Tag Archives: DNF

Whatever It Takes! Burning River 100 Report

I WAS DONE. Game over. Toast.

And not the $14.95 entitled millennial kind, with avocado, poached egg and pickled onions. Oh, no. This was the Waffle House special, burned-to-order type of toast.

Or something akin to this.

I was at mile 77 of the Burning River 100, slumped in a chair at the Oak Hill aid station around an hour before midnight, with a stomachache and feeling miserable after a long afternoon sweltering under the sun and humidity. Even back in the woods, after sunset, I felt overheated. And my feet hurt like hell. And a thunderstorm was due in an hour.

I had only to tell one of the wonderful volunteers that I was quitting, and could I get a ride back to the hotel. A long sleep, real food, and good coffee was just one sentence away.

And then someone with blood all over his neck plopped down in the chair next to me.

**********

I should have realized early on that Burning River would be an unusual race. Not that there’s such a thing as an “ordinary” 100-miler, but this one in particular had signs of hidden angels nearly from the start. At several key points I was saved from disaster, or at least a long backtrack, and, late in the race, from failing altogether.

Rain began five minutes into our 4 a.m. start out of Cuyahoga Falls Saturday morning. It hadn’t been forecast until Sunday, but here it was, and no passing shower, either. It continued steadily for about four hours. And yet no one seemed to mind. It was actually refreshing, keeping the sun away and the temperature comfortable.

I still have trouble believing I got up at 3:15 to do this.

We took paved roads out of town onto the Ohio and Erie Canal towpath. On long flat stretches in twilight it’s easy to zone out and miss turn markers. And I did – twice – on that stretch, by following people ahead of me. Both times someone behind us called out, “Wrong way!” and we were soon back on course. “Thank you, random stranger!” I called out. “Trail angel,” someone else said. He was right.

Once we hit the singletrack, I knew my feet were in for a rough day. Along with the sheer distance, we’d be climbing and descending wet, slippery trails, running through patches of sticky mud, and hopscotching over creeks swelled by the rain. My Hoka Bondi shoes with their max cushioning helped, but the first creek crossing could have wrecked me just eight miles in.

I’m pretty good at hopping from rock to rock over creeks. But on the last one my right foot slipped, my shoe went flying into the creek, and I banged my heel hard, causing a bruise I still have a week later. However, the pain faded away after a bit, merging into the background body noise that comes with an ultra.

Among the good parts – themed aid stations. Welcome to the prom!

I’d targeted a 24-hour finish, as that’s what I’d done at Lighthouse back in 2017, even after a bad second half. I aimed for ten hours on the first 50 miles, giving me 14 hours to come back. I didn’t quite make that, completing the journey to Silver Springs Park in just over 11 hours, but I still had a shot at my goal.

But there was trouble in (Burning) River City.

The sun had come out late that morning, and as the runners emerged from the woods and onto the paved path that ran eight miles to the turnaround, it began to take its toll. The temperature rose quickly into the eighties, and with high humidity it was nearly impossible to keep cool. At the Silver Springs station I sat on a bench and mopped my head and neck with a sponge soaked in ice water. (Bless the race staff for providing them, and for having plenty of ice for drinks, too.)

I still didn’t feel quite right when I got up, but I had to head back. Time was a’ wasting! And I lost more time when something told me to check my bib, and it wasn’t there! Fortunately, it had fallen off only a few hundred yards back. I could well have gone miles before noticing it was missing. Another angel to the rescue.

I pushed the pace back along the path into the woods, and for a while thereafter. At the Pine Hollow station (mile 65) I still felt well enough to joke with the volunteers. When one asked, “Can I get you anything else?” I said, “Yes. Tell me why the hell I’m out here doing this.”

She turned to another volunteer. “He wants to know why the hell he’s out here doing this.”

“Because you are a badass,” she said.

This is encouragement?

Badass or not, as the sun went down, my body and mood went with it as the trail dragged on. Out of nowhere I began to wonder if quitting wasn’t a bad idea. I’d never considered it an option, and yet the idea kept getting stronger. At mile 73 I made a decision. I’d walk – no running – the next section to Oak Hill. If I didn’t feel better by then, I’d quit.

During those four miles one continuous monologue looped in my head. Yes, I’m definitely quitting. Enough already. Just a little longer and I can stop. God, do my feet hurt. No way can I possibly finish. At the Lighthouse 100 I’d felt the same at mile 65. I’d even sat in a runner’s crew car and told them I was done. And yet I’d recovered just enough to go on and finish the race. Could I do that here? Not a chance. I was so done.

I reached the aid station and collapsed into a chair. Across from me was another runner. “How are you doing?” I asked. Maybe, just maybe, he could inspire me.

“Oh, I’m done,” he said. “I’ve had enough.” He asked a volunteer to call in that he was quitting.

So much for that. All I had to do was say, “Me too. Could I hitch a ride with you back to the hotel?” So easy. And yet I didn’t. “I’m this close to quitting, too,” I told the volunteer, explaining I had gut issues and felt overheated.

“Take your time,” he said. “You have lots of time. You can walk it in from here.”

Walk twenty-three more miles? That sounded even worse than trying to run them. But I still held off. I lay down on the grass for ten minutes and felt somewhat better. I put on a dry shirt and sipped some broth, and improved a little more. Still, I just couldn’t fathom trudging the rest of the course in the rain. Everything hurt. I had zero motivation. Nothing was going to make me get up out of that chair and back on the trail.

And then someone even worse off sat down next to me.

**********

His name was Howard, and he was a high school student. He too had a stomachache, he was feeling chilled, and had just suffered a bad bloody nose. If anyone had justification to stop, it was him. But he wasn’t about to.

“I can’t quit,” he told me. “I’m in the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, and my friends and I are making a documentary of it. I just have to finish. Whatever it takes.”

I gave him a light jacket from my drop bag and my hand towel to clean up with, and we talked some more. We got confirmation that more rain was on the way, which guaranteed the remaining singletrack would become sticky, slippery, nearly un-navigable glop. I admired his determination, but said I was still this close to quitting.

“Don’t quit now,” he said. “Whatever it takes. Let’s go together.”

And I got up out of that chair. To hell with my suffering and self-justified self-pity. I couldn’t let someone in that condition go out there alone. “I look forward to seeing your names in the finishers list,” the volunteer said as we walked away. So were we.

Everything happened as predicted. The rain came, and the singletrack became sticky, slippery, nearly un-navigable glop. And while I soon felt better again, Howard got sicker. But not for a moment did he consider quitting. On we went, one dark, endless mile after another, one sloppy step at a time.

And then the rain stopped, and we exited the mud back onto smooth, flat towpath, and the sky lightened with a new morning. And just after 8 a.m. Sunday, sun shining and spectators cheering us on, we made our way down Front Street toward the big white tent, hearing the music and the gathered crowd, and sprinted the last fifty yards across the finish line. We’d done it. Twenty-eight hours, not twenty-four, but that didn’t matter anymore. We were finishers.

Finishers! Hurts so good.

As it turned out, conditions had been hard on just about everyone. Of the 340 registered runners for the 100-miler, only half finished, and half of them in the final two hours. I’d expected us to be among the final runners; instead we were right in the middle of the pack. Not bad for walking the last quarter of the race.

Howard left with his friends shortly afterward, but we exchanged numbers and agreed to stay in touch. I feel I owe him my finish. Without him there, at that moment, in that condition, it’s highly likely this post is about a DNF. Yet once again, when I was sure I’d reached my physical and mental limits, a way appeared to teach me I was capable of more. Maybe that’s a better answer to why the hell I was out there, and why I continue to run ultras.

But I’ll settle for being called a badass.

Kettle Moraine: 100-Miler Ahead!

Earlier this week I called the Victoria-on-Main B&B in Whitewater, Wisconsin, and asked the owner about rooms for the weekend of June 3-5.

“I’ve got a room for Friday night, and one for Sunday,” he said, “but I don’t have a room for you on Saturday night.”

“That’s perfect,” I told him, and booked the room for those days.

Confused Cat Meme

Howzat? Well, I finally went and did what I’d been planning and working toward for the past four years: I signed up for the Kettle Moraine Trail 100 on June 4-5 – my first 100-mile attempt.

Me Signed Up for Kettle Moraine 2016

It starts at 6:00 a.m. Saturday, and if all goes well I will cross the finish line as the sun comes up on Sunday morning. Hence no need for a Saturday night stay. The response to my call fit so well I took it as a sign; the universe intends me to be there.

And God Said meme

Okay, so why on earth would I do this to myself? My trail-running readers will understand, so my answer is for those of you with more a rational outlook on what makes life meaningful.

My first 50K at Run Woodstock 2012 was just one of those “turning 50” challenges I’d set for myself, and I had no idea what to expect. The farthest I’d run on a trail until then was 5 miles. I arrived late to the start so I got lost immediately, then slogged up and down the trail for six hours, covered in mud from the all-night rain, watching the 100-milers shuffle along like zombies. The moment I crossed the finish line I knew I was hooked. Forget road marathons; this was really living.

But what to do next? Well, a 50K was two laps of the Woodstock course, and a 50-miler was three laps – just one more. How hard could that be?

Much harder, actually, but that's another story.

Much harder, actually, but that’s another story.

And so began the pattern. My first 50-miler was in 2013 and first successful 100K last year, and I have twelve total ultras to date. Up ahead looms will likely be the top of the mountain for me; the 100-miler. There are more punishing events like the 24-hour and 48-hour endurance runs, and the Badwater and Spartathlon are each well over 100 miles, but much like the marathon is the king of the road races, the 100-miler rules the trail ultras.

But am I ready?

Sigmund Freud meme

Well, I’ve trained hard all winter with this goal in mind, and the results so far have been spectacular. Every race since January has been a PR for me, and at Trail Marathon last month I just missed a top 10 finish. So far, so good.

But the best test will be the “dress rehearsal” at the Glacier Ridge Trail 50 on May 14. Last year I fell apart at the 35-mile mark and gave up (DNF) at mile 40. I’m running it again for three reasons – to purge the DNF, to test my physical and mental readiness for Kettle Moraine, and because even with the bad result, I really enjoyed the course and the way it was run.

This year I’m hoping not only to finish Glacier Ridge, but to do so in a reasonable time (12 hours or less), and with something left in the tank. If I can pull that off, it will be a good sign that I’m ready for the big one.

And if not? Well, I paid the money, so I’m going. And with a room secured only for Friday and Sunday nights, I have extra incentive to stick it out on Saturday!

(More to come, including how one trains for an event like this. Stay tuned!)

Enjoy the Journey: It May Be All There Is

Improvement is not measured by the distance between where you currently stand and the finish line, but by the distance between where you currently stand and your starting point.
The Good Vader blog, “The Wounds of Failure”

Something I’ve been musing about lately:

When the Journey is Awesome

And going even further: What if there is no destination?

What if every event that appears to be a destination is really just another milestone?

Woodstock Saturday Finish (JW) - 2018My first long distance runs were based on goals. Finish a half marathon. Finish my first marathon. Complete my first 50K trail ultra. And so on. But what did crossing the finish line mean? Did that act change me? No. Crossing it only showed how much I’d changed. I could run a new distance, but it was the training, not the race itself, that made it possible – and set the stage for the next goal.

I’ve been training for and achieving new running milestones for six years now. It took three years to go from “I have to run today” to “I can’t wait to run today” but I can say I’ve enjoyed all six. Along with the race medals and increased fitness, I’ve made new friends and heard a lot of amazing stories from amazing people, some of which have been related here on this blog.

On a related note,  many people experience a letdown after they’ve completed a big running goal – the first marathon, for instance. Apparently it’s fairly common. Here are just a couple of runner experiences.

Runners World: 6 Signs You May Have Post-Marathon Syndrome

Angry Jogger: Experiencing Running Depression After A Full Or A Half Marathon. Is It Normal? When Will I Feel Better?

I’ve never had post-race depression. Sure, I was bummed about my two DNF races, but those experiences made me more determined to fix what was wrong and come back stronger. It’s been a month since I finished my first 100K (on my second attempt) and I’m still riding that high.

Why? Perhaps it’s because no matter the race, I’m thinking about what I could do after it. As long as there’s something to look forward to, whether it’s a new distance, new location, or new race type, it keeps me from getting too low if I don’t do well in any one race. And at times I look forward to resting and running easy, with no races for a while. I enjoy running in any season and (most) types of weather. I’ve felt the same way about my multi-century bike rides. After I finish one, I want to start planning another.

Well, maybe not just yet.

Well, maybe not just yet.

One day, I suppose I will have to stop running (which I hope is a long, long time from now). Let’s even suppose that I will know which race or run is my last. Will that be a “destination”? It could be, if I choose to look at it that way. Yet there’s another way to view it, and that’s to see my years of running as a contribution to a well-lived life. In that way, the journey continues, and I certainly hope there will be more opportunities to enjoy it.

Good Sign

But what if the opposite happens? What if the destination, or next milestone, becomes more important than the process of getting there? What if failure to meet a goal makes you feel like the training wasn’t worth it? Yes, it’s happened to me. True confessions next time.

 

 

Cure for a DNF: Water, Shade, and Perspective

One week after the Glacier Ridge 50-miler DNF and feeling much better. Ran Saturday morning with PR Fitness, holding it to 8 miles per Coach’s direction (OK, 8.3 miles, but she wasn’t looking). About halfway out it began to rain. Some people grumbled, but I loved every minute of it. Man, could I have used some of that last week!

This would have been good, too! (From last year's Kona race.)

This would have been good, too! (From last year’s Kona race.)

Not finishing was a bummer, but it’s okay. I’d signed up to find out how ready I was to retry the 100K. By mile 40 I’d learned that I wasn’t, and the main reasons why. Going on would have been a miserable slog with nothing else to learn. And as a bonus, the whole thing was put into perspective very quickly. See below.

My biggest lesson was how much I’d underrated hydration. I’d gotten into the (bad) habit of not drinking anything before a race, because I hate standing in line at the porta-potties right before the gun. I can get away with this for short races, and up to 50K on the trail. Beyond that and the lack of water catches up with me.

I now drink at least 8 ounces of water when I wake up, and will on race days, regardless of the consequences. I also need to drink a lot more during the race, and start drinking earlier, especially on hot days.

My backpack has pockets for two bottles. I just need to use them both. The camera can go elsewhere.

My backpack has pockets for two bottles. I need to use both for that purpose. The camera can go elsewhere.

And I need to protect my head from direct sunlight. I hadn’t counted on such a long stretch of open road and trail late in the race. I should have put a baseball cap in my backpack just in case. I will from now on.

On the plus side, I recovered quickly. Just three days later I ran with the Tuesday night group, stretching a planned two miles to three. Yesterday I felt good enough for my usual 12 miles but didn’t push it. The Dexter-Ann Arbor half is in two weeks, so there’s no sense in doing too much too fast. After that, I’m looking at another 50-miler in late June or early July.

And from the Count Your Blessings news desk: Last week after I accepted the strong hints at the aid station and turned in my chip, I got a ride back to the start from a race staffer named Dan. We got to chatting and I asked if he also ran ultramarathons. “I used to,” he said. “But I can’t anymore.”

A few years ago Dan’s heart became enlarged due to a leaky valve. Surgery corrected the problem but his heart didn’t return to normal size as hoped. Now, he says, running even a short distance leaves him out of breath.

“I was devastated,” he said. “Running was my stress relief. My meditation. I had to come up with an entirely new way of coping with things.” He has, but it was clear how much he missed being able to run.

All that evening I did my best to feel sorry for myself, but the magic just wasn’t there.

For a wicked take on why self-pity is “dangerously comfortable” see this article on Cracked.com.

Note to self: he carried two water bottles. He finished.

Note to self: he carried two water bottles. He finished.

And I want to thank J.R., who ran with me for many miles, and who helped me out when I was sitting on that log at mile 36. He gave up a chance at a faster finish to walk with me to the aid station. His encouragement was a big reason why I was able to get there, and I made sure the race staff knew it. See you next year, my friend.

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Next up: Chatting up the ladies at the Hightail to Ale 5K. (Key to success: be one of the people handing out free beer.) Details to follow!