Sunday, January 31, 2016

Anatomy of a DNF

When you're out to push your limits, eventually those limits will smack you in the face.

This weekend I participated in the Skydive Ultra 100 mile ultramarathon. I didn't finish. I didn't even get close. It was pretty much a disaster. And I should have seen it coming.

Since I completed my first 100 mile ultramarathon at Ancient Oaks six weeks ago, I had done very little training. This was intentional. I had gotten pretty beat up at Ancient Oaks and tried to take lots of time to recover. Very little running. Not much intensity. But lots of time swimming and some biking to keep up fitness.

Race Preparation

I had been running some, however. My biggest difficulty at Ancient Oaks was blisters on the balls of my feet. As I prepared for Skydive Ultra, I focused on figuring out that blister issue. I read Fixing Your Feet and spoke with blister experts. On several of my training runs, I tested taping techniques, ENGO patches and different socks. I felt good about the blister situation. I felt like I had a handle on it.

I also put in just a couple hard runs to see how recovery was going, to see how my body was feeling. These runs included some intensity, but were kept short...under seven miles. I completed a couple long-ish runs, but without intensity. While I felt some creaking joints and discomfort on some of those runs, I always came away thinking I was recovering well and ready for Skydive Ultra.


I always knew there was a chance things wouldn't go well at Skydive. Right after Ancient Oaks, I thought about dropping out of the race. I had gotten pretty beat up during that first hundred. During the first couple weeks of recovery, I thought about moving to the 50 mile race. But eventually, I felt like I was in a place to take a shot at 100 miles and didn't seriously consider that I'd DNF.

The race began great. Skydive Ultra had a new course this year, a 7.25 mile loop. I was committed to not making the mistake I made at Ancient Oaks, going out way too fast. The first loop felt great. My pace was perfect, I felt strong, I was running right at the pace I wanted and it felt absolutely effortless. My feet felt great and taping technique seemed like it would really do well. I had zero inclination of what was about to come.

Lap two started like the first, strong and feeling great. However, about 1 mile in, my left knee began to hurt...a lot! And the pain was increasing rapidly. Within another mile, the pain was so significant that I couldn't run any longer. But I could walk. And I could walk fast, 12 to 13 minute miles. Walking was completely pain-free and, in fact, the faster and harder I walked, the better my knee felt. I began considering my options: drop out of the race since I couldn't run or keep walking and see if I can finish the race that way. I kept walking. I finished my second lap, then my third, then my fourth and the pace kept up. The knee was getting sore even when walking, but I could keep moving well.

That all ended on the fifth lap. My pace slowed and the knee became very painful even when walking very casually. A 16 minute mile, then an 18 minute mile, then a 21 minute mile; all at intensity and pain levels similar to the 13 minute miles in the previous laps. The writing was on the wall. I could keep moving, and it was fast enough to finish under the race cut-off. But it was utter misery. I took a break at the mid-loop aid station and considered dropping out there, then decided that I'd at least finish my lap. I could barely move as I began walking again until my knee loosened up. Then more 18 to 20 minute miles. I eventually arrived at the end of the loop and decided to take 30 minutes before dropping out to really consider that decision.

30 minutes later and only 36 miles into my race and I dropped. My first DNF.

And I should have seen it coming.

"Sore Left Knee..."

In retrospect, it was so plainly obvious I wasn't ready for this race. I simply didn't listen to my body. This is exemplified by one training run and my Strava entry for that run. 16 days before the race, I went out for a higher intensity run to see how I was feeling.

The title for my run says it all:

There it is, plain as day. My "are you broken test" reveals a sore left knee, yet I wrote it off as nothing. That sore knee should have been the big blinking red light telling me to reconsider racing. I missed it. I probably would have missed it had it hit me in the face.

The DNF was predictable if only I had been paying attention.

What's Next

So, I've been taught an important lesson (well, actually several, but I'll save those for another day.) That lesson, listen to my body! If I go for a test run and something doesn't feel right, listen to that signal. That's the first "next" for me. I'm going to become much better at paying attention.

But what else? This DNF is going to be fire. My next 100 mile race, I'm going to really prepare instead of winging it. I've got blisters figured out. I feel good about nutrition. Next I'm going to pick a race and follow a serious periodized training plan. And I'm going to nail the darn thing. I'm thinking Daytona 100 in December might be perfect.

But first, I plan to take a couple months off running to really allow my body to heal and to learn how to swim well, finishing with a 5K or 10K swim at Swim Miami. Then it will be time to focus on nailing a 100 miler.

Until then, you'll find this sticker on the back of my car. A little reminder to keep that fire lit.

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