In six years and several dozen ultras of varying distances, I’ve never not finished a race. I’ve had some pretty bad races, sure, but I’ve never once allowed myself to actually think “I don’t want to finish this race”. I always felt like that was such a dangerous door to open — as if once I quit once, I would suddenly start quitting every time. Well, Saturday’s 50 miler at Sun Mountain was my first-ever DNF, and it was a very interesting exercise in recognizing the difference between “I don’t want to continue”, and “I shouldn’t continue”. And there is a big difference.
I went into this race undertrained and stressed from a crazy schedule of work + travel, but trained “enough” to possibly pull off a top 10-or-so finish and a decent long run. That was the plan, anyways. As many of you know, I have been struggling to deal with a stubborn parasite (his name is Steve) that I picked up in the Himalayas five months ago, and three rounds of antibiotics and a specialist have yet to conquer it. This has all had a big impact on my training, but I sort of thought that I could just stubborn my way through the race anyways (because that’s all ultras are, right? Sheer mental willpower?). Mmhm. The fact that I’d also spent much of the previous month in California’s heat also made me optimistic about the day, as the forecast for race day was record-setting heat.
The week of the race, Steve was particularly active, which I have learned to ignore, mostly… but on my shakeout run the day before the race, my legs went from fine to seized and completely cramping in the span of three miles. Weird. And not at all comforting, to have your legs behaving as if they just 40 miles while you are shuffling around the neighbourhood. Cleary, I had some dehydration issues from Steve. I went into panic mode, popping magnesium pills and guzzling Nuun and spending the five hour drive down to Winthrop, Washington stopping every half hour to pee because of my super-duper hydration efforts. Despite all of that, my legs were literally spasming as I drove, and I started to get the feeling that my race was going to be tougher than I’d braced myself for.
Race day dawned, and I found myself immediately up and heading for the toilet at 3am. Uh-oh. Before the race even started, I’d already made several dashes to the port-a-potties, and by the time the race started I had sort of convinced myself that I’d have a good day because I must have cleared everything out of my system already. This was a false assumption.
I love this course — I ran the 50km in 2014 and thought it was one of the prettiest race courses I’d ever seen — and I could already see that the famous flowers were out in full bloom. I had a little chat with myself as we started running, re-adjusted my expectations for the day (again), and settled into a very easy, non-race pace through the first ten miles. The strategy seemed to be working for a short while, until I stepped off a small rock and suddenly had two full leg spasms that stopped me in my tracks. Shit, I thought. We are 10 miles into the day… this is WAY too early for full leg cramps.
I shortened my stride even more, and renewed my efforts to drink as much water and electrolytes as I possibly could between Aid Stations (AS). I went straight for the pickle juice at the AS (there’s nothing like chugging a bunch of brine at 8am to start your day off right). I already couldn’t keep any solid food down, but I continued forcing gels down my throat just to keep calories coming in.
A few very short minutes later, my gut started cramping so badly that it forced me immediately into a walk. “OW,” I thought, followed by: “Fuck, I need to make a dash into the forest RIGHT now”. I won’t go into all the fun details, but my run very quickly deteriorated from there, to the point where I was spending more time running off the trail than on the trail. I couldn’t keep food or water in at all after that either, and my kidneys soon started to feel like someone had taken a sledgehammer to them. I kept fighting through the next two aid stations, dashing through them without giving myself time to talk to anyone and potentially admit that I didn’t think I could finish…but by the time I was approaching 50km and nothing had improved, I realized that it was no longer a smart decision for me to continue “running” (I use that word very loosely, as by that point I wasn’t even able to walk totally upright). I hiked to the next aid station as streams of racers passed me, fighting back a few tears of frustration as I went. I turned in my bib at the AS, waited for about 45 minutes for a ride back to the finish (which was nice, as I got to see lots of friends coming through looking hot but happy), and before I knew it I was back at the finish line. It was almost as if the day had never happened. I’d run 50km, which isn’t nothing, but it was still hard to stop my brain from going into full-on critical destruction mode. And yet I still knew with absolute certainty that I’d made the right call out there. And there wasn’t one piece of me that regretted the decision.
Pre-DNF, I had always sort of wondered how it would feel. Would I be wracked with regret and guilt as I watched all the other runners finish, wondering if I should have just gutted it out and walked it in? The answer in this case was clearly no, which told me I’d made the right decision. I no longer feel like I have anything to prove anymore, and “finishing” the race just didn’t seem worth the risks of carrying on. There is also my work to consider, and I have to be able to run 80km in two weeks for a photography trip… so I don’t really have the luxury of being able to push myself to the point of long-term injury, without it having some fairly major repercussions.
I think we can all agree that ultra running is a sport that the rest of the world would call extreme. We are willingly putting our bodies into a situation that is undeniably challenging, both physically and mentally, and there are going to be days where we just can’t make that work. That’s just a fact. I know with certainty that one shitty race (pardon the pun) does not reflect me as a runner, and its far better to recognize when it’s no longer safe to continue and live to run another day, rather than take a “do or die” mentality and risk doing far worse damage. I *do* know all this, and yet I suspect that I will still have to remind myself of it a few more times. Because we are human, and our own worst enemies always. Ultimately, the last few years of pulling back from races and spending a lot more time photographing them on the other side of the camera have taught me that racing is fun and it can provide great progress markers and training incentives, but races are really just little progress markers along our overall running journeys. In the same way that we cannot attach our identities or happiness to race results, we cannot allow those results to dictate how we view ourselves as athletes or runners. We have good days and bad days, and you can’t have the highs without experiencing a few lows. Shit just happens sometimes. Bad days will lead to better days, and it’s all part of the journey. Onwards we go.