Sunday, June 23, 2013


It was my second year at the West Highland Way Race this year.  Last year I had finished the race but went much more slowly than I had hoped to go, so I was back to try for a faster time.  Unfortunately it wasn't to be--I dropped out at Beinglas (mile 40ish).

There isn't much of interest to say about my race, so I was struggling to think of anything worth writing a race report about.  Basically I was sick (nausea/vomiting) the entire time, and my legs weren't at all recovered from Squaw Peak, and neither of those are very interesting to read about.  But then I did think of something I wanted to write about:  DNFs.

Most of my friends have likely heard me say this before and thus can skip this blog and move on to the next thing to look at on the internet.  Now that I've got a blog, though, I can inflict this on the rest of the world...

The vast majority of ultrarunners have a "finish at all costs" mentality.  I can understand this mentality and I certainly shared it at one point.  But I think that for any runner to improve to his or her maximum ability, it's time for an attitude change.

The best way to explain this, I think, is to compare it to climbing.  In the UK, where I learned to climb, there is a strong "onsight only" mentality.  (As an explanation to nonclimbers, to "onsight" a route essentially means to climb it on your first try, from the ground up, without any falls.  A "redpoint," on the other hand, is a route that you climb successfully, but after you have previously fallen off it and worked on it.)  The idea among a lot of climbers in the UK, therefore, is that you should only do routes that you can onsight.  To them, if you fail and fall off a route on that first try (the climbing equivalent of a DNF), it means you weren't ready for the route and shouldn't have gotten on it.

The thing is, although this mentality is widely shared by average climbers, it isn't held by the best climbers.  Good climbers have figured out that to really improve, you have to temporarily fail, i.e. fall off.  You have to risk failure by trying routes that are too hard for you--at the time--but then work on them, train, improve, and come back to try again for a successful ascent.

As runners, I think we can learn something important from the fact that it's the average, not the best, climbers that share the onsight-only mentality.  It's time for us to figure out that sometimes it's good to drop out, and that being unwilling to drop out of any race will, in the end, hold you back.

There are two main reasons that I see for this:

1.  Learning your limits--so that you can run at them, not below them.

Let's say that a DNF is due to trying to operate at more than 100% of your body's capacity.  That means that if you are determined to finish no matter what, you have to give yourself a pretty safe margin of error.  You can't go at 99%, because you know that if any tiny little thing goes wrong, you'll be out.  So this means you're stuck at maybe 80%, or 90% if you're up for a gamble.

By being determined not to DNF, you've just given up any hope of achieving the remaining percentage.  You're never going to learn what 99% feels like if you don't make it to the tipping point past 100%, because what feels like 99% during a race generally isn't.  Depending on the race, that extra percentage between your failure-safe 80% and your true 99% could be a few minutes faster, or it could be a few miles longer that you're able to run without walking, or an extra hill you can actually run up even though you thought you needed to walk it...there are so many possibilities.

Obviously this doesn't mean I'm saying people should go all-out for a totally unrealistic goal and drop out when that doesn't work.  What I'm saying is to go for the best possible goal that is compatible with the training you've done.  Which brings me to...

2.  Training benefits.

Ultrarunners are, in general, not great at putting any kind of scientific or logical backing into their training.  The no-DNF mentality only adds to this.  At the WHW race this year, my goal was to do it in under 24 hours (I had done 26:30 the year before).  Because I had made a mistake with my training by doing Squaw Peak too close to the race and because I was sick, it became clear during the race that it wasn't possible for me to do it under 24 hours.  At mile 40 I had two options:  (A)  I could slowly run/walk the rest of the way and finish in 26+ hours, or (B) I could drop out.  Going for option A avoids a DNF but means a much longer recovery time--at least three weeks off serious training.  Going for option B means I just had a nice long training run and I can start in with easy runs whenever I want.  Option A might look appealing in the short term, or at least appealing aside from the prospect of enduring even more midge bites, but option B will make me a better runner a few months down the line.

In fact, the real mistake of my training leading up to the WHW was not dropping out of Squaw Peak.  If I had stopped at mile 20 or 30 there, who knows how the WHW would have gone...?  I might have had my 24 hour finish.

The training benefit part of this is especially true when there's an injury or a potential injury involved.  Ultrarunners love to tell stories about so-and-so-person who finished a race even though his broken foot was hanging out of his shoe, etc.  Yes...and how long until so-and-so was able to run well again?  How long did it take him to start improving again after the race?  How much more could he have improved if he had the benefit of that lost time spent on recovery?  I tried (and failed) to run the Sawtooth 100 on a broken ankle once, which I fully admit was a stupid idea, but what would have been even stupider would have been not dropping out.  Dropping out allowed me to rest up the ankle, recover in about three weeks, and be back running normally again a month later.

A few concrete examples of how an unwillingness to drop out can be a hindrance:  I remember back 5 years ago when a friend first told me about the Arrowhead race.  He was saying what an amazing race it sounded like.  I thought that I might like to sign up and asked him if he had ever done it.  He said no, he had never entered, that it was way too hard for him.  He's a much better runner than me, so that worried me, but I signed up anyway.  I didn't manage to finish it on three occasions, but then I did finish, and it was one of my favorite moments in all of my running.  My friend has still never entered.

Another example, also involving Arrowhead:  I mentioned once to a friend that I hate walking, so I was thinking that I'd like to try doing Arrowhead with mostly running.  My friend, who has finished Arrowhead walking and is a veritable ultrarunning machine, said something along the lines of that not being a good idea because it would be too hard and it would lead to a DNF.  But this was all in theory--he's never actually tried to run it, and so while he could theoretically do it faster next time using a run, he'll never know.

Me, I'd rather try and find out.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Squaw Peak 50 Race Report

This was only intended to be a pre-West Highland Way training race for me, but I got far more than I bargained for.  The Squaw Peak 50 is in the mountains just south of Salt Lake City, and the hills there, are, well, mountains.  And then there's the brutal heat, which even a few days of running in Wisconsin humidity hadn't prepared me for.

What a lot of the course looked like.  Photo from the race's Ultrasignup page.

To be fair, I was also having an unusually bad day.  Something (altitude, most likely?) was wrong with my stomach right from the start and by mile 4 I was ready to throw up.  I tried not to, though, because I thought it would be too embarrassing having everyone around me assume that I was sick already because I had so badly misjudged my pace!  At this point I could tell it was going to be a long day...

The race starts off on a paved bike path for 2 miles, then turns onto a singletrack trail up a hill.  It's cold, since the race starts at 5 am, but it's great weather for running. We keep climbing up and get an amazing view of the lake and mountains at sunrise.  More climbing up on singletrack and a rocky road, which winds around to a pass near mile 15.  It's cold up here--Fake Tony (this guy had such a perfect Anton Krupicka imitation look going that since I never got his name, I went with Fake Tony, although he seemed like a much nicer person than his namesake) says I'm lucky to be wearing gloves, but even then my hands are so cold that I can't move my fingers enough to put some Gu I picked up from my drop bag into my pack.  A nice guy named Barry helps me.  A few minutes later I realize it was a wasted effort because I'm too sick to be able to eat any of the Gu anyway.

After mile 15 it's a long downhill, but my stomach hurts too much to run very fast.  The sun comes out and it's immediately way too hot.  I realize I forgot to put on sunscreen, which is bad news at 7,000 feet with red hair.  To balance this out, though, I get lucky on the navigation front:  there are some sudden turns off the rocky main track onto singletrack that I would have missed if I hadn't been able to follow Barry, who, fortunately for me, has done the race before.

Everything feels awful and I consider dropping out at the mile 20 aid station.  This is only a training run after all, and I don't want to overdo it and be too tired to race the WHW.  But I can't drop at 20 because I figure I need to get in at least 40 miles today or it will be too short of a pre-WHW long run.  I decide to slow down to 100-mile pace and treat this as practice for keeping the pace up when I haven't been able to eat much.  I get plenty of practice at that because in the end only a few pieces of fruit, a cookie, and two Gu stay down for the rest of the race.  I even throw up my Tums, which is a new low for me.

Again I wonder if I should drop out.  Maybe I could stop at the mile 33 aid station and add on a few more slow, easy miles on my own?  But the last uphill section ends at mile 40 and then it's all downhill to the finish, so if I'm going to run more than 33 miles anyway, I might as well do the race.  Only 7 miles more of uphill, how bad can it be?

Bad.  Very bad.  Before the race, the race director had talked about how this was one of the hardest 50s in the country.  I didn't doubt that it was at least somewhat hilly and hot, but I figured he was just saying what runners always like to say, that their local race is the hardest/longest/most technical____.  Well, this guy may have had a point.  In addition to the other hard bits of the race, the climbs out of mile 33 are brutally steep and entirely in the hot sun.  The second of the two climbs is straight up a giant hill with no switchbacks.  It takes me 1 hour and 15 minutes to do a mile here and that is fast enough to be passing people.  Even going more slowly than planned, this is definitely not just training anymore.

I have music with me but I'm in too bad of a mood to listen to it.  Everyone else seems to be suffering too--a guy in a white tank top and I trade looks of pain every time we leapfrog each other.  It takes absolutely forever to get to the top of the pass.  I see Divesh at the aid station just on the other side of the pass, and he looks about as happy as I feel.  There's an unpleasantly steep and rocky descent for 6 miles down the other side of the mountain.  I try to convince myself it's good training for the descent into Kinlochleven, which is undoubtedly true, but it's not what my mind wants to hear right now.  Finally, near the end of the descent, I get to see a familiar face when Clark, who we had met the night before at the pre-race dinner, passes me.  The rockiness eventually eases up into smoother, less steep trail.  There's a bit of confusing route-finding at the bottom of the hill but, like clockwork, Barry shows up to point me at the right trail. 

A few minutes later, we end up at the last aid station and from there it's just 3.5 miles on paved road to the end.  I'm fully intending to walk here to limit the leg damage, but a friendly girl named Allison runs up and catches me and I realize it'll be a lot more fun to run with her than to walk on my own.  Plus faster to the finish = faster to a soak in the nice cold creek.  About a mile from the end, Allison drops back but Clark's friend (whose name I can't quite remember now), who had DNFed but was now out on the course to see Clark finish, shows up and kindly runs with me to the end. 

The end result?  I probably should have dropped out.  I'm pretty concerned about whether my legs are going to be fully recovered from this by June 22.  My time was 11:36, in comparison to my 8:55 50-mile split from the Fling a month ago, and I feel a lot worse after this than I did after the Fling.  The course was hard enough that even if I had been having a good day, I probably would have been over 11 hours.  So, I'd say it's definitely not a race to use a training run, but with the beautiful scenery and tough climbs, it would make a nice goal race.

Now I just need all your best recovery tips...