For a morbid half-awake moment, I considered what it might be like to drown. Would it be peaceful or would it be an eternal panic before passing out?
You see, I was clinging to a pink flamingo floatie in the middle of a hot springs pool at 4 AM while 160 of my comrades were still in the mountains fighting a battle. And all I wanted to do was fall asleep. But if I did, I’d likely slip into the water and wake up with a lung-full of sulfery water.
No, I hadn’t crossed the finish line in second or third place. I DNF’d. That stands for “Did Not Finish.” (Yeah, I know, doesn’t work as a verb when spelled out, but ultrarunner don’t care.)
It was a horrible decision to make. And in the next few paragraphs, I’ll tell you why it happened and what I learned from that and other things that happened at the 2018 IMTUF 100 ultramarathon.
1. Sometimes a DNF Might Save Your Life (or At Least Your Career)
If you’re an ultrarunner, you’re all too familiar with the concept of the DNF. A few weeks ago at the famous Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc 171k race, the best of the best accepted a DNF including favorites Jim Walmsley, Kilian Jornet, and Zach Miller.
People DNF for various reasons. And it’s an extremely personal decision.
Some can’t even explain why sometimes. I met a guy at IMTUF who told me, “this is just not my kind of race.”
The elites tend to DNF because of injury or danger. A bee stung Jornet before UTMB and his leg swelled up like a balloon, forcing him to DNF later in the race. Walmsley injured his foot and slowed down too much after mile 20.
At IMTUF 2018, I dropped due to injury.
Not that it wasn’t something I could have fixed early (I’ll talk about that later), but by the time I hit the mile 60 aid station, it was too late. The last twelve miles after an incredible (and for me, fun) climb up Snowslide Summit, were pure hell.
I’d already suffered through miles of pain before the mile 47 aid at Snowslide Trailhead. While that pain had slowed me down a little, it was still manageable with proper breathing and relaxation. I’d maintained a ten-minute mile on the runnable parts.
But as soon as I ran down the backside of Snowslide Summit, everything fell apart. My right hip flexor cried out every time I lifted my leg. I quickly developed IT band problems and suddenly any downhill was like a knife to my knee.
I stopped and stretched to no avail. And it was getting dark.
My only option at that point was to slog through the next 10 miles, get to an aid and re-evaluate.
To Hell and Back Again
As darkness descended on the valley, the temps dropped from probably 50 degrees to 30 degrees. Fortunately, I’d donned a warm running sweater, loose leggings, and tossed a pair of hand warmers in my gloves at mile 47.
I tried to jog, but each time I tried, the pain increased until it was blinding and I had to walk within a few minutes. Even the mildest of inclines had me wanting to get on my hands and knees and crawl. I couldn’t even lift my leg over a five-inch-tall rock. I had to manually lift my leg at times over logs.
One incredible thing about ultramarathons is the camaraderie. Every time I stopped to let runners pass, they asked if I was okay. I quickly tired of explaining my circumstance and began to say, “I will be.”
Most just ran on, but a few were genuinely concerned. One guy even got me hiking again at around mile 54. It was an admirable thing because as soon as I hit another easy incline, I literally had to go on all fours and crawl up. I think he soon realized I was going to slow him down because he said, “I’ll see you at Lake Fork” and went on. I definitely don’t blame him. I was a turtle.
At that point, I was alone for a while. I turned on my external speaker and started listening to the Binge Mode Podcast. I thought that maybe the humor would lift my spirits and distract me from the sharp pain in my right leg. But even laughter couldn’t cure my condition.
Only a mile from the Lake Fork Aid a runner stopped to ask if I was okay. I explained my situation and she loaned me her poles. I must have looked quite a mess at that point, shivering, baby-stepping, holding my hip with my right hand.
The poles helped for two minutes. When the pain returned in force, I knew it was too late. I hobbled into the aid station feeling like the worst failure on the planet. I returned the poles and sat down hoping someone would notice me.
Soon, someone’s crew member did and when she asked if I needed anything, I said, “Tylenol?” She didn’t have any. At that point, I was done. I tried not to cry. I moved my chair closer to the heater. I was done.
One Last Chance
I sat there dumbly hoping the pain would go away. Ben Blessing, the race director for another local race who was there to pace another runner, came up to me and asked what was wrong. I explained and said I wanted to continue but probably couldn’t.
He convinced me to at least try. “Go with this other solo runner who is leaving in five minutes. Then maybe the muscle will loosen up and you’ll finish.”
I was afraid at that point. I wasn’t prepared to move this slow and it was 20 degrees out there. But I got up and tested my leg. It hurt like hell, but I was still going to try.
The first 1/4 mile out of Lake Fork is a dirt road with a slight incline. Easy, right? Not for a hobbled runner. I made it that 1/4 mile and stopped. The guy I was supposed to “run” with was long gone. I broke out in tears and turned around.
The last 12 miles had taken me over 5 hours on easy runnable terrain. After Lake Fork, everything was going to be uphill, including Crestline, a grueling 20-mile stretch that climbed over 2000 feet. The cutoff at mile 80 was only 10 hours away. There was no way I would make the cutoff. I’d suffer through immense pain that might possibly get worse. I’d risk hypothermia just to miss a cut-off.
I had no other choice but to do the walk of shame and return to Lake Fork Aid.
I sat for the next two hours at Lake Fork watching the last runners trickle through. The tent filled up with other DNFers. There were about six of us when the HAM operator came over to tally the DNFers near cut-off time at 2 AM.
“You’ve got 5 minutes till cut-off. Are you sure?” he asked me. He’d seen me go out and come back. He could tell I wanted to continue.
I looked out at the darkness with a longing in my heart. I had come to finish this race, to run and hike 100 miles. I was angry. I was sad. I had trained for this. I wasn’t even that tired. But I knew that buckle wasn’t worth my life. And even if I didn’t die of exposure, the injury might become permanent and affect future races.
I almost cried again, but didn’t. “No,” I said. “It’s not worth it.” I then sat down and ate my dutch-oven pizza and wallowed.
2. Fix Problems Early. You’ve Got More Time Than You Think
We all started the race at a fast clip. My watch said 8-minute miles and I wasn’t even in the lead.
My legs felt like lead, however, and they were getting tight as the miles ticked by. “They’ll warm up once the sun comes up,” I thought and kept running.
After an hour, they seemed to do just that. The terrain had been easy single-track rollers so far and I was excited to still be in the front pack.
I blazed through the first aid at mile 9 like I’d planned and it was then that my right hip-flexor started to flare up. It wasn’t sharp, just a twinge. I slowed my roll a little and planned on stopping at mile 16 for a fill-up and to grab the rest of my food from a drop-bag.
I told myself, “get to mile 16, ask if anyone has a foam roller, roll, stretch, eat, get back out there.” I was trying to use the ADAPT system.
But when I hit mile 16 and unclipped my bag, I made the mistake of looking back. Nobody was stopping here. My brain panicked. I suddenly wasn’t thinking straight.
Danielle, another runner’s crew chief who I’d see several times during my race, asked if I needed anything. I said, “a foam roller and my drop bag.”
With my water bladder filled and my food in my pack, I tried to foam roll for a moment. It was a stupid moment. I was watching more runners roll through the aid and thinking, “I’ll end up in 40th!”
I got up, grabbed my pack, and left thinking, “it will loosen up.”
You Have Permission to Stop For a Time
Well, you know the rest. It didn’t. And I’ve learned my lesson.
A 100-mile race is a long-ass race. A great time on a course like this is under 24 hours.
I climbed the first major slope at mile 20 with the guy who finished third place. He was probably in 20th or so at that point.
The lesson here? You’ve got plenty of time. Yes, stops add up. But if a problem arises anywhere in the first 50 miles of a race, you’re better off stopping and fixing the problem rather than hoping it would go away.
If I’d just stopped at mile 16, taken 20 minutes, rolled, stretched, asked for some NSAIDs, I might have finished this race. It’s a hard pill to swallow for me, but it’s a valuable lesson for future races.
Fix a problem early and you won’t regret it later in the race.
3. Nobody Gives a Shit What You Look Like
Intellectually, I know this shouldn’t matter. But I was alone and terrified the night I drove into Burgdorf, Idaho.
You may not know it when you meet me, but I suffer from mild social anxiety at times, especially when entering new groups alone.
I don’t know exactly what caused my hip to lock up. But I expect it had something to do with the fact I neglected to do a shakeout run the night before and foam roll like I usually do before a race.
Why didn’t I do those things? I felt awkward and thought I might look silly pulling out my gear and taking off into the night alone. It was irrational, but again, I was terrified of the race to come and I felt pretty lonely.
Instead, I fixed food, ate by the fire, talked to another runner for a moment, checked my kit, and went to bed.
The next day, I realized how stupid I was. Nobody gives a shit what you look like at an ultramarathon. You’re all suffering together and coolness quits mattering as soon as you cross that starting line. (It really doesn’t matter at all…ever, actually. Life lessons, right?)
I realized this when I met this runner with words written on sharpy across his thighs. He’d DNFd the year before and had written encouraging words on his knees and thighs. And they were written upside down for the rest of us who had to turn our heads at a weird angle to read them. He actually made us all look stupid, which was fantastic.
In any other setting, this would be weird. But at a 100-mile foot race where anyone in the outside world thinks you’re nuts anyway, this is actually a pretty cool thing to do. I might even mimic him next year.
4. You’re Safer Than You Think…Sorta
Before I began ultrarunning, I’d always been the type of wilderness guy to carry too much in my pack. I had something for every eventuality in the wilderness even though I was only going to be there for three days.
While I’ve pared down what I carry in the wilderness considerably, I’m still a little paranoid. And on training runs, I have a reason to be.
Where I train, there is no cell service. If I break a leg or cut myself open, I’ve gotta fix myself and get myself out. For this reason, I carry SAM splint and a decent sized first-aid kit in my running pack.
But when I came to the mile 16 aid station and began re-packing my pack, someone exclaimed, “You’ve got too much shit in your pack.” My response? “Solo runner. I’m a little paranoid.”
But I later realized she was right. In a supported race like IMTUF where the aid stations are at most every 10 miles and sweepers are following up the runners cleaning up the trail, there’s no reason to be paranoid.
If I broke a leg, all I had to do was stop any bleeding, and wait for a runner to come by. They could notify someone at the next aid and someone would eventually come with supplies.
At mile 32, I ditched the SAM splint and paired down my first aid kit to what was necessary to stop bleeding. I had a space blanket in my pack and a few matches in a water-proof container.
This would give me a chance at survival if something really bad happened out there.
And yet, while the race is a relatively safe place to test your limits, it’s not entirely safe. There is no reason to put yourself in a life-threating situation if you don’t have to. Which is why I took the DNF instead of trusting that a space blanket and possibly unreliable matches might save my life.
If I’d had a down jacket at mile 60, I might have tried to continue. I didn’t and there was no reason to risk hypothermia for the glory of a finish.
Did You Die?
I’m already determined to go back to Burgdorf next year. I’m going to finish this race and do well.
Before I signed up for the IMTUF seven months ago, I consulted a few other ultrarunners about signing up for one of the toughest 100-milers in the region for my first 100-miler. Their response? Sign up, train, run it, and then ask yourself, “Did you die?” If the answer is no, you did the right thing.
Get out there. Sign up for the tough and impossible. Be wise. And keep going.
The reward is great. You’ll learn more than you think. And remember, feel the misery to get happy.
(Also, don’t forget to follow me @feelmisery4happy on Instagram)