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

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 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 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?

There are 30 comments

  1. Vern L

    Wow, that was an amazing article! I'm curious about brands of head lamps and some of the other equipment. It'd be nice to have the names of some that tend to be reliable and fit the weight suggestion. What about sock suggestions? Shorts? I realize you may be getting into these things later, if so, just ignore me for now. Cheers!

    1. ChrisG

      Headlamps – All the major brands (Black Diamond, Petzl, and Princeton Tec) make headlamps that meet Ian's recommendations. If you plan on running through the night, comfort and battery life should be the primary selection factors. I would recommend going to a local store to try on different headlamps.

      Another headlamp tip – I have two headlamps. A lightweight headlamp (50 lumens) that I can wrap around my arm. I use the lightweight headlamp for early starts, a backup, and the "oops, I misjudged when I would get to the drop bag with my REAL headlamp(200 lumens)".

      Socks – That's easy. Drymax Socks.

      Shorts – If you have issues with chafing, check out compression shorts or capris/manpris.

    2. Shelby

      I used the Black Diamond icon (200 lumens) and have used for 12+ hours with no battery change needed. As a backup, I've used both a cheaper headlamp around my waist (not terribly helpful) and the Fenix E11 handheld which is really small & lightweight, but has 105 lumens.

      Socks: Drymax definitely.

      Shorts: I tried the CWX Stabilyx Ventilator Shorts for my last race and had no issues for over 30 hours. My 2 cents.

  2. Charlie M.

    Top ten lessons learned:

    (1) Fake it till you make it.

    (2) Beware the Chair.

    (3) Don't duct tape toes.

    (4) Don't duct tape inner thighs.

    (5) Gotta go with Drymax socks.

    (6) Even with Max Lumens you will miss markers in the dark.

    (7) Coconut Water tastes bad after sitting in a drop bag for 10 hours.

    (8) Headlamps can give you a headache if too tight.

    (9) Don't throw away $200 custom orthotics mid-race.

    (10) Relentless diarrhea makes relentless forward progress difficult.

      1. Charlie M.

        OK, here's # (11)

        When you enter an ultra that is a lap-race around a lake, DO NOT go out as fast as East Coast superstars Sean Andrish and Brian Schmitt.

        Yes, I was only a few seconds behind them on Lap 1, but they held the pace for 50 miles, while I could not continue on Lap 2.

        Some lessons are learned the hard way. Once a Trail Clown, always a Trail Clown.

  3. kristina folcik

    Great Article And I Wonder If It Is The Way I Race (Harder Effort). I Will Look At My Training! Thanks! :) Last Weekend It Was Racing At Altitude That Got Me!Awful Headache And Nausea And Coughing Blood…..

  4. Tropical John

    One additional comment on lights. If you are using a light that might not make it through the entire night on one set of batteries, buy a second light and carry it with you. It's much easier to switch lights than to change batteries. You will likely find yourself more than a bit coordination challenged trying to switch out batteries in the dark at 3 a.m. on some remote trail. The cost of a second light (even a really expensive one) is minimal compared with the cost of going to the race.

    Always carry a spare. You never know.

    1. olga

      Yes, that has always been my policy. Dealing with batteries in the middle of the dark with swollen fingers is a useless idea for me, rather swap the light for the final couple hours.

  5. Aaron

    New shoes, check.

    Socks that retain water, check.

    Crappy lights, check.

    I just pulled off one of my big toenails yesterday. It was ripped off the nail bed when I kicked a root. My toenails were rubbing against the toe bumpers so I developed blisters under the nail beds. Wet socks softened everything up nicely. Finally, my crappy lighting and longer new shoes ensured that I would kick as many roots and rocks as possible. A confluence of bad decisions.

    I wonder why companies like Zebralight and Fenix can make sub-$100 headlamps which will run all night at 100+ lumens while Petzl and Princeton Tek are pitiful in comparison. I suspect designing them to use superior LEDs and higher capacity batteries might have something to do with it. I can safely say that I'm done with those two brands.

  6. erin

    Injinji socks have SAVED my crazy toes….no blistering or chafing whatsoever with those magical socks.

    Learn your gear before the race….I thought my headlamp was out of batteries when I placed it on my head during my first hundo and it just flickered red…i just thought "sh*t! it's dead!" …But it was the "red light setting"…???? Durrrrr…. I wasted about 10 minutes having a family member run to get a spare headlamp from their car…ooops.

    I LOVE my small Fenix handheld too. love it.

  7. Dmitry

    Hi guys, anyone has any idea how long it takes to completely heal sprankled ankle. I had it at UTMF which I finished. Since then it is almost ok but residual pain persists…specifically then move the feet sideway that is typical on rocky decsends and when hiking in crampons..pain and very uncomfortable feeling is there. It is not very bad, I finished TdG in such condition without too much pain..just to check if it is normal for a rolled feet to heel that long?!

  8. Michael J Hansen

    I use the Lupine Pico X Duo headlamp, at 180 grams incl. battery. It gives me 6.5 hours at 470 lumens and 2.5 hours at 1200 lumens!! It means I can really hammer the technical downhills and with an extra battery I can go all night. I first bought the Petzl Nao but after trying the Pico I was sold and I haven't looked back :-)

    1. Dmitry

      The lamp with build-in batteries is not good for long races for slower runners. For Hardrock assuming two nights you will need to carry 2.5 lamps…I found very difficult to find a lamp with proper performance..the burn time reported by vendors are highly misleading. Regulated time is also quite often not met. I am using Princenton Tec Apex (4 AA batteries) and useful burn time is between 6-10 hours depending on conditions (in cold it lasts less).

      1. Michael J Hansen

        I think you misunderstood, it doesn't have built in batteries. As I write I carry an extra battery so I can replace it during the long nights. It takes less than 5 seconds to replace as it's a click-on type battery.

  9. Joe

    Nice general information but not really much more then generic sensible hints.

    My personal bag of tricks include:

    1. Hold off on pain meds until absolutely necessary. The desired affects decrease with subsequent doses.

    2. Take no caffeine on day of race. As with pain meds hold off until absolutely necessary. Also as with meds, the affects of caffeine diminish with subsequent does.

    3. Leave the headphones at phone on race day. I run a bit better without the mental distraction.

    4. Learn to run occasionally without a pacer. It is good mental training not to have the crutch. During that targeted race when you decide to use a pacer you will have that added mental advantage.

    5. Don't pamper your feet in training. Get wet feet, wear old shoes, just do what it takes to toughen up those feet for race day. Blisters occur on soft pampered feet.

    6. Heat train even when your target race is not supposed to be hot. On race day do what it takes to keep your core temp down. Your efficiency will be much better.

    7. Do not underestimate the advantage of core strength.

    8. Leave the gps watches and pace charts at home. They offer no advantage. In a best case these items could send you into a mental low if your interim goals are not being met. In a worst case they will drive you into "red lining" in order to make these arbitrary set points. Run by feel. If it feels like you are working too hard then you are.

    9. Forget about speed work. Use those days for long steep hill intervals. Pure speed means very little during a 100 mile but you will appreciate that leg strength late in the race.

    10. Stay in the moment during a race. Concentrate on the next few steps and don't be drawn into dreaming about the end of your misery.

    This is a partial list of my personel bag of tricks. The one thing I've learned is that are a lot of things you can do to improve your 100 mile time besides just running faster.

  10. Valerie

    What I learned the hard way during STY: use a headlamp that you can open easily! I had to unscrew mine and with frozen fingers, my medical card was all I had. First time I went to the doc after the race, the nurse asked me if my dog had chewed my card. Spared her the whole ultra running story of course…

  11. Todd

    I've been considering experimenting with #2 on your list. I've ingested a lot of caffeine in the few ultras I've run, but I wonder if my increased heart rate mitigates its positive effects over many hours of running.

  12. Dmitry

    What's about alhocol during the race? A glass of red wine at TDG was great sleep facilitator :) I was not able to sleep until I used that remedy…

  13. Dmitry

    Agree with the most except 8 :) as few gps watches are designed to last longer than 16h charging from portable USB charger becomes a test of your mental status :) in couple of races towards the end it was clearly of my capabilities…in another couple I suffered from watch shutdown and deleting the current activity when plugging in charger…very annoying after 200k at TDG…but for the next 20k I was concentrating not on the trail but on the thought of apparently bad quality of Garmin programmers and software designers :)

  14. Andy

    Hi Ian. There's some discussion above re lower GI problems, but what about the perennial nemesis, nausea? I know there was some discussion about this in a post by AJW after States. I also recall that BP himself dropped due to a nausea that just wouldn't quit. I didn't quit the VT50 last weekend but the nausea after mile 32 destroyed my race (which had been going very well til then, but the last 18 took nearly as long as the first 32!) I know fuel, fluid, elctrolytes, and ambient temps all play a role. What's the skinny on the use of antiemetics? Pros and cons? Any advice would be great. Thanks.

  15. SCottB

    I was running a 50k and had this odd chafing behind my armpits. I asked the AS volunteer at the next station if they had kind of lube. They said no, then one guy said (maybe only half joking) "We have bananas." Genius! I scarfed down the banana and rubbed the peel on the chafed areas. Voila! Instant relief!

    Love my Black Diamond Icon headlamp.

  16. Jason G.

    My only really bad sprain took almost a year to totally heal. Of course I kept running on it after initial swelling subsided and that just prolonged the healing process.

  17. Yusef

    I oughta say that Zebralights are boss lights. But it adds an extra layer of planning if you buy a model that uses Li-Ion. Remembering to re-charge and having an extra cell in case something happens.

    Can't agree more on Shoe+Sock combinations. Just go with tried and true. Remember to read user reviews on models that may take some days to "loosen" up.

    I've come to realize half of my long run training is really building habits that will play out well during race and the other half is just plain running and form.

    and last long run was a reminder when i forgot to put body glide in certain area and could not sit down comfortably for a couple days after…

  18. Adam

    I don't understand why running fast in training is not a benefit. It's true that running 6:00s in a 100 is probably not a good idea at any point for anyone, but this concept of "strength" which ultrarunners often invoke seems to me to be a vague and mythical concept. Speed is relative to the distance and conditions, and from your body's standpoint, I seriously doubt there's much difference between running 6:00 comfortably on a flat, and running 8:30 with 500ft of climbing. Moreover, whether you're running a 13:30 min 5k or 100 9:00s with 15k ft of gain, in the context of the race, you went fast. Of course the fitness to accomplish these feats is quite different, but speed is still speed. Yes when we run up hill and/or for a longer distance, our pace slows. This is true of every animal. I really don't know what anyone means when they invoke the mythical concept of "strength" as a physiological category distinct from "speed." Other than that, great advice!

  19. JennyTeague

    If it can chaff, it WILL chaff. If it doesn't chaff, it WILL chaff.

    Coconut oil (the kind you can buy in a big tub in the grocery store) in a ziplock > body glide/vasoline in zip lock – you can eat it if you become desperate for calories and it not only lubes chaff areas but if you do get a chaff before lubing it actually helps soothe it and it heals quicker. I know this from playing "science experiment" with it on myself after joking about it with my husband this summer. When I say eating, I'm saying more like a tsp or less (think a GU size portion). I highly advise testing this before just so you know how your body reacts to it. I tend to constipate so eating a tsp of any oil isn't an issue for me. It has also become my go-to post-chaff rub, as mentioned previously, that it helps with soothing and recovery.

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