What makes a race hard? Most people will immediately think of elevation gain/loss. Technical trails, high altitude or extreme weather are also things that make a race difficult. Basically, anything that slows you down are good criteria for determining what’s a hard race. I know this is how I’ve been conditioned to think:
More vert = hard; flat = easy.
And this is valid for a lot of ultras, but once you get past the 50 mile distance we need to factor in DNFs into how we think about races. For example, Race A has a typical median finish time of 32-33 hours and Race B the median finish time is 27-29 hours. Race A has twice the elevation gain/loss (20k vs. 10k). Everyone would just assume Race A is harder, right? Well, what if I was to tell you the average finish rate for Race B is 47% vs. 50% for Race A? Still think Race A is harder? The extra 3% who couldn’t finish the “easier” hundred might beg to differ with you.
If you hadn’t guessed yet, Race A is my beloved Eastern States and Devil Dog is the other. I would be willing to bet no one who has done both races would say Devil Dog is the harder race. It’s just not how we’re wired to think about races. Part of the higher DNF rate may be selection bias. Devil Dog is possibly attracting less experienced runners who are choosing an “easier” race and are thus more likely to DNF. Mostly though I think that what makes DD100 hard are the temperatures and the loop format. Hot temperatures will definitely impact performance, but cold temperatures get you thinking about hypothermia and your personal safety. You’re always going to be battling negative thoughts in a hundred and it’s much easier to convince yourself to drop if your mind can pull the “you could die” card out. The loop format then makes it much move convenient to quit. Both of these combined make for a difficult race.
I need to keep this front and center in my mind as I toe the start line on Saturday. The further my last DNF retreats into the past, the more complacency becomes a threat to my finishing another. Success breeds confidence and in many ways helps with finishing these races, however overconfidence is sneaky in that it will trip you up when you least expect it. So I will treat this race with the respect that it deserves so I don’t end up on the wrong side of the DNF stats above.