Just a Decision
I always thought that my first DNF would come with some drama. Surely it would come in a big race, a goal race, and would only come after a lot of agonizing, and after pushing myself to the absolute limit of what I could do. Certainly it wouldn't happen in a 'little' 50K that I'd already finished three times before!
Well, ultrarunning continues to be a learning experience.
Before I get to the excuses, let me just state for the record that I quit - plain and simple. I didn't get hurt, I wasn't in trouble with cut-offs, and in no way had I lost the ability to move forward one step at a time.
I suspected I was in trouble the weekend before the race. It was two weeks after a PR 50-miler at the CanLake 50s and I decided it was a good time to go do a medium-length trail run on one of my favorite trails. The goal was to 'get my trail legs back under me' and to coax my legs back into accepting the idea of doing hard things.
I find that recovery from a race (for me) is a matter of first some rest, then a little easy running, then some gentle pushing. I don't think my legs would ever feel 'right' again - ready to run long - if I didn't force them out for something long-ish at some point. When this works I can almost hear them heaving a sigh and saying, "Okay, if we must..." and then they go again and I'm back at the business of training.
My choice this time was not an easy run: twelve and a half miles with 2500' of climb and 2500' of descent - mostly single-track trail, and often 'technical.' Back when I was doing that loop frequently I could just barely finish it in under three hours. Last week it took me 3:20 and I was whipped and walking near the end. The climbs were brutal, my legs felt leaden, and I just had no energy. I tried to convince myself there was no problem.
"It's tough trail - and you haven't been on it in a long time."
"You didn't bring any food with you." (I rarely ever do on a run that short.)
"It's just a bad day for some reason."
"You're not completely recovered from CanLake yet - but you will be by next weekend."
Anything but, "You're not ready for a tough trail 50K yet." So I went to Mendon Ponds on Saturday. What the heck? One of those rationalizations could have been right. Mendon is five loops of 10K each, all rolling single and double-track trail. It was cold and raining, so there would be some mud. Typical Mendon Ponds race conditions, and I generally handle them well.
I ran a pretty solid first loop for me: a little less than 1:10. If this was going to be a good day I would hold pretty close to that pace for the next two loops and then fade just a little each of the last two. If I could run like that I'd have a pretty good chance at improving my PR on the course.
I knew that wasn't happening less than a mile into Loop 2. I was still running the same sections I'd run the first time around and I was holding pace pretty well - but it was too hard. I could already feel the lead accumulating in my legs, and it showed on the climbs. I had no zip while power-walking the uphill sections. By the time I neared the end of the loop I estimated that I felt about like I should feel on Loop 4. Not good, and I was already seriously beginning to wonder whether it was worth going on.
Still, I did 'okay' time-wise, finishing the loop at around 2:25 race time - so only slower than Loop 1 by around five minutes.
I decided to sit for a minute in my car and force a bunch of calories in. Maybe that would help. After finishing a Bonk Breaker bar and half a sweet tea, I saw Tim Hardy go by on the course in my rear-view mirror. Tim hadn't been expecting a good race, and I thought I'd try going out on Loop 3 with him for company. Maybe it would help us both. I'd resolved at that point that unless Loop 3 went better than my now severely lowered expectations for it then I would drop afterward.
Tim and I walked for a little while, but then we came to the first gentle downhill section and I decided if I couldn't run that kind of terrain then I really had no business out there. Tim fell behind at that point and I didn't see him again. By the time I got to the end of each short run-able section my legs were dying to stop - but then 'not run-able' meant uphill, and they didn't like that either - not one bit. Each time I topped another rise it took a little longer to clear the 'gunk' out of my legs and get back to running. When I topped the toughest climb (about halfway through the loop) I had to stop and rest, bent over, hands-on-knees, and catch my breath.
From that point on there was more walking than running, and the running was slow and painful (well, the walking was too). I hadn't walked flat terrain by choice in a race like this in a long time. It was very clear that Loop 3 was going far worse than my severely lowered expectations for it, and it was clear that the reason for all this was that I was simply not yet recovered from CanLake.
As the time ticked by I got slower and slower, walking almost everything in a death trudge. The decision was made. I was now just getting myself back to the start/finish area to drop.
If I had something to prove then maybe... but I'd finished this race three times before. I'd proven that I could death march my way to a 50K finish if I really wanted to before. It just seemed like it would be stupid to do that when the only reason it was necessary was that I had started the race in a hole. Why go on and dig it deeper? Just take the lesson, consider this a 'good' long training run, and go back to getting back from what has been an amazingly successful and satisfying year.
I crossed the mats at the end of Loop 3 at about 4:15 race time. It had taken me about 1:50 to cover 6.2 miles. That was seven minutes slower than my worst loop ever on the course previously (Loop 5, the first year I ran the race). Who knows how long another loop would have taken, let alone two?
I asked the guy at the timing station who I should drop to. He took my number and that was it. My first DNF. I didn't even feel bad about it. It was just a decision. It was made; it was done. I went and got a bagel with some cream cheese on it and sat in a warm, dry place and ate it - and life was good.