This post is a recount of my first DNF which occurred at the San Diego 100 a couple of weeks ago. It is ironic that I had prepared more for this 100 miler than for any of the previous 100 milers that I had completed. This year my goal was to break 24 hours in a 100 mile race and to help me achieve this goal I hired a coach and trained more than ever. I was and am still confident that I started the race in the best shape of my life. What happened? In a word heat. I had hesitated to choose San Diego as my 100 mile race for this summer since historically I have not fared well in hot conditions. When we ran the Zion Traverse in April, afternoon temperatures reached the 90s and although I did OK during this run, it was a wake up call that I needed heat training to prepare for San Diego. For the next 6 weeks leading into the race, I did 2-3 sauna sessions a week at 170 degrees starting for 15 minutes and building up to 40 minute sessions. I also did 1 or 2 runs a week overdressed in several extra layers of clothing. In May, I went down to San Diego to pre-run sections of the course with my friends BJ and Gonzo who do most of the course marking for the event. I held up well to the 90 degree temperatures we experienced out on the course that weekend, so I was optimistic going into the race that I had achieved some measure of heat acclimatization.
I have already blamed the heat for my DNF, but Jimmy Dean Freeman has argued on his blog that heat didn't cause runners to drop. He argues that runners dropped because they failed to properly adjust for the hot conditions. I will review the issues that I had during the race and the adjustments that I attempted to make in the hopes that other runners preparing for hot race conditions may learn something from my experience.
Pacing: I started the race wearing my heart rate monitor to help make sure that I didn't get carried away and run too fast. The goal was to keep the heart rate between 140 and 150 with an upper limit of 160. Since hot conditions will cause the heart to beat faster to push blood to the skin to help with cooling, monitoring heart rate helped me maintain an appropriately easy pace even in the hot conditions. My pre-race plan was to take the monitor off at the first drop bag (mile 23) and I stuck to that plan. My average heart rate for that section of the course was 152, so a little bit high, but I am confident that my issues were not primarily caused by starting the race at too fast a pace.
Hydration: I started with two bottles of fluid, one filled with water and one with Ultrafuel (300 calories/16 oz). My plan was to drink at least 1 bottle per hour and I think I averaged about 1.5 bottles per hour. At the first drop bag I picked up a 3rd bottle which I had originally planned not to fill until the big uphill at mile 36, but given the conditions I filled the bottle at mile 23 which was good because I had finished all 3 bottles when I reached the next aid at mile 30. I don't think dehydration played a significant role in my downfall since I was not thirsty when I eventually dropped out, nor did I drink more than usual the evening after dropping out.
Nutrition: My primary fueling plan was to get calories from the Ultrafuel (mixture of maltodextrin and simple sugars) dissolved in water. I had gels and chews as backup. It did not take long for calories to become an issue. The first bottle of Ultrafuel went down easily, but about halfway through the 2nd bottle, my body just rejected it. I probably should have taken this more seriously. At the time I decided to drink only water for 45 minutes in the hopes that with the extra time my stomach would begin processing some of its contents. I then tried a gel which went down fine, but about 5 minutes later my stomach begin hurting so badly I switched to walking for about 10 minutes until the pain subsided somewhat. I never managed to solve the stomach shutdown.
Electrolytes: This may make me a heretic, but I do not normally take salt pills during ultras. The first two times someone talked me into trying them, I immediately felt sick. I have used Nuun occasionally and I had some Nuun with me just in case. About mile 27 when I first started struggling to continue, I tried a bottle of Nuun, but it did not help.
Staying cool: I learned from my friend Bruce a couple of years ago during our first Wonderland Trail attempt to use a bandanna filled with snow or ice or dipped into cold water and then tied around your neck to cool off. I started using a cold bandanna at mile 23 and also put ice in my hat. I think my biggest problem was an elevated core temperature that prevented my stomach from absorbing calories. The one thing I would definitely do differently if I were back in the race was around mile 27 when the noble canyon trail crosses a cool stream. I stopped here and wet down my hat and bandanna a couple of times and rested in the shade trying to get my body temperature down. In retrospect, I can't believe that I didn't just sit or lie in the stream which would have been far more effective at lowering my core temperature and might have brought me back to life.
As it was, I walked from that stream crossing 2 miles downhill to the Pine Creek Aid Station at mile 30 intending to drop. It's funny that now I can't explain or remember why I felt so bad that I would have dropped, but that was definitely my intention. I sat at the aid station packed in ice for 45 minutes until I managed to get down 3-4 small cups of coke and a few pringles. The volunteers at this aid station were the best! When I returned to this aid station after a 5 mile loop, the aid station had turned into a hospital with runners laid out all over the place. I started up the biggest climb of the course, about 2500 feet over the next 7 miles. I was not up to power hiking, but walked at a steady pace except for when I drifted too close to a tree along the right side of the road and was enveloped in a cloud of angry wasps. I was amazed that I only got stung once. About 2/3 of the way up this climb after the route turns right off the road onto some nice single track, I started hyperventilating. I remember thinking that my body had decided panting was the only way to cool down. I was desperate for some shade but this is one of the more exposed sections of the course. Finally a small shrub offered some shade and I crouched down in the shade next to the trail. I don't really remember what happened next very well, but some other runners stopped to check on me. I could hear them, but my field of vision had gone white and I could not see them and I struggled to communicate with them. I finally insisted that I would be OK and that they should continue. I have no idea how long I was there, but eventually my breathing slowed and I decided to try to stand up. I started walking extremely slowly towards the next aid only to find my calves cramping so badly that it was hard to walk. About 2 miles later I encountered a runner coming towards me. The aid station had sent Karl to check and make sure I was OK so we walked the last 2 miles together to the aid station at mile 44. Karl went on to meet his runner at the mile 51 aid station to pace and I dropped.
I did not make any attempt to regroup at the aid station at mile 44. The temperature had definitely cooled by this point and it is certainly possible that if I had managed to get some food down at this aid station that I would have revived, but frankly I was too scared by my collapse on the trail to consider continuing. It is interesting to me to compare my reaction after this DNF to my experience at Coyote Two moon in 2011 when the race was canceled when I was at mile 83. After Coyote Two Moon, I was itching to start another 100 and get the finish experience. After San Diego, I was mainly scared. I never wanted to feel that way in a race again and I am not in any hurry to start another 100.
I did not complete enough of the course to provide any useful information for someone planning to run the race, but I found the following reports the most helpful in my preparations: Rick Gaston's writeups from 2012 and 2010 and Tim Long's writeups from 2012 and 2011.