The Holston River Endurance Challenge

The Phase III prep event for Lillian’s Run has come and gone. Now it’s time to review the very valuable, possibly life saving lesson learned as well as what went right and what what went wrong and where to go from here.

First things first, a quick review of the course and event as a whole. The discription of the course was mostly gravel with a little bit of grass and a short paved section and two slight hills. Ummm, yep ok, that is one take on it. My take was more like a broken, uneven gravel and grass road/trail with a small incline that is paved, a long incline of dirt and grass with the steepest part having a ditch running down it and a third hill that really wasn’t so bad. It had three loops and there were places at night where it was difficult to determine by head lamp exactly where the uneven parts were. Because there were so many twist and turns and so dark it was impossible to take the shortest route. The official measurement was 1.5 miles per lap but to a person we all really went several miles more over the course of the event per our Garmins and phones.

The aid station/food tents were great. There was SWORD drink, water and an assortment of foods in nice labeled areas, Hot, sweet, salty and fruits. The staff were nice, encouraging and helpful and they had an aid tent with various liniments, ointments, powders and medications. Over all this was very well done and much better than other ultra events I have been to.

My cheering section!

What went right. The first thing that went right was the prep leading up to the event. While training can always be better I was much better prepared this time than for Merrill’s Mile or Oak Ridge. The plan was pretty simple, take it slow and easy and get an official 50 K in the first night, then rest and relax and go out again the second night. The first part of that went pretty well. When I reached the 50 K mark I felt as if I could have easily knocked out more and actually went a little farther to set a personal record for distance. The rest of the plan… Well not so much.

The what went wrong was also the potentially life threatening event that happened. As a runner I have “bonked” or “hit the wall” before, most of us have. But what do you do when you don’t just hit the wall but find yourself in a very strange and scary situation? I knew that I was dehydrated after the first night. While it wasn’t extremely hot it was very humid and when it is that way you sweat more than normal. I drank large amounts of fluids throughout the first night. I was very careful to make sure that I used electrolyte solutions such as SWORD and Power Aid as well as water. Still, I was dehydrated to some extent and tried to force more fluids during the down time.

At the start of the second night I felt pretty good, a little stiff, calves a little cramped but for having already set a personal record for distance the night before I couldn’t complain. A few laps in and things were going pretty ok. Then my body suddenly and violently rebelled. Thankfully the race organizers had thought to spread portajohns all around the course. Diarrhea, maybe just “runners trots” I thought. About a minute down the course was vomiting, just like from the other end, nothing but hot water and without warning. This was quickly followed by more events from both ends. Again, I now really appreciate the portajohns every tenth of a mile or so. Somewhere in the middle of all of this, or maybe it was just before, a raging headache started and by the end, dizziness. I was at the point I was stumbling to make it back to our camp.

Ladonna and Sophia soon returned to find me lethargic, pale, weak, cold and shivering. Had I simply  “bonked” or maybe just caught the flu or become dehydrated? The answer to all of these could have been yes but it was no, there was something a little scarier, a little less obvious going on. Further research found it to be hyponatremia, a condition where your body has a decreased sodium level.

While this is far from a common thing it can be seen in persons during endurance events. The usual culprit is drinking too much water and not enough sports drinks. I thought I had avoided this. There are several other things that can add to the problem. Things like excessive sweating, converting fat to energy and the use of NSAIDS. Hmmm, check, check and check. As a bigger runner I sweat more than most, a low carb diet means I burn more fat and because of the effects of the event I had liberally partaken of ibuprofen before, during and after the first night. Now the cascade of events had taken its toll on me.

Needless to say, my second night was over. A few bags of IV saline and something to stop the vomiting later and I was back at our camp. Although I will be just fine, it really was a closer call than I would like to admit. The bowel problems, dizziness and lethargy are fairly late signs with the next ones being altered mental status and seizures. Now it’s time to recover and move on with lessons learned. Saltstick caps, available from Walmart or Amazon online seem to be the overwhelming choice of what to try first. Formulated by a triathlete, they are a staple in the endurance community. They have even been used by the Iron Man winner in each of the last 11 years! A trip to Doc is also in the future to confirm this course of action and work on the carb ratio going forward.

Still, despite of the setbacks we were able to set a new PR for distance and at least answer the call for a second day. With a little work on the electrolyte and fluid replacement I feel great with a little over two months remaining until Lilyan’s Run and the 104.8 miles between Kingsport and Knoxville!


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