Petrol stations across the UK have been running dry. But are we running low on fuel too?
In the last month I’ve completed two ultra-running challenges: the Bob Graham Round – the classic fell-running challenge to run 42 fells in the Lake District over 66 miles and 26,000ft of ascent within 24 hours. Everest is 29,035ft.
The latter was the Cumbria Way Ultra, a 73-mile race from Ulverston to Carlisle, with only 10,000ft of ascent feeling somewhat easy by comparison.
Both took place in the Lake District, ran a ridiculously long way, and getting to the finish also shared the same strategy: focus on the next checkpoint. The Bob Graham is traditionally broken into 5 sections or road crossings. The Cumbria Way Ultra also had 5 checkpoints. Only the journey to the finish was vastly different.
Many marathon runners will be familiar with the term ‘hitting the wall’. But maybe this point of exhaustion is no longer confined to marathon runners.
How many of us are scraping the barrel and crawling to the next checkpoint, meeting, deadline or day?
Are we too busy keeping our heads above water to realise how we ended up in the water to begin with?
Whilst we might be moving past the pandemic into some resemblance of what we knew before, the long-term effects are likely to cling on much longer. Living in survival mode and uncertainty for so long has depleted our mental health, eroded the boundaries between work and home, and created an ‘always on’ culture that undermines positive well-being habits. This is a recipe for trouble in a millennial era already glued to technology and hits of dopamine from ‘the gram’. Sustained stress is not sustainable – and burnout often results. At this point we are in no position to reach our potential.
‘Burnout’ is a reaction to prolonged or chronic job stress and is characterized by three main dimensions: exhaustion, cynicism (loss of identification with the job), and feelings of reduced professional ability. In simple terms, it can also lead to headaches, stomach aches, lack of energy, and inability to concentrate or focus. As productivity decreases we often work later to catch up, becoming more fatigued, resorting to less healthy coping mechanisms and creating a vicious cycle.
Workplace burnout is nothing new. Scientists had warned about it for decades and in 2019 the World Health Organisation added burnout syndrome to their recognised conditions. Only now in the wake of the pandemic has it come to the forefront of our attention as we have slowly returned to something like the society we knew before, whilst realising it was hardly fit for purpose to begin with. Only when we step out of survival mode and come up for air does the real picture start to emerge: much like getting whacked by a bug on the first day of your holiday. Working overtime to meet deadlines and clear the in-tray feels easier to justify when you can count down the days to your sun lounger in the Mediterranean, or even your ‘Staycation’ on the Cornish coast. When this prolonged stress decreases and the adrenalin surge stops, our cortisol increases and weakens our immune system instead.
You might think it’ll never happen to you. I was celebrating with friends at the Moot Hall in Keswick after completing the Bob Graham Round. In this moment of elation and relief, I had neglected my routine, warm clothes and hydration, even only for a short while. It didn’t seem to matter now I was safely over the line. Or so I thought. I suddenly became dizzy, sick and unable to stand up as my friends gathered blankets, until I came round in the back of an ambulance and spent the night in Carlisle A&E with hypothermia, dehydration and very low blood pressure.
Failing to finish a race and the dreaded ‘DNF’ (Did Not Finish) will do little more damage than a bruised ego, but the same situation in our workplaces is costing billions in presenteeism, higher staff turnover and decreased productivity. Sadly, it often takes hitting the wall for anything to change.
With sobering lessons and a better game plan, my next trip to Carlisle was far less eventful, albeit running 73 miles along the Cumbria Way to get there took a bit longer.
So, how can we stop ourselves from ‘hitting the wall’?
Resilience is recharging, not enduring
Ultra-running is often described as an eating contest with a bit of running thrown in.
As my first ‘official’ ultra race, I was delighted to verify this at the first checkpoint in Coniston, 16 miles in. The bigger challenge now was the paradox of choice with a vast array of everything from flapjacks to jelly beans, hotdogs and ginger cake with hot custard on offer.
The third section to Keswick was longer and warmer than anticipated and my fuelling routine of every 30 minutes had already slipped. I arrived in a slow crawl, hungry and dehydrated: the running equivalent to the Friday afternoon shift. I decided on taking a longer break in Keswick to catch up with the extra fluid that I couldn’t carry, and a bowl of hot food, despite watching one of the other runners leave the checkpoint early and get ahead in the race.
How often do we take the time to refuel and re-energise? Whilst indulging in ginger cake and custard at every coffee break might have adverse effects on your well-being eventually – start by making a list of the things that replenish you and making them part of your routine. It could be a simple cup of tea, taking a break every hour, going for a walk outside, spending time with family, or listening to your favourite podcast. Getting sufficient sleep (7-9 hours) and a nutritious diet with minimal processed foods aren’t reserved for the temple-bodied athlete, either. Setting a routine is also incredibly useful for maintaining these healthy habits.
We might think we don’t have time to stop and take breaks with an ever growing to-do list. Sacrificing these fundamentals could cost your entire race, and much worse.
Refuelled and recharged, I caught up with the aforementioned runner on the slog up to the Lingy Hut, about 53 miles in.
“That hill was horrible, wasn’t it?!” I muttered, after a fruitless toil in sludgy mud whilst the rain joined the party too.
“I’m glad it’s not just me!” she laughed. To know I wasn’t the only one having a rough time helped to acknowledge the struggle, and sharing this experience lessened the burden somewhat. I suddenly felt less alone.
“Less than 4 miles to Caldbeck” I assured her, as we ran blindly towards what we hoped would be the summit of High Pike.
“Really?! That’s cheered me right up!” she beamed.
At the Lingy Hut a familiar face appeared from the cloud. My friend Wayne was marshalling the route and a passing high-five neutralised the negative thoughts and stubborn legs for a short while.
Lockdown restrictions and working remotely has, obviously, increased isolation, with technology and virtual calls failing to fully replicate face-to-face interaction. Many of us have started to resume our old routines, but for many others, this will continue to be the case and our social networks are still out of reach. We are social animals and a support network is fundamental to our well-being, helping us to deal with challenges and feel a sense of belonging. Engagement is the opposite of burnout.
I could have said nothing to my fellow runner. Adding even more commitments to an already over-committed calendar could throw another bucket of sand on the smouldering wreckage of our social lives, especially for the introverts. But staying connected could be as simple as saying hello to a passing stranger, messaging a friend or calling a relative.
Set clear priorities
Normally I’m very precise and pragmatic. For my sub-3 marathon attempt in 2018 I knew my target pace per mile, target heart rate, the exact time to take on energy gels and water, and every single item of kit had been dutifully tested beforehand. Nothing was left to chance. The plan went like clockwork, at least the first time round.
Whilst driving to the race registration for the Cumbria Way Ultra, it suddenly alarmed me that I didn’t have a strategy for the race. But then I realised I did have a strategy: I’d jokingly posted on social media that my plan was to go hard and go home, without going to A&E first! I didn’t have a particular time in mind because I had no realistic benchmark to compare it against. My priority was to make sure I got round safely and had enough to keep moving for the final few miles, even if that meant playing it safe. Whilst a competitiveness bubbled away, it was easier to manage with a clear criteria in place.
If we don’t set our priorities, everything becomes a priority, and we end up overworking trying to meet unrealistic expectations which inevitably leads to resentment and further exhaustion.
Asking for help
The goal of being self-supported on my Bob Graham Round required stashing my supplies on-route and carrying all my gear between the sections, without the traditional pacers to accompany me. I was scared to accept that I had underestimated the task at hand. This fear of being less capable or reliable encourages us to carry more than we can manage. Over time, this stoic mentality can lead us to dropping all the eggs in our basket with spectacular consequences: at which point we are liability to ourselves and those around us.
As I arrived in Wasdale at the end of leg 3 I was surprised to meet Peter, a local fell-running figure and who had kindly driven round to meet me unexpectedly. He had watched my slow progress with concern and come with a chair, selection of snacks and a hot flask of tea to refuel. This completely de-validated any self-supported claim, but what did that matter now? Staying warm was a challenge with everything saturated by sticky Lakeland rain and several hours still ahead. If not for Peter’s kindness, I likely wouldn’t have continued.
Asking for help often feels like a weakness of character, enough to strike fear into every perfectionist. But there is no shame in asking for help. This vulnerability only encourages others to do the same. Speaking to a manager, colleague, or family member when you can’t see the wood for the trees is the first step to delegating the workload, finding a new perspective and discovering a more manageable solution.
Shift the goalposts
Completing the Bob Graham Round within 24 hours and self-supported was my ‘A’ goal. After dropping most of my water on leg 1, I had to accept extra water from a friend who was cheering me on-route in Threlkeld. If I didn’t get rehydrated, I was in big trouble. By the end of leg 2 I was already over 90 minutes behind schedule, losing more time than anticipated with poor visibility and navigational mishaps. My 24-hour goal was slipping further away than me on the wet rocks. In the moment it’s easy to act emotionally and give up without any obvious reason to continue – being able to change the outcome is key.
When I met Peter in Wasdale he passed on the wisdom of fell-running legend Joss Naylor: “Tell him to forget about the time – just make sure you finish what you start”
My goal now was wonderfully simple: to finish what I had started, regardless of the time. I still had several hours to go and another 20-odd mountainous miles to run, but the pressure was lifted and my motivation restored. I completed the challenge in 27 hours and 35 minutes, raising over £2,500 for Mind Over Mountains.
Flexibility has been the buzzword of the remote working era with employees demanding a flexible routine to cope with the additional stresses and allow time for self-care, especially in the winter when we’re couped up indoors during the daylight hours. When feeling overwhelmed or exhausted, take time to re-assess what’s realistic with the time and resources you have, rather than what you feel you should. Quantity is the antithesis of quality.
Stay in your own lane
You’ll always see people going off too fast in a race. It’s always tempting to try and keep up, pushing beyond our own capabilities to please others. Comparing ourselves to others not only leaves us feeling inadequate but perpetuates burnout as we strive to match or exceed their standards, pushing ourselves harder without always seeing the full picture.
On the first section to Coniston two other runners began closing in. I was determined to hold my position until the checkpoint, knowing it would push my pace and keep me in the top 5: a number I had somehow decided was significant. Distracted by their presence, I was descending from Beacon Tarn faster than I should have, until misjudging a step on the slippy rocks and hitting the floor. Dazed, I sat in the mud with a gashed knee whilst the others caught up, checked I was OK, then hurried on past. By pure luck I was unhurt, but it was a wake-up call to focus on my own race. In a 73-mile race you have plenty of time to catch up. As it happened, one of the runners later withdrew with an injury. Are you feeling under pressure to keep up with those around you? Maybe they’re on the edge of burnout too.
Are you running out of petrol too?
Finishing 5th place at the Cumbria Way is hardly going to win me a spot in Team GB, but it’s given me a foundation to build on. Every runner is looking for the next hack or gadget to make them faster, but perhaps learning to slow down in the pandemic could help us go the distance. In the demands of our modern lives we can’t run away from burnout: it will always catch up with us eventually.
If you’re already feeling burned out, a few small steps might be all you can manage. When the finish line seems so far away, it’s important to remember that this too shall pass. I often say that I haven’t ran a marathon, but I have ran a mile 26.2 times. And 73 times. Sometimes we have to create our own checkpoints. We all need our own ways to manage stress – whether that’s getting enough sleep, switching off social media, taking time for a walk, going for a run, or saying hello to a passing stranger. There’s no vaccine for the burnout pandemic.
How will you get to the next checkpoint?