When it comes to endurance events, people tend to think in order to do well, the most important thing is to be in top physical shape. Of course this is important, (especially if you are aiming for a spot on the podium), but I think, for the vast majority of ultra and endurance athletes, the ability to problem solve is the most important trait for a successful outcome.
Problem Solving: How well you adapt to challenges, both expected and unexpected
If you’ve participated in endurance events, you probably have experienced this yourself. There are no shortage of unseen challenges that come up when pushing the human body to the extreme: Nutrition issues, chafing, hydration, old injuries coming back to visit.
With enough experience, you will know how to deal with most (or all) of these as they come up. And the most experienced athletes out there will also be able to handle challenges that are unplanned, unexpected or have never occoured before: A sudden catastrophic gear failure. Falling down and dislocating your shoulder. Unseasonably extreme weather. (In the 2022 Tour Divide event, several cyclists got caught in a freak snowstorm which required rescue of at least 10 of them.)
The Adverity Index: A measurement of the problems you’re experiencing, rated in both quantity and severity.
This is more of a rough indicator than a perfect mathematical calculation. It essentially means this: You may be able to handle a bunch of minor issues all happening at once. Or you may be able to handle one major incident and bounce back. But once they start to “stack” up, if not dealt with properly, things can start to go sideways really quickly. This gets more important the higher the “index” is and if it keeps climbing, eventually the “wheels fall off the bus”
For example, think of a time when you’ve been really overwhelmed. Maybe you were cooking dinner, and then you got a text from your brother about something important, but then the kids started fighting and one is crying, so you go upstairs to deal with that, and next you know the smoke alarm goes off because you forgot about the pot one the stove and it boiled over. Over capacity. Overwhelmed. You eventually get it all under control, but dinner is ruined, and the next day your brother asks why you didn’t answer his simple yes/no question.
Problem triage: Evaluating the urgency of an issue, and f it needs to be addressed immediately or not
Problem Triage plays an integral part of how the Adversity Index goes up and down. Endurance events are FULL of problems Its how you decide manage them that makes all the difference. For example you feel a hot spot in your right foot. But you are nearing the the cutoff time at the next Aid Station and risking getting pulled from the race. Do you stop and take a look, potentially averting a major blister that would leave you hobbling hours later and take you out of the race? Or do you push forward, hoping it’s only minor so that you are allowed to continue on after the next Aid Station.
Problem triage can also involve negative thoughts before or during the event: “I’m not good enough” “I’m not going fast enough”, etc and the best approach to those is traige-ing them out of your mind and into the garbage can 🙂
Managing challenges for the best outcome:
So if problem solving is a critical skill in race outcomes, perhaps more important than physical conditioning, how do we address that?
There are techniques you can start using now. The term “triage” is probably best know as the decision making process that nurses and doctors use in an Emergency Room use to evaluate patients as they come in. To apply this to your event, you need to be able to evaluate problems as they occour by both urgency and severity. Urgency: Is this a problem that I absolutely need to deal with now? Is it time-sensitive? Or can I wait a bit and see? Severity: How important is this problem relative to others that might be happening?
Of course the complicating factor is that urgency and severity can be dynamic and so up and down with time. For example if you run out of water, you might not be dehydrated yet. But if you have 2 more hours to go to the next Aid Station, you might be severely dehydrated by the time you get there. So if you just passed a creek, maybe the best decision is to turn back and preemptively address the issue before it gets worse.
To effectively triage issues, its important to be in the best state of mind. You will triage best when you are calm, rational, and methodical. Using the ER example above, if every time a patient came in, the nurses freaked out at the sight of blood, they might not make the best decisions in terms for all of the patients in the ER at the time. For example: If you come into an Aid Station and realize for some reason your drop bag isn’t there, getting angry/upset won’t help your situation. You need to go into problem-solving mode and decide “okay, I can deal with this, can I make it to the next Aid Station, how can I improvise with what I have and whats around me to make this work?”
The good news about all of this is that once you are aware of this better approach to problem solving, you can start improving your problem solving skills immediately. Think back to a time where you didn’t deal with problems in a rational, calm way, or misjudged the severity of an issue where it led to bigger problems down the line, or even a DNF. This techique only gets better with time and practice, so get out there and remember: “Failure is an Opportunity in Disguise”