How I Encountered my First Ultra-Trail “DNF”

Whatever I set out to do, I always finish. This mantra of mine speaks to my confidence, and partly my naivety in the realm of ultra-running. I am a good runner, in the last year I have not only completed my first half marathon, full marathon and ultra-marathon, but I’ve also accumulated a number of prizes not only in my age category but also in the overall female category. Which is why it never entered my mind that on this day in February, I would encounter my first “did not finish”.

Here are the 5 reasons I didn’t finish, and how I could have potentially avoided it.

VIRB Picture1. Illness – I had been fighting off a persistent cough in the week prior to the race and am still fighting it as I write. According to most literature, running while under the weather is acceptable, as long as the symptoms are above the neck, ie head congestion, sore throat etc. As for symptoms of illness that reside below the neck it is advisable to take at least 3 days off and according to this Runner’s World article, running with a fever or other serious symptoms could add to the length of the illness, with chronic fatigue syndrome -like ailments.

What was I to do? I had bought the ticket to Hong Kong, trained, entered the race and paid the fees, there wasn’t anyway I wasn’t at least testing the boundaries of my illness. I did find my symptoms to be debilitating on race day, I was easily fatigued and had an elevated heart rate, even during easy/downhill sections of the course. After excessive amounts of sleep since the race, I am still feeling exhausted. My advice, if preventable, follow what the experts say, don’t run with symptoms below the neck, it is discouraging and could lead to a longer lasting illness.

2. Insufficient sleep – As usual, I was exceedingly optimistic about how long it would take us to settle into our hotel room and how much sleep I would actually be getting the night before the race. We left Taipei on a Friday at 7:30 pm, got into HK at 9:15pm, took the high speed transfer to Central station, boarded the MTR for 2 stops, checked into our hotel and got to sleep at 11pm. That’s not bad, but it wasn’t good enough; the race shuttle left Hong Kong at 5:20am, meaning we had to be up at 4am and out the door at 5. We were going to run a 50km race after 5 hours of sleep, it’s been done before, but it isn’t ideal. According to this article, just one night of bad sleep shouldn’t affect your athletic performance, however it will impact your willingness to push yourself when things get tough. This might be ok for a 1500 m race or, depending on willpower, an ultra marathon but I’d rather not risk it. In the future, I will be leaving myself enough time for at least an 8 hour sleep.

VIRB Picture3. Insufficient knowledge of the terrain – This race was hard! Of course, it was hard, it was the Asian SkyRunning championships! I was expecting it to be challenging but I wasn’t expecting it to be rock-hard. The area surrounding Hong Kong is arid, and with unseasonably little rain this year, the terrain is unforgiving. I studied the course and was prepared for the vast differences in elevation along with the steep hills I would encounter. One of the reasons I don’t often run full marathons is the uncomfortable feeling in your joints after pounding the pavement for 42km. Had I known it was going to be this hard I would have reconsidered, or perhaps considered a different pair of shoes? Which brings me to number 4.

VIRB Picture4. Choice of shoes – Minimalist is really the only type of shoe I consider worthy of wearing in a race. I’m addicted to how lightweight, responsive and fast a shoe that is close to the ground feels. I may have limited my choices too soon. Wearing the Pure Grit 3, a somewhat minimal trail shoe that has served me extremely well on every other type of trail, it hadn’t occurred to me that perhaps I should’ve done some more geological research. After 20km of going up and down on rock-hard, steep terrain, I looked around, envying those who opted for pillow-like shoes and took a mental note of options for the future. Lesson 4: just because I have a favorite type of shoe doesn’t mean I can wear it everywhere.

5. Overconfidence – All of this boils down to a lack of knowledge. Perhaps there isn’t enough written online about the characteristics of this course, but then again perhaps I felt I had done this type of run before. Every ultra-marathon is different, get excited, be confident, but do your research. 50km is along way to live with your decisions.

VIRB Picture

I don’t plan on making “DNFs” a recurring event. Four days later, I am still struggling with my cold, and upon reflection I’m glad I signed up, I’m glad I ran, and I’m even glad I didn’t finish.

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