The Stretch Zone

In 2020, when lockdown hit, I was in the final stages of training for Two Oceans, a 56km ultra road race in Cape Town. Not being one for 100-meter garden run circuits, I ran on a friend’s treadmill during lockdown in an attempt to keep fit. With the likelihood of major road races not happening for the remainder of the year, I started looking elsewhere for a place to vent my ‘locked up’ running goals. That was when I stumbled onto the Karkloof 100 (KK100), a well-known 100-mile trail race in KZN, South Africa. KK100 2020 was a special Covid edition, a format which saw runners running two separate 20km loops in a sort of figure of eight with the middle being a base camp at the Karkloof Country Club. That meant I could run a loop, refuel at my vehicle, change my gear, head out for another loop, return to my vehicle again and repeat. I would just need to do that eight times! In essence, there was a degree of comfort and stretch in one setting, which in reflection was the ideal way for me to tackle my first 100 miler. Further to that, we had to be off the course for curfew from 10pm – 4am.  I managed five loops on day one before curfew, then another three loops the following day after a solid five hour sleep.

When I crossed the finish line I felt confident that I could run 100 miles. The stretch factor would now be tackling it all in one go without the base camp and curfew sleep. So a friend and I entered Ultra Trail Drakensberg (UTD160) which took place in April 2021. UTD160 includes a 75km loop in Lesotho, before descending Sani Pass via the 12 apostles to Sani Pass Hotel which is at about 100km, before running out and back via Underberg and the Giants Cup trail to finish the race. Whilst I felt confident I could finish, the stretch here was Lesotho. At 1500m above sea level, the 75km would be through some very wild terrain and would include summiting Thabana Ntlanyane, the highest peak south of Kilimanjaro in Southern Africa. I would also be running through the night and could experience subzero temps.  I now also needed to rely on aid stations and carry all the gear required for 100km which would be the first time I would see my wife who was seconding me. It was an exceptionally tough run, and I experienced a lot of dark places, but managed to keep moving and reach the finish line in a little over 34hours.

UTD had increased my levels of confidence and I now felt comfortable with the idea of running other 100 milers. But the stretch for me would first come in the form of repeating the two races I had already done and improve my performance. I was familiar with the routes and the logistics involved, so now I was keen to address mistakes that I had made and see if I could improve on my times. I changed up my pre-race nutrition, trying out the keto diet and also enrolled in running coaching. I addressed some gear issues and bought myself a set of running poles. I trained differently and prepared differently. All in all, I ran two solid races and had now developed more confidence in preparing for and running 100 miles.

My next ‘stretch zone’ would be to approach a miler with a ‘racing mindset’ i.e. could I run hard over the entire distance, making use of the runnable sections (flat sections, downhills, uphills with decent gradients and all non-technical terrain) so as to run the miler as a race (against myself) rather than a measured trot to the finish? I wanted to see how my body and mind responded to being pushed a little harder over that distance. I also wanted to reduce my time at the aid stations (with an average of 12 aid stations, 10 minutes per aid station you can add on as much as 2 hours onto your time), approach my training differently by including strength training and ensure my nutrition was planned and executed well on the day.

I tested this all out at my next race which was the inaugural Ultra Trail Cape Town 100 miler (UTCT).  It was hands down the toughest miler I have run, with 7600 of elevation, serious climbs and some very technical trails which I certainly wasn’t used to. The fastest and most runnable stretch is the first 20km, so I went out the blocks harder than I would normally do so. It felt strange to go hard when one should be starting conservatively. I found myself running at 5:30mins per kilometer with 150km still to go! I felt my body recover in the slower or non-runnable sections and stuck to my mantra –  ‘notch it up’ – which was a reminder to take my pace up by 10% when I felt like I was lagging.

UTCT gave me the confidence to run harder and faster within the 100 mile distance. My I was now feeling confident with what my body could handle over that distance based on my training. My coaching was also providing data which I could use to benchmark against in preparing for the next race. My next stretch zone was then an extention of UTCT in that I was keen to race against the clock and run sub 30 hours at one of the tougher milers on offer in South Africa.

I chose to tackle that goal at Mac Mac 100 Miler which takes place up in Mpumulanga, South Africa. The race claimed to have 7600 of vert as well, although the GPX file read 5800m. You do, however, climb continuously and there is a lot of very technical terrain aside from very runnable jeep and single track. Of course, it’s all at altitude. Again, I started strong leveraging the very fast start and found myself running behind the lead pack with a nice group who I ended up running with throughout the night. We maintained a good pace and in the early hours of the morning I pushed ahead with one of the crew I had spent the night with. Feeling strong, I then increased my pace toward the end finishing in 29hrs 14mins.

I remember the last 9km vividly. I had run the whole race relatively hard where I could and my legs were tired, but I was astounded at the pace I was able to maintain (for me!) over the last 5km. I had this surge of energy within me as I pushed it up and down the hills. I remember being blown away at how much was in the tank despite giving it a good go. I was left wondering what’s possible if I stretch myself a little more in the middle sections and also if I challenge myself to go harder during the technical sections which I seem to approach way more conservatively than other runners.  It’s not all about racing for me, but a big motivator is watching my body and mind respond to being pushed to the limit. Its incredible just how much more there is within us than we give ourselves credit for.

I have developed a great deal of confidence ever since KK100 in 2020. As I grew comfortable with the distance I stretched myself a little more, which in turn resulted in more confidence and comfort where previously I lack confidence. I appreciate the comfort zone as you get to use your confidence to achieve results within that zone. You also get to influence those who don’t feel confident in areas where you feel comfortable. But the satisfaction really comes when you enter the stretch zone after enjoying the comfort zone.

In my professional life, I have found that my boredom and disengagement has increased when I have remained in the comfort zone for too long. One then tends to want to take a drastic step and enter into a whole new zone in order to remove the boredom. A more effective approach is simply to look for ways to include some stretch into how you do what you do.

It would be, at this point, relatively easy to simply enter and complete 100-mile trail races. I am comfortable with the distance and logistics involved. But to truly benefit from the experience of running these types of races, I seek to step into the stretch zone with each one.

The stretch zone includes two areas:

Firstly, the output or the goal. It’s relatively easy to set a stretching goal given its predominantly all about the time you will complete each race. Given each race is different, I tend to look at the previous results and look to benchmark myself against athletes I know are quicker than I am. I then set a goal that is stretching. In the same way, we enter the stretch zone by setting stretching goals for our personal and professional lives.

Q: What would be a ‘stretch zone’ goal for you right now?

Secondly, the input or system that will be used to achieve the goal. This is in many ways far more important. As James Clear says, we don’t rise to the level of our goals, we fall to the levels of our systems. I will look at a system stretch zone which in the case of running has included new ways of training, diets and preparation. This makes the whole journey stretching and incredibly rewarding, taking away the ‘rinse and repeat’ nature of running which can so often sneak in and take root.

Q: Having determined a ‘stretch zone’ goal, consider a stretch zone system change that would underpin your ability to achieve that goal.

In summary, whilst I appreciate the comfort zone and like to operate in an area where I feel confident, my overall engagement passion for what I do is derived from the stretch zone. My confidence, whilst cemented in the comfort zone is developed within the stretch zone. My influence in the comfort zone is a product of my stepping into the stretch zone.  We need comfort zones, and we need stretch zones.

Embrace both and surprise yourself with what can be achieved.

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