Live and Learn: Anatomy of a DNF

I came to New Zealand ready to race the Tarawera 100 in the best shape of my life. I’d raced Tarawera 100km back in 2016, gaining 19th overall on what was my debut 100km race. This year I had high expectations of myself, and had worked hard through the Winter months to prepare. Yet as with much in life, things didn’t go to plan. The result was the furthest from what I could have imagined, and being my first DNF, a disappointing start to the year. I had always wondered what it would take for me to DNF (Did Not Finish) a race, as I always figured I’d have the resilience and desire to continue. DNF’s are common enough in the ultra world, and each has their own story. There are all manners of reasons and situations that lead to a DNF, much of which is down to the mental state of the runner at the time. My story here isn’t anything spectacular, nor dramatic. It is very simply the sum of a calculated risk, coupled with some errors that compounded to end my day. I take full responsibility for everything that transpired. I run ultras to push myself to the limit in as many ways as possible. Invariably doing so means taking risks, making decisions under pressure, and problem solving on the fly. The best runners (and most consistent) adapt and thrive in the chaos, and it is the lessons within the chaos and the ‘failures’ that provide ample growth and learning for those that are willing to embrace it. I shared this quote (yes, taken from the Batman Begins movie) with a friend recently and I think its apropos of my race: “Why do we fall sir? So we can learn to pick ourselves up”.

The 100km (102km) race was in reverse this year, starting in the town of Kawerau (where I was staying with my aunt and uncle), and running only a slightly varied course to finish in Rotorua. The change in course meant a faster start, but overall a more challenging course profile. Race day would see high rainfall, due to a tropical storm in the area. It would be a wet, muddy and challenging race in these conditions. With such weather conditions, mandatory kit was required for all runners, and meant everyone was running with a pack. Whilst I had a great pack to use, I had taken the risk of starting with only one water bottle. In hindsight, this was a poor move. The humidity was high, and despite being wet, it was still mid 20’s (Celsius). Had there been no need for mandatory kit, the idea of a pack vs a hand held water bottle would have been a much better conversation. The decision to run with a single bottle would come back to haunt me, as the humidity would take its toll, particularly on the several long (16km) sections without aid stations. The return of investment for that little extra weight, became a deficit gain as the day unfolded.

The race started incredibly fast, with Dylan Bowman and Cody Reed setting the pace up the front. There were two mixed chase packs, with everyone fairly close together. I ended up sitting in behind the three top ladies, who were setting a blazing pace themselves, not much behind the lead men. I would run behind Amanda Basham right up to circa 10kms, where mistake number one took place. Fisherman’s Bridge aid station was due to be at 10.5kms and accessible to crew. Just after hitting 9kms, we saw an ‘aid station ahead’ sign. Still pushing a fierce pace up front, I didn’t recall one being that early, and as there were no crew/spectators, and hardly any volunteers, I figured this wasn’t the official aid station. In my efforts to stay in contact, I ran through without stopping. I had seen a sign saying Fishermans Bridge 10.5kms, so figured that this was something else, and paid it little heed, knowing I’d see my crew in a km or so, where I’d refill my now close to empty bottle. As I cranked on, I’d come to realise my mistake. There was no aid station and for whatever reason, the Fishermans Bridge Aid station was over a km earlier than advertised. The buses that had to take people into Tarawera Forest (to access the first 40kms of the race), had not made that point in time for the front of the field (I was circa 15th at this time). After 11kms of running, I was out of water in my only bottle, and due to the fact I fuel only with liquid nutrition, meant I had no electrolytes or calories either. The next section was 16kms before the next an aid station, and all hard, fast running. Had I taken a second bottle at the start, this would have been a totally different race. Alas, I recognised my mistake and just figured I’d have to slow down a touch, and do the best I could to recover after I got through this section. I was hot, and knew this pace in this humidity, would see my get dehydrated quickly. Not to mention calorie deficient.

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Coming into 26kms was such a relief. I was thirsty, dehydrated, and whilst feeling a little lack lustre, mostly ok on the calorie side. I was still in the top 20, hadn’t had a major bonk or rough patch, but definitely felt my legs were heavier and tired than I’d ever experienced, particularly this early in a race. Admittedly it was a hot pace, and the lack of fuelling was less affecting my energy, but more affecting the output of my legs. Not good, but I hoped things would come around as the race progressed. I took my time to refuel, take on extra calories, and speak to my crew. I high fived Keely Henninger (crewing/pacing Amanda Basham), and then was out. The course was pretty fast running (predominantly fire roads) in the first 40kms, but with lots of undulation to keep you honest. It was wet, and any trail sections were muddy and in pretty rough shape. The 100km runners had caught two of the other four races that were being hosted simultaneously, which meant trails were absolutely trashed as we were going through. I resurged and felt a lot better, chasing the lead ladies and remaining in the top 20. I could see the orange of Amanda’s pack in the distance, and could tell Kelly, Ruby and Amanda were getting after it early! I’d go through one of my favourite sections of the course, passing the 35km mark at the Tarawera Falls stations. I knew this section well, as I had run it previously outside of the race. I ripped along enjoying the change to singletrack, and the punchy climbs as we made our way to Lake Tarawera, approaching the outlet aid station at around 40.8kms. For context, the lead men had split the marathon in under 3 hours, and I was approx 25mins off the pace. Even for a run-able ultra, that was FAST for a 100km. As I ran through the outlet, there were people everywhere cheering and giving directions. Still working hard, I was told that drop bags were across the bridge to the left, and the aid station was up ahead on the same trail. Prior years, the aid station was about 500m along the track away from the outlet (where the bridge was), so hearing those directions confirmed my prior course knowledge. As I continued, I passed Race Director Paul and his wife, downing the remaining Tailwind in my bottle (guess which genius did NOT take a second bottle when he saw his crew last).  Then mistake number two happened. There was no aid station. I had been incorrectly directed (a multitude of runners suffered the same fate) in the confusion, so for the second time (and believe me, I couldn’t believe that it had happened again), I was without any water, fuel or electrolytes. I’ll reiterate here that despite the confirmed (post race) confusion and misdirection, I take ABSOLUTELY 100% responsibility for all that took place. I am ultimately an experienced runner, who is responsible for everything that happens out there.

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From the outlet, it is the most technical section of the course. The trails were trashed (muddy and broken down), and I had just under 10kms to run without any water or fuel. My legs were already in pretty bad shape (extremely tired and beat up) from the first time with no fuel, and I was concerned that this would be far worse. I had nothing else to do but run, and despite physically not feeling great, mentally I was good. The trails were beautiful, and whilst drenched and muddy, I was warm. So I continued on, battling the mud and roots. By the time I reached the next aid stations (Humphrey’s Bay), I’d been experiencing cramps all down my legs. Calves, hamstrings, hip flexors and IT band. Minor at first, but consistent and varying across each muscle. I had to stop a few times as I couldn’t move, before it would subside and I could run again. I was SO happy to arrive at the aid station, and I drank a lot of coke in my fear I’d lost so many calories. The final nail in my coffin, was that I filled up my bottle with Coke, and not Tailwind. I should have realised that I was extremely depleted with salts and electrolytes (and pretty dehydrated in general), and desperately needed to get the body back to some form of balance. Alas, I didn’t, nailing my coffin shut (although the damage was probably already done anyway). I cracked on, still optimistic that the day would turn around.

I was running fairly well, both considering I was still cramping (and getting worse), and due to the state of the trails. Despite that, I had run pretty much all the way past 50kms. No power hiking, except on a few tiny sections where I was either passing other runners (from the shorter races) or the trails were so trashed it was the best way forward. My mental state was still positive, despite frustrations from the days mistakes. The cramps were getting worse, both more frequent and more painful. They also were present whether I walked (power-hike), ran uphill, downhill or on flats. Not ideal. But I continued. I would see my crew again at Lake Okataina (58km), and share the unfortunate (or comical perhaps) news of my second missed fuelling. By that stage, I had run about 25kms (1/4 of the race) without any water or fuel, with no signs of my body recovering. I said hello to the other family members who had come to support, and left Okataina on a final push to see if I could turn things around. I had 16kms before the next aid station and the biggest climb of the course. Mentally I was still pretty good, but my legs were in severe decline. Something I’d never experienced before, and quite humbling. Cramps continued with a ferocity I’d not experienced. For the record, I had not had a single cramp in my entire four years of running/racing. Not one. Giving me good reason to be worried. Particularly as walking would induce cramps almost as badly. So I kept going. The trails were a right mess by now, and there were a lot of people suffering in the conditions. Whilst they were indeed challenging, I’d accepted from the start it would be a muddy mess, so that in itself was not bothering me. The camaraderie on the trails was great, and I had some great conversations as I passed other runners who graciously let me pass with a cheer. I was still running, only pausing to abate any cramps that came up. As I conquered the climb, I began to descend. My legs were not moving well, and I was starting to get worried that I’d seize up and go face first down the trail. I was desperate to sit down for just a moment, and promised myself I’d do that when I hit the aid station. After what felt like an eternity (sidenote, after 58kms I had decided to take two bottles, something I should have done much earlier), I hit Millar Road, and got to sit down. My legs were so stiff and sore, and were by far the most destroyed I had ever experienced. Even after Western States, with a grade 3 tibial stress reaction, I was in much better shape. So I know it was bad. And it was at that point that I seriously questioned continuing. I had run for almost 50kms with cramps that had only gotten worse. I knew exactly what the cause was, and it was just one of those situations where nothing would change the outcome.

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As my crew (mum, step-dad, step-sister, plus two uncles and my aunt supporting), were only 6kms away at the Blue Lake aid station, I continued on. It was almost an all road section, which normally is a strength of mine. I figured if I can handle this, I can gut out a finish. I got up, and boy it was rough. I staggered out and managed to get down the road. The impact was mauling my legs, and 6kms felt like forever. As I turned onto a trail, I painfully wound in and around downed trees before popping out at Blue Lake. I came out like the Tin Man, legs almost completely seized up and cramping. The road section had been awful, and what was left in my legs was now well and truly gone. I realised at that point that running had stopped being fun, and had crossed that line from a healthy challenge to just sheer and utter brutality. I saw my parents, managed to lean up against a solid structure, and shared my thoughts. I was un-emotional, pragmatic, and after running through the various options, made the decision to officially DNF. I’ve never DNF’ed before, and thought it would be a heartbreaking moment. It was only a flood of relief. I knew exactly why my day had gone that way, and was proud of my efforts despite it all. I often recall the question that Gordy Ainsleigh (founder of the Western States 100) said on the ‘Unbreakable’ documentary, “Can I take another step?”. I had gotten to the point in the race, just 20kms shy of the finish, where my answer to that question was no. I could hardly walk, hardly run and my legs were only in decline. I was concerned that I would either end up in worse shape and go over and injure myself, or just trash my legs so much that there would be some more longer term damage.

I didn’t feel shame in my decision, just sheer relief. I was disappointed I could not put on a show for my family, and despite being still inside the top 20 when I dropped, knew that a death march finish would not serve me. I was grateful I had my family to support me and to go home with straight away.  I texted my coach Alicia, and was warmed by her as usual, insightful reply. After a 30 minute drive back home, we would have a wonderful family meal together, drink wine, eat delicious food, and laugh and joke til late. Where I would randomly jump up in pain as the cramps continued! It was definitely comical by that stage! My family were happy to just be there with each other, share in my experience, but not make it a big deal. Because it wasn’t. Life goes on, and the world didn’t end. I made mistakes, but honestly learnt SO much more from that ‘failure’ than I would have even if I had won. I am far more grateful for the DNF, than I am for my 19th place two years ago. My fitness is excellent, my training was the best I’ve had, and I made a smart decision to walk away after battling for 9 hours. I am so stoked that my friends did so well. Kelly Wolf taking the win (I had told her prior I knew she could win), Amanda Basham for a close second. Both who ran incredible races. And the men, WOW did Dylan Bowman show again why he is one of the best in the world. An absolute class act. My buddy Adrien won the inaugural 100 miler, and it was incredibly emotional to see Sally McRae take her first 100 mile victory. I had an incredible time in New Zealand, gained so much across so many levels, and can only express gratitude for everything that transpired. I was truly humbled. Thank you friends (old and new) for all the wonderful times. Live and learn!

And most importantly, you can be DAMN SURE I am coming back for revenge. Tarawera 2019, we’ve got unfinished business.

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Bernd, the last 100 mile finisher, after nearly 36 hours! One of my favourite parts of the race, was the final hour cheering in finishers!

 

Strava Data: https://www.strava.com/activities/1400129431

Thank you to all the incredible volunteers and people that made the race possible. To the Tarawera organisers, thanks for putting on such a great event and for your grace in taking on constructive feedback. You really do put on a stellar event, and despite my day, I had a blast!

To my family. I’m at a loss to describe how much it meant for you all to come out and support me. To my mum, step-dad and sister Jo, thank you so much for flying to New Zealand (from Australia) to crew me and be part of my day. To my Aunt Yvonne and Uncle Barry, thank you for hosting me in Kawerau and your support all week. To my sister Lisa, I was so touched you drove hours and hours to come and watch my race. To uncle Roger, I greatly appreciate you coming down to support as well. I am so grateful for you all, and look forward to sharing a better day with you all next time.

To my brilliant Coach Alicia, Thank you for all your sage wisdom, advice and for sharing the ups and downs of my life.

To all the friends and family who were following along, sent me well wishes and continue to support my desire to compete, thank you!

Gear

Nike shorts/singlet/socks

Nike Kiger 4 Shoes

Pack: Ultimate Direction FKT pack

Waterproof Jacket: Ultimate Direction jacket

Fuel: Tailwind

GPS: Suunto Ambit 3 Peak

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6 thoughts on “Live and Learn: Anatomy of a DNF

  1. Well done despite all….I read with interest your log.
    All best wishes for future races from Cathlyn Davidson, a London Legacy legatee.
    Are you back in Australia these days or still partly UK based?l

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  2. Wow! Outstanding report on your race Nic. Barry and I thoroughly enjoyed following you step by step again through your story. Acknowledging that you have learnt more through your DNF will be a powerful incentive for the rematch in 2019. Best of luck for the year aheads training. I see you’re off to Cinque Terre soon or maybe you are there now. Have fun.

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  3. Awesome piece Nic. I congratulate you on your intestinal fortitude. What you do is amazing. Congratulations. See you next year.

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  4. Wow! Well written as always, even though I already knew the outcome of your race I was following your post like it was a thriller novel – reading fast to hear what happened next! A lot more info on how it felt out there, surprised how long you stuck out the cramps for! Monster effort and great reflection on a tough day. Well done 🙂

    Like

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