Troubleshooting On The Run, Part Three

The third and final installment of Ian Torrence’s troubleshooting during an ultramarathon series.

By on November 5, 2013 | Comments

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?
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