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Lessons learned from a first DNF

By Henry Howard

I had been looking forward to the Zion 100K for more than two years. I was supposed to line up in April 2020, but that race fell victim to the pandemic. The following year, the race directors allowed those registered to defer for another year, which I did.

That rare arrangement was incredibly generous by Vacation Races, which hosts Zion and other races around national parks out west. At packet pickup and during the race, I found the staff and volunteers to be just as welcoming and supportive of their runners.

I’d love to be able to say that the finishing line experience was just as pleasurable. But that was not the case as a foot and calf injury forced me into my first Did Not Finish (DNF).

Anatomy of a DNF

I have been dealing with a relentless foot injury for months. Thanks to my PT, daily foam rolling and additional measures, I was able to push through and train for the 100K. In fact, March represented my second-most miles run in a month. I was ready for Zion.

Or so I thought.

We went to packet pickup the day before. After parking, we walked across a field strewn with small, jaggedy rocks and I managed to step on one awkwardly, which inflamed the injured area (peroneal tendon) I had been dealing with. I was able to walk it off, grab my bib and get a few last-minute questions answered by the helpful volunteers.

I had a solid night’s sleep, a good pre-race breakfast and was ready to go for the 6 a.m. rolling start.

The first six miles felt wonderful, and the foot was totally fine. I felt smooth running and mixed in an appropriate amount of power hiking and walking. The view of the sun coming up was absolutely amazing, as were other vantage points from up high.

Almost exactly as my watch beeped for mile 7, I stepped awkwardly on a rock. My ankle bent outward and I immediately felt my outer calf area get stretched out. That tendon, which leads to the peroneal tendon, is where the issue had been.

I hobbled for a while then was able to pick up the pace a bit. That section of “trail” was actually slickrock. There was a lot of pounding on my lower legs and I was looking forward to the dirt floor of the desert that we’d get to soon enough.

My nutrition and hydration were dialed in and I actually felt pretty good at the mile 18 aid station, though I could feel the foot/outer calf on pretty much every step.

After leaving the mile 18 aid station, we descended a sharp, steep and rocky path down into the valley and ran across the desert until 26. About mile 23, I knew I had to call it. I was keeping about a 12:00 minute pace while running but I was not able to get any push off from my left foot.

The race has only two places where crews could meet their runners. One was at mile 26 and the other was at 43, near the finish line. It was either drop at 26 and call my wife for a ride or try to get to 43.

I was pretty sure the climb back up at 38, which would lead back to the mile 18 aid station, would have completely destroyed my foot. I consulted the aid station captain about my options and knowing what I had to do, detached my bib and handed it to him.

Onward and upward

I don't have any regrets. There will be other races. The experience did teach me a few things.

1. Health comes first. This was more confirmation than new information. But the day after the DNF, my calf is still very sore. Had I continued on, I would be looking at a more severe injury and additional time to recover.

2. Pack KT tape. After re-injuring my calf, I asked the medical staff at every aid station (miles 14, 17 and one last-ditch effort at 26) if they had any athletic tape. None of them did. Had I been able to apply athletic tape to the affected area, maybe that would have helped me continue on. Maybe not. But it was a bummer to not have something so small and easily transportable.

3. Have crew and pacers. Having a full crew would not have saved this race. However, it did occur to me that having a pacer finish the last 20 miles with me would have been a much preferable option than going by myself. While I did my first 100K solo, my crews at my first two 100s were so helpful in getting me to the finish. That will definitely be part of my calculation going forward.

4. Mountain running is not my sweet spot. Two of my three longest races were in the mountains, my first 100K at the Ultra Race of Champions in Virginia and my 100-miler, Rio Del Lago. But living in a flat area and not being able to train in hot weather for a day when the temperatures were well into the 80s complicated matters. I still covet getting into Western States. While I did not pick up my qualifier at Zion, there will be another opportunity later this year on a course that better mirrors where I will be training.

5. Shoot your shot with no regrets. As my coach David Roche preaches, use race day to shoot your shot. I believe my sweet spot for races is the marathon or 50K distance on trails. I’ll use this setback as a way to regroup, refocus and prioritize training — and racing — for those distances, and maybe throw in some shorter ones.


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