Ultra Marathon – Running and Life – Looking at my DNFs

In Ultra-Marathon running and in life there is much to learn by looking back at history.  Would we do the same things if knew the outcome?  What can we improve in the future from our lesson in the past?  In a 1948 speech to the House of Commons, Winston Churchill said (I paraphrase), “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.’

 (Before I wanted to go home at Boogie 50)

I’m not Churchill but I agree, so I’ll look back at my Ultra-Marathon DNFs and see what I can learn.

DNF #1, The Bethel Moonlight Boogie 50-miler, June 2016.  A great race run in the heat and humidity of early June in southern North Carolina.  I successfully ran this race for the first time in 2015.  On a whim (since all my friends were running it) I signed up again in 2016.  This time something was different.  I signed up late and not totally committed.  Since all the “cool kids” were signed up, I talked myself into eventually standing on the starting line on a hot and muggy afternoon.  As the gun went off and the pack moved along the country roads for the first of five 10-mile laps, all felt good.  After the excitement of seeing my friends and the rush of the start of the race began to wear off…I simply did not want to be there.  My mind wanted to be anywhere but sweating it out in the middle of the night.  I wanted to be home with my wife.  It was halfway into lap two that I broke.  I called it a day at mile 15.

Lessons Learned:  Two things I believe lead up to my very first DNF.  #1 I was never committed to the race.  You might be able to fake a 10k, half marathon and if you’re good a marathon, but an ultra, you must be bought in 100%.  I was not.  #2 I was coming off an “EPIC” run at the Grand Canyon (R2R2R).  With over 20,000 ft of elevation change, it was a suffer fest to finish and get my butt out of the canyon.  On this night at Boogie, I wasn’t ready to suffer again.

[Tweet “@cledawgs talks about his DNFs and what we can learn by looking back at the past”]

DNF #2, MEDOC Mountain Meltdown 50k plus, Aug 2016.  Being a middle of the pack runner, I normally never have a chance at a podium finish.  On lap three of four (50k+ plus race distance) on a rather hot and humid August afternoon in North Carolina, I rolled into the aid station an overheated mess.  Before I knew what, I was doing I downed nearly a gallon of anything I could find that was cold and wet.  The damage was done.  My stomach was gone.  As I sat on a park bench overheated, with a belly full of liquids to the point of discomfort and feeling sorry for myself the lap counter asked when I was headed out for the final lap.  I told her I was done.  “You can’t drop….you are in the lead pack!”

Lessons Learned:  The heat that day won.  My body was so desperate for fluids and to cool off that I lost control of my actions.

 (Waterlogged and near defeat…)

DNF #3, Seashore Nature Trail 50k, Dec 2017.  One of my favorite races.  On the heels of a very successful fall race season I felt very confident.  I had been running well and posted some great times at the Yeti 100, 7-Bridges Marathon and a sub 4 at OBX Marathon.  The old body held up pretty good, with only some slight tightness in my left IT band.  I’d get that looked at after Seashore.  Or so I thought.  Maybe I went out to fast, maybe I had too many racing miles on my legs so soon after a 100-miler.  As I closed out the first lap, at 16.4 miles…I left knee started to ache, my legs felt dead and I could no longer land with any control.  Fearing further injury, I pulled up and walked it in.  I’ll be honest I was scared I had done some real damage to my knee.

Lessons Learned:  The body needs to recover.  No matter how we feel about ourselves we are not bulletproof.  It’s easy to run these epics races and begin to believe we can do no wrong.  Your body will set you straight.  Listen to that soft voice, that slight discomfort before it becomes something that shuts you down long term.

 (When things felt good at SeaShore 50k)

DNF #4, Leadville Trail 100, Aug 2018.  My goal race.  40 miles into the race everything was going according to plan.  I never doubted a finish.  I could feel the weight of the buckle already resting around my waist.  I just had to get it done.  I arrived at Twin Lakes (outbound) at 8 hours and 30 minutes into the race 1.5 hours ahead of the cut-offs.  Rolling out of Twin Lakes for Hope Pass I knew I had a fight in front of me.  I told one of my crew members, Jeff, “this is hard” as I headed off.  I had no idea.  9 hours and 45 miles later, 20 miles further along the course I ran back into Twin lakes only to be told I missed the cut-off.  Broken and beat I collapsed into the dirt road in front of the fire station and cried.

Lessons Learned:  No amount of education or training could prepare me for what I would face climbing up Hope Pass with 40 racing miles on my legs.  And I made some mistakes.  #1 I relied too heavily on my 100-mile race experience.  Coming from the east coast and sea level I knew I would be fighting the oxygen-thin environment along with the 100-miles.  I figured my experience would help me.  #2 I refueled as I had for all my 100-milers…again on the east coast.  That wasn’t enough.  And #3 I made mistakes that at the time I thought were smart moves, ie. saving my legs for later in the race.  I now look back on these decisions and realize I was taking the easy, the comfortable way out.  Example…  On the back side of Hope Pass, I was happy to stay “in line” and slowly work my way into Winfield (the 50-mile turnaround.)  My brain told me I did not want to be “that guy” who broke from the pack to pass the slower people.  That was my weakness looking for an easy way out.

(Before the trail turned to mush…)

DNF #5, Devil Dog 100, Dec 2018.  I wanted revenge after Leadville.  What I got was a cold, wet and rain filled day.  It rained ALL DAY up and down the east coast on top of weeks of rain prior to the event.  Add in that a cold front moved in and it was just a miserable time to be outside doing anything.  So let’s run 100 miles on an already tough course.  The conditions made it tough but what got me was the nearly falling 100 times during the day on the muddy trails.  Each near fall caused my lower back to get tighter as the miles wore on.  At mile 80 I could not avoid going down.  Being cold, wet, tired and now mud-soaked did not beat me.  I got up and motored another 10 yards where I went down again.  This time I was broken.  And a bit worried that I had lost all ability to avoid further falls on a course, that was very challenging, running over large rocks, tree roots and along swollen creeks.  At 81.25 miles and now behind the clock, I called it a race.

Lessons Learned:  Months removed, I believe I ran a good race.  The most obvious failure on the day was that I should have used my hiking poles.  For some unknown reason, my brain reasoned that since this was not a “mountain 100,” I would not need them.  For 26 hours and 40 minutes, they remained tucked into my running kit, warm and dry.  With my poles, all the near falls would have been mute and I believe I would have felt more confident in the mud to continue.

Things look much clearer in the rearview mirror.  What we need to do is to review our shortcomings, learn from our mistakes and build a better plan for tomorrow.  “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it. 

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