It was pointed out yesterday on our Facebook page, the rather large UTMB DNF rate by elite runners and it got me thinking… Why was that? Are we seeing higher DNF rates generally among elite runners?
If UTMB is anything to go by, then yes we are.
Before we begin, let me state that this is not a witch hunt of elite runners in the slightest! I’m genuinely interested in this trend and why it’s happening as there could be some serious underlying issues that as a sport, need addressing, such as athlete health and longevity. It’s a topic that has been raised on other websites and forums, so it’s certainly of interest.
To kick us off, take a look at the number of withdrawals from the ‘favourites’ list in the men’s race at UTMB below. There was a similar story in the ladies too.
28 finishers, 10 DNS’ and 40 DNF’s.
That’s a 51% UTMB DNF rate of the total listed above, and a 58% DNF rate if you subtract the DNS’ out of the equation. That’s massive.
A caveat I would use here is that we can’t simply use UTMB as a yardstick as to whether or not elites are DNF’ing at higher rates generally, it is after all one of the most demanding races in the world and you would expect a higher than average DNF rate. It would take a lot of further research to understand DNF rates at other major races among the elite group, something that time does not permit for me right now unfortunately.
But, off the top of my head, we have seen some notable DNFs this year. Ryan Sandes has had a rather awful luck this year with a number of DNS’ and DNFs. One of the WSER100 favourites, Dylan Bowman bowed out having raced very hard at Tarawera and Ultra-Trail Australia (TNF100) here in Australia. And of course our own Andrew Tuckey, fell by at Ultra Trail Australia this year too. Now of course I accept fully that this is not a deeply insightful analysis of DNF rates among elites, but the feeling and general sentiment I see as someone who commentates on the sport is that it appears to be happening more often. And I’m not alone, elites runners agree.
What’s causing the high DNF rate?
First up, let’s hear from Brendan Davies, one of Australia’s leading ultra runners – he’s a sub 7hr 100km runner and has finished eighth and Western States in 2014. He has some very insightful views on this, and as a ‘serial’ racer for the last 3-4 years, he knows better than most what’s going on and why we’re seeing an increased DNF rate among elites.
“You are 100% correct in that there are way too many races and runners are, I believe, overextending themselves by doing too many long events in a calendar year. It’s a double-edged sword, as a runner may have a great race or a couple of great races and then continue to ‘chase’ the glory – the habit of winning and the prestige and the attention that brings from sponsors. It takes a big woman or man to say no to racing a top event.
“But it’s understandable why they ‘chase’ the wins. The time at the top of the tree is what gets you the invites to other races and it makes it harder to say no. That though eventually leads to burnout and/or sickness as we’re seeing now.
“As far as the DNF rate in UTMB is concerned, it’s been happening now for a while. At TransGranCanaria this year there was a massive DNF rate, UTMF last year the same, even Western this year to some degree. The reasons for pulling are complex – there’s no one magic bullet here. But without doubt, the biggest reason I feel is that as elites, we’re chasing ‘race perfection’. But as we know, this type of race may happen a handful of times in your whole career if your lucky.
“Many take off like it’s a marathon, smashing it hard in the first half and then when the distance/intensity takes its toll, they drop back and suffer. Do they want to get to the point where they don’t want to lose to weekend warriors or guys that have never beaten them? I don’t know. I’m sure it happens, but only those who have DNF’ed for that reason will truly know.”
That’s some pretty insight views from a guy who has been racing at the top end of the sport now for a few years. Another reason I’ll offer up and have seen on comments boards is that maybe the whole DNF thing just doesn’t have the stigma that it did years ago. I personally recall the whole DNF thing being quite a stigma. You just didn’t do it, not even at the top end. But it does feel more commonplace these days. A case of move on and head to the next race.
There’s no denying that our sport has changed massively in the last few years and Brendan highlights this very well above. More sponsorships, more runners and more races. As a result, it’s fair to say that our top end guys and girls are racing far more than they used to and their workloads are high.
It’s not uncommon to see many of them string up half a dozen 100km/100 mile races in a year. That’s fine if you’re simply racing to complete like us middle pack plodders. But when you’re racing to compete, and the training is highly intense to go with it, there’s no question that the body is being placed under extreme limits – you have a shelf life in this sport, like you do in any other.
We’re also hearing lots about overtraining syndrome too. In a quest to compete harder and win, some of the training weeks you see elite runners do beggar belief. The shelf life of an elite runner now is probably in the range of 3-6 years, depending on how much and how hard you race. Rob Krar was at pains to point this out in our interview with him – he wants an extended shelf life. He was due to race UTMB, but in the end, didn’t. Why? Because his body didn’t feel right and ready for the rigours of what he was about to put it through. I think he made a great call there. As did our own Andrew Tuckey. He’s had a massive last 18 months, it’s time for the body to heal. While we may want to keep racing and racing, the body is a finely tuned machine. Abuse it and it will break. Respect it and it will continue to work. Sometimes making the tough decisions are what’s needed.
So body fatigue is perhaps one cause of the high DNF rates we saw at UTMB, in particular among those who’ve been racing hard all year and perhaps should have made the same call Rob Krar and Andrew Tuckey made.
Incidentally, the winner of UTMB, Xavier Thevenard had only raced twice in 2015 prior to UTMB, both races under 100kms. Go figure. He was fresh as a daisy. There’s a lot to be said for picking one big race each year. It’s nigh on impossible to race hard at Western States for example and then expect to be able to put in a similarly great performance at UTMB. US runner, Seth Swanson is the exception to the rule here, having finished second at Western States and then fourth at UTMB. However so many who have tried to do both have fallen by the wayside. There either needs to be a greater level of realisation about what is possible with the body, or sponsors need to take a more active role here.
Too much pressure to race?
With sponsors eager to have their athletes racing around the world these days – how viable is that and how much care and attention are sponsors placing on looking after their athletes and managing them too?
With so many races available to elite runners and a kind of ‘go hard or go home’ attitude, is the high DNF rate about self-preservation for the next race? Have the days of gutting it out disappeared in favour of making sure performance at the next big race is impacted as little as possible? Who remembers Hal Koerner’s 38hr epic UTMB finish a few years back – things didn’t go well for him, but he received huge respect for gutting it out and not throwing in the towel. It’s probably safe to say that he learned more about himself in that run than in other race he’s ever done. But why do people respect him so much? It’s because that race made him human. Hal is a hugely successful elite and UTMB broke him that year and people respect him for digging in and finishing among the weekend warriors.
If runners are DNF’ing because they’re thinking about then next race, then alarm bells should be ringing. Race calendars are clearly too full and I think we’re headed down a very slippery slope. Athlete management is required to ensure elites aren’t simply filling their calendars to the brim with a view of winning everything, then burning out within 2-3 years. It’s fine to race and agree varying levels of intensity for those races, but if there are pressures to perform and the calendar is rather full, there should be some questions asked and more responsibility taken by sponsors.
I say this because it impacts the average Joe runner. Races like UTMB and Western States are hugely in demand. I know, I sat on the Western States waitlist for three years with not so much of a nibble. I want a spot to race that epic just once in my life. Those spots are highly valued. The sponsors that have the privilege of gaining those spots fully appreciate that I’m sure..
Hopefully we’re not seeing too much pressure to race and the high DNF rate is just a one-off year, but something tells me this is not a one-off. Under the surface, with more races, sponsors and money coming into the sport, it does stand to reason that at the top end, we’re going to see athletes burn out quicker and quicker – and it will take a strong elite runner to say ‘no’. Management of this is hugely important for those athletes, particularly if they want longevity in the sport, and we, the average Joe runners, want to see them racing to their peak and alongside us.