If there’s one thing that’s certain in ultrarunning, it’s that something will go wrong. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when it will happen. The secret to getting to the finish line lies in the how. How will you handle it when the inevitable unexpected snafu rears its ugly head?
In the 10 years that I’ve been running these long distances I’ve been lucky enough to finish each of the fifty marathon-to-100M distance races that I’ve started. I’ll knock on wood and attribute my no-DNF streak to some key lessons and pieces of advice I’ve learned (and am still learning) along the way.
Take care of small problems before they turn into big problems:
Common sense is not that common. Particularly once you’ve got a few miles on your legs and your brain turns to mush. I don’t know about you but I have a hard time adding 1+1 while I’m running! Just the other weekend at the Gorge Waterfall 100K I spent an embarrassingly long time on the trail debating whether or not I should switch my shoes at the next aid station. The sharp rocks were doing a number on the balls of my feet and I had a more robust pair of shoes waiting for me in my drop bag ahead. But could I spare the time to change them?! Should I just suck it up and keep on moving along? I should probably stop being such a wimp and just ignore the problem. But ooowwww ouch ouch ouch! I’ll swap’em. No, I’ll just suck it up. Argh, just change them! It’ll take too long and I can’t be bothered. Basically, I had turned into an irrational toddler. Thank goodness there was no one around to witness that!
Finally, I heard the sage voice of my good friend Greg echoing in my head: Take care of small problems before they turn into big problems. So, when I got to the next aid station, I took all of 2 minutes, sat on the ground, and changed my shoes. And just like that, I was out of the aid station and back on the course in a flash, feeling ten million times better. A quick pause now wouldn’t compare to the 20 mile death mark lurking ahead if I’d have skipped a possible solution. Don’t be that irrational toddler. Take the time to deal with small problems while they’re still small.
Reboot before you shut down:
You’ve been going through a rough spot, your energy has bonked, your legs hurt, your brain is fried, your time goal seems to be slipping away and you’re not having fun anymore. You’re miles away from the next aid station but you’ve already decided to call it quits when you get there. Every little ache, pain, and toe stub builds in a dramatic crescendo. You rehearse the melodramatic play-by-play you’ll recount when you get asked the inevitable question: “What happened?”. Finally, after what feels like an eternity, you hear the cow bells through the trees and you can’t wait to blurt out the words “I’M &%^#ing DONE!”. We’ve all been there – desperate to find the quickest way to put a bullet in it.
Don’t make a terminal decision on the trail. Odds are, if you managed to make it all the way to the next aid station, no matter how terrible you might be feeling, you’re not actually dying. Furthermore, there is no rule that requires you to state your intentions within seconds of arriving at the aid station. Keep calm. Come into the aid station, grab a bite to eat, fix your shoes, tape up your cramping calf, take a power nap if you have the time! Reassess. Almost every problem has a solution and every person at the aid station is there to try to help you solve it. Give yourself the chance to reboot your system before you make the decision to pull the plug.
Learn with others:
Don’t just learn from others. Surround yourself with strong, positive people. Take every opportunity you can to volunteer at an aid station, crew or pace a friend or a total stranger, and find a group of awesome people to run with at home. Inspire one another. You’ll discover what’s possible and that you’re stronger than you ever imagined, when you support and let yourself be supported by others. And most importantly of all, you’ll have a heck of a lot of fun in the process. After all, that’s why we do this crazy sport!