Lessons Learned from DNF'ing my First 100k Ultramarathon - The Vietnam Mountain Marathon (VMM) 100km
Updated: Nov 23, 2020
Made it to Checkpoint 5 which was 80km / 50mi, so happy with that! Check out the correlating video below, as well as part 2 where I went back a week later to finish the course solo and unsupported.
Part 1: The Race Itself
Part 2: The Redemption Run
9 Lessons Learned from DNF'ing my First 100k Ultramarathon - The Vietnam Mountain Marathon (VMM) 100km
Take care of your feet
Take things as they come
Consider poles for assisting with the uphill climbs and easing the downhills
A blessing in disguise
Owning the DNF as a badge of honor and rite of passage
Continue on below to read more about each one.
1. Take care of your feet
1.a. Actually take an extra pair of socks
I think a little stubbornness, a little thinking I'd be fine with my one pair of socks for the entire time was a misjudgement. I was already carrying so much stuff 1 pair of backup socks was not going to break my back, ha! My socks got so wet and muddy, there was literally mud worked into the fabric of each sock right underneath the points of where my feet were touching down with each step and running foot fall. So no wonder my feet developed multiple blisters on each foot. I had never experienced that kind of mud and continual "wetness" on a track before. Sure, my feet have gotten soaked for training runs or races, but then I suppose the distances weren't long enough to invoke the pruney, wrinkly feet that I had for the VMM 100km. The other thing with this race is my feet literally did not dry out until somewhere around the 45-50 mile (72-80 km) mark. That's a looong time with wet feet. So
1.b. Dry them out more often, if possible
Hindsight, I now wonder if I could've sat at checkpoint 5 (50mi/80km point) and had then return to somewhat normal - though honestly doubtful at this point. I know pulling out was the right decision.
1.c. Try and train in new (different type of) shoes for the next time
I also realised that even with new socks, the toe box of my running shoes were creating hot points for my toes that only a different pair of shoes were fix in the long run. So I have already been thinking about getting a pair with a bigger toe box, as much as I love the grip and feel of my La Sportiva Helios.
1.d. Try tape and/gel/jelly/ointment your feet sooner than later
1.d.i. So I tried mole skin on one blistered that opened up during the race, BUT my feet were so wet/pruney that it didn't stick for the long term. I also realised I forgot to put the medical tape my wife bought more of into the first aid kit (it was being used daily for my wife's injuries and I simply forgot to check ahead of time/get it into the kit). Had I had it, I would have tried taping the sh*t out of my feet. Again, not sure that would've helped and for how long, but would've have likely got onto taping them sooner than later.
1.d.ii. Also saw another runner with petroleum jelly at checkpoint 5. A good friend of mine also said they use Paw Paw ointment. So really anything (well vegan and as natural as possibly) on hand would be good to have for next time.
1.e. Make sure you actually have the medical tape in your first aid kit, ha!
See 1.d. above.
Honestly, my food worked out really well, even though it was new for the race. I think the lesson learned here is, train with a wide (and I mean wide) variety of whole food during and just before runs and in races. For me this has been inadvertently done over the years. For example, while on business trips, going out for evening runs after work, end up at a place for dinner near the end of the run, and then run home (back to the hotel) after dinner. Yes, I was definitely full doing this, BUT it was a great way to see the area and try new places to eat that could be a bit further away when just walking. Plus, it didn't require a cab/taxi. Granted, that was always a fall back option. Another example, was running from dinner back in Belgrave. Well we went for dinner at a pizza place () in Kallista and I did a meandering run home from there. Again, running on a belly full of delicious vegan pizza is uncomfortable at first but your body quickly adapts and allows you to carry on your run. Sure, there's a risk of puking, or cramp, etc., but nothing likely a walking break to let it subside and then carry on. Not trying to oversimplify this but at the same time trying to outline that it is an option. Also, in general, a lot of my weekday runs were either early morning or post dinner in the evening, in the dark. Which was also a win-win, getting night training as well.
3. Feeling Great
I was genuinely surprised how great I felt running through the night, and in general through out the race until I had to call it early. It really wasn't until that 45-50mi/72-80km mark when I started feeling it in my head, along with my painful feet. I had considered and wanted to do a long training run through the night but logistically it never worked out. I will say, that for me, doing the majority of my training solo benefited me, as I knew I would feed off the energy of others during the actual race. So knowing I could do my longer runs, and in general, solo through varying (sometimes interesting) conditions of the Dandenong Ranges in the winter, I would be in good shape for the race itself.
4. Hill Training
Feeding off #3, I was seriously grateful for all of the hill and elevation training I did during my training. My legs and mind were ready to rock n roll during the race, and even keep going back 80km when my feet were done (hence making that decision super emotional). That said, I was also super skeptical and unsure how 1+ month off due to sickness and moving from Australia was going to pan out with the race itself. I really thought about pulling out ahead of the race and even proposing it to Jillian that I would not do it. The latter was also do to the stress my training, in Bali and Vietnam, was putting on us as a family - which is not worth it to me as it shouldn't be having a negative impact. We worked through it, kudos to Jillian, and she was really my biggest supporter and kept reminding me that I'm stilling doing this race (which I really wanted to go do). So along with #3, I was surprised that my body was feeling that good for that long.
5. Take things as they come
Take things as they come through the race: There were a couple of points when I would be behind a slower runner on a climbs or stuck in a train. These usually came, and I realised this in the moment, as a saving grace to take things easily early on in the race and not burn yourself out too early on. Though reality also set in, especially in the first 30+km/21mi, when you had to make a 4:00 AM cutoff and I came rolling in at 3:00 AM. There was a moment following some slower runners where I went from (well earlier) "we have plenty of time" to "holy cr*p, there's a possibility of not making this cutoff!" I seriously didn't think that that first 30+km/21mi loop was going to take me 6 hours, but it did. That boggled my mind then during the race and even now - that it could freakin' take that long, ha! However, I didn't let myself dwell on it long during the race, took it for what it was, and kept moving.
6. Keep moving
I would stop at aid stations, have what I came to be my norm of a banana and two pieces of watermelon (man, I love watermelon during a race, ha! So was super happy to see it), fill my two 500ml Salomon bottles, and then get going. It wasn't until Checkpoint 1 or 2 (we, the 100k'ers), had checkpoints 101, 102, 103, and then 1, 2, and so on up to 7, and then the finish) that I actually stopped to take off the shoes and socks to assess the feet, and they were a pruney mess with one serious/opened blistered on the inside of my big toe joint on my right foot.
7. Consider poles for assisting with the uphill climbs and easing the downhills
For me this would take a lot of training/getting used to them. I don't train with poles and then one time recently that I took them out (they were hiking poles and not the nice, fancy running poles but still decently light and did the job) found they made it tough to hold when going for food, water, etc. in my vest and running belt. So in general I didn't really need them for the VMM 100km, though I was definitely in the minority. I think I only saw 1 other person around me during the 100km without poles and then handful of others (maybe) in the 70km when they joined us. I also think, in my own opinion, there was an overuse/over reliance on poles by runners. I admit, I was super luck and grateful to have the entire Dandenong Ranges National Park as my training playground, and we absolutely loved it there! I also know from prior experience, before living there when I was a "flatlander" (one who lives in an area with not a lot of elevation change), that it is a challenge to get elevation and technical training when you live in the city or an area lacking in that the terrain. So I cannot underline the importance of that training (and this is echoed in many a running article) on similar terrain to your race wherever and however possible. Sometimes you have to get creative or redundant - I would do A LOT of hill repeats on a decent hill in the city to even get some hill training. I got some nice comments/compliments during the VMM 100km, from a Brit runner, that I must be a mountain goat considering one muddy, steep 2,000 foot climb that we had in the first 30+km/21mi and I didn't have poles. It was super nice, to which I awkwardly laughed and thanked him for it. Though I really thank the training that I did and having it pay off, where I purposefully would load my long runs with more elevation change per mi/km than my race. It also helped that my averaged weekly 4-6mi (7ish-10km) run had 1,000+ feet of elevation change, so it was just our norm living where we lived in Belgrave, Victoria (Australia).
8. A blessing in disguise
Going back a week later to finish the course, solo and unsupported, made me realize just how much of a blessing in disguise the DNF was, but hard to swallow in the moment. The blessing and gift were the amazing views and experience I could thoroughly enjoy in the daylight. See the above video above for Part 2 - The Redemption Run. Don't get me wrong. Gutting it out to the finish, pushing past Checkpoint 5, would've made for an amazing story as well or maybe not. Over a year later, I've been doing a lot of Human Design work and education and realized through this learning that I should listen to my gut and sit on decisions. I still vividly remember getting into checkpoint 5, maybe grabbing some food and water, and slowly walking past it down the road to 1) assess my feet and 2) hit 50 miles on my watch (priorities, ha!). I then came back and looked for an open place to lie down, that wasn't an option, so opted for any open floor space of the open door wooden structure that was the aid station and checkpoint for a place to sit. I eventually did, wedged up against a column in the opening behind the table serving food and amongst a half dozen to a dozen of other runners all in similar or varying states of exhaustion, pain, relief, etc. I then proceeded to take my shoes and socks off and just stare at my wrinkled feet with 5-6 large blisters on each foot, and then just sat there with my head against the column and closed my eyes. I'm sure thoughts were still racing through my head about what to do, and in all head and body were both saying I was done but hadn't quite accepted that, also, in my head. Though analyzing it all much longer after the fact, I realize that that walk down the street and long sit on the ground was me inadvertently giving my body, specific gut, a chance to respond to the situation. Again, my mind was fast at work analyzing all sorts of things: the time remaining in the race and my 40 min per mile pace, coming into checkpoint (CP) 5, which that along was going to have me missing cutoffs; accessibility of the checkpoints between CP 5 and the finish, remoteness of the next sections of the race, etc. In all, and my Human Design can make split decisions but generally better to give my body a chances to respond and ideally give it time to sit with it, I decided to get up, informed the volunteers and main person at the CP that I was done, and then was pointed to quickly jump in the waiting van - almost likely it knew as much as my body did, ha! Though I think that's always the hard part when I look at this after the fact and almost criticize myself for NOT pushing through, NOT gutting it out, etc. Though this is my permission to myself, and to you, that it doesn't always have to be that way. Know yourself and honor yourself that you will make the right decisions for yourself and all those involved, at least to the best of your abilities, and that's completely acceptable and quite frankly who cares what other's think, ha! (Ever heard of the books by various authors about the subtle art of not giving a f*ck? Well, I've read most of one and it's definitely true! There's a way to do it but it's really more about ensuring that you're honoring your time, energy, and money.)
This is a long way to go to say, I thoroughly enjoyed my Redemption Run a week after the race itself and was super grateful I was able to do it on multiple levels: 1) my awesome wife, 2) my feet were good to go for the most part, 3) my body in general was ready to rock n roll again, and 4) amazing day of weather. So definitely appreciated and enjoyed every moment of it! Probably why I was stopped and/or videoing what seemed like every other minute to take in the view and surroundings. Enjoy!
9. Owning the DNF as a badge of honor and rite of passage
This one's more about owning that DNF and sharing it with others, versus hiding it away and trying to pretend it never happened. This has come up a number of times in social media posts and groups, and I'm happy to admit I'm a member of the club, ha! I think it makes these endeavors more human and relatable to others. Granted that's assuming a bit. Though if for nothing else it's a wonderful experience to inform myself, and others, as a teachable moment of the next time, because let's face it there will be a next time! Not to mention, it's an instant bond with others that have gone through this experience in one way shape or form. I've then learned from them, so it definitely goes both ways. Like the saying goes for injuries (with ultras and training for them), it's not a matter of if but when they will occur. Same can be applied to DNF's. Sure, we want to do all that is possible to minimize the risk of an injury or DNF, and hopefully they never come to fruition. However, we also need to be realistic with ourselves, knowing both are real possibilities, and not get too hung up on either. Life's too short to worry. Try to look at the positive side of things, don't take yourself too seriously, and laugh when you can (and usually at yourself at least for me, ha)!
More to come as I think of them... ha!
As well as the video from my Redemption Run (yes, I went back and finished the race a week later on my own, which is now posted - see above!). 🙂
Happy Running! ✌🏻😊