The dreaded 3 letters in Ultra Running: DNF or Did Not Finish. The 3 letters that no ultra runner at any level wants to hear on race day. Ultra marathons are different from any other endurance event in that you can only expect this: expect the unexpected. Things will go wrong and things will go right. There are many highs and many lows during an ultra marathon but the good news is that if you keep moving forward and avoid some common mistakes, the finish line is absolutely achievable. To help you reach the finish on race day, here are some of the most common mistakes that lead to a DNF.
1. Starting Too Fast = DNF
When the race begins, it’s common to get a rush of adrenaline and you may not even realize it. This causes a much quicker starting pace. If you give in, it will certainly catch up to you later in the race. Try reminding yourself of this rush at the starting line. Stay in tune with your body and back your pace off slightly. It’s an extremely long race, and using too much energy too soon can ultimately lead to exhaustion and a DNF.
The last 100 mile ultra marathon I participated in consisted of 4 out-and-backs that were 25 miles each in length. After the first 25 miles I felt burnt out. The heat index reached 110 degrees Fahrenheit and I did not compensate for such extreme heat. After completing 50 miles I could not comprehend nor could I rationalize running another 50 miles to the finish. It’s a lonely place to be exhausted 50 miles into a 100 mile race. However, what I did was simple, I kept my mind in the present and just continued moving my feet forward. At times it seems like a race will never come to an end but one way or another it does. So, in the moment, as runners, we can do what we do best, and that is, keep moving our feet forward and RUN!
2. Sitting Down = DNF
In ultra running there is a saying: “Beware of the chair!” On race day it’s a good idea to always move forward and refrain from sitting down if you can avoid it. Walk if you must. When you stop moving during an ultra marathon you become weak, stiff, and tired. Starting back up takes a substantial amount of energy. Avoiding the chair will help prevent muscle fatigue and a DNF on race day.
The temperature during my first one hundred-mile ultra marathon exceeded 80 degrees during the day. After some evening thunderstorms the temperatures plummeted down to the 40s. I will never forget my first encounter with the mantra “beware of the chair”. When I ran up to an aid station late into the night, a runner was wrapped up in a blanket shivering next to a fire. Apparently, when he took a seat at the aid station his body went into shock forcing him to remain in the chair until deciding on his DNF. In the cold, especially when the sun is down, try to continue moving. If you must walk, try to pump your arms forcefully and rapidly, then, get back to running when you can. Just never stop moving forward and most importantly, beware of the chair!
3. Experimenting With New Fuel = DNF
Using only gel may be adequate for marathon distance but when crossing over to the world of ultra running if you attempt to use the same gel for, say, 100 miles, you may quickly find yourself for the majority of the race trying not to throw up on your shoes. Try to practice eating whole foods during your training runs. Trial and error during training will help you find new fuel sources, preventing experimentation on race day that could lead to nausea and vomiting. If nausea is unavoidable, try ginger chews or chicken broth to help settle your stomach.
Here’s another lesson I learned from my first 100-mile ultra marathon. I fueled with a gel for 50 miles until my stomach began to reject it and I began to feel extremely nauseous. During the entire remaining 50 miles I was immeasurably nauseous doing the best I could not to throw up. I began filling my water bottle with a chicken broth / water mixture and literally forced anything I could down to keep my caloric intake somewhat above par. It was a devastating feeling, however, to the best of my abilities I blocked the nausea out of my mind and somehow kept it together to the finish.
From that day forward I swore off all sugary gels and sports drinks and began to eat only whole foods, nothing processed. This quickly turned into one of the best decisions of my life as it provided me an entirely different outlook on nutrition. It was an opportunity to basically look from the outside in, the type of outlook that becomes clarified with experience. Those who fuel naturally will understand this point of view. It’s a nutritional opportunity that sits right in front of us and is certainly obtainable where we choose natural whole foods over a quick pop of sugary processed substitutions. It could change your running journey in unbelievable ways. Looking back at that day I realized it was a blessing in disguise. Sometimes we must become extremely disturbed to make a change in our lives. Don’t get me wrong, I always ate what I thought to be healthy but would I have made such a radical shift in my eating habits if this nutritional catastrophe did not occur? Possibly, but I certainly would not have taken action as quickly nor be as consistent in the nutritional changes I’ve made. It’s not what we do every so often that creates change that is lasting; rather, it’s what we do consistently.
4. Not Applying Anti-Chaffing Lube = DNF
Lube up in all friction spots with a petroleum-based product. You will thank yourself later in the race. Reapply during the race periodically and proactively–more so if it is raining. Compression gear can also help. Chaffing can be a big issue during ultra marathons if you are not prepared. During longer events, consider changing your clothes periodically. Chaffing is a common reason for a DNF. If all else fails, throw on some duct tape and keep your legs moving forward to the finish.
Here’s what I wrote in my article for Ultra Running Magazine about my latest experience with chaffing:
“The last lap was the toughest and it was not because of the lack of sleep, not because of the nausea I was dealing with, and not even because of the fatigue I was feeling. The day of running in the sun and rain came back to haunt me. It was the toughest lap because of the intense chafing I was experiencing. The chafing got so bad that it felt like razor blades were rubbing against me with each step. The pain was unbearable. When I reached the aid station at the turn around it was time to get creative and resourceful. I grabbed two shirts, a roll of duct tape, a bottle of Vaseline, and a bag of corn starch …”
5. Taking Too Much Time at Aid Stations = DNF
Keep your eye on the clock. If you take too much time at aid stations you could find yourself flirting with the cutoff times. Missing a cutoff time is another common reason for a DNF. As you run up to an aid station, have your mental checklist ready, grab what you need, and walk forward as you organize your fuel. Once you’re ready, get right back to running.
Personally, I do not run into an issue with cut off times, however, I’d like to give kudos to those runners who take the max time to finish an ultra marathon. When the aid stations are closing down and the race is coming to an end, some runners are still out there relentlessly moving forward to the finish, sometimes even past cut off times. That’s drive, that’s motivation, that’s sheer mental strength and I congratulate you for it.
6. Water/Electrolyte Imbalance = DNF
It’s important to manage the balance between your water intake and your electrolytes (sodium, potassium, calcium, etc.). When your electrolytes are out of balance, it can lead to cramping and a DNF. To help remain balanced, runners use salt tablets, electrolyte powder, chicken broth, salted potatoes, sports drinks, etc. You can also monitor your hydration by the color and frequency of your urine output. An electrolyte imbalance can be dangerous, so monitor your intake, make safe choices, and cross that finish line hydrated and healthy.
During a 50k I did not do a great job keeping my electrolytes balanced and was running well above my 50k race day pace. Suddenly and without warning I cramped up intensely, which immediately stopped me in my tracks and onto the ground. My hamstrings tightened up as I arched my back performing one of those laughing-yells. You know, when it hurts so you yell but laugh because you know how funny you look squirming on the ground in the middle of the woods with no one in sight. I think even a deer shook its head at me and kept on its way. To adjust I took baby strides to the next aid station and super hydrated upon arrival. Fortunately, I bounced back and finished with no other problems.
7. Ignoring Minor Irritations = DNF
Small irritations can eventually evolve into painful circumstances on race day. A pebble in your shoe at the beginning of a race can eventually feel like a boulder towards the end of a race. This also goes for rubbing, blisters, and sunburn. If you feel hotspots on your feet or experience foot pain, try to re-tie your shoes or change them at the aid station. Blisters are one of the top reasons for a DNF, so be proactive and prevent them early on.
In ultra marathons we quickly find this mistake to be most true. It’s a smart idea to stay in-tune with how your body feels. There’s been times where a small pebble has actually put a hole into my big toe. In regards to preventing overuse foot pain, I’ve learned to tie my shoes in a particular way. There’s a method that can be found online to help with pronation and supination and the pain that comes with them.
So there you have it, some of the most common mistakes that lead to a DNF. Finishing an ultra marathon is not about how well you do when everything goes according to plan. Rather, it’s about how well you perform when the unplanned occurs. If you can be proactive and resourceful, then, maybe, just maybe, you will find yourself on the other side of the finish line with a whole new perspective on what you are actually capable of achieving: a gift that will change your running forever, and quite possibly even your life.
Thank you very much for reading this weeks’ post. As you move from where you are currently, remember to keep moving towards the possibility of not who you are, but keep moving towards the possibility of who you can become. Have an incredible training week and most importantly above all … LIVE ON THE RUN!
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