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

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 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?

There are 24 comments

  1. KenZ

    Good coverage of most of the issues I've heard of. Next up consider covering:

    *Evaluating a race-sustained injury when you're mid race. In other words: how do you make good judgements about your health state when your judgement is likely already impaired by both the fact that it's a race and your state of exhaustion.

    *Dealing with external factors out of your control. Here are some real examples that have happened at aid stations to either me or stated as factual events by people I know: A. Entire aid station missing. B. Drop bags not being at an aid station. C. Drop bags being partially destroyed by bears. D. Drop bags with warm clothing completely soaked through. E. Aid station out of water. F. Aid station which advertised the entire array of ultra food actually consisting of only gummy bears, and you're a vegan.

    *How about: "Dude, where's my pacer?" And we could add to that: how to deal with a pacer who is doing worse than you are (more of a relationship issue to be fair, but best handled BEFORE the race with clear agreed upon guidelines).

    I'm not sure I entirely buy that nausea is a water/electrolyte imbalance issue though.

      1. KenZ

        Well, good question on race nausea, and I'm likely not qualified to say yea or nea since I don't get it at all (to date, knock on spandex). However, it seems to me from discussions that people who get it seem to get it with or without taking copious amts of electrolytes (we could substitute the word cramping for nausea here, although I think that horse has been beaten to death, resurrected, and beaten again). I mean, there are people who take consistent S caps from the start gun, and still get nausea, take more S caps (and slow down, likely also change something else, possibly puke) and then it gets better, and they seem to ascribe this to the electrolytes. Now, I'll definitely grant you that nausea has a large variance person to person (why do I never get it in races, but lord help me if I read in a moving car), but I have yet to see any double blind study (GG- I put that in for YOU!) actually demonstrate that electrolytes have much if anything to do with it. Correlation is not causation. But if you know of any studies, I'm all ears and happy to be persuaded otherwise! Until then, I'll put it in the same pile of possible truths as I used to with statements like sore muscles being due to lactic acid buildup, and cramps being due to electrolyte imbalance. And also, until then if I ever do get it during a race, I'll take Zantac or the like which HAS been shown in studies to help handle nausea.

  2. J

    Any over-the-counter medication people take to get rid of the nausea? When nauseous the problem becomes consuming anything to get any balances in hydration/electrolyte balance back. Double so at high altitude.

    1. KenZ

      Some people swear by Zantac 150, which legitimately handles stomach acid issues. Now, does that mean less nausea in an ultra? Can't tell ya, since I don't get nausea issues. But I DO carry a Zantac 150 with me for every 100, and have extras in all my drop bags. Just in case.

  3. Carey

    When lost: remember Kilian's "more km, more fun!" and try not to get too grumpy.

    When diarrhea: remember Kilian's "more diarrhea, more…" uh, wait. That was Kms, not diarrhea…

    Thanks for the great article — pretty useful as I get ready for my first little ultra.

  4. Jim

    Nice article.

    For us mid-packers as I do more events I learn more and more that most problems can be solved by taking the time to work through them and come up with a fix.

    Stomach – slow the hell down. Get your breathing right under control. Don't eat on the run. If you've got trapped wind, take something that'll help you get rid. If you're not eating, try some plain normal food. Even plain crackers have helped me at least by putting something really plain back in there. Pineapple and citrus are hideous mistakes for me most of the time, yet apple, grapes, berries are great. Enjoy the food on offer at the aid stations but know (beforehand) what works for you. I try to save gels for bonk situations when I realise I need energy urgently.

    Weather – once you're properly cold it's unlikely you'll be able to run yourself warm. I've been borderline hypothermic twice in races, both times in rain / sleet and near freezing conditions. CCC 2012 was really bad in this respect. I couldn't warm up climbing because I kept getting held up by much slower runners and I couldn't go fast enough down hill to get warm. I didn't take a fleece and that cost me 4 hours. Get to an aid station and ask for help. Eventually when someone asked me why I wasn't getting help I found out that the medical staff wouldn't pull me from the event, so I went to see them, got warmed up (a bit) and the medic lent me a dry top and made an extra insulating layer out of zinc tape and foil blankets to get me going. I got round, thanks to his assistance.

    Feet – never, never ignore foot problems. On my first hundo I did a nice easy cruisey 11hr first fifty, but I didn't stop to fix my feet when I got hotspots after 25 miles (new socks, hot day, harder than usual trails). By the time I looked at my feet it was too late – I was in good shape otherwise until about 85 miles but I was death hiking most of the way in because it really hurt everytime I put my feet down. Cue 22hr second fifty and a 33hr finish :-(

    Mind – make sure there isn't anywhere you'd rather be or anything you'd rather be doing before you start. It's going to be tough…. But you CAN do it, so be positive. On the "foot knack hundred" mentioned above I found a soul mate and we marched it out together, laughing at ourselves and our misfortune but also reminding ourselves what a beautiful night and second day it was, what great views we had, and what a priveledge it was to be "running". Talking to other folks can really help you get through some bad patches. And don't forget to remind yourself that everyone is finding it tough, it's not just you.

    And finally… I made a decision a while ago that on "A races" stopping is just not an option UNLESS I'm genuinely at risk of a long term injury if I continue. Otherwise I just slow down, smile, enjoy the view, the running and the cameraderie and concentrate on getting there. You'll be suprised how often you can rescue your day from the jaws of a DNF.

  5. Greg

    Immodium. I had liquid guts once during a race, was given immodium at an aid station, and was locked up within 15 minutes. Saved my race.

    I have taken two immodium right before any run/race longer than six hours and haven't once had a problem since then. You could also put one in a drop bag in case it "hits" mid-race.

    I have heard from others that it messes with their stomachs, so that might be a downside, but I've never had a single problem with it.

  6. Michael J Hansen

    Great article and thanks for the link to King's table!

    More on stomach issues: I often start getting stomach pains and gas 4 hours or more into a run/race and have found out that it's maltodextrin that's causing it. Maltodextrin is a complex carb and, while it has a high GI (like suger) it's slower to cross over into the blood. And, at least for me, this means that I get stomach problems when pushing the pace in a race. I've found that Coke works wonders for me, but it's impractical to drag 3 liters of coke with me on unsupported mountain runs :-) Does anyone know of gels made with simple carbs? I'm going to experiment with making my own, but it's just so much nicer to buy it ;-)



    1. Leigh D

      Hello Michael, I am very fond of the various Honey Stinger gels, which as the name implies, are based on Honey! If that is not a natural, simple carb I don't know what is. I know folks who will eat "straight" honey, but I like the "Ginsting" gels that have a bit of electrolytes, caffeine, and ginseng.

  7. Evan

    I haven't read it yet, but I'm just assuming that Ian's answer to every question is, "Just take a two hour nap, wake your pacer back up, and polish that thing off!"

  8. angelane

    Thank you for your sharing. Your experiences and putting it in rewritten form is most admirable by me. Most of all sharing it with everyone. Those information will be the source of information or my first ultra to come :)

    1. Michael J Hansen

      Yes, by using simple carbs like coke, water with sugar and potato chips. But I will definitively try the Honey Stinger gels that Leigh mentions. Thanks Leigh!

      1. Matt

        I will second the Honey Stinger gels (I like the Acai Pomegranate), but also offer one warning. They're typically much more liquidy than regular gels, so don't squeeze that thing too hard! Having half the gel all over your chin and the other half shot straight down your windpipe does not for good nutrition make.

  9. Tom Caughlan

    I had my crew ( two doctors) bring Zofran, an anti-nausea med used to treat chemo patients. It had zero side effects when I took it 50 miles into Leadville. Killed the nausea and time allowed my stomach to empty (I had some gastric paralysis). Killing the nausea at least allowed me to nibble on food and to drink and possibly saved my race. I got the idea from Pam Smith's WS report….

    1. Sparky

      Zantac is money if you have a sensitive gut. I've always had stomach issues…mostly due to a poor diet. If I am going out for anything over three hours, I'll pop one beforehand. I think that is the key. If you even remotely think that you may have any kind of stomach issues, or have in the past, pop one with your breakfast. I've never had any side effects of any kind from doing this.

  10. Melissa

    Low blood sugar can also nausea mid-race.
    My recovery had been ruined by post-race nausea but I've started taking cheap,OTC prevacid night before and morning of and drinking 6oz of chocolate milk as soon as I cross the finish line. Now, I can enjoy post ultra buffet instead of dry heaving in the car.

  11. DavidF

    Some might be interested in eyecare — in this case Cloudy Eyes. 4 racers were affected with it at the 2013 Bear 100 and I believe 3 of 4 had to drop. I was a lucky finisher. Maybe this experience will help any other ultra-runners who have been affected and/or want to prevent it.

    I've had a little bit of 'cloudy eye syndrome' on some of my cold morning long runs but it was minimal and it cleared up after getting in a warmer place and out of the wind. At the Bear 100 in 2013 it was quite cold for most of the 100 miles. At about mile 30 one of my eyes started getting a little blurry. By mile 45 both eyes were affected. When it got colder and the trail moved in higher/more exposed conditions it got progressively worse. Luckily when it was just me on the trail with a headlamp light pointing in front of me I could make out the key details of the trail. It was slow picking at times but it worked.

    Wherever snow covered the ground though the light became diffused and just like fog it made for harder discernment of objects. Aid stations were especially bad with car headlights and propane lanterns. I could hardly see there and had to be shown where food was and what it was. So I tried to warm my eyes a little at aid stations for 10 mins or so but got anxious to get back on the trail.

    By sunrise I was in high elevation, cold conditions, 100% cloud cover and snow-covered ground. I could hardly make out the trail in spots and almost stopped to wait for other runners for me to follow. But I plowed ahead, fortunately found the trail markings and slowly picked my way through the rockier and snow-covered sections. At mile 85 I decided to try a new strategy. I borrowed some semi-wrap-around sunglasses from an aid station worker and then spent 15 mins warming my eyes over a propane heater. Then I hit the trail and shielded my face from any side wind and kept my Buff over my mouth so extra breath moisture would rise up into my eyes. After about an hour my vision improved some. In another hour it was even better. The temperature that day also went up from the day before. By the time I was making the final descent to the finish my eyes were I would guess at 90% clear.

    So after talking to my retinal surgeon brother, here are some things to consider for next time.

    1. Hydration – I was well hydrated and peeing lots. Dr. said that even with good hydration the eyes get fluid secondary to vital organs. So under heavy exertion conditions the eyes can dry out which in cold conditions can result in cloudy eyes.

    2. Exposure/Temperature – dry eyes are made worse from wind and low temperature exposure. Keep them shielded to reduce the drying out effect. I will definitely wear clear wraparound glasses on my next ultra.

    3. Eye glands – I am occasionally affected with Blepharitis ( which comes on every now and again as a result of seasonal allergies. Basically the eyelid oil glands get clogged and don't allow eye oil to mix with eye moisture to form the film over the eyeball that helps protect it. Dr. recommended to double up on body oils such as flax seed and Omega 3 to ensure enough oil in the body. Then he suggested massaging the eyelids before a race to make sure they are not in a marginal state before the start.

    4. Artificial Tears – Dr. suggested that if the eyes begin to appear cloudy to treat with eyedrops immediately to stave off any further drying out.

    So for me that means a good eye massage and extra oil intake before my next cold ultra and good clear eyeglasses and eyedrops in my ultra kit.

    1. UltraMartinL

      Dear DavidF! Thanks for this very informative and detailed comment. There is almost nothing on this issue on the web…

      The same thing happened to me today and I had to DNF Cayuga 50 miler near the end, worrying about my eyes. What you describe is almost exactly what happened to me. I also had another occurrence of this phenomenon last year, which also led to a DNF. In both cases, the weather was pretty cool, but not as cool as you describe (40 to 50 range). The first time it happened to both of my eyes, and today, only the right eye.

      The info you provide makes a lot of sense. Last year after my first occurrence, an eye specialist, as well as a neurologist checked me. They didn't find anything wrong and had no explanation about what might have happened…

      I was wondering, did you try the 4 points your brother suggested? Did it work for you? Did you have any other occurrence of cloudy eyes since the one you mention?

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