At mile 60 in the steamy 80-degree mountainous rainforest above Honolulu, elite ultrarunner Yassine Diboun was lying on his back with severe stomach cramps, nausea, dizziness and chills, debating whether to drop out or forge ahead through the remaining 40 miles of the 2015 H.U.R.T. 100, one of the most grueling ultra-distance races in the country.
“I was completely overwhelmed by how I was going to get through that next section of treacherous trail,” Diboun says. The course consists of five identical 20-mile laps of rooty, rocky single-track trail with 24,500 feet of elevation gain as well as mud wallows and wild roaming pigs. Historically, the average finishing rate is around 30 percent.
Having completed nine 100-milers during the past decade, he was used to pushing through rough patches, but this time he was dangerously dehydrated from vomiting, which he’d never experienced in a race. He called it quits.
Afterward, he analyzed what went wrong: he hadn’t carried enough fluids, he briefly got off course early in the race which threw off his focus, and he was still battling a stomach virus that he thought had run its course.
Despite his initial disappointment, Diboun has learned to take the good with the bad and encourages the runners he coaches to do the same.
“We can use subpar races as stepping stones and learn from them,” he says.
Two days after the race, he resolved to return to the H.U.R.T. in 2016.
Matt Flaherty, a 30-year-old professional ultrarunner, marathoner, and running coach, agrees with Diboun on putting disappointing races in perspective, whatever the distance.
“There’s as much to be learned and enjoyed from the journey as the race,” Flaherty says. “If you achieve your goal every single race, you’re probably not setting challenging enough goals.”
And while there are numerous reasons why races don’t go as planned—such as illness, suboptimal training, and inadequate fueling—one of the most common reasons people fall short of their goals is poor pacing, especially in marathons and ultras, Flaherty says.
“Often people go out too aggressively and they kind of blow up,” he explains. “There’s a temptation to want to bank time, and a temptation when you see other people going out hard to want to go with them.”
To avoid these mistakes, Flaherty incorporates progression runs, or getting faster toward the end of your run, into his clients’ and his own training.
He also advises people to run by feel instead of relying on their GPS watches or heart-rate monitors, data from which can be useful—but mostly for analysis after your run, not so much during it.
“Instead of always looking at a number and reacting to it, you want to pay attention to your sensory data—your heart rate, your breathing, your perceived effort level and figure out what you need to do and make small adjustments,” he says, which will help you learn what type of pace you can maintain.
And when you do experience bad patches, you can usually get through them by staying engaged and positive, although that’s tough to do even for the most seasoned runners, Flaherty says.
“Instead of focusing on your pain or how long you have to go, focus on how you can be more efficient right now. Even if you don’t meet your A goal, in retrospect you can usually take pride in having fought as hard as you could and knowing that you did,” he says.
In January 2016, Diboun, now 37 years old, returned to Hawaii from Portland, Ore., his hometown—this time, four days prior to the race instead of two, giving his body time to acclimate. While sitting on Waikiki beach with waves lapping at his feet, he visualized each segment of the course, just as he had during training.
“When I use imagery, I see myself from above running down the trail strong, thanking the volunteers at the aid stations, and coming into the finish line with a smile,” he says. “In endurance sports, mental stamina is just as important as the physical training.”
He also repeated two mantras throughout the race: This is my day and I’m made for this shit.
On the trail, he doubled his fluid intake from the previous year—sipping about 40 ounces of an energy drink every seven miles, and swilling down fresh coconut water served up by Michael Arnstein, winner of the 2015 H.U.R.T., who’d set up a table with 100 coconuts and a machete. Each time a runner came through, Arnstein lopped off the top of a coconut and handed it to them.
Just as he’d envisioned, Diboun had an ideal race. He placed third with a time of 22 hours and 39 minutes, planting a kiss on the finish line sign imprinted with the H.U.R.T.’s slogan: We wouldn’t want it to be easy.
“That race was so irrational in every way that for me it was the ultimate test of mental and physical endurance,” he says. “The thought of dropping never entered my mind.”
About The Author:
Cate Hotchkiss is a marathoner and freelance writer based in Hood River, Oregon. In December 2015, she missed her A goal of qualifying for Boston by several minutes—she plans to try again in June.