I’m calling this “The Experiment.” If you’ve followed me for any amount of time, you probably know that I’ve had some significant trouble finishing my ultramarathons in the past couple years. I have a tendency to become severely dehydrated on even moderately warm days, often with bad results (four DNF’s – including this one – and two hospital visits).
After every episode, after the disappointment dulls a bit, I find myself dissecting everything about the experience to discover what I can do differently to find success at these long-distance endeavors. I’ve tried myriad different fueling and nutrition regimens and I’ve tried running slower, but the end result is frequently the same.
In the aftermath of Seashore last December, I swore off ultrarunning for a while as the disappointments kept coming in more and more dramatic ways. In fact, I spent the winter and spring training for much shorter races, and I only ran one trail marathon because I had already signed up for it. But I still found myself becoming more curious about other approaches I could take to combat my apparent proclivity toward stomach and dehydration issues during ultras.
So it was that I signed up for the Singletrack Maniac 50k just five days before last weekend’s race. I was woefully undertrained, having run only four double-digit runs in the eight weeks since the marathon, the longest of which was 14.5 miles. But I really liked this race when I ran it last year and found myself eager to return.
I would use the race to experiment with some new techniques: I planned to alternate walking and running in an 8/2 pattern, with 8 minutes of easy, relaxed running followed by 2 minutes of walking. I would use the walk breaks to drink as much as I could. I also believed that the slower overall effort would be easier on my stomach and allow me to actually eat food at the aid stations. I brought a hat with me – and I never wear a hat when running – just so I could put ice in it as the temperature increased to help lower my body temperature.
I also really, truly and honestly came to the race with no preconceptions about finish time – I had not done the math of what pace the 8/2 method might produce. I was prepared to do a lot of walking and resting – part of my thinking was that I often approach these races with a finish goal in mind, which probably makes me push harder and eventually leads to the same unhappy ending. I was also prepared to DNF if things started to look bad – my wife is understandably growing wary of my continued participation in these events and I wanted to prove that I could run smart and take care of myself. For those reasons, I also told no one about this race beforehand.
The weather forecast that week showed that we were in for some tough conditions – the high would eventually hit near 90 degrees and the humidity was stifling. Yet I still saw the race as an opportunity to make myself a smarter – and better – ultrarunner.
The day started with one of my most embarrassing moments as a runner – I showed up late. Somehow I had remembered the start time as 8:00, but when I walked to the empty starting area and was greeted with incredulity by the lone volunteer, I knew something was amiss. It turned out the race had started at 6, and I was now an hour and 15 minutes behind the clock. Aside from the embarrassment, I thought it was actually a stroke of luck because there would be no one to race, a situation that would really support my goal of slow, easy running. This was going to be like a solo training run with fully stocked aid stations.
The first few 8/2 segments passed quickly. I took my shirt off after the second round and already felt cooler. But the humidity was crushing and I was already sweating heavily. I found myself drinking well on my walk breaks and felt positive about my approach.
I won’t go into great detail about the course because the entire day was spent running alone with my thoughts (here’s last year’s report, which has more course description). I never found myself looking at my watch to see the mile splits (I never really knew how far I had gone) or pace. I was so focused on seeing x:x8:00 on my watch to know when to start my next walk break that I really didn’t pay attention to other data. It was actually a very effective way of breaking up the monotony of the run since I was all alone.
The occasional encounter with an aid station was my only method of determining where I was, and I stopped at every one to peruse the food and chat with the volunteers. They all knew I was the guy who had started late, and it made for some humorous conversations and lots of cheers. The volunteers, like last year, were all wonderful and very friendly – which was great since it was my only human interaction all day.
After about 12 miles the heat really started to catch up to me. My stomach was already in a bad place but I was focused on working through it. I grabbed some ice at the Mile 12 (?) aid station and put some in my hat and down my back. It seemed to help immediately – whether my overheating is a cause or effect of my troubles, I know it’s something that needs to be addressed during the run. Things settled down and I was able to keep up my 8/2 system for a while longer, still drinking as much as I could.
The heat continued to be hot as I began the dreaded D loop – the hardest part of the course, in my opinion. It’s 5 miles of twisting, undulating singletrack that just does not let up. I walked more and more. About halfway through the loop I took a 10-minute sit-break to let my heart rate come down and to fully recover before moving on. Even walking was feeling like an effort and I wanted to re-establish equilibrium. After the break I felt much better. I was still in a very positive mood, just enjoying the experience and thinking about how I was going to manage the discomfort that I knew was inevitable. I looked forward to restocking my hat ice at the 18-mile aid station and cooling back down.
The first big blow of the day came when I finally arrived at the AS and was told there was no ice. I was really hot now and my heart rate was growing higher with less and less effort. But the next aid station was only about 3.7 miles away, so I continued onto the E loop with a bit more walking than before. This section is technically easier but I still found myself getting tired and losing focus. I started to miss my 8/2 splits because I was generally walking a lot more at this point. Until now, the 8-minute mark had been my cue to drink, and now I was probably drinking less because I was less rigid about the schedule. But my stomach was starting to turn and I was not able to drink as much, anyway.
At the next aid station I was able to get some ice and it felt great. I sat beside the table for a few minutes to let my HR come down and to text my wife that I was still in the race and doing OK. Then I grabbed some gummy bears and Fig Newtons and set off for my second encounter with that miserable D loop.
My stomach was pretty upset, and before long all the running I could do was more of a shuffle. I was walking a lot and shuffling when I could – mostly on the downhill sections. I was having trouble drinking but was still in a good place mentally. If I could keep things as they were at that moment, even though they weren’t ideal, I knew I could finish. It would just take a long time, but my legs were not the issue. It’s just that stupid stomach.
But suddenly, right around Mile 26, things turned south in a hurry. I knew I was still in the game as long as I could keep from throwing up (some ultrarunners encourage throwing up as a way to clear out their stomachs and actually feel refreshed, but for me throwing up is the nail in the coffin). I stopped to sit on a bridge over a small stream, still positive that I could manage the issue and move on in a few minutes. I even took a photo and posted it on social media (below) – not necessarily to get a reaction from friends but mainly as a way to make light of the situation in my own mind. It seemed to trivialize my suffering to post it for an audience – this was something I was doing to myself for fun and not a life-or-death situation.
I felt a little better after a few minutes (and the flies became unbearable), so I got up and carried on to the 26.5-mile aid station. There was still no ice (this is the same aid station that falls at Mile 18), but a volunteer gave me a cup of melted ice water that I was able to hold against my face and neck. After a couple minutes I set off for the last E loop – only 4.5 miles to go and this thing was in the bag! As I set off into the woods, one of the volunteers remarked to a friend that I would likely catch the last-place runners on this loop.
However, a few hundred yards up the trail, a wave of nausea swept over me. I sat immediately and held the cold water to my forehead. It was far worse this time and I could not shake it. I sat for about 10 minutes and was feeling no better. When I got up and started to move on, I felt dizzy and nauseated and knew immediately that my day was over. Even if I walked steadily, the next 4 miles would take me more than an hour, and every individual step I took was unbalanced and nauseating. I stopped again after a couple steps to reflect on my situation and my promise to my wife that I would drop before things went too far. So that’s what I did – I stumbled back down the trail to the aid station and ended my day.
After sitting at the aid station for a few minutes, the cart carried me back to the starting area where I recovered for a little while and then showered and drove home. A bottle of ice water at the finish area, which I placed under my armpits and on my neck, helped cool me down enough to feel a little better. Since I never did throw up, my appetite returned after a couple hours even though my ability to take in fluids was compromised until the next day.
I can honestly say that I thought I tried everything right this time around, including conscious efforts to take things slow, to make myself walk frequently, to drink often and to not get tied up in the competition of the race. I hydrated well in the days leading up to Saturday. I think I was able to go farther than I would have without doing those things, but I still was stopped short by the same old issues. Maybe I can finally let myself believe that I am just not a warm-weather runner.
Although I am at peace with Saturday’s result, it makes me wonder why 55 other people (out of about 60 entrants) were able to finish the race in the same conditions I faced. How can other ultra friends go three or four times farther than I did, even when the weather is unforgiving? Why do I seem to be so sensitive when it comes to dehydration and stomach issues, even when I try so hard to do everything right? After this race I’m not sure what else to try, other than doing all of my running in cold weather.