Upsides of a DNF: My First 100K Attempt

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It is Saturday, July 14th, 2am in the morning and my alarm just goes of. I’m wide awake within a second knowing exactly what’s going on. This isn’t a wake up call to go to work, no it is race day!

As I step outside of our Volkswagen van nature presented the first of many highlights of that day. A beautiful starry sky with a clearly visible milky way connecting the two opposing mountains ridges across the sky.

Not a single cloud was blocking this great view being a first hint of what happened a bit more than 15 hours later: Several thunderstorms, a stopped race and a sad but sane decision to get my first DNF.

But first things first!

Event & Location

I love running and I can’t get enough of beautiful mountain sceneries. Running mountain races combines both and so I chose the Eiger Ultra Trail to be my first 100k race.

As mentioned on the Ultra Trail World Tour website all the UTWT races need to be not only trail runs of at least 100k but they also need to be at an iconic location. And the location and scenery of this race is as iconic as it can get: Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, the three mountains that can be seen from far away and attract hundred of thousands of tourists each year from around the world (especially China).

The valley village Grindelwald is obviously quite touristy and choosing a campground on the nearby slope right beneath the infamous north face of the Eiger, provided the right amount of tranquility and offered a great vista.

View from our camping site

View from our camping site

Good thing I wasn’t alone there. My girlfriend and some friends accompanied me on this trip and supported me along the race course. It’s always nice to have some friends around when starting on new, crazy adventures.

A day before race day picking up the race bib is the one must-do tasks for all runners. We were quite early so checking all the mandatory equipment and getting my stuff was an easy and fast task.

There was still enough time to go for a short hike around the last few miles of the race. Also a good way to get me a bit tired so I can get some sleep early the night before the race. After the usual plate of pasta in the start and finish area we headed back to the campground and I tried to go to bed and get some sleep at around 9pm.

This was no easy task at all! It was still daylight and a decent amount of tension kept me awake until around 11pm.

Race Day

And then the alarm sound at 2am. Not even three hours of sleep in the night before my first 100k race. Can I tackle the technical trails and the 6’700m (22,000ft) elevation gain after that little sleep?

My friends drove me to the village and came to visit the start of me and the other 800-900 runners. A smile here, a hug there, trail running family slowly filled the starting area and prepared for this early morning start.

Fatigue wasn’t an issue at this moment. I guess excitement and adrenaline did the trick. I was talking to my friends right until the start. A good way to not think about too much of what’s in front of me.

Just before the start. Still a bit tired

Just before the start. Still a bit tired

Run Into the Light

At 4am the starting gun sound set the running pack into movement, slowly around the first turn into the main street on which the first few kilometers had to be run. The street was well-lit so no need for the headlamp at the moment.

That changed fast when after 5k we headed into the woods on a narrow trail, now steep up the hill. The chitchat between the runners was now replaced by the sounds of heavy breathing and poles that hit the soft, dry ground of these mountain trails.

In the darkness with just the small light cone of the headlamp, my view was quite constrained. The surface of the next step, the calves in front of me and hundreds of small water drops that reflected the light was all there was in the beginning.

After leaving the forest dawn brightened up the surrounding. I switched my headlamp off and checked my running watch that let me know I’m just one KM short of completing the first 1,000m (3,000ft) climb and arriving at the first aid station.

As soon as I arrived there and refilled by bottles and got some calories in, I took a minute to embrace the beautiful mountain scenery on both sides of the ridge I was currently standing. The sun wasn’t up yet so the light setting in this scenery was new to me.

The next section was great. The trail wasn’t too technical and up- and downhill alternated every few hundred meters. We were running above the trees and the terrain was open so runners could hear supporters cheering from far away. Certainly another motivational boost.

Sun is coming up between aaid station one and two

Sun is coming up between aid station one and two

During the first longer downhill towards the second aid station, I suddenly saw my own shadow surrounded by the warm light of early morning sunbeams. I turned around savoring the sunrise for a moment before continuing running downhill with a smile on my face. I was off to a great start, all was good!

Rain, Sun, Rain, Sun

The weather forecast for the entire day was just perfect. Some sun, some clouds especially in the afternoon which was great to avoiding heating up by the burning sun too much. So it came as a surprise when it started raining soon after I left the second aid station and started on the second climb of the day. It rained for about half an hour and the fact that I was back in a small forest the rain didn’t bother me too much.

When I was above the tree line again, I could see the next aid station at the top of the hill we were climbing. And again constant cheering of supporters echoing from the nearby mountains pulling us runners like a magnet towards the next refuelling stop.

Up there I met my friends for the first time and took some time to chat, eat some stuff and get ready for the next section. Also the sun was shining now and warming up the wet runners at the altitude of more than 2,000m (6,000ft). After leaving the aid station my stomach didn’t feel too well but that soon got better.

There wasn’t time to bother anyway. I was now on a technical downhill with wet rocks and narrow trails everywhere. So concentration was always on the next step. It was around then when I arrived at probably the most dangerous part of the route. We needed to cross a snowfield on a steep slope. Slip and fall wasn’t an option as one would slide fast into big rocks and get injured pretty bad or even worse. So these only 20m took me some minutes but it all worked out and I afterwards found a safe spot to put on my rain jacket because it was raining again quite heavily.

After the next aid station a tough uphill section leading towards a mountain summit at 2,700m (9,000ft), the highest point of the race, waited for the runners. Sun came back again and as I was getting close to the top the first runners of the 50k competition started to pass us. And boy was that impressing. Running easily on this altitude and such a steep climb was awesome to watch.

Just before arriving at the top I started chatting with another runner who competed in all five previous holdings of the Eiger Ultra Trail and finished four of them. So it was time to learn from his experience, which was a great opportunity.

Bone Crushing Downhills

So I was up there happy that I made it to the top of this mountain. I looked down the trail what was in front of me. And it already looked gorgeous from up there.

After some tricky turns the trail continued on top of a mountain ridge with awesome landscapes on both sides. On the left, one of the greatest views of the entire Alps and on the right, two beautiful lakes in the middle of the mountains. The next couple of miles was pure awesomeness. Everything was great, nature, weather, energy level, just everything. I guess these are the moments ultra runners strive for. This is just the point of doing this.

Bit by bit the trail brought me back to reality. As you can imagine in an alpine environment trails can be quite technical and the downhill I was running definitely was! It was getting rather tough on my quads and knees which was slowing me down a bit.

Nice panorama along the way

Nice panorama along the way

Further down below it got warmer and warmer and the sun was now close to its highest point. My bottles were close to empty and the next aid station was still a few miles away. Another runner asked some random hikers for a drink but I kept going trying to get to the next station as fast as possible.

I made another stop in between together with two other runners just to enjoy the mind-blowing view we had. We agreed that this view (combined with all the endorphins in our blood) was already worth it no matter what might happen in the many miles still to come.

A bit later I arrived at the aid station drinking a few cups of Coke to refill my hydration level. After some energy bars and another cup of hot soup I continued this bone crushing downhill.

I had to slow down a bit because my legs started to get tired and sore and I needed to save some energy for the second half of the race.

At the half way mark still ready to go

At the half way mark still ready to go

Getting Back Up

At the 53k mark, so a bit more than half way, I arrived down in the valley at the biggest aid station where my friends were already waiting. I was still very positive and knew I can easily keep going.

As I have planned I stayed quite a while there, changed socks and shoes, ate some pasta, put as much fluids in me as I could and had a chat with my friends.

After around 10 hours moving in the mountains after just 2.5 hours of sleep I did everything to stay upbeat and it worked pretty good so far.

I was mentally prepared for what was coming now: Tough and steep uphill. Of course there’s no more running on 30% incline so I walked steadily. After 600m (2,000ft) of uphill there was a fountain where I could refill my bottles. Some guys were sitting there looking broken already. I felt bad for them as not even 2/3 of the distance has been covered at that point.

The trail leveled out with a slight downhill towards the next village and aid station. I felt good considering the distance and elevation I already covered. The flatter parts I could still run and was still all positive when I arrived at the aid station.

I had now just one more major uphill in front of me with 900m (3,000ft) within just about 4k. I told my friend that it’s a good thing it’s cloudy now so the sun doesn’t bother me on this tough section. So I tackled the next section pretty sure that I’ll finish when I arrive at the top of this climb.

Nature Rules

There are many things you can control in these type of events. With every race you gain experience. You know the best equipment choices, how to pace yourself and how to trick your mind to keep going even when you have a low.

But there are things you just can’t control. One of this is weather. When doing sports in the Alps in summer you always have the chance of thunderstorms and rapid weather shifts.

So when I was on the second half of the climb just above the treeline I felt some raindrops on my skin. I looked down a nearby valley recognizing that it was all black raining like hell about 5-10k from where I was now. I tried to read where the weather was coming from and thought that the storm I was looking at won’t hit me. I was still positive, thinking that I will be uphill in less than an hour and then there’s nothing that can stop me from finishing this thing.

But then there was thunder just behind us. Another thunderstorm was arriving sending lightnings and rain over the section I was running at. I started to arrange myself with the thought that for some hours of the remaining race I’ll probably need to move in heavy rain. My chances of success now dropped quite a bit. I felt save with maybe the last 3-4 hours to be in darkness. Also energy level, muscle soreness and pain would be manageable. But heavy rain, wet trails, combined with fatigue and my lack of experience in the 100k trail distance started to worry me a bit.

When rain got a bit heavier my phone was ringing. I thought it might be the race organizers so I picket it up. It was my friend who waited up the hill telling me that they stopped the race and were pulling every runner in at the top for safety reasons.

Before I could even mentally deal with the situation that now everything may change, some runners came back down with the order to immediately turn around. The organizers decided to evacuate the section I was running in so 2/3 up the hill I needed to turn around running back down to the last aid station.

Of course we had to tell everyone we met on the way back down to turn around as well. It was a positive surprise that almost everyone accepted the situation and the decision by the race directors. Only one asked back: “What? So we all just get a DNF?”. I always choose safety over avoiding a DNF, don’t you?

Quitting

When I arrived back down no one had a clue what’s going to happen. Will they continue the race at all? Will they change the route? They just told us to wait until further notice. So I waited soaking wet in temperatures that dropped massively due to the thunderstorm. I’ve sent my friends and family a message with what happened and at first didn’t even recognize that I was getting hypothermic.

My mind was spinning for a bit but soon I came to the conclusion that the risk of continuing was too high so I quit. 2.5 hours of sleep, continuing subcooled probably in the dark on wet and slippery trails was just one thing too much for my experience level. I waited for my friend and we then got back to the village where the rest was waiting.

Later that evening after the shower when I finally stopped shaking and was warm again, I learned that the race has been continued but on a shortened route. 965 signed in to start the race. Only 75 managed to finish on the original course. About 45% didn’t even start or got the DNF just as I did.

How a DNF Can Help

So let’s get back to the title of this post. Upsides of a DNF? Really? So DNFing a race is just a good thing?

Of course it isn’t. At first at least. I have to be honest, quitting a race after months of preparation after everything went so well for almost 70k just doesn’t feel too good. And that’s the first good thing. What’s the point in setting goals if you just don’t care if you achieve them or not?

But there’s at least one positive thing in almost everything and having a positive attitude helps you get the most out of a DNF and return stronger than ever at the next race.

So here’s what I learned from my first ever DNF:

  • Everything went just great until the weather changed. My training was OK. I didn’t need to quit because of exhaustion or because I wasn’t ready to run in an alpine environment. I had a bit of bad luck.
  • Thunderstorms can happen every day in summer in the mountains. As simple as it sounds, being faster reduces the changes I’m still running when the storm is coming. So getting faster is certainly a thing to work on.
  • Putting the rain jacket on is a matter of a few seconds if it’s easily accessible. No need to wait until I’m already wet when the first rain is coming.
  • When I need to stop for more than 5-10 minutes and there’s a risk of getting hypothermic, just put on some more clothes. I can always take them of again.
  • Train more in the dark and in rain. In winter I always tried to workout in daylight and usually I prefer running when it’s not raining. I have to change that to gain more experience in these conditions
  • I still was running 68k and around 4,800m of elevation gain. Both are new PBs for me.
  • After the race I learned that the guy I thought would win (Gediminas Grinius) didn’t even come as far as I did. DNFs in ultra trail running are just something that can happen. No hard feelings.

What’s Next?

This race is over and I didn’t manage to go the full distance. So soon after reflecting on the past race and what happened, planning for the next adventures started.

In two months I’ll be a dad so priorities obviously shift quite a bit. But I also still love running so I’ll try to keep up a decent amount of training. But we’ll see how that all works out.

This year I plan to do one more race in mid October. It’s a 60k race also in the Swiss Alps but not as tough as others. I already did this event two years ago and it was my first ever ultra run. So it would be great to go back there and finishing this one should be very likely.

For next year it’s no surprise that I’ll try my luck again at the 100k distance. I’m just not sure yet which event(s) I’ll choose. I lost the lottery for the CCC (100k race in the UTMB week) so my chances are twice as high in 2019. I definitely will try the lottery again.

Also I now have unfinished business with the Eiger Ultra Trail. They usually plan for 600 runners for the 100k but demand exceeds that tenfold. So another lottery I guess.

The third event I consider is the Mozart 100 in Austria. It’s not as competitive as the others so probably easier to get in to. And this is also the easiest of the three with “only” 4,600m of up- and downhill.

And What About Training?

As mentioned being a faster mountain runners decreases the chance of being still on the trails when something unexpected like a storm happens. So working on pace will be a priority. Also because base endurance isn’t the issue. I feel comfortable moving for several hours straight.

Now working on speed on mountain trails isn’t just the same as training for a faster city marathon. On the uphill you’re limited by fitness or your VO2max. So classic speed work and thus increasing aerobic capacity will help me tackle the climbs faster.

But then there are the downhills on technical terrain. And that’s another story. For that I plan to do the following things:

  • Loose some pounds. Less weight is just better for my joints. My knees will thank me for every pound I can get rid of
  • Work on stability. Core and extended leg muscles workouts so my joints are well supported
  • Train more on technical terrain. This is crucial to get the body used to the challenges of these races. I’ll also try to run the downhills more and more aggressive in training and not just jog down to relax after a tough climb.

So that’s about it for now. If you’re interested in my future adventures and how my training is going, it would be awesome if you signed up to my mailing list below.

So long, thanks for reading!

Happy running
mikula

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2 comments on “Upsides of a DNF: My First 100K Attempt”

  • arliaus chuan says:

    Bravo to you and congratulation on becoming a daddy soon.
    Just completed my 12Hrs trail marathon recently. After running past 9hrs, I started to feel some pain in my right ankle. With every stepping there is sharp pain went through from the back of my right foot. Decided to call it quits despite having another 3hrs before times up. It is better not to hurt oneself and aggravate the injury. There is always another days and another chance to come by. Hi five bro.

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