On October 16th, 2010, I finished the Baltimore Marathon and got my medal. Largely in part to running with an injury, my finish time was 5:51:01. I was happy because I was officially a MARATHON RUNNER! Being really slow and a little pathetic was just fine.
All I wanted was the finish.
Killing Myself for a 5:51 Road Marathon Finish
A lot of things have changed in those 4 years, and the value of the finish is one of the biggest differences.
BTW...If you stumbled across this blog, searching for a step-by-step account of the Bear 100, follow the link below. It tells a story of a much better day for me.
I had run the Bear 100 the previous year and I loved everything about this race. The scenery is as beautiful as the course is brutal. It's a legit, high altitude mountain race that leaves you with an undeniable sense of accomplishment when you finish it. I had performed well at the Bear in 2013 and was looking for another great run in 2014, despite having run the Wasatch 100 three weeks prior, and the Leadville 100 three weeks prior to that. None of this is really new to me because I'm a "Bend it till it breaks" kinda guy.
3 Minutes Before the Start of The Bear
I felt good leading up to the race, but I knew my real physical weaknesses wouldn't be exploited until my body was really challenged on some of the major climbs. My summer mountain races had taken a heavy toll on my climbing legs, so I was entering into the unknown.
Or to put it differently...I was planning to do my last long training run for the Bear, while I was running the Bear.
I ran and climbed well on the first ascent, which comes immediately after the start. My legs felt tired but I pushed through it and climbed hard. Near the top, I began to feel a subtle burn in my left hamstring. I ignored it, but made note of it as I made my way up the mountain.
The first downhill felt great and I was on the same pace as I had run the previous year, which was really the best I could hope for.
As we ran the next ascent, the nagging in my hamstring returned, and was a bit more pronounced.
This is where I would normally write, "But the pain was outweighed by the beauty of the course and the intensity of the endeavor"...or something similar. But that's not true. My leg hurt and I felt it. The beauty was of no use in subduing it and the intensity of the endeavor was causing it.
I began to get a little worried about my leg after the first aid station at mile 10 because the situation was deteriorating. It's not unusual for me to have some kind of pain early in a race, only to see it fade as my body warmed up and got into the rhythm of the run. Not the case this time.
I ran several miles with different friends and shared with them that I was having an issue. As expected, they all brushed it off and encouraged me to work it out and focus on the finish. This is what we always tell each other and we do it for all the right reasons. We want to help each other and see each other succeed. The support we give each other in this sport is one of the things that makes it special and it's something that I genuinely appreciate.
When I came into the Leatham Hollow aid station at mile 19.6, I would see my wife for the first time. As soon as I saw her, I expressed my concerns, but I was still hopeful this would be something I could work out. She helped me through the aid station and I was headed back down the trail trying to sort things out, both physically and mentally.
Coming into Leatham Hollow
Leaving Leatham Hollow was a tricky decision because I knew I would have another 10 miles of hard climbing and running before I had crew access again. If I had a legitimate injury, getting out of the mountains was going to be a real problem.
Side note: Have you ever had one of those moments in a race when you begin to ponder the actual cost of a rescue helicopter? Where you say to yourself, "If things go south way up here, this is going to cost me about $35,000 to get my dumb ass out of here."
Coming into Cowley Aid Station at Mile 29.9
I came into the Cowley Aid Station with a sense of desperation. I explained to Jo that things needed to improve DRASTICALLY if I was going to go another 70 miles. I fueled up and was getting ready to head out when I told her that my decision to continue would be made before the next aid station. If things stayed the same, I would drop from the race.
And this is the beginning of the big debate...
Deciding to DNF, regardless of distance or terrain, is a very personal decision and every runner processes this differently. After a few years, and 90 finishes at the marathon distance or beyond, I've decided to employ a tiny bit of logic when calculating the benefit of continuing on a bad day.
The decision to DNF is directly proportionate to the level of importance we place on the race. That may seem obvious, but in the moment, I think that sentiment is sometimes lost.
When I finished my first marathon, injured and slow, I only did so because the finish was more important than any potential damage or serious injury. If asked at that moment, I probably would have forfeited my ability to walk again, just to have a chance to cross the finish line.
And that's just a marathon! Throw a BUCKLE into the picture and the deep desire to push on is intensified by 372%...according to recent scientific studies. I wouldn't make that up. You can google it.
Additionally, there's a tremendous amount of pressure on ultra runners to NEVER drop. We're supposed to be tough and push through the pain without concern for consequences. Some people see a DNF as a sign of weakness rather than a calculated decision. That's a dangerous and irresponsible attitude. Another fact, fully supported by science.
Who Hasn't Heard an Ultra Runner Say This?
If you cut through all the crap, it boils down to your priorities. Here's a list of things that inspire fear in people when they ponder a DNF:
1. I really, REALLY want that buckle!
2. My friends will pretend it's ok...but deep down inside, they'll think I'm a douche nozzle.
3. Literally, every runner here that finishes...will beat me. How embarrassing.
4. They have blueberry pancakes at the mile 84 aid station. I love blueberry pancakes.
5. I'll never get that deal with Altra if I drop because they're the ZERO DROP SHOE!! Damn!
6. People will keep telling me that I made the right choice. Until I punch one of them. Then it'll stop.
7. Did I mention how badly I want THAT buckle?!
8. I won't be able to write an EPIC blog post!
9. It'll be an entire YEAR before I can redeem myself.
10. I'll never be able to wear the race shirt in public.
11. I'll have 12 months of people asking me, "Hey, you gonna take another shot at the Bear?"
Fortunately for me, none of these things were a concern.
I had run this race before, and I ran it pretty well. I had nothing to fear and nothing to prove. I have a long track record of finishing 100 mile trail races and I even have a few wins.
Why in the hell would I subject myself to a miserable time, slugging it out all the way to the finish of a race that I have already defeated?
The answer to that question is...PRIDE. While pride has a place in this sport, I suggest you use it sparingly.
While kicking all of this around in my brain, it came down to one final question that I kept asking myself:
"Are you having fun?"
"No. No I am not having fun."
Thus...These are my final strides at the 2014 Bear 100
I run long distance trail races for two reasons:
1. To have fun in beautiful places with awesome people.
2. To prepare for the zombie apocalypse.
Another eye opening, scientific fact for you:
So, let's face it. If I'm not having fun and I'm just going to die at the hands of the undead anyway, then calling it quits seems entirely reasonable.
My logic works for me because I run a lot. Dropping from a 100 mile race, even a race as incredible as the Bear, becomes easier after having completed so many great races. And it becomes even easier when I consider all of the cool things I'll be doing in the coming months. It's not a pressing issue when it becomes a fairly normal activity.
The opposite is also true. Dropping from your first 100 miler, or one of the very few that you've attempted, becomes a menacing, if not terrifying thought. That fear pushes people to different places. Sometimes it's good and other times it's disastrous.
My only advice is to know where your priorities lie, and what your values are, before making that irreversible decision. There's never a rush to decide your own fate on race day, so take the time to truly analyze your thoughts, your physical condition and your options for saving the day. Then balance that against the things that truly matter to you and your decision will be obvious. That's what I did in this case and it led me to the best answer.
It's soothing to live your life large and to feel the comfort of no regrets.
Jo and I have a lot of big things coming up in the next few months and that's where my attention lies now. Thanks for reading my sad story from the Bear. If the mood strikes me, I might go after another buckle from that race. If not, I can move on...with no regrets.