Roundtable: Scratching from Ultra Distance Races Part 2

Roundtable: Scratching from Ultra Distance Races Part 2

17 November, 2023

Cover image credit: RJ Sauer.

In Part 1 of this Roundtable we explored the various scratching experiences of our panel, along with a discussion of whether scratching carries a stigma. The consensus was that scratching does carry a stigma, however, that is largely determined by our perception of scratching. Our panel generally agreed that the race organiser should have minimal interference in a rider's decision to scratch. The big caveat being that riders shouldn't abuse this freedom by riding through obvious safety barriers. If you missed Part 1, be sure to check out the full feature here.

In Part 2 of this roundtable, we explore how less experienced racers could be better equipped and prepared to make sensible decisions when faced with the potential of scratching. Regardless of experience, scratching is something that the best of us have to come face to face with. With this in mind, we'll be diving into the concept of mental resilience as a trainable trait and exploring tools to build resiliency.

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Above: Laurent Sourget during Great British Divide 2023. Photo credit, Kitty Dennis.

How can less experienced racers be better equipped and prepared to make a well judged and sensible decision when faced with the prospect of scratching?

Experience is an invaluable asset when it comes to finding success with ultra distance racing. Rookies may try to emulate experienced racers, potentially distorting best judgement of when to scratch. Is this necessarily a problem, and if so what could be done to address it?

Naomi: There’s lots of advice out there about things to do before scratching. Eating, sleeping, making sure you’re warm. All of these things help reduce the stress we are under and make the decision making less emotional and more practical. I like to be very clear on my reasons and try to take an in-the-moment picture of how I am feeling, my options and the risks/impact of each of those so that, after the fact, when I’m rested and feel like I should have gone on, I’m better able to remember why I made the decision I did. Your whole race is about making the right decision in the moment. Retrospect can be a tough game.

RJ: I think this is one of the most important points of discussion when it comes to the prospect of scratching. When signing up for an ultra race, we must take responsibility for our actions and our choices, especially when so many of these events are developed by volunteers, passionate about biking and rely on the goodwill of the cultural and geographical locations through which the routes pass. As participants, we need to be prepared for things to go wrong, to problem solve and ultimately get ourselves out of the trouble we encounter. We should not rely on or expect outside help. That doesn’t mean we can’t ever ask for or accept help if we are in trouble, and sometimes smart problem-solving involves the courage to ask for help, but we shouldn’t assume there is a safety net or lifeline attached to the bike that will pull us to safety. I remember when making my documentary film on the Iditarod Trail Invitational, a racer decided to scratch along a remote section of trail. Another racer, asked ‘okay, now what? You still need to get out of the wilderness and off the trail’. The would-be-scratcher proceeded to ride another couple of days until they reached a village where they could pay for an evacuation. And now with the push of a button, emergency services can be notified if a racer is in trouble. Perhaps that is a little too easy and can certainly be abused.

The bottom line is if you are not ready to fully take care of yourself then do not enter an event. You’re likely better off going on a bikepacking trip instead with more resources or controllable parameters. And at the very least, start small and work your way up.

Seb: I think i am gaining more experience from race to race. For example, when I follow the Tour Divide and see the obstacles my friends Ulrich and Justinas have to deal with and still finish in first and second place, I am deeply impressed and learn from it. If I had to master these challenges with my current experience, the risk of scratching would have been great simply because I lack this experience. But at the same time, it doesn't help to orientate yourself too much on others. Everyone is different, everyone has a different perception and a different sense of pain. but learning from role models is a good thing.

Ian: Experienced ultra-racers are never short of advice: listen to it! In particular, never scratch when it's dark. A short sleep fixes almost everything.

Jenny: Experience is everything. Even if you haven’t been involved in a race yet, you’ve likely had some multi-day adventures and some very long rides and probably had a few of those go wrong. That experience will help. I would recommend anyone entering ultra racing to have a big slice of their training and preparation to involve things outside of their comfort zone, where they will work on their mental coping skills. Additionally, managing your expectations going into a race will be a great asset. If you’re here to win, you will have to ride beyond your limitations and that could likely lead to problems that will be scratchy. The calibre of racing in just the last few years has seriously risen (pro cyclists don’t even always come first!?) and we should all be realistic about what that’s doing the pace!

Race media glorifying what some of the fastest racers push through is perhaps guilty of encouraging more riders to try and be a hero. Just because some other experienced rider pushed through the same problem you have, doesn’t mean that they made the right call and certainly doesn’t mean anything about whether or not you should. I guess this circles back to the stigma against scratching - if we’ve heard of someone else finishing despite not being able to pull their brakes or hold their head upright, some might think that now means it’s not a reason to stop (it really, really is). And remember, Ulrich can go that far and that fast without sleeping because he’s been training for that skill for years.

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With these valuable insights in mind, we wanted to dig a little deeper into the psychological aspects of scratching. We posed some extra questions to Ian and Naomi in hope that they could offer some nuggets of wisdom for when the going gets tough.

What makes some riders more mentally resilient than others during ultra distance races?

Every individual is a product of their past experiences and present environment. To what extent does this shape resilience? Is resilience it a trainable attribute?

Ian: I'm sure some people are inherently better able to put up with suffering than others, but you can definitely get better at it through experience, and by employing mental strategies (which are one of the things that experience gives you). A particularly important strategy is acceptance. When things are hard, don't pretend they're not. Accept that things are going badly right now - but know they will probably get better if you just keep going. One of the things that experience does for you is to show you over and over that the last part is true, which makes it all easier. Once you've had several experiences of feeling awful, pushing on and getting through it, you KNOW that this works, because it has in the past.

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Above: Ian Walker, photo credit - Louise Whitaker.

Naomi: Grit and determination are learned behaviours. Yes, some people seem better equipped to deal with hardship from the outset, but I believe that we can all develop the necessary skills needed to push through the barriers we face. Having clear reasons why you are doing something and a firm set of goals definitely helps focus your mind more on the ‘how can I’ and less on the ‘why I can’t’.

What mental strategies could be employed (eg. anticipated regret) before and during an ultra race in order to lessen the chance of scratching?

The three corner stones of ultra distance race success are: fitness, equipment and mentality. Many racers place a huge emphasis on preparing the first two, whilst mentality is often overlooked. What mental strategy tools could we be armed with before and during a race in order to boost resilience?

Naomi: There’s a lot to be said for visualisation. If you’ve scratched before you know how you felt afterwards. Using that memory and weighing it up against how you feel in the moment you want to scratch can be powerful. Of course that is a very negative motivation. I favour much more visualising how it will feel to finish. Or even just to get past this moment. I think that’s also playing much less into stigmatising scratching too.

Ian: As well as accepting the bad times when they come, and waiting them out, I find it useful to visualise them in advance, and to spend time dwelling on the bad times that I've experienced in the past. Thinking about bad things that might happen, and looking back on former bad times, builds familiarity with the inevitably state of dipping into a low point, and that familiarity helps build resilience. When it starts to hurt, you will just think "Ah yes, here it is. I knew this would happen" which is vastly better than "What's happening to me?! I feel awful!", which is how you would experience the exact same situation without preparation.

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Photo credit: Kitty Dennis

In conclusion, mental resiliency is a trainable trait, even if some people are inherently better able to put up with suffering than others. Anyone is able to strengthen their own resiliency, implementing some of the techniques discussed here such as acceptance, visualisation and repeated experiences. A really important point that Naomi points out is based on purpose. Specifically, defining clear reasons of the 'why' and 'how' we may choose to push through an uncomfortable situation. Without this, the mind is sure to loose focus on the goal and therefore pull the plug prematurely.

Thank you to our panel for participating in this roundtable on scratching. As a subject with limited coverage, it has been great to open up a discussion and impart some invaluable knowledge onto the reader.