The only thing you can expect from a 100-miler is the unexpected
Preparing for long and grueling ultramarathons such as the HURT 100-miler require many important factors. Most people quickly think of the physical training component (which is obviously necessary), but what about the mental piece, and what about when unexpected things happen such as nutritional and hydration issues, injuries, etc.?
One thing that I have learned from completing 9 out of 11 attempts in the mountain 100-mile ultramarathon category is that the only thing that you can expect is the unexpected! Looking back on the 2 times that I bowed out of the race it is always easy to look in hindsight and think, “maybe I could have continued?” You know what they say, “hindsight is always 20/20”!
When is it appropriate to DNF (an abbreviation for “Did Not Finish”), and when do you push through the pain and discomfort? This is sometimes a fine line, and there are a lot of factors that play into this decision.
My first DNF was about half way through a 100 miler in 2010 when I had an acute injury to my plantar, and it was a “no brainer”. I injured myself and the decision was easy to make, and it would have not been very smart to attempt to continue (nor possible). Although, I did make a decision to continue despite a knee injury at one point in my career (also about half way through the race), and was able to finish (with a sub par finish). The result of that was that I had to take 6 weeks off from running to rehabilitate the injury that I exacerbated during the event. Looking back, that decision to keep on during the race despite the injury may have been a not-so-wise move, but luckily I did no permanent damage.
The demons gained a lot of power… Game over. I dropped.
Recently, at the 2015 HURT 100 I was having a pretty solid race until about mile 60. I was in the top five and right where I wanted to be with 40 miles to go as I was gunning for a podium position. I was racing this event for a top spot, not just going for a finish (more on that soon). While climbing the infamous “Hogs Back” I started feeling very dizzy, light headed, and my vision was a little “off”. A half mile later up the steep climb I started feeling like I was going to vomit (which I’ve never done while racing). Shortly after, it did happen, violently, and then again, and again. I was having severe stomach pains that accompanied the retching, and I was moving very slowly. I lost a lot of fluid and tried my best to rehydrate myself as much and as quickly as possible as it was still very hot and humid in the jungle of Hawaii (even though it was now night time). When I reached a paved road where the trail crosses I decided to try to lie down on the paved road for a minute to stretch out my abdomen that was in severe pain and to rest. Maybe that would settle things down. It didn’t, and I was now getting some cold chills and goose bumps and every time I tried to stomach anything it would be back to retching. At that point the idea of dropping out was starting to creep into my mind.
I coach a lot of runners and one thing that I am continually preaching to them is not letting “the demons” get the best of you. Once you start entertaining those thoughts they grow stronger and gain in power. Eventually they overtake you and the switch is turned off. Once the switch is turned off it is very difficult to turn back on. Right at that particular moment for me when those “demons” gained a lot of power, a car came by and stopped to see if I was okay and offered me a ride. Game over. I dropped.
Just before the car came, in that moment I could not wrap my head around trying to run (nor could I physically do it based on the vomiting and stomach pains). Could I have walked (slowly) to the next aid station through the rough terrain? Possibly. It would have taken me hours and at that point upon arrival I probably would have slept in a cot or dropped there. Could I have slept there and woke up to finish after potentially regaining my hydration and strength? Yes. Was that my goal? NO.
I am not one of those runners that say, “I will never DNF no matter what”. At the HURT 100 I was being competitive and pushing the limits on one of the toughest 100’s around. When you put yourself in that situation there is much more room for things to go awry. I put in on the line and made a few mistakes and my body faltered. That’s ok. I am at peace with my decision and will try again next year.
There are those times in tough ultras where you have the peaks and low valleys. The crux is when you are in those tough moments to ask yourself what you really want to do, based on your goals. Obviously there are times of mental breakdown, and sometimes it takes someone else to help you realize what you came there for.
Some questions to ask yourself when contemplating a DNF:
- Is your goal to finish or are you being competitive? How bad do you want to finish. (One thing that I did the prior year at HURT 100 when the demons were creeping in at mile 75 or so was I imagined myself on the beach on vacation after the race wishing that I finished. Seeing it all the way through is a powerful visualization and ultimately it helped me get to that finish line.)
- Are you potentially putting yourself in danger with an injury or health problem? (I personally know runners who cannot run anymore because of pushing their system too hard, or because of chronic overuse injuries. We love to run, and sometimes dropping out gives you the opportunity to “live to fight another day!”)
- How many other people are you affecting? (For me, my wife and daughter were out there and I didn’t want them to be out there for an additional 10 extra hours while I slog to the finish line, just for me to say that I finished.)
- Is your injury or condition valid? (Sometimes your brain plays tricks on you to drop out, and it’s really not that bad)
- Can I just get to the next aid station? (Don’t think about the next 40 miles. Just think about the next 6. What does that look like? Breaking the race into smaller, more digestible chunks will help in not feeling too overwhelmed. Once you get to that aid station then just think of the next section to the next aid station, and so on and so forth.)
- If you are contemplating dropping out just know that it does not feel good no matter what the reason. It’s a hollow feeling and whatever your excuse may be, it feels like you came up short and let yourself and others down. This is a great motivator to keep going. (On the flip side, if you do DNF you know what it feels like and you can use it as motivation for future events. Also, remember to not beat yourself up about it and move on.)