Troubleshooting On The Run, Part One

How to troubleshoot seven common issues during your next ultramarathon.

By on September 3, 2013 | Comments

Races rarely go according to plan. No matter how much we prepare for our next event, there will undoubtedly be some unexpected hurdles. The longer the race, the greater the chance of mishap. I’ve certainly had my share of trailside glitches, as have many of the athletes I work with. Below are some of the more common issues we’ve faced and some safe and sensible solutions.

[Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series. Here are Part Two and Part Three.]

The Rebellious Stomach
Perhaps the most ubiquitous race-day malady and cause of most ultramarathon DNFs. Once your stomach starts going south, it’s hard to take in enough calories to fuel the effort. As a result, the pace slows drastically and motivation typically evaporates.

  • We can usually blame nausea on hydration and electrolyte imbalances. Karl King, the President of SUCCEED! Sportsdrink LLC, has developed a wonderful Water/Electrolyte Balance Table. Use this table to determine where you are coming up short on race day so you can alter your intake accordingly.
  • High altitude can destroy what is usually a sound hydration and nutrition regime at sea level. At oxygen-poor elevations, slowing your pace and eating smaller portions may fend off queasiness. For races with course profiles similar to Leadville and Hardrock, your stomach should settle on the descents that follow the high peak and pass crossings.
  • Be wary of spoiled drink mixes and food products. Mix powders only when needed and keep opened nutritional products refrigerated or on ice. If you’re using drop bags, make sure they contain only those provisions that won’t spoil if left exposed to the heat and sun.

Dizziness and Weakness
Nothing can be more frustrating than a weakening stride or more frightening than inexplicably losing your sense of balance while on the trail.

  • Again, refer to King’s table. Are you drinking enough and how’s your electrolyte intake?
  • Are you racing in the mountains and not acclimated? Altitude sickness may be the culprit. If the symptoms are accelerating, sit down and allow your body to recuperate or ask a passing runner to send back help from the next aid station.
  • You could be experiencing the legendary bonk. How is your fueling? Slow down and get some calories in quickly. Simple carbohydrates, like maltodextrin (the main ingredient in most gels and sports drinks), will snap you out of it quickly. A cup of soda, if available, will do the trick too. Be sure to continue to fuel properly to prevent the bonk from rearing its ugly head again later in the event.

Things are going well and then suddenly your hamstring, quad, calf, or foot clamps down involuntarily. Runners have been brought to the ground mid-stride because of violent cramping.  See Joe Uhan’s comprehensive iRunFar piece Cramping My Style. More specifically, read Uhan’s seven strategies noted at the end of his piece under “The List: Strategies to Treat & Prevent Muscle Cramping in Training & Racing” in order to prevent and overcome cramping during your next race.

Illness Before Race Day
It’s a common occurrence. We’ve put in countless hours of training and spent money on race entry and travel only to become sick a week or two before our competition. Do we still go for it?

  • The number-one priority is to use the time you have before race day to recuperate from your compromised health. A week or two of missed running will not significantly affect your race, but showing up sick certainly will. Don’t try to train through a fever. The strength, speed, and conditioning you’ve gained over the prior months will not suddenly disappear. Use the tricks and guidelines in my iRunFar recovery article to help get the upper hand on your ailment.
  • If you wind up on antibiotics, make sure you’ve completed the full course at least one week before race day. Your body is working double time to fight off infection. Competing while on antibiotics spells disaster. It will leave you weak and can lead to stomach issues, dehydration, and, depending on the antibiotic, heart problems.

Leg Soreness
It’s not a question of if, but rather a question of when. Most ultrarunners have experienced at least one excruciating case of “quad lock” during a race.  How can the same athlete be crippled by muscle damage during one event and fine at the next?

  • Terrain plays a major role. Do your best to do proper course recon, either virtually or in person, well in advance of your event. If you aren’t able to train on similar terrain, then you leave yourself open to the possibility of leg soreness. Refer to Using What You’ve Got to Make the Best of Any Racing Situation, specifically the section of the column labeled “Prepare for Your Race-Day Weaknesses.”
  • Pace impacts lower body fatigue. If your body isn’t used to your race-day pace, expect leg muscles to mutiny. Be sure to practice, in training, the efforts you intend to expend in competition and stick to those paces as much as possible on your big day.
  • Proper hydration and nutrition fuel the muscular system. Deprive the system of energy and it’ll fatigue quicker and recover much slower.
  • Weather impacts our tissue’s ability to operate. Maintain muscle compression and warmth in the cold and keep overheated tissue cool with ice wraps, sponge baths, and, if available, creek or lake soakings.
  • As a general rule, stay away from painkillers. They will mask the pain, allowing you to incur further damage as well as increase the risk of other health problems, such as kidney failure.

Unexpected Race-Day Weather
It’s Murphy’s Law. The year you decide to run an event, it’ll be the hottest, windiest, coldest, wettest, iciest, smokiest, or snowiest on record. At least that’s how it’s felt for me thus far this year. What can we do to counteract the fact that we’ve trained in an appropriate climate for the event, but race-day conditions are record breaking?

  • Play close attention to weather reports the week leading up to the event. Though you can’t control the weather, you can certainly adjust your wardrobe, equipment, and race-day plan for cold or warm temperatures and all types of precipitation.
  • Pack your suitcase for every possible weather scenario. Options, even if not necessary, are better than no options at all.
  • Place cold-weather gear in drop bags along the course. Weather, especially in the mountains or on the coast, can change quickly and drastically.
  • Understand that your goals for this race might have to be reassessed. If course conditions and temperatures don’t lend themselves to personal records, be smart and modify your pacing and hydration strategy.
  • If conditions change drastically mid-race, get yourself to the closest aid station and shelter, even if that means turning around and retracing your steps.
  • Remember that a trash bag from an aid station can be your best friend in cold and windy conditions and ice wraps and wetted running hats and bandanas placed around the head, neck, and wrists can help cool the body’s core.

Getting Lost
Next to your stomach going south, getting disoriented or veering off course can fill even the most experienced trail runner with fear and dread. Your due diligence begins, much like your training, well before race day. Here are a few things you can do in advance to lessen your chances of getting lost.

  • Attend any pre-race briefings by race management. It is during these meetings that vital last-minute course alterations will be revealed. Examples of course markings are often displayed, so you’ll know what to look for.
  • Carry a map or be sure to familiarize yourself (either virtually or in person) with the course layout. Be aware of key landmarks, turns, climbs, descents, and distances between aid stations.
  • Never assume that the runners in front of you know the way. Don’t watch their back, instead watch for turns.

However, if you do find yourself off course:

  • Do not panic or get angry. You’re going to need this energy to get yourself back on track.
  • Retrace your steps. Do not leave the trail or road you’re on by taking a cross-country route.  You may quickly find yourself surrounded by unfriendly vegetation and terrain or even more lost. Follow your own footprints back from where you came until you come upon course markings or another runner.
  • Once you’re back on track, don’t try to make up for lost time by running too hard. Maintain a level head, goal race pace, and forward momentum. Lost time can’t be made up. Doing so will just leave you haggard and frustrated. Take comfort in the fact that you’re back on course!

Call for Comments (from Ian)
Next month I’ll cover another batch of race-day follies and offer suggestions on how to rectify them. In the meantime, I’d enjoy hearing from you. How have you overcome problems like these, or what issues would you like answers for next month?

Ian Torrence

Ian Torrence has more than 12 years of experience coaching runners of all levels. Ian has completed more than 220 ultramarathons, with 50+ wins, since his first ultra finish at the 1994 JFK 50 Mile. Ian and his wife, Emily, are online coaches at Sundog Running. Information about his coaching services can be found at