Dissection of my first DNF

Over the last ten years, I have done a lot of runs, ranging from 2km fun runs with my young son through to 100km ultras. None of those runs has compared to the misery of October’s Lake Mountain Skyrun, which was the first run to break me, resulting in the three lettered acronym that every runner hates: DNF (Did Not Finish).

This was the first time that the run had been held, with a choice of 14, 21 or 31km courses. I had entered the 31km course, noting that there were 943 metres of ascent and descent on the course which, combined with the mix of wide trails, single track and barely-there bush trails, meant that it was going to be a hard morning’s run. We’ll return to the issue of the inaccuracy of the “31” kilometre course later on.

The Skyrun elevation profile

It was a good morning for an alpine run, with the first really warm day of spring. I arrived at the top of Lake Mountain with plenty of time, but when I got my running pack out of the car, I noticed that it was leaking, with water everywhere. A careful examination of the hydration pack revealed that an O-ring between the drinking tube and the bladder had perished. I tried to position the tube so that it was better engaged with the bladder, refilled the bladder and started the race, hoping that it would not leak again.

Lesson 1: Don’t rely on hope when you are doing a 31km alpine run.

By about the 7km mark, the bladder had almost completely drained again, down my back, soaking me completely. I was now out of water, with at least 24km still to run. From memory, I thought that there was water at each checkpoint, so I should be okay. When I got to the next checkpoint, I found out that there were only two water points: one at Keppels Hut (at about the 17km mark?) and one back at the finish, at the 21 and 31km marks. So much for my memory!

Lesson 2: Always have a backup plan. I had a drink bottle in the car and I should have also carried it, knowing that the hydration pack could fail again. Relying on being able to drink at multiple checkpoints on a long run with some hard climbs was not sensible.

Taggerty River fire trail

I was tracking well by the time I reached Keppel’s Hut and the first water point:

Keppell's Hut checkpoint

2013-10-20 11.53.26

I drank plenty of water, ate up and headed on to the longest, hardest climb of the day. By the time I had reached the cross-country ski trails at the top, I knew that something was wrong with the course mapping or my GPS watch, as I had run 21km but estimated that I was still a few kilometres from the “21km” checkpoint. Sure enough, when I got back to Gerratys and the checkpoint, the volunteer there admitted that the course measurements were wrong, and we had already run 24.5km, not 21km. The 31km course was now 34.5km (and the website has since been updated to reflect this).

I left the checkpoint tired and a bit disheartened, but feeling okay. The extra 3.5km might not seem like a lot of extra distance, but if I had known beforehand, it would have probably been the deciding factor to enter the 21km course rather than the “31km” course. In hindsight, without any water to carry for the last ten km, I should have withdrawn at that point.

The Lake Mountain Skyrun course

It was after the second time over the summit of Lake Mountain that the run got interesting. I remember clearing the summit. I remember the start of the descent. At some point later on, I realised that I had lost track of time, was feeling very dizzy and had slowed down to a walk. I had enough presence of mind to know that it was only a few kilometres to the next checkpoint and that I felt well enough to walk out to there, hoping that I would start feeling better so I could finish the run. By now, I must have dropped to the back of the field, as only a few more runners passed me from that point on. I was getting dizzier and slower, and decided that it was time to take this seriously: when the next runner passed me, I asked him to advise the next checkpoint that I was in trouble, but thought I would be able to make it to the checkpoint unaided. I estimated that I had at least a kilometre to go but I was now down to an erratic pace and started vomiting, multiple times. One of the most vivid memories of the descent was the rainbow coloured vomit thanks to the gels and lollies I had eaten earlier!

A few hundred metres from the road, one of the checkpoint crew met me: she had walked in to make sure I was okay, which was really appreciated. I made it out to the checkpoint at the road crossing, and they were about to change over the crew, which meant that I could get a lift back up the mountain to the finish line. I knew I was done. Not only did I not have the energy to finish, it would have been absolutely stupid to risk trying to finish the last 5km in the condition I was in, just for the sake of saying “I finished”.

Lesson 3: DNF is humbling but it was definitely the right call to make. Safety beats pride in the mountains.

I climbed in the car, checked into the finish line to tell them that I had withdrawn and then sat in the resort cafe for a long long time until I felt well enough to get in the car for the drive back down the mountain to Marysville and then onto Melbourne.

C’est la vie.

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