My 10 Point Plan to avoid a DNF when racing Ultra’s.

It ain’t over until it’s over. Shona Stephenson about to take 1st place in the 2017 Mt Glorious 1/2 Marathon

To DNF or Not To DNF….That is the question but no one like talking about it.

My 10 Point Plan to avoid a DNF when racing Ultra’s.

I’ve been racing Ultra’s for 7 years now and I have had my fair share of wins, podiums top 10 international finishes and of course DNF’s. In the 2012-2013 racing calendar year I had 5 DNF’s. If I was DNFing 5 in a year GNW Sick Haemophilus Influenzae, Tarawera Ultra Exercise-induced hematuria at 75km, Ice Trail Tarenese good old fashion Bonk, UTMB Injury but really over training, SCC Asthma Attack but really over racing as I raced less than 7 days before in Japan with a 50k Hakuba International Trails Win.

How many Ultra’s was I racing? Too many!

2013 I was the Aura Ultra Trail Running National Champion, Northbourne 100M Winner, 2nd Place UTMF, 3rd Place UTA Australia, 9th Place Mont Blanc Marathon, 1st Place Hakuba 50k, Numerous Sydney Trail Running Series Wins, Coastal Classic Record Holder. Plus the 5 DNF’s Was I over racing? Over committing? Starting events I should have been sitting out of? I’d just come off a year off 3rd UTA 100, 1st SCC, 1st GOW, 1st Oxfam Sydney, 1st GNW 100k. To anyone watching from the outside, yes I was totally pushing my limits and I was bound to slip up.

But I was wonder woman! So I thought.

The 2012-2013 Calendar year was one of my strongest racing seasons and set me up for a 8th Ranking on the Ultra Trail World Tour in 2014. So what have I learnt from this racing experience and in the consecutive years that have past? If I finished the event I had a much better chance if being ranked higher on the Ultra Trail World Tour (UTWT), than going out in a blaze of glory.  6th Place Tarawera Ultra, 9th Place UTA  Australia (my worst ever finish at UTAI chose to walk the last 20k with gastro than to DNF), 6th Place UTMF, 10th Place UTMB, giving me a 8th place Ultra Trail World Tour Racking and leading me into a great Kokoda 3rd overall Challenge finish, 2nd over all Oxfam Brisbane, and cracking Blackall 100K 10:59:59 result.

What practices do I now put in play that have helped me to prevent my DNF’s?

Here is my thought process when I race an event.

1 What inspired me to race this event?

You have to find what really drives you. When you’ve proven to yourself you can conquer 100k or 100 Mile or a Team Event like Kokoda or Oxfam and any course and are racing yourself yet are content with your time in the past you must find what really inspires you. Is it the adventure, the unknown conditions, altitude, trails, scenery, challenge, pushing yourself, the commradery? Even if you are not racing in a team just being out there racing with other trail runners towards the same end goal can be enough to drive you to the end.

It can also just be the process of getting to the event, the training program, the running group you are in, making sure I am in the best physical condition I can possibly be. It can also be the opportunity to catch up with your friend and soak up the race atmosphere and views. I’ve set time goals in the past and had the race of my life but I’ve learnt from setting too strict a goal for myself usually ends up in a DNF. I now understand that whilst racing I have to switch plans on the run. Let my body dictate how fast I will be racing that day.

2 Race Week, are you in the right condition to race the event?

Sometimes we can follow the best training programs in the world, do the best lead up events possible to prepare your mind and body for the event but unless you’ve properly rested before the event you are going to be running it already over cooked. The UTMB in 2013 was great example of this. I should not have been on the start line, I put my heart and soul into getting to the start line but really didn’t leave enough in the tank to race. I just wanted to sit in the cafes, drink champagne in Chamonix and watch everyone else slog it out for 168km. I learnt from this the following year. I had to make sure I had a proper taper and good solid lead up events that really got me into shape without draining my reserves. I also had the opportunity to start working with the fabulous physiotherapist at Bodyleadership Australia who totally change the way to prepared my body for an event and really helped me with some long term chronic injuries.

There are questions that need to be asked before an event. Are you sick? Are you healthy? This is a big question. We push our bodies to the limits training and try and get down to race weight and the challenge is to do this without getting sick.

For me I’ve worked out that a good diet will prevent illness. I watch my diet like a hawk, eating as clean and pure as possible. I really don’t get sick other than if I race (I have exercise induced asthma).  I don’t race more than 1 race a month it will give my asthma enough time to recover before racing my next event again. Depending on the intensity that you run events a race no closer than 7 weeks out is a good lead up event if not run at a high intensity as you would an “A” race event.

So what happens if you turn up to an event and you are sick? Well you have to think long and hard about if you should start or realistically what time you are aiming for. I’ve been in events where I’ve said to my support crew if I run through 50k then you know I’m okay whilst running 100 Miles. You can have an action plan for yourself if you are not well and think long and hard before starting an event. This of course comes from me who also believes that sometimes “Enough is good enough”. Sometimes we put too much pressure on ourselves to be in perfect health and we run sick. I guess there is a question you have to ask yourself when you enter an event. How sick am I prepared to get post event? Will I need to visit the doctor post event? Or Hospital? What are you prepared to do. The longer I’ve been running the more I’ve realised that there is always another event and if you think you are going to hurt yourself then there is no race worth this risk.

3 Who is my support crew?

If your Ultra Event allows for a support crew, make sure your support crew will be at the Check Point totally informed of your needs and you are totally organised. I DNF’d Ice Trail Tarenese as my support crew got confused and left the Check Point thinking that he’d missed me as a short course event past though the check point and thinking that I’d pulled out and was injured.  He left the check point before the long course runners came through. I missed the 40k Support Crew, and then the 50K Support Crew. I was separated from my food in France at altitude where 60% of the race was over 2500m and covered in snow. At the 50k Check Point I was trying to figure out what food I could eat that wasn’t full of gluten, dairy, sesame, peanuts in France where all the descriptions on the products were written in french. I ate the CP gels and I made it up to the top of the final climb at 3000m then basically past out in the snow with a bloated stomach then a massive vomit in front of the search and rescue mountain rescue crew. I had a lovely ride down the glacier on the back of the snow mobile and then put in an ambulance and had to do the walk of shame back to the finish line in front of the attractive french police search and rescuers. Very embarrassing. Researching the check point food, gel, sports drink compositions is essential to getting a good result with your nutrition whilst racing. I’ve seen many a time runners having to pull out with stomach issues after consuming something they are not use to at the check points.

Another time I turned up to my support crew whilst attempting to run GNW 100 Mile at 106km mark to totally frozen water bottles, running into the night sick with asthma. My support crew didn’t get my bottles out of the fridge in time for them to melt as the cold changer had come through and the conditions had changed dramatically from earlier in the day. I made it to the top of the next hill then pulled out. I was also incredibly sick and with haemophilus influenza (pneumonia which I thought was uncontrolled asthma at the time) and trying to complete my first 100 Miler. This was an event I should not have started.

Both instances were with first time support crews who were not ultra runners or athletes. I would not blame both of my support crews as they were just doing their best they could with the information I had given them at the time. I’ve just been able to learn from both these experiences and put some processes into place to prevent this from happening again.

It really helps to have an athlete in your support crew who can understand the condition you will be in when racing an ultra. I usually like to be totally self sufficient and not have to rely on a support crew for help just in case they don’t turn up due to any reason. I would also recommend to have  experienced runner or ultra athlete to be your support crew.

4 How big is your ego? What are you really running for? Pride.

This is one thing a competitive runner must defeat when racing. We have to be okay with not racing the other runners and be content with just racing ourselves. This way we will be relaxed when other runners pass us and we lose positions and potentially our goal results. Yes, this is hard when result are given and prize money is awarded. I’ve learnt that a 100k and a 100 miler is a long event and it ain’t over until it’s over. So much can happen in an Ultra and if one can remain in a positive frame of mind they will get the result that deserve on the day. It is best not to think of position or beating a particular person. It is best to just race yourself, what ever happens on the day with your body is good enough. This is the result you deserve.

If someone can get ahead of you, then they obviously deserve it, they’ve trained harder, recovered better, maintained better form, flexibility, technique for longer and may have more natural ability than you. I would then suggest to in your mind praise and recognise their ability. If you can catch them then, wow, Bravo. If you can’t catch and pass them, then have a good chat to them post race and try and find out what they are doing differently to you in their training, cross training, recovery and nutrition. I’ve learnt so much from listening to other runners post race. I soon learnt what information was correct and what information did not work for me. Bodies are so different too. One person may be able to flourish on one training program and nutrition plan and you on a different one.

5 What is your race goal? Are you Racing Within Your Limits.

It is so important to leave something in the tank for your mind for when it all goes tit’s up. If something goes wrong you have to make sure you’ve had enough food to fuel your brain so you have the ability to think your way out of any problem. In my DNF at the UTMF I pushed too hard up one section after getting lost for 4 ks. I then suffered later in the event. One of the CP’s and moved 5k further apart than the year before and I had to take on extra food at the CP that I did not research the CP properly pre event. The food at the CP didn’t agree with me and I was running low on food for most of the event. I then didn’t fuel myself properly and I dropped low and got incredibly depressed and started to cry a fair bit. I pushed through to 130km before being picked up on the side of the road by a truck driver who took pity of me between check points. I must have looked like crap.

Sometimes you just have to take the pressure off and just slow down. There is nothing wrong with walking for large sections of a course while you recover. If you do start walking then have a plan of walking. I would give myself a rest for a hill or 100 steps then start running again. I really believe in running and walking rather than just giving into the desire to walk.

6 When is it okay to DNF?

Never Decide to DNF between check points. I have never DNF’D at a Check Point. I have always pulled out or decided to DNF between Check Points. I’d made the decision between a check point and managed to get a lift off the course. I’ve pulled out at all my Ultra Events I’d competed in  between CP’s except for the UTMB, where there was no way out but on the Bus and Tarawera Ultra my support crew pulled me thinking I would hurt myself if I went on further. Both times I’d already made the decision to withdrawn before entering the CP. GNW, my dad picked me up between Check Points, too much pride to pull out in front of the Check Point in front off the event Staff, UTMF a truck pulled over on the side of the road and gave me a lift I must have looked so bad, I’d already waved on a car that offered me a lift, SCC I was put in a car by another runner I sounded so bad with asthma, Ice Trail Tarenese Snow Mobile down the glacier.

Why is this a good practice NOT to decide between check point to DNF an event? If you have the thought in your mind that you just have to make it from Check Point to Check Point it is a small manageable goal. At the check point you will decide there to DNF. This means that you push the thought from your mind about all DNFing thought and you start to concentrate on just eating, drinking, and running instead of DNFing. At the Check Point your support crew will hopefully distract you again from all DNFing thoughts,  you will have too much to do switching over your food and water, cheer you up and give you exactly what you need at the check point to keep you going. A cold or a hot drink can make a massive difference to your mental state. A change of clothes, wet weather gear, your favourite race food, ice block or even just a hug is enough to keep you going. You have no idea how lovely a hug can be from a loved one when you are suffering. Even having your support crew out there giving up their precious free time, in one of the most boring jobs for you to see you for 1-3 minutes at a CP in usually awful conditions for 24 hours is enough motivation to keep you moving. I have a real problem telling my support crew that I’m DNFing at the CP. I now have a rule I can’t DNF between check points and if I have a problem telling my support crew I don’t want to finish at the Check Point, then I am probably going to finish the event.

7 Stay Calm

We can put all kind of stress and pressure on ourselves that then in turn have a chain reaction through our body making it tighten up, cramp, feel pain and panic. If we take the pressure off ourselves and just stay in the moment and enjoy just being able to have the ability to start an ultra then we will feel much better and not think of stopping.

At Blackall 100 2017, I had 3 month of bad luck with my health. I’d won the event 3 times in a row and I could have put a fair amount of pressure on myself to win it again especially it being the Australian Ultra 100 K Championships. I was on my 5th dose of antibiotics in 2 months, I was just happy to be able to run the event at all. I knew I was doing my best with the body that I had on the day. I had to rejoice that I was even able to run at all. Who cared about the asthma. I was lucky to even be able to race. I knew I hadn’t been able to train because I was so sick. I just had to accept my body on the day and be happy to even be there.

8. We are all in this together.

We all have our achilles heal, strengths and weaknesses. Ultra’s are hard. They are not meant to be easy. If they were easy then everyone would be doing it and it would no longer be a challenge. If I’m hurting going up a hill I would say that everyone else is hurting too. If the conditions are wet then I’d remind myself of how I usually excel in slippery conditions. If its hot then I love it. If it’s cold I remind myself to rug up and stay warm, if I’m tired or teary then I make sure I am eating enough to keep my moods level without any real sugar spikes and drops. My mind is constantly monitoring my vital signs. I have to spit every 200m or so, sound terrible but this is how I keep my lungs clear. If I’m not spitting then I know I’m rehydrated or my asthma is really kicking in. This is also a sign I must look after my hydration.

I also think of the back markers and think how much tougher they are doing it than me. I use them as my inspiration to push onwards. I love going to the finish line of events and watching the back markers come through and see how hard it would have been to run thought the night sometimes on their feet for twice as long as me to cover the same distance in a body that would not be as conditioned as mine. I think if they can finish then so can I. It’s a real humbling experience. No ego, just happy with the finish. Enough is good enough.

9 Play Music.

In the past I would have said no to music. I don’t listen to it when I am training. I save it for racing. I’ve found that it help keep me calm and really hits that primal part of the brain that stays in the moment and methodical about the task at hand. Music also takes my mind off my breathing and I will calm down relax and enjoy the moment so much more.

10 Remind Yourself of everyone you’ve told you are racing.

I think of my two beautiful girls, clients, friends, kids who I coach. I know love hearing all about my stories of the events I do want to be remembered as a runner who is smart and able to think on their feet and not mind if they are not winning or hitting their target time so they pull out. Winning is not everything, just finishing is enough to be a champion in of these events we compete in.

It takes a fair amount of courage to stay in an event when it is not going your way. It takes real acceptance to be really content with the body and mind you have on the day.

Copyright Michael Leadbetter Photography