DNF – When Endurance Races Don’t Go To Plan.
Endurance races don’t always go the way in which you plan them. With all the best intentions, something unprecedented can present itself and spoil the party. Nobody wants to sign up to an endurance challenge, dedicate hours of training and preparation to it, fork out entry fees and travel costs but then not complete the goal you have set for yourself. After a number of top athletes pulled out of high profile races over the summer, we reflected on what went wrong for them and how you may prevent similar occurrences on your own challenge. Points that often seem obvious can be overlooked.
Whilst there is very little that can be done to prevent an accidental slip, trip or fall, we can reduce the risk of this and subsequent injury through training and preparation and actions during the race. Build a robust body in training. Incorporate cross training, strength work, plenty of core work and practice on the types of terrain you will race across. Plenty of hill work will be required for mountain races to condition the legs. If you will be carrying weight during the race, ensure you also train with it (but don’t over do it!). If there is lots of steep climbing in store, use poles to help reduce the stress on your leg muscles. Having a head torch that is bright enough to clearly see the path ahead at night whilst moving at pace is a must if you are to avoid unnecessary trips and falls. Fuel and hydrate well to avoid degradation of body and mind and subsequent poor or impaired decision making to slip in (see more below).
Having a well thought out fuelling strategy will mitigate the risk of burning out during the race. Lack of fuel and/or Gastro Intestinal (GI) issues are one of the key causes of DNFs on endurance races. Train with the foods you will use during the race to ensure they will not cause any issues. A frequent intake of calories is required on longer races (this will vary with each individual and by the intensity of the activity) through carbs and/or fats and a lack of discipline in consuming the right fuel can lead to a decline in performance.
Our founder David reflected on this very thing, which was one of the catalysts to start Supernatural Fuel: ‘Two moments of that race stood out; they were two points when I considered giving up and were largely down to my inability to eat enough fuel with a slow decline in speed and decreased will to go on. I had not been disciplined enough with my eating and was suffering from nausea and it was a downward spiral – it led to the point of wanting to give up. Once at an aid station with some rest and refuel I was back in the game and I was amazed at how quickly my body could re-energise and change my mindset.’
Weather and altitude can significantly affect the outcome of a race. Whilst the weather is outside of our control, we can be well prepared for any eventuality by having the right equipment and having conducted the right type of training. Ensure your kit has been tested prior to the race – is your waterproof jacket actually waterproof and has been tested? Have you trained in the mountains, can navigate well and are completely self-sufficient knowing how to get yourself out of trouble if required? Factor in some acclimatisation time in your trip if the racing is higher altitude – same goes for severe hot or cold environments. Even the most seasoned and experienced athletes can be caught out – our ambassador John Kelly sighted these problems on the Tors des Geants earlier this year:
‘Unfortunately my planned 3 day adventure through the Alps ended after just 15 hours. The combination of warm weather & altitude, plus foolishly pushing myself a bit to catch back up after a wrong turn, left me unable to eat or drink. I went on as long as I could, hoping things would turn around, but at the aid station before the highest point of the course I was already extremely dehydrated & couldn’t take even the slightest sip of liquid without vomiting.’
Physical decline can lead to a decline in the will to continue when the going gets tough. Having a clear reason/motivating factor to draw upon when you are at your lowest ebb will be key to success for difficult challenges. With over 50 ultra distance races and challenges under his belt Supernatural Fuel ambassador Damian Hall shared his insights in an interesting article around his DNF at this year’s Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB®):
‘I wasn’t injured. It was my mind that stopped me. At 3am in Courmayeur (approximately halfway through the 171km race), I just had a strong feeling that I did not want to go on. I had some minor physical issues, but that’s par for the course. I just had no desire to bash myself up for another half a day, for an outcome that didn’t seem worth it. I took off my ultra running shoes and handed in my bib number.’
Endurance races are very much about that – ‘enduring’. They are meant to be difficult and will test your body and mind to the limit – completing them is the personal growth piece. You will have a greater chance of success and prevent a DNF with the right planning and preparation: train and prepare well; choose and practice with the right equipment, plan your fuelling and hydration well and stick to it, factor in acclimatisation time if needed.
Whilst a DNF can be a very negative experience, there is always lots to learn from the process. By understanding what went wrong, we can better prepare for the next race by implementing the appropriate counter measures. We can only grow as individuals by pushing our boundaries, failing and improving. Damian Hall rather eloquently puts it in his article:
‘The fact I failed is a reminder of why I love this sport and its ability to humble us. Sport inherently must have success and failure. If this stuff was easy, everyone would be doing it. I love this stuff exactly because it’s hard and sometimes it doesn’t go the way you hoped. The next one may go wrong too. And I won’t love this shit any less.’