“Today is not my day.”
After the rather disappointing finish at Boston and the slightly scary state that my legs have been in for the past month (or more), I was a little wary coming into GRT. Gary had pneumonia, so he wouldn’t be running, and I was really in a rut. My training wasn’t good, and no matter what I tried to do, my legs just would not get better. I was obviously not mentally prepping for GRT as I should of been, and my physical prep followed suit.
I stayed the night in Pittsburgh on Friday so that the drive would be shorter in the morning. I should have known that the race was not going to turn out well when I slept perfectly the night before; I didn’t wake up once. I’ve been getting better at sleeping before ultras, but I always have a bit of nerves. The fact that I had zero was my first clue that I just mentally was not prepped for the race.
Per the norm, I had my usual breakfast of chicken and corn with buffalo sauce, and moving on from my previous brand of bar to my new Hammer bars, I actually didn’t feel that bad. I got to the trailhead and startline an hour before the race, and even though my legs were feeling about 60%, I thought that I would be able to run it off during the first 30 minutes. After checking in and going to the bathroom, I popped three Advil, grabbed a Tropical Hammer gel (with caffeine), and headed to the start line.
The race started as all of these ultras do; there were four of us that hopped out front, and since the start was on a bike trail, we were setting the pace pretty good. I was chatting with two of the other guys, and it seemed to be going alright; there was no rain (yet), and since we were on crushed gravel, it was smooth sailing. When we hit the single track trails, things didn’t really get all that more difficult. The first aid station (unmanned) was about 5 miles into the race, and the four of us stayed pretty tight through that station. The most quiet of the four of us went on ahead as he was running all of the hills; there was no way that I was going to be doing that today.
I grabbed some Gatorade at the first aid station and left it in second place, with third and fourth right next to me. One of the other two decided that he was going to run the uphills, so I let him go, and the other one dropped back, almost to the point where I could barely see him. An unseen advantage of wearing all black during races is that there is no way, especially on dark days, for people to see me through the woods. Anyway, I would let first and second go on the uphills, and then I would be able to mosey my way back to them on the downhills. I really didn’t feel like I was using that much leg power on either the uphills or the downhills, but maybe I was.
Probably about an hour and a half into the race, it started to rain. Hard. The trails were already pretty muddy with the 50 milers coming through before us, but it wasn’t too bad before the rain hit. Once it started to rain, though, the trails became very slippery. My Nike Kigers did a decent job at giving me some grip, as it looked like I was sliding less than the other people around me, but there was no way that slipping could be avoided. It was just a matter of trying to find ways through the trails that minimized the mud that you would kick up.
Coming in through the mile 10 (manned) aid station, I saw Allie and grabbed some orange HEED (so much better than unflavored – take note, Kettle). I didn’t feel all that bad at this point; my legs felt decent, and I was far from breathing hard. I continued on in second/third, with first not that far ahead of me and fourth not that far back. We moved on through some more hills (I walked the bigger ones), and tried to avoid slipping as best as I could. Eventually, fourth came rolling up on us, and we moved together.
The course is kind of shaped like a lollipop, so by time we got to the loop, I started to sense that I was going through a repeat of Boston. I was still able to maintain pace with my two other companions, but my legs just had no power. Turns felt difficult, and changing from single track trail to packed gravel just really felt more difficult than it should have. I hadn’t fallen all race (it seemed like everyone around me was slipping), and on one pretty easy turn on some grass, my legs just essentially gave out and I kind of collapsed. It was the exact same feeling as what happened at Boston, and I was powerless to change it.
I came through the 15.2/halfway (I’m not sure what it actually is) aid station knowing that it was going to be a battle. Allie asked how I was doing, to which I simply responded, “today is not my day.” I grabbed some more HEED and left with second and third, only probably about a minute behind first. I was still able to keep pace well, but I just had nothing in my legs.
As we started headed back, I started to reflect on how I felt and what this race meant to me. I know that you’re supposed to feel a lot of pain during ultras; hell, I walked for over a marathon during Kettle in the middle of the night last year; I’ve raced hilly, technical 50ks on back-to-back weekends and finished on the podium in both of them; I’ve gushed blood from my inner thighs for more than half of a 100k while setting the course record – I know what it’s like to feel pain while I race and still power through. That’s what ultra running is all about.
What was happening to me now was not pain; it was helplessness. Nothing that I could do, and nothing that I did, helped. Walking or running the hills, icing or heating my legs, running or not running during the week for training – nothing helped. I need to run (and finish) Kettle, and more importantly, I would like to race it. This was a race (granted, it was very well put together, the course was very well marked, and the volunteers stood outside in the rain and cold all day and into the night) that didn’t matter to me. Sure, I wanted to be able to go my whole career and say that I never dropped out of a race, but there’s consolations that you have to make. You have to reevaluate your goals as you reach obstacles that would hurt you more than would help you. In the words of Mark Wold (Beloit College class of ’95 and one of my closest friends), “successful people aren’t successful because they persevere at everything; they’re successful because they persevere at the right things.” For me, at this instant, finishing the GRT was not the right thing.
As I started to feel more and more helpless and powerless (physically and mentally), I really had to decide: was dropping out the best choice for me? I could easily finish the race; I could walk/job in the last 10 miles after the 21 mile aid station and would finish in the top 5 (probably 4th) with a respectable time (possibly a PR, not including my 3:55 at Pine Creek that doesn’t really count because it was in the middle of a 100k); however, I would do even more damage to my legs in a race that really was not critical to my success. If anything, this race was a glorified training run, and nothing I could do would convince me otherwise. Even if I was feeling 100% going into this race, I would treat it as a tuneup for Kettle; yes, this was a tuneup that I wanted to win, but a tuneup nonetheless. As I got closer to the aid station, I thought about what other people would think of me: my parents would probably be okay with it, as long as I was being smart about my body; Allie wouldn’t mind (hell, it would be an hour or more that she wouldn’t have to keep standing out in the rain by herself); Gary would understand; the three people (or less) who read my blog wouldn’t care. It was really myself that was going to be the hardest judge on what I did. To quote Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass, “sometimes we don’t do the right thing because the wrong thing looks more dangerous, and we don’t want to look scared, so we go and do the wrong thing just because it’s more dangerous. We’re more concerned with not looking scared than with judging right.” Even though I knew that the right thing was to drop out, it was still so difficult to convince myself of this fact because I didn’t want to look weak.
I came into the aid station probably about 5 minutes out of first and just out of second/third (and, I believe, well in front of fifth). My legs were helpless, but I was breathing fine and nothing on me was the traditional “sore” that it’s supposed to be at mile 21 of a race, especially in the pouring rain. I saw Allie, conveyed the situation to her, and, even though I knew that she would a) support me, and b) be the wise voice telling me what I had to hear, even if I didn’t want to hear it, I was still surprised when she agreed with me that dropping out was 100% the thing to do. So after struggling with the decision for about 5 minutes at the aid station, I took my timing chip off of my muddied leg, put it on the volunteers’ table and told them, “129 (my bib number) is dropping out,” and then walked off.
Afterwards, none of my muscles were not cramping up, nor were my joints sore; my legs felt that same, more-than-dull ache that they had felt for the past month and change. There was no celebratory wine (or fireball) for a win or well fought medal; there was just a slight ache in stomach from having to make a tough decision. I never should have gone down there and raced it in the first place; I was not mentally ready to run a race that didn’t mean a lot to me. At this point, I have the mental fortitude to finish one more race this season: Kettle. I need to finish it, and then take time off to let myself recover from the less-than-intelligent training decisions that I made to land myself where I’m at. Come July, when I’m healed and recovered from Kettle, I’ll reevaluate my training (specifically, less days, harder work, lose weight), and I’ll carry that into the fall season where I have the national 50m championships waiting for me. But until then, all I can do is try to get my legs back to the best place that they can be in 2 weeks and run 100 miles in the early Wisconsin summer heat with 300 of my closest friends.