As I’ve gained experience running ultras over the past several years, I’ve tried to develop a set of rules to help me along the way. Unfortunately, what seems to work for one race or season or distance doesn’t translate well to another. So what start out as rules gently dissolve in general guidelines: don’t go out too fast, drink often, stay on top of my salt intake. You know the list as well as I do. I’ve been able to add some tricks that work well for me (i.e. always carry two 20oz bottles), however these are rather personal and not at the level of the universal.
However, out of my only DNF to date came my first (and so far only) ironclad rule of running ultras:
Phil’s Rule #1: Don’t Decide to Drop Between Aid Stations
The problem with deciding to drop between aid stations is that it’s virtually impossible to reverse the decision once you get to the next aid station. Outside of additional time, there’s not many things that the volunteers there can’t fix. They may not be able to get you back to 100%, but they can do enough to mitigate the worst of your problems (hunger, dehydration, temperature). This in turn will get you back out onto the trail and to the next aid station where the process can be repeated again. And again until you reach the finish line. But once you mentally decide to stop, nothing short of feeling awesome will get you going again. Feeling better won’t do the trick because that just means you feel only rather bad. No one feels good in the back third of an ultra. Everyone is in survival mode. By deciding to stop you exit survival mode and are mentally back into everyday life. There’s no going back at this point. You can stay in survival mode for hours on end, but once you’re out you’re out.
At C&O100 in 2015, I had been bothered by a nagging knee injury since mile 5. It was in the mid-40s and the rain had set in hours before. I exited the mile 66 aid station and was incapable of running. As I walked along, I got colder and colder. I feared I was close to hypothermia. That added to the thought of walking another 10+ hours lead to my decision to drop at the next aid station. Once I got there, I sat in a chair with a blanket over me getting warmed up waiting for my wife to show up. I had access to dry clothes, had warmed up, and was still hours ahead of the cutoff. But no amount of encouragement from the volunteers at the aid station could get me out of the chair and back out onto the course. My decision had already been made and there was no going back.
Fast forward a year to Eastern States. At the Long Branch aid station (mile 75), my right knee had been giving me problems for the last 35-40 miles (hmmm, I’m noticing a trend here). Several hundred yards after leaving the aid station, the bottoms of both feet erupted into an inferno of pain from 2 hotspots. It was inconceivable that I could go another 25 miles in this condition and I came thisclose to deciding to drop at the next aid station. But I didn’t. In my semi-comatose state twenty-four hours into my run, I was able to remember Rule #1. So I decided to gut it out to Blackwell, get my feet taped up and then make my decision about whether to continue or not. I made it Blackwell, got my feet taped, and while I never felt comfortable the rest of the way, I was able to finish. And to this day, it’s my most satisfying 100-mile finish because I fought myself mentally and came out on top.
So the next time you’re in the middle of a nasty stretch of trail at 2am in the pouring rain, remember my Rule #1. It might just save your race.