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Lessons to Learn When You Don’t Finish the Race

by Larry Carroll

To an outsider, headlines coming from the recent Barkley Marathon must have seemed frustrating. For the second straight year, not a single person finished the race? Out of 40 participants, they all went home without crossing the finish line? What’s the point?

Experienced ultra-runners, however, undoubtedly read things a bit differently. Naturally, finishing a race is always preferred — and to strap on your shoes means that you intend to give heart, body, soul and gallons of sweat to achieve that goal. But DNF’s are simply a reality of life, and sometimes the lessons you learn from a “Did Not Finish” are invaluable on future runs.

With that in mind, here are just a few of the things a “DNF” can teach you about yourself, your body, and the adversities of trail-running. Because as the old saying goes: You can lose the battle, but still win the war.

Your Rest Level – How well did you sleep the night before the race? How about the night before that? Did you sleep at home, or in a hotel? And when you were on the trail, was exhaustion an issue?

To many elite athletes looking to spend hour after hour pushing themselves to the physical limit, that level of rest is a key factor in performance. In general, adults should strive for 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night — and it’s almost a guarantee that for several days after a marathon, you’ll average another hour or two as your body recovers.

But how much sleep you get right before the marathon is a personal choice akin to any other facet of training. You need to know your body, know how much caffeine will help you/hurt you in achieving that goal, and act accordingly. And much like having a bad workout, a bad run can be both a bummer and an opportunity to learn. If you didn’t feel well rested on the trail, take notes on what you did the night before, and in the future adjust accordingly.

Are You Running Correctly? – Take a look at this blog entry (Going Wide: The Role of Stride Width in Running Injury and Economy) by physical therapist/ultra-runner Joe Uhan and you’ll begin to see all the possibilities for bad habits that can set in when we’re doing what seems like the most natural activity in the world: Running.

Narrow strides, hip weakness, forward trunk engagement and other such issues are only a few things to consider as you run. Like a golf swing or a baseball pitcher’s motion, it looks so effortless to the untrained eye — but when done correctly, you’re looking at maximized potential, body discipline, and the unflinching ability to repeat a motion time and again without variation.

Do you need to adjust your own landing or push-off? Are you running economically? A DNF may signal your own need to see a physical therapist, strip your running style down to its bare elements, and rebuild it for better results.

How to Avoid Injury – Many DNF’s occur because of injury, or the fear of causing one. Both offer valuable learning opportunities for the runner.

If this is your first run after recovering from an injury, perhaps the DNF is telling you that you should have waited longer. As frustrating as it is, your body is basically telling you that you’ll need to adapt to the new reality of a body part not functioning as well as it once did. Does this mean your ultra-running days are over? Of course not, but it may indicate that you’ll have to start running more by intellect and less by instinct.

On the other hand, perhaps you bowed out of the race because some part of your body didn’t feel right. Of course, no marathon goes without some degree of discomfort, but your post-mortem on the race should include an examination of possible factors. What did you eat in the hours before the run? How about on the trail itself? What behaviors did you observe while stretching? Should they be adjusted? These and other such questions might pay off in future races, so that you won’t experience that same injury fear again.

Weather Adaptability – With every ultra-marathon, weather and terrain is a huge factor. So, what did you learn from your DNF?

Perhaps it’s that your clothing was insufficient to cope with the elements. Perhaps you learned that your running shoes weren’t appropriate, that they weren’t as waterproof as advertised, or didn’t grip the trail to your liking.

When you’re out on the trail, you also have the opportunity to learn about yourself, so make sure you’re listening. Did the heat bother you more than you expected? Have you always considered yourself a good night runner, but for some reason it didn’t go so well this time? Such things can be taken into consideration for future races, and the selections of which to run.

How Do You Bounce Back? – Most importantly, a DNF teaches you about your resilience. How do you fare in the face of what some may perceive as a defeat? Are you the kind of person who jumps right back on the horse, plots a careful return, or simply throws in the towel? Will you start back with a smaller race and build off that success? Or will you return with a similar race, determined to prove the “DNF” was a fluke?

So learn your lessons, adjust accordingly, and get back out there. Because ultimately it’s the bounce back, not the failure, that speaks volumes about any athlete.

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Every Ultra-Runner’s Secret Weapon: Socks?

By Larry Carroll

Let’s face the facts: Running shoes are sexy. Shorts get lots of attention, tees display messages that tell everyone a runner is serious, silly, or sweating for a cause. Then there are the accessories: packs to carry, GPS trackers that boast the allure of new tech, and of course nothing makes you look cooler than a good pair of sunglasses.

But the one thing (almost) every runner wears, and very few observers ever notice, is socks. They’re boring, they’re simple — and if chosen incorrectly, they could make a huge difference between a smooth run and one dogged by pain and discomfort.  

As Albus Dumbledore said in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”: One can never have enough socks. So, let’s give some love to the unsung secret weapon of ultra-runners everywhere, as we consider the reasons why proper sock selection is crucial.

Hold The Cotton – Sure, if your plan is to Netflix and Chill on your couch on a Friday night, cotton socks are a comfy choice. But those in the running community know that cotton is a terrible material for sweating, as it absorbs moisture and causes blisters. On hot days and in wet weather especially, it should be avoided at all costs — instead, preferred footwear options will typically contain merino or synthetic fabrics like polyester, nylon or spandex. What you need is a fabric that dries quickly, breathes well, and protects your feet mile after mile.

How Low Can You Go? – While a lot of elite athletes prefer the “no show” look, lately crew length has returned from 80s exile to become the norm. It isn’t just a comfort issue, however — when you’re running on trails, taller socks can act as a barrier against brush scrapes and keep dust and dirt from accumulating. For this and other reasons, knee-length socks are the preferred option for many runners, because they cover the whole calf.

Don’t Decompress – Compression socks are all the rage these days, with many athletes thinking they speed up recovery, improve blood flow to the muscles and lessen fatigue. Snug fitting and stretchy, when worn correctly these socks will squeeze your leg and make you feel better on the trail.

As with running shoes, the key to compression socks is making sure they fit properly. It is recommended that runners use a tape measure to get the circumference of the ankle, and measure the widest part of the calves, before purchasing compression socks accordingly.

Minimize the Annoyance – If you choose your running socks well, you’ll never have to think about them. If you choose poorly, they will dominate your thoughts for mile after mile.

For instance, durability is a major concern because you’re going to be putting serious mileage on your feet and if a hole develops, it most likely will not be pleasant. Similarly, consider the seam, which could rub you the wrong way — quite literally. Thankfully, many socks today are seamless, presenting heel-to-toe comfort for those who prefer the seamless lifestyle.

Smell You Later – It’s a reality of running: Your socks are going to smell bad. But many socks offer options to diminish the odor, from wool to moisture-wicking fibers to silver ions that supposedly kill germs. Such factors are worth considering — particularly if you have a partner brave enough to do your laundry.

Extra Support – Some socks have silicone pyramids that massage the Achilles tendon; others have toes, maximizing blister protection; others still have dual layers that rub against each other to prevent chafing. There are socks that conform to the left and right structure of the foot — and don’t even get us started on cushioning options. The bottom line is, no matter what you’re looking for in a sock it seems to be out there — so compare notes with other runners in your life, and proceed accordingly.

What’s Your Style? – Last but certainly not least, a runner’s socks offer one last chance to personalize a look.

While many are purely functional, others come in a variety of styles and colors. Are you inclined to go fluorescent, so you’ll be easier to see on the trail? Or maybe have your own socks custom-made with a design, logo or message for all to see? Yeah, socks can be a little boring — but only if you want them to be that way.

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hallucinations

Hallucinations: Humorous or Harmful?

by Larry Carroll

They sound like something out of a Road Runner cartoon, or a David Lynch film — hallucinations, mirages, mind-trickery that convinces you something is so real you could reach out and touch it. But as humorous as it may be to conjure up thoughts of backward-dancing dwarves and unicorns, for elite runners such phantasmagoria can be both horrifying and dangerous.

Unlike shin splints or Achilles tendonitis, however, hallucinations are neither easily diagnosed nor treatable. In fact, many runners consider them part of ultra lore, fodder for some good campfire stories the night before a big race. But when an athlete sacrifices body and mind for hours at a time, often in remote areas and into the middle of the night, there’s no way of knowing if hallucinations will hamper your journey — until they do.

“Your mind plays tricks on you,” ultra-marathon legend Courtney Dauwalter said last year in a YouTube interview (Courtney Dauwalter Ultra Runner | Talks First Hallucinations in Ultra Race), stopping just short of invoking the “h-word” to describe what she’s seen out on the trail. “You’re seeing something, and instantly your brain tries to tell you what you’re seeing, and it’s not at all what’s there. One time in Steamboat [Springs], I was running along these trails. It was getting dark — and next to the trail, a woman was churning butter.”

“There was a colonial woman just standing there, churning butter,” she says with a laugh. “It wasn’t real; she wasn’t there.”

In 2013 at the Hardrock 100, Steve Pero was running along Colorado’s remote Bear Creek Trail in the middle of the night when he saw a camper who had set up his tent in the middle of the trail, then came across hundreds of 1970s-style transistor radios. As Jay Sanguinetti, a University of New Mexico research assistant professor — and runner — tells Trail Runner magazine (Ultrarunning Hallucinations Happen. Here’s How to Deal With Them ), such hallucinations are rare but perfectly plausible in their cause, if not their storyline.

“Your brain chooses what data from the optic nerve it wants to use,” says Sanguinetti. “It gets very complicated when it’s dark outside, or very shady…Your brain is saying, ‘This is the best I can do, given that you’ve been awake for two days while running. You’re going to see some stuff, and I’m not sure if it’s out there or in here.'”

At that point, which hallucinations you see out on the trail are as personal as any decision you may make in your daily life — this one, however, is more about your subconscious choice than any you’d willingly select. For Gary Robbins in the 2016 Barkley Marathon, it manifested itself as house numbers on trees and faces on the leaves he was trampling on.

“The first time, it’s like blistering or chafing,” he tells Trail Runner. “It’s super painful. Then, you realize you’re not going to die. Years of experience definitely helped me handle hallucinating.”

But just like a mirage in an old cartoon, as long as the runner keeps moving along the vision offers no danger, vanishing into the ether as quickly as it appeared. As Gary Dudney wrote in a blog entry on Ultrarunning Magazine (Got Hallucinations?), sometimes such visions aren’t even the sorts of thing that should be on dry land.

“Each vision was as distinct and vivid as a cellphone snapshot,” he says of a race in Shenandoah Valley that had him seeing dolphins in the middle of the night. “The dolphin and its wave dissolved when I got even closer and directed my flashlight beam at a big chunk of fallen tree trunk with a bushy little sapling sticking up behind it … A few minutes later I ran through an area full of tree stumps, which at first I could have sworn were robot men.”

For a fascinating read on the realities behind such visions, take a look at “Within the Dreams, Reality and Hallucinations of Ultra-Marathon Runners,” a 2003 study ( Within the dreams, reality, and hallucinations of ultra-marathon runners ) by Andrew J. Mojica that analyzes the visions of Badwater ultra-marathoners and even draws parallels to the hallucinations of the Greek dispatch runner Pheidippides who claimed to see the god Pan in 490 B.C.

According to Mojica, six people out of the twenty study participants reported seeing hallucinations, most between midnight and sunrise, most less than a minute and attributing sleep deprivation as the likely cause.

Ultimately, all you can do is try to minimize your own likelihood of hallucinating (get your sleep, run with a pacer who can assure you they don’t see any butter churners, try to keep your mind from drifting) and if you do encounter one, keep calm. Because as long as they aren’t instructing you to step off a cliff, hallucinations are harmless.

“You’re in a really unusual situation, not faced by most of us,” Mojica tells Trail Runner. “It’s fine. Try not to stigmatize it, and it should be less frightening.”

According to Dauwalter, you just have to accept that robot men, dolphins and butter-churning comes with the challenge. “My first hallucination was a pterodactyl and some giraffes and I was like ‘this is not safe!’,” she smiles. “But when I ran by the colonial woman, I waved at her.”

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