Taking A Wrong Turn During A Trail Race

You’ve spent months preparing for this race. Early morning runs in the pouring rain, dimly lit by dying headlamps and yellow street lights. Uncomfortable evening runs with your sloppy joes still sloshing around in your stomach. Speed workouts you were sure would induce asthma or, at the very least, make a mess of your shorts.

You’re fit. You’re healthy. You’re fast! You’re cruising! And now you’ve taken a wrong turn …

This recently happened to me at Defiance 50K. I came to a confusing intersection and made a wrong turn, adding 1-2 miles to my run when I was on pace for a PR. Talk about frustrating! This particular course has a reputation for being poorly marked, but admittedly, I’m horrible at following course directions and maps, so this isn’t the first time I’ve done this. The most memorable of my wrong turn fiascos was at the McDowell Mountain Frenzy 50 miler in 2013. I had run the course the previous year and thought I knew the intersections, however, I got caught up in good conversation with a friend of mine and we somehow got 4+ miles off course, not knowing until we saw a suspicious cow staring blankly at us in the middle of the Sonoran desert with no signs of an organized event anywhere to be seen. By the time we got back to the finish we had added 9 miles. We would’ve gone 1 and 2 had we not made that error, but instead we got a DNF.

So, what do you do when this happens? How do you stay happy and enjoy your day instead of cursing the Gods and burning the forest down ? Here are a few tips:

  • Stay calm. If you’re in the mountains it’s easy to think “what if ?” and subsequently let that grow into an imaginary nightmare where you’re lost in the mountains for days, chasing chipmunks, and surviving off of tree bark (I do this occasionally with normal life events, it’s called catastrophizing). This won’t do you any good, so check yourself! You’re most likely not going to die.
  • Try to get on track. If you’re on a mountainous course it can feel daunting, and yes, staying safe should be your number one concern, which entails getting back on course. When was the last time you saw a course marker? How many turns have you made? Backtrack. Retrace your steps. At most organized events, this should be fairly easy to do, so don’t panic.
  • Assess the situation. 99% of the time you will eventually get back on course. If you’re so lost that you don’t know where you are and can’t find your way back, then that’s a whole different can of worms possibly involving Search and Rescue and back country survival skills that we may address in a later post. If you’ve only added a mile or two on a non-remote course, like I did at Defiance 50K, then maybe you’ll find value in getting back on track and finishing, but if you’ve gone so far off course that you’re risking turning your 50 Miler into a 100K that you’re not ready for, it may be best to pull the plug; that’s ultimately up to you. Just be sure to let the volunteers know you’re dropping if you decide to do so.
  • Be kind. I’ve seen a number of runners become seriously angry at the RD, the volunteers, the tax rates, the air… don’t get me wrong – I’ve been there, but these things happen and you shouldn’t be snappy with people or look for someone to blame. Just accept the fact that your day didn’t go as planned and enjoy the ride! 
  • Be mindful. If you’re having trouble cooling down, try to bring your thoughts to center. Focus on the sound of each foot step against the ground or the color of the leaves around you or how the wind feels against your face; you’ll never see or feel these things exactly this way again and the light will never hit the forest this way again. You’re seeing all of this for the first and last time. Isn’t that amazing? This technique may sounds airy fairy, but it can be instrumental in high stress situations.
  • Focus on what’s next. Remember that it’s just running; missing a turn sucks, but it’s not the end of the world! There are hundreds of races out there and you can usually turn this unfortunate turn of events into a beneficial training run to build fitness and confidence for your next adventure.

I hope some of these suggestions help you if you happen to miss a turn at some point in your running career. Please feel free share your advice and experience in the comments section, and as always, if you’re interested in a personal coach or custom training plan, contact me here.
Happy training !

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