Since I began to exercise more than to just keep fit, I've found that as a result I have to pay more attention to how I train and what I eat and drink. Maybe part of that is my age too; reaching 40 last year I'm realising that I can no longer just eat, drink and do what I like and expect my body to cope and recover in the same way it did in my twenties.
Before our annual Pyramid Race (a 12 km race up and down a steep hill) last year, I knew I'd trained more than in the previous years and instead of just aiming to finish, I knew I was capable of finishing in a good time together with the top female runners. I was excited at this prospect and determined to do my best.
The previous year in the race I was aware that my mind and focus let me down. When the going got tough, I gave in mentally, finishing in the same time as the previous year - no improvement in a year, which really annoyed me after I thought I'd trained lots!
So last year I'd worked on pushing myself through the hard bits and was happy that I was in the right head-space to not give in when the going got tough.
Before the race
In the few days leading up to the race and particularly the morning of the race I knew I had to make sure I drank enough. The race takes place at 2 pm up here in the tropics, so it can be pretty hot and humid and dehydration can be a big problem.
So I made sure and sipped water at every opportunity, and I had my two bottles ready to take with me on the race - one water and one sports drink.
During the race
I started the race well, and for the first time in 5 years of doing the race, was up with the main pack of runners. After the 3 km run to the mountain, I went well on the uphill, pushing through the pain and sore muscles to reach the top in 4th place in my age category. I knew I was pretty OK on the downhill part and so was feeling confident. I'd been sipping my sports drink every 15 mins or so though thought all was on track for finishing in a great time.
10 mins into the downhill, my mind was absolutely fine and feeling strong, but that was when my legs started to wobble and cramp. I felt like I didn't have enough control over my leg muscles to be able to go downhill at any speed, so had to slow down to a walk.
The cramps were painful, but I managed to continue and finished the race in a faster time than the previous year, 2 hours and 28 minutes.
After the race
When I crossed the finish line, my legs gave way under me. It felt like every muscle was cramping at the same time, and as I tried to stretch one, another cramped as a result.
I felt frustrated as I wasn't out of breath and knew I hadn't done anywhere near the time I was capable of, but on the same note, I had crossed the line having mentally pushed my body as far as it could go on that day in that situation. I knew that at least this time my mind hadn't been the weak link.
The race volunteers were handing out sports drinks, and a friend bought me a coke. I drank these and ate lots of pieces of fruit that were also on offer in the finishers tent. Then I had one of the free massages also on offer - which helped loosen up my calf muscles which seemed the worst affected. About 30 mins after the race, I felt rehydrated and my muscles were fine. I had no after effects from the cramps and my muscles didn't even ache the next day.
So why did I cramp so badly?
When I got home that evening, I tried to figure out why I'd cramped up so badly and gone so much slower than in practice runs. After spending some time on Google, I figured that my major problem had been hydration.
Although nobody knows for certain, cramps may be caused my muscle fatigue, or low sodium, potassium or magnesium.
Yes, my muscles were fatigued, but I'd never had cramps like this before in any of my practice runs or training sessions. I had consciously drunk lots in the lead up to the race but all I'd really drunk was water.
What I think is likely that happened, is that I flushed a lot of the minerals my body needed out with the water, then when I did the race - and really pushed my body physically, the muscles just didn't have what they needed to work as hard as I wanted them to!
So what should I have done?
Once I began reading about hydration and exercise, it all seemed very sensible and logical. Of course just drinking plain water isn't going to be enough to hydrate my body sufficiently for a 2 hour plus race in hot and humid conditions. I'm no longer just going out for a jog around the streets - this is more serious exercise that requires me to take things a bit more seriously in terms of preparation, training, nutrition and hydration.
I believe I should have drunk some other drinks in the lead up to the race - perhaps some sports drinks, and also made sure to increase my salt intake a little too. Pre-race perhaps a banana for the potassium and magnesium.
I thought about my best practice race prior to race day itself . The night before that practice we'd been out at a friend's house and I'd eaten a lot of chips, crackers and dip - so plenty of salty carbohydrates. I'd also had sugary drinks as well as water. Now I know that isn't very scientific, but I ran a great time the next day so can't have done anything too bad!
My plan from now
Knowing that I could have been up with the top runners in this year's race means that I feel that with the right training and nutrition, next year I'll get there! I'd determined to start to learn about what my body needs to perform to the best of my ability.
My aim is not to leave this year's race to chance. I want to train and eat smart and that means educating myself. My goal is a top 3 finish in this year's Pyramid Race, in my age category. Considering the first year I did the race - in 2009, I came last in my category, this will be a huge achievement for me. But I'm determined to get there.
With only just under 6 weeks to go until race day, I'm feeling positive and fit - just need to keep it going and get it all right on the day!