Your Ultra-Training Bag Of Tricks: Troubleshooting On The Run, Part Three

Welcome to the third part of our troubleshooting series (Part One and Part Two). We’ll continue to cover the most commonly asked questions and issues that both newbie and veteran ultrarunners encounter during competition. Though many of the answers and remedies are well known to most, we often fail to implement them. Use these reminders to help you avoid race-day glitches.

Dude, Where’s My Crew?

Flat tires, traffic jams, and missed turns can prevent even the most experienced crew from meeting their runner at an aid station on race day. Here’s how to prevent mid-race meltdown if you miss your help along the course.

  • Ensure that you’re self-reliant. If the race offers drop-bag service, use it. Pack a back-up version of the things you’ll be getting from your crew for each aid station. You may have to go without your favorite perishable items as they could spoil. However, you can certainly pre-position those items that would keep you in the game like warm clothing, electrolyte powders, gels, lights, batteries, and shoes.
  • Research what the aid stations will be offering. Make sure to test those foods and drinks in training so that you can use them if necessary.
  • Tell your team to ask the aid-station staff as soon as they arrive at each checkpoint to make sure you haven’t already passed though so they can beat feet to the next location if you have.

Malfunction Junction

Ultrarunning isn’t only tough on our bodies, it’s rough on our equipment. There will come a time when our gear will fail. If this happens during a race, don’t panic. Find a solution that allows you to continue to the finish.

  • Leaking hydration system – Prevention is key. Use a new bladder or bottle that has been tested once or twice in training. You’ll know it functions, but it will have little wear and tear. If you find a leak mid-race:
    • Double check the bladder closure.
    • Use duct tape from an aid station to seal the leak.
    • Borrow a bladder or handheld bottle from another runner, volunteer, crew, or pacer.
  • Your watch dies – You don’t need a device to tell you you’re running 17 minute/mile pace. Run by effort and use the course terrain to dictate your pace. If you’ve programmed your watch to indicate eating and drinking intervals, you’ll have to do your best by estimating the time that has elapsed between fueling.
  • Shoe blowout – Again, prevention is best. I don’t recommend racing in shoes right out of the box, but shoes with more than 400 miles on them are an accident waiting to happen. Though not ideal, duct tape can be an ultrarunner’s best friend and a good patch job will get you to the finish line.
  • Foggy or missing contacts – This happens often, especially as hydration, blood sugar, and weather go awry. Slow your pace and utilize other runners to guide you safely along the course.

Trail-side Bathroom Etiquette

It’s inevitable. When Mother Nature calls on race day, we’re bound to be miles from a port-a-potty. Leave No Trace ethics apply, even if you’re racing for a win.

  • Make sure you’re 200 feet or 60 meters (about 70 steps) from the trail or any water source.
  • Make sure you’re hidden. No one wants to see your rear.
  • Dig a hole. Since we don’t carry shovels, with the heel of your shoe, a stick, or a rock excavate a trench that is at least six inches deep and a few inches wide, or as big as you can given the terrain.
  • Unless land-agency rules apply, it’s fine to leave a small amount of toilet paper in the hole. Do not burn your toilet paper. If you don’t have toilet paper, use natural materials like smooth stones, snow, or vegetation. Be sure you know your plant life. Poison oak/ivy/sumac isn’t fun toilet paper.
  • Bury all used material with your waste. Pack out tampons and other non-biodegradable material.

Urine is a different story. It doesn’t carry the pathogens or disease that waste can and dries quickly. Do your fellow runners a favor, however, and urinate off the trail.

Bee Stings And Wildlife Encounters

As if running 50-plus miles isn’t tough enough, dealing with wildlife can be even more harrowing when you’re fatigued, sleep deprived, or running alone through the backcountry. A face-to-face encounter with a wild animal or getting bitten by an insect can be a traumatic experience. Here are a few potentials and how you can handle them.

  • Bees/Wasps – Know if you’re allergic or not. If so, always carry an EpiPen to counteract a life-threatening allergic reaction. If you’re stung, ensure you move away from a hive or nest, if there is one nearby. Find a fellow runner to escort you to the closest medical personnel if you have any skin discoloration, swelling, or difficulty breathing.
  • Snakes – Snakes aren’t aggressive and don’t hunt or chase people. However, they will defend themselves if threatened. If you see one, leave it alone, give it wide berth, and don’t get between it and its natural cover (bushes and rocks).
  • Megafauna – Trail ultras are often held in wild places that are inhabited by creatures that are territorial, larger, hungrier, and stronger than we are. The best practice is to know what could be in the area and to be prepared in the event you have an encounter.

Evaluating A Race-Sustained Injury Mid-race

Ultramarathons aren’t easy and many times we must push through discomfort and fatigue to finish. How do we make good race-day decisions about our own health when our judgment is impaired by exhaustion and/or adrenaline? Here are a few suggestions to help you decide if you should or should not drop out.

Call it a day when:

  • Medical staff or a loved one asks you to;
  • You miss a cut-off time;
  • You have a broken bone or suspected broken bone;
  • You have a muscle, ligament, or tendon tear or suspect you have one of these ailments;
  • You have blood in your urine, stool, or saliva; or
  • You have, as Geri Kilgariff, an ex-race director of the Zane Grey 50 Mile Endurance Run, once said, “Decided that it just isn’t worth it anymore.”

Find help and correct these things before moving on:

  • Cramping;
  • Nausea and vomiting;
  • Frequent NSAID or other pain-medication ingestion;
  • Significant change in weight;
  • Unable to maintain body temperature;
  • Dizzy or disorientated;
  • Unable to take deep breaths;
  • Limping; or
  • Blisters.

Keep moving if you’re:

  • Tired;
  • Sore;
  • Have a headache; or
  • Throwing your own little pity party.

So there you have it. Hopefully before your next ultra event, you’ll peruse this three-part series and find it useful for filling in the holes in your race strategy and planning. Have a great race!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Which of these issues have you had to troubleshoot during your own training and racing? How did you overcome them?
  • When have you used your own creativity to troubleshoot a problem you encountered on the trail?

There are 20 comments

  1. Jim

    Great piece Ian! On my first 50 miler where I used a hydration pack(yes some of us still use them:)) I tested it out the night before to make sure all my gear was in working order. The strap broke on the pack. In panic mode I remembered back to adventure racing days and sewed it with dental floss. Still going strong today. The s*#t will hit the fan, it's how you deal with the mess.

  2. Sarah

    Thankfully I haven't had to deal with any major race-day disaster but during my last 50k I did notice a couple of hot spots developing after the first 12k loop. I heeded the advice I've heard so many times about dealing with blisters and covered the hotspots as soon as I could get to the tape I had packed and was able to continue on to a slow finish. Listening to that advice likely saved my race!

  3. Dave

    So far I've been lucky so far with equipment, injury, and GI issues (save for mild nausea). I do however tend to get derailed by hamstring cramps. My strategy for dealing with them is to suck it up and hobble slowly towards the finish. Hmmm… there must be a better way.

    1. Meghan Hicks

      phil jeremy,

      I love some of the responses here. In all seriousness, your response to an encounter by a bear should vary based on the species of bear and its behavior. The following are the responses currently recommended by wildlife professionals but summarized by me.

      Grizzly bears: Do all you can to avoid a close encounter. Yell, sing, travel in groups that talk loud, and walk instead of run when the terrain/vegetation closes in and you can't see if there might be a bear in close range. And, always, always carry bear spray. If you encounter a grizzly bear at close-enough range that it notices and modifies its behavior for you, take care to slowly but deliberately back away until the grizzly seems less bothered. Don't run. If a grizzly bear charges, stand your ground and spray your pepper spray when the bear enters the spray's range. If the grizzly bear doesn't cease its charge, collapse to the ground and play dead. Try to protect the back of your neck and head with your hands or pack. If the grizzly bear actually attacks, continue to play dead. Most grizzly bears simply want to negate the threatening feeling that your presence gives them, so non-resistance to their contact will show that you aren't a threat.

      Black bears: Most black bears will run away as soon as they see a human, unless you get between them and their babies or them and their food. Take care to avoid such a precarious situation. If you do find yourself in this situation or in a situation where a black bear is not running away, back up out of it slowly and deliberately until the bear doesn't seem bothered by you. Don't run. A black bear will rarely full-on attack a human; most of the few instances have been when a black bear has intended to predate and feed on the human. So, if a black bear attacks, fight it. Kick, scream, grab a stick or rock and hit it. Do everything you can to send a message to the bear that you're not prey.

      And as long as we're at it, one more megafauna species you might run into while trail running in North America,

      Mountain lions/cougars: Many victims of mountain-lion attacks say they never saw the animal or only saw it for a flash before the attack. This is because mountain lions are known and expert stalkers. If a mountain lion makes contact with you in this situation, it's intending to predate upon you. Fight back as aggressively as you can to show the mountain lion you are not prey. Sometimes people are followed by a mountain lion. These situations are often the result of a curious mountain lion, perhaps a young one that's never seen a human or the dog you have with you. These situations can also be the result of a mountain lion that is sizing you up as a prey species. If you see a mountain lion, don't run. Do your best to make yourself look as big and imposing as possible. Shout, scream, throw rocks in the direction of the mountain lion, wave a stick above your head. Also, slowly and deliberately back away from the lion to attempt to remove yourself from the situation. If the mountain lion retreats, don't start running again. Just walk slowly and deliberately where you need to go. Often mountain lions will follow for some distance without you knowing they are there and your running might re-trigger their predatory instinct.

      There are a couple exceptions to these recommendations for behavior. Do you research before you intend to play in the home territory of predator megafauna and rehearse your reactions in the event that something happens.

  4. Eric

    Just prior to a long training run I found my bladder leaking terribly. Turns out my o-ring fell out when I was rinsing it after the last run (I did find it later). Solution – a ziploc bag over the opening, screw on the cap, no leaking.

  5. Gary Gellin

    I've seen my share of unabashed, very-near-trail poopers at the front of the field. Guys, don't make me call out your initials here ): One plus is they are in too big of a hurry to use t.p.!

  6. NGTrailRunner

    Really appreciate you putting these articles together Ian! This series has been really informative coming from someone of your experience. Would love to see this series become a regular fixture on IRF…perhaps with suggestions from other seasoned runners!

  7. glh4redleg

    I ran a 100k and about 22 miles in bashed my knee on a fall. I ended up using an adjustable knee brace with a ziplock bag go ice to keep going. What I did was get a ziplock bag full of ice and place it on the bruised area then used an adjustable knee brace to hold it in place. As it melted I just adjusted the brace until it was melted. Then I drank the water.

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