“I just have to be done.”
This post will be a little shorter than I would have hoped. Twenty-nine miles short, to be exact. I never thought that I wouldn’t be able to finish Kettle. But then again, I never thought that I would have to walk in a marathon or have to drop out of a 50k. But such is life. So it goes.
Everything in the preparation to Kettle felt rushed and haphazard. Even though I packed four or five days before I flew out to Wisconsin, I kept on feeling like I was forgetting something. This continued all the way through the night before the race, where I was lying on my blow-up mattress thinking to myself “I’m not actually going to run 100 miles tomorrow. I just can’t.” (Spoiler alert: I was right). It just didn’t feel like the time or place for me to have to go through all that work. I had essentially been in a two and a half month long taper since the beginning of my overtraining symptoms, and there was no finality that I was feeling in this race. Since this was my last race of the season, I normally feel a sort of satisfaction or content that comes with being done with a hard-fought struggle with running. But the night before, there was none of those emotions; it just seemed like another night in a different place with different people. Even though it was National Donut day, it just didn’t have any magic.
Waking up the morning of the race felt the same way. There was nothing special in how I felt or what I ate. The start of the race rolled around, and before I knew it, I put one foot in front of another. It didn’t matter who I was running or walking next to; nothing changed. Yeah, I was still having a good time running next to people (some people who I hadn’t seen for years), and I was having fun seeing Beloit people on the course and at aid stations, but it just felt like a normal run that just kept on going and going and going. I suppose part of this is the difference between running to podium, like I normally try to do, and running to finish, but I think part of it also comes from my desire to just get the season done.
But despite this, I still wanted to finish. Hoping that this would help me on the back end of the race, I ran the first 50k in one of the slowest 50k’s of my life – 5:35 (or thereabouts). My legs were feeling dead, but hadn’t they been feeling dead for the last two plus months? There was nothing unique about this feeling. And as the miles continued to creep up, they still just continued to feel dead. Up hills, down hills, on flat ground; dirt, grass, or gravel: it didn’t matter. There was nothing in them at mile 0, and by time I got to mile 50, there was still nothing in them.
And as mile 50 turned into 51 and 52 and 53, doubt started to creep into my mind. I couldn’t tell if I was feeling more sore or if I just could not mentally make myself continue this hellish season any longer. I started to think about why I was doing this: was it really for myself? Sure, obviously I wanted to continue to be able to put my lottery ticket into the Western States lottery, but why else was I running it? As the miles started to tick by and my mind started to sink lower and lower, the answers started to come to me. I was running it so that everybody who knew that I was running it wouldn’t think less of me for failing to finish. I was running it so that I could go to Anthym and show them just how accomplished of a runner I was. I was running it so that my UltraSignup ranking would improve. I was running it so that I could apply for Hammer’s racing team in the fall. I was running it so that I wouldn’t look weak.
And as soon as all of those thoughts flooded into my mind, it felt like I began to carry a giant weight on my shoulders. At this point, it was about 4 or 5 in the afternoon, and even though I was about 55 miles in, I still had 45 miles to go. I started to visualize what was going to have to happen over the next 12+ hours. I was going to be hiking. And I was going to be hiking some more. Even if I could have physically walked 45 miles, there was no way I was mentally or emotionally ready for it. I already knew what it was like to hike through the night; I did that last year, and I couldn’t do it again. Maybe during another year or another season, but not tonight. Anything but that tonight.
I realized that there was a bit of beginner’s luck that comes along with these races. Last year, I didn’t know how much I was going to hurt, and I didn’t know how miserable and painful walking for 10 hours in the pitch black was going to be. And because I was so naive to these pains, I approached the night with a child’s innocence. You never know what it’s like to walk through darkness for hours and hours and miles and miles until you do it. And then you never want to do it again. Even when you’re with someone, it’s desolate, barren, and, well, it’s dark. And what is it that Lady Melisandre says?
While all of this is obviously a little dramatic, the sentiment is there. So when I came to mile 60 or 61, after walking the previous 7 or 8 miles, and started to feel better, I was shocked that I thought I could keep on going. “No!” I kept on telling myself. “Why do you want to do this to yourself! There’s no way you can do it!” But my legs kept moving, and the pain had lessened. I got into the 100k turnaround at mile 63 thinking that I was actually going to be able to finish the last 37 miles. Josh Smith, one of my pacers from last year, volunteered to run with me, and I was going to need all the help I could get over the next 8 to 10 hours. And god damnit, I was going to finish these last 37. I was full of hope and optimism.
But just as quickly as I started to feel good, I lost it all. Ten minutes or less into running back on those same jagged hills of the Nordic section, I had to start walking. And when I started walking this time, I knew that it was going to be the end of night. I still had to make it to mile 71 to get to the next aid station, but I knew that there was going to be no running in between here and there. My mood did not plummet like it did last year at this point because I think I had already internalized this failure. I realized that I was not going to finish this race two, three, four hours ago. But when I think back on it more, it dawns on me that I knew I wasn’t really going to be able to finish this race back in March when I started having chronic pain and soreness in my legs. Out of all of my races and training plans, Kettle was the first thing to go. It was the race that took the most mental fortitude and most hardheaded toughness. And on this night, those were two things that I never had.
So when I limped my way into the mile 71 aid station, I knew I was done. I knew I was done 71 miles ago, but it took me 71 miles and 15+ hours of running to have this fact sink in. So Caitlin Paterson (my awesome crew during the day) drove me back to the start where I handed them by ankle timing chip while I lied and said that I could not walk another step. I could have walked for 29 miles more miles. But I just didn’t want to. There would be no amazing feeling at the finish, no sleep at 7:30am, no victorious shower to wash off the pain and success of a completed race; no, there was only going to be a very lonely drive back to the house, followed by an even lonelier, unfinished sleep. And that’s what happened.
As I sit here a week and a half later and reflect on that race, I realize that I’m not near tough enough to do well in these races yet. Sure, I ran one last year, but I’ve been too spoiled by the ease of my success at shorter races. Part of this mental recovery will come with actually being able to train again when the time comes and I’m finally physically recovered, and the other part of this toughness will simply come from me getting more mature. I’m still new to this sport, and I have so many things to learn.
But until then, the night is dark and full of terrors.