Know Your Limits: Why I Dropped Out of My First Ultramarathon

Do you know what your body is capable of on any given day? And more importantly, do you know what you CAN’T do?

Jason Fitzgerald Ultramarathon DNF

It’s a difficult concept to grasp. Here’s what it takes:

Pushing yourself to your limits in races and workouts – over and over again.

Decades of consistent training.

Learning why you get injured (sometimes the hard way) and how to run the extremely fine line between staying injury-free and hard training.

Running personal bests in race distances on the track, cross country, and road (and understanding the differences between all three).

For new runners, you’ll have no idea what you can and can’t do. This is normal!

When I started running, I couldn’t even finish an easy 3 miler. And I was this sore for a week.

But after years of consistency, you’ll understand the nuances between pain, soreness, “normal” tired vs. “over-trained” tired, and when to dial back your training because of injury risk.

It’s a slow process, but the result is worth the time: you’ll know exactly when to push and when to rest.

After nearly two decades of training, I think I have most of this figured out for myself.

So it was with a heavy heart that I made the right decision last Saturday: I dropped out of my first ultramarathon, the Dirty 30 50km.

I knew I couldn’t continue running without getting a severe injury. So I made one of the hardest decisions of my life. I quit.

The Dirty 30 50km Race Report

A photo posted by Jason Fitzgerald (@jasonfitz1) on

The race started perfectly. My intention was to keep the effort the same as all my other long runs in the mountains – and it worked beautifully.

I stayed comfortable on the flats and downhills, but appropriately challenged on the early hills.

I had run up to 20 miles on some of these same trails, averaging anywhere from 7:55 – 8:10 per mile. So I was confident I could run the first 20 miles in 2:45 (8:15 pace) and still feel good.

The terrain had other plans.

Three ridiculous miles (13, 16, and 17) were so rocky, steep, and meandering that I got lost a few times and came to a complete stop, looking around for where to go. That threw off my pace considerably.

Take a look at my mile splits:

7:52
7:27
10:27
11:42
6:54
8:48
9:31
10:09
8:17
7:13
9:09
7:13
13:20
8:24
8:30
14:12
11:23

I ended up running about 17.5 miles in 2:45 – after getting lost three times and wandering around a mountain top.

But before the injury and getting lost, I had a blast. Some highlights:

  • Breathtaking views of Mt. Evans, Aspen tree-lined meadows, and mountain streams
  • Perfect weather – sunny, crisp mountain air, and plenty of shade under the cover of pine trees
  • Running with a few big name ultrarunners, including Timothy Olsen

The group I ran with for most of the way was great (a few hikers called us “gazelles” as we ran by) and I got a fun lesson in how to descend rocky single-track when they put a minute on me every downhill…

Until my IT band started to hurt (and before I got lost), I was averaging under 9:00 pace per mile and feeling great.

It wasn’t hard. I wasn’t sore. I was in a good mental state and fueling was going according to plan.

I was confident I could maintain a similar pace, which with a few more walk breaks, would have put me in the top 10 (!). I’m probably being a little optimistic, but it’s still encouraging.

You can see the full results here.

What’s frustrating is that my race was dictated not by my fitness, but by my structural ability to withstand the unreal elevation changes and trail technicality.

After miles of rocky descent, my IT band simply failed. Or more specifically, my left hip and glute medius failed, causing pain associated with ITBS.

This is my weak link. The Kryptonite that causes a mechanical break-down in my form when elevation and terrain proves too much to handle.

Despite the injury, I had a lot of fun. I’ve been reflecting on this race for a few days now, trying to understand the skill set of a good mountain ultra runner.

I think I have a few good ideas for you:

What does it take to be a good ultra runner?

Mountain Views

The view from near the 10-mile mark at the Dirty 30 50k

If you want to be a competitive mountain ultra runner, you need two primary abilities:

  1. The ability to cover crazy terrain in 10-14 minutes per mile – but then be able to rapidly accelerate on flat or downhill sections to 6:00 – 7:00 per mile.
  2. The structural ability to withstand the terrain, distance, and pace changes of mountainous ultras (this is where I failed).

That’s about it.

Of course, there are MANY components to each ability. To run anywhere from 6:00 – 14:00 / mile for 4+ hours over ridiculous trails requires an enormous aerobic engine. So priority #1 must be to train your endurance.

You must also:

  • Run hills competently (even when you’re tired)
  • Navigate technical trails with confidence (learn more about trail running here)
  • Be comfortable changing pace based on the terrain, elevation, and altitude

To improve your structural fitness (the ability of your muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones to withstand the impact of running), you have to do two things:

Run a lot (no better way to condition your body for running!).

Get really, really strong (here’s how to get started: strength work and progression).

Many traditional ultra running training programs will focus exclusively on running. It’s the absolute primary focus, but it’s not the only component to success.

And approaches like CrossFit Endurance will focus on the strength aspect of training – even though it’s not the primary activity (so much for specificity of training…).

The best approach? As usual, it’s neither extreme. It’s a blend of the two: a focus on endurance and high mileage but one that also includes a good amount of strength exercises. This approaches helps build your structural ability in a different way than simply running a lot.

Both accomplish the same goal, but do so through different mechanisms. At the end of the day, you’re getting even stronger by including both in your training.

Why limit your fitness and performance by skipping strength work or high mileage?

But beyond your abilities, there’s a certain amount of luck. You need great running form and biomechanics – and much of this is genetic. It also takes years to develop and it helps when you start running in your teenage years.

Your particular inefficiencies are magnified when you run fast or run long. And in the case of ultras, any biomechanical problem will be exacerbated after 4, 5, or 6 hours of running trails.

This is why I injured my IT band. My specific anatomy predisposes me to the injury and after nearly three hours of technical trail running on steep mountain grades, I couldn’t continue.

Can you blame my IT band, though? Just look at this elevation profile!

DIrty 30 Trail Run Elevation profile

Dirty 30 Elevation Profile

The best ultrarunners are very efficient. They have great form and don’t break down as quickly.

Ultra Training, Gear, and More Details

If you’re curious about the specifics of my race and training, I put together a brief outline of how I prepared, the equipment I used, and fueling.

Ultra Training

My preparation for this race admittedly didn’t go to plan. I experienced a lot of minor aches and pains that prevented me from training more consistently than I would’ve liked.

After trying five different pairs of trail running shoes, I still couldn’t find one that I liked – and each one gave me some type of foot problem (Achilles pain, minor tendinitis on the top of my foot from excessive rubbing, cramped tendons near my ankle).

Plus, my family vacation in March, travel in April, and a conference in May didn’t help my consistency. I thrive on a schedule and routine and prefer to exclusively focus on running in the months leading up to a big race.

This is getting increasingly more difficult as I get older with more responsibilities.

The quality workouts I did do were encouraging:

  • Back-to-back long run days (first day on trails, second one on flats with a fast finish)
  • Long runs in the mountains
  • Medium-long runs up to 15 miles in the mountains during the week

Weekly mileage was unimpressive in the 60-70mi range because of the lack of consistency (before Boston 2014, I ran up to 90 miles per week).

I did a lot of strength work before the ultra, though, including these staples:

Weekly workouts consisted of fartleks, tempo workouts, steady-state runs, and regular strides. It wasn’t ideal, but it’s what I managed.

For specific questions I had about ultra running, I referred to Doug Hay’s Discover Your Ultramarathon program and Bryon Powell’s Relentless Forward Progress.

Equipment & Gear

I’m not a big gear junkie. I only relied on a few pieces of gear during the race:

You’ll notice that my NB running shoes aren’t even trail shoes. I tried FIVE pairs in the months leading up to the race and disliked all of them.

They were stiff, bulky, unresponsive, and hurt my feet. So I went with a road shoe, which worked well on the rocky sections of trail.

Fueling & Nutrition

My fueling plan was simple and one that I knew would work because I practiced it during training.

I relied exclusively on HoneyStinger gels during the race, though I would have started eating banana at the third Aid Station if I hadn’t dropped out.

After mile 5, I drank water with Nuun electrolyte tablets (Strawberry Lemonade is delicious).

My plan was to also listen to my cravings after mile 25. If I waned M&M’s or pretzels, I’d eat them. Alas, I didn’t get that far.

Thank You

A lot of you have sent me notes of encouragement over the last week and I want to thank all of you for that. It means a lot to me.

I appreciate you taking the time to read this, hopefully learn a thing or two, and for actually caring about my running. The SR community always surprises me for the level of support that you freely give to all of us.

I’m not sure what’s next for me. But whatever happens, I’ll make sure to have fun!

– Jason.

Was this post helpful?

Then you'll love the free email lessons I've never released here on the blog. Enter your email and you'll get:

  • The exact strength exercises that prevent injuries
  • Workouts that boost your speed (even for beginners)
  • Pacing strategies, coaching Q&A, and more

Comments

  1. Jonathan Sensenig says:

    I too dropped from my first trail ultra attempt. This was the first withdrawal that I experienced. No injury to speak of but defeated mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted. I am unsure if I will attempt another ultra but am certain that I will continue to run. Best of luck as you continue to learn and run.

  2. Thanks for sharing about your experience. I wish you a successful recovery, and I think your recovery would make another excellent post. Thanks for being real.

  3. Definitely one of the more challenging things to do for any competitor is recognize we do actually have limits. I chose to run through my ITBS in my first ultra and crawled across the finish line. Probably not the smartest choice but I knew running could take a backseat in my training afterwards. It’s been nearly a month and it still acts up whenever I go for a run, but I can swim and bike just fine (hoping for an Ironman somewhere down the line!). I do the IT Routine ~4x/week currently. Hopefully mine gets resolved like yours did!

  4. One of the biggest things I learned going from road to ultra/trail races is that you kind of have to throw out the rule book. The first race (hell, the first few races) are about learning how to do it, not competing. While I’m not the most experienced ultra runner, my gut is telling me to encourage you to try it again! And throw away any expectations. Just go out there and take it easy and feel what you feel. Learn what you learn. Don’t let any hangups about pacing or winning get in the way of you just enjoying the experience and GETTING the experience so you can go back and actually compete next time!

    Either way, you’re a rockstar for taking the risk, especially on such a badass course!

  5. Thank you for this excellent recap of your race. It helps a lot to learn from the experience of elite runners, such as yourself – even (perhaps especially?) when things don’t go according to plan. Keep up the good work out there, and crush your next one!

    I’ve learned a LOT from your website. I’m looking forward to hearing more about your recovery and renewed training!

  6. Sorry to hear you had to drop out, but the right decision is often the difficult decision. Thanks for sharing your experience with us and get/stay healthy going forward!

  7. David Taylor says:

    Thanks for sharing, I’m going to do an ultra one day when I finish playing other sports but you’re blogs really motivate me and help me unerstand the challenge that I will face. Annoyingly I’ve picked up a stupid calf injury on an easy five miler so am in a short layoff myself!

  8. Marilyn says:

    Thank you for sharing your experiences, even though it was not the ending you hoped and trained for. I feel for you. My training for my marathon on Sinday was not as ideal as I wanted either, I just fought such fatigue. I almost quit several times. The last month my mom’s health was failing, and 5 days before the race, she died. Two days before she died, I told her I forgave her for things, and she held my gaze for so long; it really touched me (she could no longer speak). The next day, I went up to her bedside, and said, “Mom, I have never done something like this before, but I want to run my marathon as a tribute to your life, for how special you are!” Again, she held my gaze, though not as strongly this time. She passed away early the next morning. I ran the marathon on Sunday, her funeral was Monday. My marathon was beyond special; God gave me strength way beyond what my training runs had been. It was the most special and meaningful marathon I could have had, with people who care about me doing things to add tender care to my memorable run. ……………. All that to say, Jason, thanks for sharing your highs and lows. You are an encouragement to so many of us on our journeys. And, all the best to you in your rehab and your next race!

  9. Christie says:

    This was really a great read for me, and I’m not an ultra distance runner by any means; however, one of the reasons I trust you in any advice you give is because you have experienced injury, ITBS specifically. You’ve been there; you “get it.” You are a great example of taking disappointment and trying to make it work for you instead of against you. Everyone can learn from that. Watch out trails.

  10. world_runner says:

    Hi Jason,
    This is one of the best posts I have read on Strength Running in a long time. Why? Because it is real. Thank you for sharing this. You are right, balancing hard training as you get older and your responsibilities increase is tough but that should never be an excuse for not trying to “know what your body is capable of on any given day knowing what you CAN’T do. I love that you pushed your limits within your limits. Well done, well attempted and well said!

  11. Carolyn says:

    Thanks for your excellent race report. It sure sounds like an extremely tough course! Still, you knew that pain could get serious real quick so that was the right decision. Hard to admit, I’m guessing. You’ll be healthy enough to try again…maybe a different course??

  12. Nipple chafe & bleeding were a problem for me that led to quite a bit of experimentation – Vaseline (gooey), nip guards or band-aids (so-so, but pulls out hairs @ removal), body glide (ineffective), various shirt materials (none worked) & even trying to run while holding my shirt away from my chest (awkward).

    My final solution is to wear a UA short sleeve compression shirt either alone or under another shirt. You will notice that women don’t get nipple chafe problems (they are wearing a bra – no friction at that point!) but do suffer chafing in other friction locations (seams & straps). A compression shirt solves the friction problem quite nicely.

  13. Thanks for your race report, sorry to hear your race didn’t go as planned, I’ve been down that road. I can say with YOUR help I finished my first 50K 3 weeks ago. I followed the SR marathon plan, running most of my mileage and all my long runs on trails and doing the strength workouts. I stayed healthy, recovered well, and overall loved my race. Especially awesome since I went into training with some piriformis issues, a foot issue, and definitely imbalances with strength. You made the hard decision, the right decision for your race. I’ve been loving the recent contributions about trails and ultras and look forward to hearing about your journey. Thanks, Coach!

  14. melissa says:

    ah yes. the ultra trail is not to be messed with!
    personally, i think one of the biggest mistakes people make is thinking they can concur their first ultra50k. the focus should be less on splits and more on experience. it is such a different beast compared to road running.
    thanks for posting this because i see this ALL THE TIME and i only started running trails 2 years ago. i have done many 25k and less distance and only one 50k. because i didn’t know how my body would react to the elevation and distance, i took it sooooo slow in the first half. this meant at the half way point, i was ready to go! i ended up negative splitting (the only split i look at EVER) but most importantly feeling AMAZING at the finish.

    i also suffer ITB issues so i make sure throughout the season i do more than just body weight strength training. i love my sandbag classes for supporting my weak ITB and for giving me added agility and balance needed on trails.

    you’ll do great in your next race! but why not just do it as a new experience instead of trying to get into top 10?

  15. Tough break, man. Sounds like you were running strong and feeling good most of the race, which makes it that much harder to drop when you have to. Good job on making the right decision.

    Getting lost is frustrating, isn’t it? Lots of debate right now on that topic.

    Congrats on the massive effort. Rest up, and I hope that one day you can give it another shot!

  16. This is such an interesting read and It’s so cool to write to such a knowledgable runner!
    I do agree that you chose the right decision to stop, I’ve been in situations where I’ve carried on and not realised the damage I was putting my legs through. The time it takes to heal can send some backwards.
    Looking at the scenery in the photos you’ve uploaded too are breathtaking!

  17. Thanks for sharing, Jason! It’s great to hear an elite runner’s perspective on an experience that doesn’t go as planned. I really appreciate your approach to the sport, and thanks to your guidance (ITBS routine, especially!) I was able to complete my first 50 mile race last year and have committed to a 100-miler later this summer. As for shoes, I’m not sure if you’ve had a chance to try any of Pearl Izumi’s trail shoes yet, but they’ve been great for me. In fact, after my first 50, my feet were the only thing that didn’t hurt! Thanks again, and keep up the great work!

  18. Hi Jason
    Thank you, you are now officially human!!!
    I’ve had ITBS now for the last 5 years and no amount of steroid injections, PT etc., etc., has made a blind bit of difference. However, I bought the programme and do the exercises, alternating with resistance band training and despite the recent arthroscopy (second time), am feeling almost ready to go.
    It’s refreshing to know it’s not just us mere mortals who get injured.
    Thank you
    Andy

  19. Catherine says:

    Your IT band may have not been up to the challenge, but your judgement certainly was. In that, you were a success.
    Thanks for the wonderfully candid post.

  20. Hello Jason
    Your insight is great, but I did notice how in the first opening paragraphs etc, there was a great emphasis on ‘pace’ that you intended to run, how you were ‘keeping good pace’ etc etc.
    Without knowing the event, but even slightly looking at the elevation profile, I can see that any pre-race planning goes out the door once the reality of the event and terrain kicks it.
    What did you base your pace assessments on? Historical finishers times, and how they had compared to you etc? Your current training paces, which of course could not be guaranteed to be on similar terrain/gradient etc?
    All your other points are great …. however, any reference to pace in a trail/ultra is always going to end in disaster, in my opinion.

    Wish you well for you next race!
    Cheers
    CARLOS

    • Hey Carlos, great questions. Pace estimates were based on feel and how I performed for long runs in the same park. Up until my ITB started to hurt, I was comfortable (and took many walk breaks on hilly sections to help with that).

  21. Allison says:

    I’m sorry that happened to you, Jason : (. IT band pain sucks! I had big problems with that until I found your ITB Rehab routine : ). But good for you for trying something you’ve never done before! The pictures from the race are spectacular! I’m sure the views were a decent consolation : ). I hope you are enjoying Colorado! My husband and I would eventually like to move out there. Sending good vibes for your IT band to bounce back quickly!

  22. I think you did the right thing. As athletes we often push, sometimes when it isn’t the wisest thing to do. But that’s what makes us compete. I definitely think (as I get older) that pulling back to fight another day really makes a lot of sense. Specially if it can mean risk of a long layoff due to injury.

Trackbacks

  1. […] What Jason Fitzgerald learned from his first ultra DNF. […]