DNF- A state of mind

What happens when a psychologist and ultra-runner does not complete their goal race? You get a rather in-depth post-mortem and self-analysis of a DNF (Did Not Finish) that hopefully, might just, possibly, be support and insight for others.

trail running, ultra running, Beautiflow Photography

This blog has been written by Landon Hildebrand, one of our 7 Summits Snacks Ambassadors. In a world where we are often fearful of sharing our “unsuccessful attempts”, we thought that he would be the absolute best person to write about a subject that weighs heavily on the mind of the aspiring endurance athlete. We hope you enjoy and take away from this read as much as we have!

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It has been a few weeks since the Canadian Death Race (CDR) and I have recovered well. I have spent time on the trails with friends and veteran CDR finishers hashing it out, had countless conversations with my crew/wife, and had a few sleepless nights where I find myself asking the “what if” questions. I feel I have done the post-mortem and have a pretty good working theory of what went wrong in terms of achieving a DNF. I can even break it down into three groups: fitness, hydration/nutrition, and probably the biggest and maybe most surprising factor if you know my profession – my mindset.

Fitness: 

Fitness was probably the least significant contributor to my DNF. My legs felt good.  After I tapped out, I had energy to spare. However, the one thing that I had wanted to do before the race had continuously illuded me. Between starting a business and balancing family life, getting to the mountains for specific training had been a hard ask. I only got out to the mountains for 3 days in one extended weekend. 

My training and fitness foundation was probably rock solid, but my specificity regarding the type of terrain I was going to be racing in was lacking. There is just no substitute to power hiking long sections and there is absolutely no substitute to the long downhill terrain of mountains. Even with the energy in the bank when I stopped, this specific training likely would have increased my duration in the CDR with just a few more visits to the mountains.

Nutrition/ Hydration: 

My nutrition was good. I put down an estimated 1000+ calories each leg of the race (each CDR leg is between 16 and 38 kms). I pounded watermelon in aid stations (reliving one of my most proud moments in grade 9 when I won a watermelon eating contest then ate 2 other competitor’s watermelons like a boss) and I might be one of the few racers that weekend to experience zero GI distress. I did nutrition mostly right. Pre-race 7 Summits Denali bar (a tradition on nearly every training run). Trail butter and Spring Energy throughout each leg. A 7 Summits Everest bar or Aconcagua bar at each mountain summit. I felt amazing. Again, I had energy to spare after my DNF.

Hydration was another story, and it has been a big issue for me on several races in the past. I experienced a very bad case of what we hope is bladder slap. Basically, on most hot races between KM 40 and 50, my urine starts to get a bit more colourful than it should – taking on a distinct shade of red. My pre-hydration the week before was spot on but I had not drunk enough on leg 1, miss-timed the refills stations on leg 2, and was in a hydration deficit by leg 3. By KM 60 I was peeing blood and was in a bad way with each step sending excruciating pain through my insides.

Compounding this was that towards the end of leg 3 I misunderstood a fellow competitor and thought I needed to get across a mystery bridge by a certain time cut-off. Because I did not know where said mystery bridge was, I punched it: uphill, downhill, along a gravel road. This continued for only about 3-4KM, but I had broken from my game plan, thus resulting in a serious bonk (read more about bonking here). 

I had blasted through my sugar, and I didn’t have anything left in my pack that could bring me back to life. I proceeded to stumble into transition drained and I was losing out to the negative self-talk of “I’m not good enough.” A Coke and some more watermelon got me out of the transition and up the Mount Hamell assault, but the negative self-talk was getting louder, and I had forgotten all my teaching about mindset. 

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Mindset: 

I’m a psychologist. I work with individuals, couples, families, and a few athletes attending to distress and challenges. In my work with athletes on self-talk, I have experienced a lot of success working through negative patterns of self-talk by both helping them understand their attachment style (the biological way in which they relate to others, the world, and themselves) and how this relates to the self-talk they encounter when their race gets hard. The theory from which I work is that by understanding and expecting the default pattern and themes of negative self-talk we can override this response with both practice and an honest appraisal of what is actually occurring for them.

For example, a while back I was part of a relay race, and I was feeling pretty good. Problem was, everyone else on my leg was, as well. I found myself towards the back of the pack pretty early on instead of the front of the pack I assumed I would be. I became overwhelmed by negative self-talk and my pattern usually follows the tenants of what is called ambivalent preoccupied attachment. I both blame myself for not being good enough while also looking desperately outside of myself for blame as part of the evolutionary adaptation to avoid humiliation, embarrassment, and inadequacy. Shoes, weather, that rude competitor, the course, the lack of this, or that are all good blame targets. I feel these thoughts and I reel from these thoughts, and I turn the volume all the way up to 11.

During that race, I clued in quite quickly. I was prepared and practiced. I acknowledged these thoughts as a defence mechanism and rallied an honest response, “running is hard”. It seems simple, but it was amazing and freeing! By acknowledging that what I was doing was hard, I didn’t have to make excuses or assume that I was somehow deficient and not good enough. I was able to grind out and finish the leg right behind the third-place runner which my team eventually passed to finish in 3rd overall.  

This is not what happened during the 38km assault up Hamell. I got in my head, and I stayed there. I thought long and hard about what I had done wrong in my training (because that was doing me a lot of good climbing up the 2,500 meters-of-gain mountain leg) and I settled in my belief that I was not good enough. This was compounded by the bladder slap pain and blood which gave me a good reason to just give up. I had forgotten what I knew, had taught, and had trained others about mindset.  

I knew that my default pattern of thinking was going to show up. However, instead of sticking to my plan of acknowledging it, giving an honest appraisal of what I was actually doing (“running 125km is hard”), and resetting my mind through focused physiological breathing techniques and dissociative techniques to take a break from the battle of between “just give up” and “you can do it” – I stayed on the default track of negative thoughts “I’m not good enough.”

It had been so long since that negative mindset had shown up that I wasn’t ready. It snuck in the back door and set up camp before I had time to try and ask it to set up elsewhere while I finished my race. Yes, the pain of the bladder slap was overwhelming, and I had promised my Mom and Wife that I would pull the plug if it returned. Yet, even if those things were not happening, I am quite confident I likely would have pulled the plug regardless. I DNF’d because of my bladder problems, this is true. Regardless of whether these problems had shown up, I would have still DNF’d.

My DNF does present a host of opportunities for me. I now have a game plan that will not sit just between my ears. I will tell my crew what techniques have worked for me, and I will tell them what I might need and how to prepare when that negative self-talk shows up instead of making them guess at what my battle is. I wrote down what I needed for nutrition, hydration, and such, but I told them nothing of my inner mindset battles of anxiety and how I can work with it. I will also train these techniques in the same way that I train my body – particularly since I will be using my body, not my brain, to attend to my anxious brain. 

I can’t use an anxious brain to outthink anxiety. So, I will practice my breathing techniques, mindfulness techniques, and dissociative techniques throughout my training so that my body knows what to do. Not unlike how it knows what to do, thanks to my training, when the hills go up, and when the hills go down.  It is because I take this time that I will get back stronger and will be more prepared for next summer's Death Race. This time I intend to be prepared all the way to the inflated finishing arch.

Landon Hildebrand- M.A. Registered Psychologist

Landon is a registered psychologist and founder at Approach Psychology where he treats individuals, couples, families, and athletes.  He can be contacted at approachpsych.ca

Photo credits to BeautiFlow Photography