Back in 2015, during the Black Mountain Monster 24 hour race, I ran the Thomas Jefferson 100K in Virginia. It was a relatively straightforward course, consisting of seven, nine-mile singletrack loops.
Piece of cake, right?
Everything went as planned for the first three loops. Runners enjoyed a deceptively cool light rain, and I gracefully moved down the trail as the sun rose over the Blue Ridge Mountains.
About fifteen minutes in to loop four, I pull off the side of the trail to quickly relieve myself for the first time.
Blood?! What the…
I panic. I’d heard horror stories of ultrarunners peeing blood, and know that it can be an early sign of kidney issues. Immediately, I think my day is over.
Not knowing what to do, I start to walk. I walk forward, then turn around and walk backwards toward the Start. Then I turn around and walk forward again. AHHH!
I’m literally walking in circles instead of towards the finish of a loop.
Finally, after about thirty minutes of no real progress, I decide I should jog out the rest of the loop and then call it quits.
It would be my first DNF, and a tough mental blow just a few weeks out from the Monster. After miles of sulking to the point of tears, I approach the medic at the end of the loop.
“I’m peeing blood and think I should drop,” I say.
“Yikes,” he responds, and goes on to ask me a series of questions while poking at my kidneys. “Well, that can’t be comfortable, but I think you’re fine. Drink a lot of water and get back out there.”
“What?!” I exclaim. “You’re not pulling me form the race?!”
“Nah, you’re just dehydrated and maybe have a UTI.”
“But I thought…”
“Oh. Well then.” I walk off with a flood of emotions.
On one hand I’m thrilled I can keep running. On the other hand I had just spent the last 90 minutes convinced my day was over aannnnd… I was kind of looking forward to that shower and burrito.
Crap. No burrito.
I was cleared by the medic with no excuse to drop. I had to keep running. So I did.
Now I have no idea if that was good medical protocol. Since then I’ve read varying advice on what to do if you start peeing blood, from start hydrating to head straight to the ER. But that isn’t the point of this story.
The point of this story is that running an ultramarathon never goes as planned.
I was well trained, had all the right gear, and felt great for the first half of the race. Then the unexpected happened and everything flipped upside down.
Earlier this week I read that Michael Wardian, one of the most well-raced elites out there, had to stop FOURTEEN times for diarrhea issues during Saturday’s Leadville 100. Something I’m sure he wasn’t expecting.
(BTW, Mike went on to finish 10th, and just six hours later, raced the Pikes Peak Marathon with 7,800 feet of vert. Beast.)
During that same race, eventual winner Ian Sharman got lost.
And just a few days ago, while debriefing a recent 100 miler with a coaching client, he told me it was the downhills that caused the toughest mental challenge.
“They were so steep you couldn’t run them! I couldn’t believe it.”
In ultra running, we train for the things we can expect:
But what sets a successful race apart from a failure isn’t what we train for. It’s our ability to adapt to what we couldn’t.
It took a long time for me to bounce back mentally during that 100K, and I never really got into the groove I had in the beginning. But I did learn an important lesson:
Expect the unexpected, and deal with it when it comes.
That’s how you succeed in an ultramarathon running.