applicants had to submit a detailed explanation for 'Why you are qualified to run this race' including a photo of you at your most miserable/worst. 

The Paradox

For the reasons detailed below however,  I think that the race turned out to be a different beast than perhaps first intended.

1. Did the race actually reduce certainty? 

Granted, competitors would not have known the precise end point but I would go as far as to say that it was relatively clear the race was going to be of the 'ultra' variety. Although this doesn't narrow it down too much, it probably puts it in the realm of somewhere between 50-150 miles. Taking into consideration the calibre of the field and the their athletic résumés, you might also assume that it could be towards to the top end of this. (I appreciate this is very easy to say in hindsight - and I could well be wrong). On a more practical point, I felt another giveaway was the clear effort and dedication put into the race by the race directors (RDs). For all accounts they put on a fantastic race - but let's face it, after all that effort, how funny would it actually have been if it was just a 5km or 500m?

From a more technical perspective, removing all certainty of the end point could theoretically assist by removing an unnecessary distraction. If you don't know when the end is, it cannot lead you from the task at hand (or at least it shouldn't!). In a competitive sense, what often separates winners from losers is the ability to stay in the present and focus on what they can actually do in that moment, rather than speculate what might happen in the future (Moran & Kremer, 2008) - I'll talk about how much this matters (or doesn't really) later on.  But in short, such a format I think should actually help the competitors to focus on the controllables. That said, just by removing the end point doesn't mean people will necessarily focus on what they can control. You still have to decide to concentrate!

It seems relatively clear that in this instance, the more successful attempts at this race were in part helped by the more elite navigation skills. Based on Mimi's report, tricky navigation at times resulted in a slower pace and the difficulty of staying warm and eventual withdrawal. Sam also seemed to have had these problems, but at times when he used his Garmin, he showed marked improvements subjective evaluation of his performance at these times. Wouter seemed to be able to use a map well. Effective navigation in this event was one of the only things that competitors could control - it seems like those that did it better.....did better.

2. Pacing and wider strategies

Here is a quote from the FAQs:

"We don’t expect people to run the trails like Ian Sharman but neither do we want people ambling around at 2mph. You will be informed along the way how “close” you are to cut-offs."

This I feel was another indicator about the length of the race. Take into account the terrain in the area, and start from a 2mph cut off and you have a very rough estimation of how far you might have to run. Research conducted by Sam and James Elson gives some insight into pacing strategies at the SDW100 over such distances, but it is clear that the strategies are not homogenous. Another piece Sam did on the Western states also indicates that there is no clear cut answer to pacing anyway.   I feel here that the format again,  can only serve to remove something else that you might else 'worry' about. I don't know if anyone did it, but a good way to gather feedback on pacing would have been to go really slowly (and wear loads of clothes!), the race organisers would then inform you that you were close to the cut offs. Simply move a little quicker for a short while and then when you felt like it, slow down again, until warned. This way you wouldn't be going any faster than you really needed to. In a race with no finishing times, this seems like a good way to promote longevity. 

Another quote from the race description:

"All the rules of pacing, nutrition and mental focus will go out the window in a race where you just don’t know how long you have left to go"

Let's not throw the baby out with the bath water - I'm not sure how or why the fundamentals of mental focus would go out the window, nor the principles of nutrition if we can assume its going to be an ultra? 

3. Outcome motivation

This comes back to the assumption that the end (lets call it the 'end concept') is one of the major motivating factors factors for ultra runners. This is a really complicated topic and ties in with a whole load of stuff.  The fact remains that motivation is a personal construct and removing the end concept will mean different things to different people. I think that in this context, that it is an idea of overstated importance (feel free to disagree - and I would be interested to see any research on this in ultra runners - how many actually predominantly hold onto the thought of finishing as their true source of motivation?).

If I were to classify this in as general sense as possible I would describe the idea of the end concept as an extrinsic form of motivation, albeit one that is very recognisable and familiar. Extrinsic motivators do not play as significant role in self-determination as intrinsic factors, and so I think here that removal of such a motivator probably won't/didn't/shouldn't have had that dramatic an effect. Just because something is familiar or obviously noticeable, doesn't confer significance.  It all comes back to the old, what people think they do and what they actually do being different things. That said, remember its personal, as different situational and personal characteristics mix and collide, entirely different reactions and thought patterns can surface! 

Yoinked from - i hope you don't mind!

Humans are also quite an adaptable bunch. When something doesn't quite cut it, they'll grab on to something else. Rasmus Henning talks a little about his 'motivational pyramid' here, the two main points being that forms of extrinsic motivation (e.g. money) only goes so far,  and depending on the situation he'll focus on another motivating factor to get him through a training session, or race. Sam's experience at the Piece of String fits with nicely he cited one of his reasons for pushing on was:

I found this pretty unusual. If you are to look at the motivation continuum (this was the shortest most succinct explanation I could find) Sam's reason above sits somewhere between external or introjected regulation, and is certainly not what you'd expect. More classically, you might imagine he'd have said: 

"When all is bleak and lost - I just carry on in order to go on experiencing the fundamental joys of the running experience, nothing else matters"

But in Sam's case, he cites a main motivator as an extrinsic factor, not specifically driving his wife bonkers, but more insinuates that he uses how he WOULD have felt if he had quit.

 In line with Self-Determination Theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985, 2002) this isn't thought to foster self-determination. Moreover, using Need for Achievement Theory (Atkinson 1974; McClelland 1961; McClelland et al. 1953) it suggests avoidance failure (as opposed to striving for success) which is associated with low achievers. Further still, its a form of emotion-focused coping, not problem focused coping. The latter is associated with confidence, and in turn, persistence. The former is not. Theoretically, I might argue that the end concept, although motivating in some ways, could also work against you through distraction. The term 'arrival syndrome' sums it up quite well - although its great to stop and smell the roses once in a while and revel in your achievements, doing it too much (or before you've got there!) can distract you from doing the very things that will get you there in the first place!

So how the hell did Sam finish, having turned the rule book on his head in using such an 'off-piste' motivator? I don't know. Is there something about ultra running, that having run yourself into the ground, under extreme fatigue and impaired cognitive function that makes more simplistic recognisable motivators (albeit extrinsic) more potent? Is it an adaptive mechanism as a function of the weird race format? In the absence of the finish line being a motivator, did he just use other extrinsic factors in their place. Possibly, it would be interesting to know if Sam always uses this as his prime motivator. Perhaps it just goes to show that under extreme circumstances, there really are no rules. Or maybe, if you have an extrinsic motivator as powerful as 'the wife' - a man might need nothing more  ;-)

4. The application process and applicants

I think if anything this was something I didn't like but could see why it was there. I didn't like it because it felt almost elitist, and on first glance seemed to promote or was at least centered around ideas of an 'achievement' culture (I briefly discussed these in my last blog). I've certainly never liked to think of ultra running as a meritocracy.

I do however understand how the application process fits within the concept of the race. If you were going to put on a ridiculously difficult  race, as a race director you'd probably want to ensure that the participants could at least look after themselves! I think there is a collective responsibility of those in the endurance running community however, not to espouse the message that 'what you do says anything about who you are'. I think its something that is often misconstrued when we get lost in discussions of races and experiences past. Encouragingly though, I'd also like to say that its seems relatively obvious to me the position of the race organisers:

"The exact distance, finishing times and awards are all irrelevant here."

Its really refreshing to see this in an event!

I also couldn't think of a better example that undermines the idea of such an achievement culture. What better way to disprove the idea that past achievements count for anything than by selecting a field of high-achieving individuals and seeing how they do in extremely purified form of competition. 2 from 10 finished.  With a skewed competitor pool, selected for insane acts of persistance and 'mental toughness', might one not assume that you'd get a higher finishing rate than 2 from 10? Taking this further, you also might expect that if the race was really hard, the finishers would be the more decorated of individuals than those that didn't, which wasn't the case (although this experiment doesn't really tell you much when the whole field are high achievers - you would need some ultra runners with no track record to say anything about that!).

If we could agree however. that they've mostly all completed 'harder' or 'tougher' races, and the difficulty wasn't a limiting factor, then surely the difference between those that finished and those that didn't must come from somewhere else? This all ties into another blog by James about whether its always the same people that finish. I could disagree - and sit on the fence and say 'it depends'. Obviously there is a multitude of other factors to consider when looking at performance in an inaugural and novel ultra such as this - but this is neither the time nor the place!

N.B. for all those who are shouting in disgust at the computer screen having read the above two paragraphs and other sentences throughout, please understand I am merely attempting to probe at the conceptual limitations of the race and playing devil's advocate. I don't necessarily subscribe to any or all of the points I put forward....or do I?!?!?

Anyway, I'm sure the RDs have received plenty of suggestions for improvement, but for a true psychological experiement,  my suggestion would be to send out a questionnaire profiling the would-be applicants against an inventory of skills. Then, individually give participants a race format that challenges their individual psychological 'shortcomings'. I should turn out a bit like that bit Bill and Ted - a bogus journey....

In terms of research, I would have also personally loved to have seen the applications of the competitors - a thematic analysis of how these type of athletes value themselves would be very revealing! In developing their own personal hell....;-)


So while I think that the concept has its limitations, doesn't everything? Even though it didn't necessarily turn out as planned perhaps from a psychological perspective, that is not to say that it wasn't a success, nor that we can learn from it! By their nature 'experiments' rarely tend to give the results that are expected, and if they do, be suspicious!

It seems like the race has turned out almost a bit like a CPD workshop for ultra runners. In tweaking the rules, I'm sure it has given those involved a lot to think on. From an outsider looking in, if nothing else, it seems like it might have tested a few of the less well practiced but clearly crucial skills that every ultra -runner should have. Maps Schmaps! ;-)

What I personally also like about it is that is a great example of how someone from within the community can take an idea like this and contribute in a worthwhile way. It serves as a valuable reminder that its not just about racing, but that any investment of time (whether its organising, volunteering, or crewing, participating or even just talking) can be equally valuable in the wider context.  I personally am looking forward to seeing this event evolve and all that it brings with it. It is obviously also important to recognise the tireless efforts of James Elson. Its been said before but the fact that he managed to safely host 2 races in spite of the conditions is nothing short of remarkable. The community is lucky to have such an excellent character (and team of people) out there organising great events throughout the year.  Thanks guys!

Again, all comments and thoughts welcome.....


  1. From my point of view, as a competitor, what the RD could not control was the competitors perceptions. It was easy to take back control by simply believing on all levels - prepare for 150 mile +. By doing this you completly take away that element of the race that was designed to be the factor under test.

    I believe all who took part had done this indeed I believe the fact that 6 did not show showed they had also based their prep on this. So why did 8 fail to complete? Well i'll let those who wish to comment do so but it was all down to external rather than internal factors. Speaking from my race it was illness that made me miss the cut off time. No excuses and probably self inflicted with poor food choice shall we say.

    So what should be done. I believe to test strength you need to break people early for that is when mental strength kicks in. Break them early then you can work in the 'not knowing the end' factor. If you do not break them ealy but allow a steady pace early on all should complete.

    Great concept and this should evolve to become a lesson in testing inner doubts and strengths. Strength however, only starts once broken it does not start before that point.

    Yes I do have a 'past'

  2. Hi. I was also a competitor (Peter Cusick). A few observations. Firstly, I was fairly sure (lol) that the distance would be about 60-80miles. Not least as the RD said the entrance fee was a clue - it was £1.37. 137km is 80miles. The Barkley fun run is 60miles. I also thought it was v likely that the race would be shorter than the 100 - mainly because of logistics and because it accompanied the main event which was the 100. This might have affected the pace I ran at - if I had known the event was 120miles I would not have run the first 20miles as quickly as I did.

    In addition - the run was described as a fun run and for some reason that got into my mind so I didnt treat it as an A race. Consquently I trained hard right up to the event (in prep for my next a race which is a Double IM in the new year) including 2 things that are known to contribute to the issue which actually brought about the injury that caused my DNF ie prolonged hard effort time trialling on my tt bike (only 5 days before the event) and racing a hard coastal off road "marathon" (in fact 28+miles) just 2 weeks before. Both things were a mistake in retrospect.

    Having failed to finish I am currently thinking about whether I need to go back and get this finished (!) subject obviously to getting into the event and what training/approach I would need to take in the 3 months leading up to the event. It interests me as to whether I have what it takes to finish.

    In the past - for really long stuff - my mantra has been to complete the event as quickly as I can without endangering the finish. That wasnt on my mind here. It was a lot more haphazard. I think you were alluding to the stress to those (like me) who were not good navigators of the navigation issues. I think that didnt help for sure - part of the mental tiredness. Plus I like to run and when things got messy (with the re-route then getting lost etc) it seemed to affect me more than it should have done.

    A big regret is not taking my foam roller with me. My car was at the HQ so it would not have caused me any issue to have done so. At the very least then I could have taken a time out - used the roller and tried to re-start. regardless of the outcome it would have been useful intelligence for future races if the same problem occurred. I had a massage about a week after the run and I still had the lump in my quad! It was ironed out though by about 20mins hard massage.

    Unfortunately i dont think I got far enough into the event (I got to 58miles iirc in about 11.30) for the "PoS"/finish issue to arise. One thing I had not expected was that the run would finish mid-loop - that was a nice touch and one I would have found very funny. Unexpected things like that add to the event imo.