Troubleshooting On The Run, Part Two

A second set of ultrarunning troubleshooting tips.

By on October 1, 2013 | Comments

Last month, in Part One of this Troubleshooting on the Run series, we began discussing remedies for some of the most common race-day blunders and maladies.

[Editor’s Note: Part Three in this series has also been published.]

Here are some more:

When a Foot Becomes a Mile

In order to continue moving, we must maintain the health and durability of our feet. Runners are no strangers to cuts, bruises, and other bodily irritations.  However, if we develop these on our feet, we can kiss our race finish goodbye or, at the very least, expect to suffer greatly through the rest of the event. There are a few things we can do to reduce our chances of developing debilitating blisters and macerated skin.

  • Though it’s a popular habit, never wear new shoes or socks on race day. Ensure that you’ve tested them beforehand for proper fit. As well, consider race-day conditions when choosing your footwear. For example, don’t be caught out on a wet and cold course with shoes and socks that may reduce circulation, retain water, or provide little warmth.
  • Become familiar with your feet. Know where on your feet and under what conditions problems regularly surface. Apply powders, Body Glide, Vaseline, or protective moleskin to sensitive areas before the race.
  • Beat the issues to the punch. If you begin to feel a hot spot developing, stop as soon as possible and address the situation. Placing extra socks and a change of shoes in your drop bags is an excellent preventative measure. Moisture-wicking running socks will absorb excess water from wet skin and a new pair of shoes can change stresses and rub patterns on your feet.
  • John Vonhof, the author of Fixing Your Feet (a must-have book for runners), suggests using gaiters to keep debris from entering the shoe, experimenting with lacing systems, exploring the use of custom or over-the-counter orthotics, and maintaining a proper hydration regime in order to ward off bad foot juju.

Rubbed Raw

Though not as devastating as foot damage, chafing can turn an enjoyable race into a complete nightmare. Whether the cause is from clothing, a pack or running belt, or from the build-up of grime and salt, the best course of action is to modify or adjust the offending item. Cover the irritated spot with moleskin, bandages, or lubrication. Change clothes if necessary.

At this year’s Tahoe Rim Trail 100 Mile Endurance Run, I struggled with some awful thigh abrasions. My pacer, JB Benna, handed me a Ziploc baggie filled with Body Glide.  It folded up and fit conveniently in the shoulder strap compartment of my pack and became a savior for the rest of the race.

The Lights At the End of the Tunnel

Many ultramarathons begin or finish well after sundown, making a well-dialed lighting system vital. Being able to see the trail clearly will save you time and prevent unnecessary tumbles. When shopping for a good, trail-worthy light, consider these options:

  • Handheld versus headlamps – Most trail runners prefer hands-free lighting. This enables you to carry a water bottle, fumble with zippers, give high fives, and catch yourself if you take a spill.
  • LED lights – Light-emitting diodes (LED) are not sensitive to low temperatures, not affected by humidity, can handle jarring and bumping, generate very little heat (good if you’re wearing it on your head), and use less power per unit of light generated than your regular incandescent bulbs.
  • 100 to 140 lumens – I wasn’t blessed with good night vision. I’ve found that this amount of lamp brightness allows me to run aggressively on most trail terrain.
  • Battery life – The majority of 100-mile runners are on course from dusk to dawn. In the winter months, this could mean up to 14 hours in the dark! Don’t skimp on lights that have poor battery life. However, no matter what the specifications say, carry extra batteries and place extras in your drop bags.
  • Weight – Whether you decide to carry or wear your lamp, weight matters. A sufficient running lamp should come in at around four to seven ounces.
  • Power settings – Useful LED lamps will have more than one power setting. A low power setting will enable you to save battery life on smooth sections of tread and while at aid stations. High-powered options will allow you to light up technical trail and cast a farther beam when searching for course markings.
  • Adjustable angled lamp – Being able to toggle the angle of your light will be helpful as we are not all built the same.

For most, more light is better. Try running with two headlamps, one on your head and one around your waist. This set-up will cast different angled shadows on the rocks, roots, bumps, and dips in the trail. You’ll also be able to turn one light off, still see the ground, and not blind your pacer, crew, or aid station volunteer. You’ll also be wearing your back-up light.

Murphy’s Law

We’re all familiar with the adage, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” Have you ever run out of nutrition or water during one of your races? No matter how much we pre-plan, stuff happens. Aid stations are farther apart than advertised, drop bags go missing, or once-reliable water sources are mysteriously turned off or dried up.

If you find yourself out of water or nutrition during an organized event, do not sacrifice your health for a race result. Slow your pace and effort until you are able to refuel. In dire circumstances, stop and take shelter along the course and wait for another runner to give or send for help.

What if you find your drop bag missing or the aid station is stocked with unfamiliar foods (almost guaranteed if you race internationally)? Remain calm and do not take this inconvenience out on the volunteers. You may just have to eat some new foods if you wish to continue. Chances are you’ll be fine if you do.

Fastest Known Time (FKT) attempts and self-supported adventure runs are gaining popularity. These kinds of outings are even more risky because they lack aid stations and are often done solo, with nobody tracking your whereabouts. We shouldn’t fear these grand treks, but here are some simple safety precautions:

  • Submit a run plan (including the route, start time, and estimated finish time) to several family members or friends.
  • Take a well-prepared friend along with you.
  • Know the terrain and weather patterns.
  • Carry a personal locator beacon.
  • Pack more food, batteries, and clothes than you think you’ll need and know how to use a reliable water purifying system.

Trailside Litter

We’ve all seen litter on the trails, a used gel wrapper, a wadded tissue, banana peels, or an orange skin. What do you do? Whether you’re running first or last, you pick up the trash and you most certainly don’t add to the mess. There is such a thing as trail karma, and I invite you to test the theory. Next time you’re at a race or on your favorite trail and see someone else’s garbage, pick it up. You’ll be glad you did.

Race-Day Diarrhea

Last month, Kristina Folcik from New Hampshire won my attention with her reader comment, “Pooping, relentless diarrhea from mile 16 to the finish. It is making race day so stressful. Horrible lower abdomen cramps followed by having to go every 5-10 miles.  Help me!” Several things may be going on here.

  • Both pre-race and race-day diet must be investigated. What are you ingesting differently on race day that you aren’t during training? Explore the possibility that you may have a food allergy. Eliminate suspect foods from your diet like soy, wheat, eggs, and dairy if you’re struggling with this on a regular basis. Be systematic and keep a food log.
  • Examine your race-day effort level. High-intensity running can certainly cause intestinal distress. Practice race pace and conditions during training and test foods and their frequency of use during those workouts.
  • Today we can pop a pill for most ailments and there are several drugs that will ease gastrointestinal upset. However, I suggest that we find the underlying problem before settling indefinitely on the medication “cure.” Through this process, we may not only find the cause of the GI problems, but we may also uncover some other health issues that may further improve your quality of life.

Next month, I’ll cover trail-side bathroom etiquette, wildlife encounters, equipment malfunctions, evaluating injuries that occur mid-race, what you can do if you miss your crew, and what to do if your pacer turns out to more than you bargained for.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Have you found yourself troubleshooting any of the issues Ian covers this month? If so, how did you resolve your problem?
  • Are there any other troubleshooting-on-the-run topics that you’d love to learn more about?
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