This year’s Ultra Race of Champions (UROC) 100k ended in disappointment and my first ultramarathon DNF. I knew when I signed up for the race that I would be facing some unique challenges, in particular, my first race at altitude (and serious altitude at that). I did what I could to limit the detrimental effects of this aspect of the race, but it simply wasn’t enough in the end. The top six finishers in the race (and I think many of the top runners who followed) all live and train at altitude. (While fifth placer Ryan Ghelfi calls Ashland, Oregon home, he lived high for a month prior to the race.) And the two runners who really tore it up, Rob Krar and Dakota Jones, have spent a lot of time in the mountains, including in snowy conditions.
There were a few other factors that led to a poor race and my decision to DNF, but I would say that altitude was the biggest factor. I spent two weeks training in Colorado in August, slept in an altitude tent back home in Indiana, and even came out to altitude for 10 days prior to the UROC race. However, in retrospect, I don’t think the training trips or the training itself was high enough. I spent the vast majority of my time at only 5,000’ – 6,000’. There were a few training runs with time spent at 11,000’ – 13,000’, but these were few, and for the most part, not particularly hard efforts. I think what I needed was to live at 10,000’ or higher for 4-6 weeks, with daily training runs in the 10,000’ – 14,000’ range. When I hit the 3,000+ foot climb out of Frisco on Saturday, to the pass between Peaks 5 and 6, I was in new territory. I had never pushed hard at altitudes that high, and my body had a very difficult time dealing with it.
The race started well enough. After a full day of snow on Friday, Saturday dawned crisp and clear. In the chilly morning air, I climbed out of Breckenridge near the front of the field. I matched pace with Cameron Clayton, Rickey Gates, and Ryan Ghelfi to the top of the initial 1,500 foot climb. I felt at ease and in control. We gently rolled down Dwight Trail to the lodge on Peak 7 and the first aid station. I found myself out in front of this group, gently running solo down the Peaks Trail to Frisco and the 13.6 mile aid station. I was getting in plenty of calories (~250/hour) and electrolytes, and I was happy to see Sage Canaday less than a minute in front of me through the streets of Frisco. I was running smoothly and within a minute or two of the lead. I changed packs in town and readied myself for the upcoming climb.
Early on the climb, I felt good enough. I was taking it easy, power hiking plenty in an effort to keep my breathing and hear rate under control. Gradually, Cam passed me, and then Ryan. However, as I neared 11,000’ things started to deteriorate. We were in a fair bit of snow by this point, and the effort I having to put forth at this altitude really started wear on me. I was becoming a bit light headed and having trouble eating or drinking much of anything. Rickey passed me shortly before we moved above treeline, where we encountered knee-deep snow for several miles.
I knew I was in trouble, but try as I might to keep things under control, I couldn’t seem to do so. As I crested the saddle between Peaks 5 and 6, I was met by a very strong westerly wind. It was under 20º F up top, and with the strong winds, I was very cold and still couldn’t eat much of anything. I had also been unable to access my electrolyte pills due to freezing hands. Lightheaded, I caught my toe on a snow-covered rock and took my only fall of the day, hitting the ground rolling and banging/cutting my ankle open on another rock. I was so cold that I didn’t really stop to assess the damage, as I was still able to run, so I just kept moving.
Once I was finally below treeline, things improved. The trails were icy and required constant vigilance to avoid falling, but I was warm and finally able to eat a bit of food and get some electrolytes down. Gravity aided my pace down to Copper in ninth place, but once down the mountain, it was clear that the ordeal of the past hour or more had taken a significant toll. I was very tired and had a hard time running on mere 4-5% grades. I came into the Copper aid station and took a bit of time to get some food and liquids down.
I hit the short climb up the side of Copper Mountain then drifted down to the bike path, where 12 miles of pavement running began. In theory, this should have been my forte. I thought I had a great race plan of staying conservative from the Start to Copper and then opening it up on the bike path. This plan sounds great, but despite a deliberate effort to stay under control, the climb out of Frisco had sapped everything I had. Instead of running 6:30 miles on the bike path, as I hoped would be possible, I was having a hard time running 9:30s. I was utterly spent and unable to get things going.
Thoughts of a DNF had started to come into my head, but I wanted to give it some time to make sure things wouldn’t come around for me. When I got to the 33-mile aid station at Vail Pass (35+ miles on my watch—I, along with many others, had the course as 3-4 miles long), it was decision time. There was no crew access until mile 52 in Minturn, so if I was going to drop, here was the place to do it.
My basic reasoning was that if I were to slog it out to the finish, I would likely be running another 6 to 7 hours simply for the sake of finishing. If I had no other obligations or commitments, I likely would have gutted it out. However, I’m racing the USA 50 Mile Road Championships on October 20, a mere three weeks after UROC. A long slog to the finish in all likelihood would harm my race there. My conclusion was essentially: why ruin two races instead of one. By dropping, I will be able to recover much more quickly. Not being run down at the 50 Mile Champs was the biggest consideration, but this also means I will be able to get some more quality training in as well.
I’m not one to take a DNF lightly, but I think they have their place. This was the first time I’ve dropped out of an ultramarathon (in nine starts). If this had been my first time at the 100k distance, I likely would have finished as the distance itself would still be uncharted ground, a challenge worthy of pursuing. But having already run 100k in the past, simply completing this distance didn’t hold great appeal to me. And when combined with the USA 50 Mile Championships consideration, I came out in favor of a DNF. I spent 10 minutes or so at Vail Pass deliberating with my crew before ultimately dropping. I was OK with the decision at the time, and I’m OK with it now, several days later.
I’ve run about a dozen marathons, and I’ve dropped from two of them. I’ve been fine with those decisions as well. Once, I was worried about a nagging metatarsal pain turning into a stress fracture, and another time, I was thinking of another marathon I was running two weeks later. Both of those races were going poorly, and when combined with other considerations, on balance, I thought a DNF was the best decision. Other times, when races have gone poorly but there was no other reason to DNF, I have opted to finish. I’ve jogged in at The North Face 50 Mile Championships with blown quads twice now. I’ve also run a handful of marathons in the 2:35 – 2:50 range, having fallen apart from racing too aggressively.
While UROC ended in disappointment, I learned some things from it, and I’ll do what I can to use the experience to improve. First, now I know how it feels to race at high altitudes, and I know that my attempts to altitude train were inadequate. I’ll try not to race this high again unless I have the ability to live and train at similar elevations for at least a month prior. Sometimes a truly bad race can be a better motivator as well. Mediocre to good results usually don’t provide much impetus to change things. You think, ‘I’m racing fairly well, I can keep doing things the way I have been.’ But a bad race forces you to take a harder look at what you’re doing in training, to evaluate your shortcomings. And it lights a fire to get out and fix those things.
In my case right now, I would say there are two main things I need to work on. First is my climbing. Second, I need to continue to push my training mileage up. Regarding the former, it’s unlikely I’ll ever be a great climber without having regular access to a mountain. However, I now have very hilly terrain in Indiana to work with, so I just need to make sure that hill reps remain a focus. I also can improve my climbing by losing a bit of weight. I have probably five pounds I could stand to lose, which would make a big difference when climbing. Along with a bit more diligence in my diet, the second goal—increased mileage—should help with that. The mileage portion of the equation has been a yearlong struggle. The first half of the year, I was coming back from injury and just trying to get to feeling halfway decent in training. I was also racing a lot, which makes it difficult to run high mileage. This summer, I got some good weeks in, but the heat sabotaged things a bit, and then by having to manage sore knees for the last month. But I’m feeling good and healthy now. Getting my mileage back up in the 100+ range on a weekly basis won’t feel easy at first, but it’s necessary, and I need to do it for my continued long term development and improvement both in the marathon and ultramarathons. That’s what I’ve got on my mind going forward. While I failed to compete well at UROC, I’ve hopefully gleaned the good from the experience. Onward and upward.
A few photos from the race, by Joe Grant, Matt Trappe, and SkiPix.
A few photos from the race, by Joe Grant, Matt Trappe, and SkiPix.