North Face, PRs, DNFs, and looking forward
The hard knocks and growing pains of a poor running year; it brings to mind for me, somewhat melodramatically, the cold, unforgiving north face of K2.
Ah, I looked back at 2010, what a great running year! In the Spring I PRd at Boston, and by Fall ran two 50-milers two weeks a part, one of them my fastest 50 ever, and all year ran fast and strong. When the new year rolled around, I was ready to tackle 2011 with a renewed confidence. But 2011 proved a rather rough running year. I trained diligently, but noticed little gains other than a little weight, and instead felt the drag of constant fatigue. I raced, but not so well as the year before, ran some enjoyable races: a mountainous 50k early in the year, another Boston, but this year more slowly, 36 miles of a 200-mile relay, and a slow all-night 50 miler in the summer. Everything seemed just a bit less energized than in 2010, and then in November, I even experienced my first DNF. The race, a mountainous 50-miler, started alright, but I was feeling seriously low on energy, and was barely making the cutoffs. I had to make a critical decision to pull out half way, rather than continue lest something be really wrong, and I’d end up stuck for a long time in the mountains or worse. I made the best of it. Even inwardly applauded my courage at hanging it up for safety. I met other runners–some plenty more seasoned than myself–who just weren’t having a good race day either. We swapped stories, went to the finish and saw the winners come in. Outwardly, I was feeling alright about it. DNF is par for the course when the number of races goes up, especially long distances, but part of me was still having trouble dealing with it. That night, I cried myself to sleep.
I wanted to write about it, but every time I tried, I couldn’t muster the courage. I felt so much shame around it. Though I knew it was unrealistic, even childish, and something I needed to get over, I faltered. I tried to look at the bigger picture, reminded myself not everyone is able to run, let alone run in the mountains, and I would even get to do that another day. Running is such a lovely gift. DNF teaches that it should never be taken for granted. I assessed the year: there were good experiences that year, for sure, delightful new races and adventures, and the trying experience of running and acclimating during the summer heat wave. I tried to put a positive spin on it all, but the over-all assessment showed me falling short in nearly all my efforts. Fortunately, in the Fall, I studied intensively and received my RRCA coaching certification. The experience was invaluable. I was able to nail down a number of patterns in my training that might likely have soured my year, and it enabled me to help others to a degree I could not have before. One of the very best parts of running for me is being able to share the joy of it. I can’t help but get excited when I find out a friend has taken it up, or someone I know decides to run a marathon. Heck, in such instances, I can hardly contain myself. I must drive everybody crazy with enthusiasm. So more knowledge and confidence to help others was a major victory for the year.
But I still felt the DNF like a black eye.
“Did Nothing Fatal” some call it.
I bathed it in positivity.
D-ownright N-othing less than F-abulous, I dubbed it.
“DNF is par for the course in any ultra runner’s history,” I once wrote before I had ever experienced it, and now reminded myself, “because so many things have to come together to make a race that distance possible. Weather conditions and your health being the biggest, but also even tiny things can blow a race when you are going long: a blister can become a disturbing mess, a small sprain can become a major injury. Even a little chafing over a long enough period of time can take you out of a race, or at least reduce the experience to misery. When longer periods of time are involved, even tiny impedances wear like water on stone.”
To make the matter worse, my attempts to write about it proved more sorry than the actual DNF. I started, but never finished:
“I attempted my second MMTR on Saturday, and had some elusive low energy issues–was moving far too slowly and had no energy, though I was fueling well from what I could gather. I ended up dropping out of the race half way through and got my first DNF. I made all of the cut–off times and could have continued through the second half of the race, but knew I would be slower and not make the final cut off time, and worried something might be seriously wrong, so I made a hard decision to drop. I went through some strong negative emotions, shame, disappointment, and sadness, But it was a valuable experience–in fact I may have learned more from this race than any other so far. It was a good lesson that even if things don’t go as well as you had hoped or as you had planned, there is still so much to learn and positive things to experience. I made some new friends, got the perspective of others who had to drop out for various reasons–some of them far more seasoned and wise, and got to go to the finish early and congratulate the elites as they came in. And I still got a long run in the beautiful mountains and came out of it without injury.
I hope you never have to drop out of a race, but if sometime you do, please remember there is no shame in it. You will go on to race another day. Just thought I would share this as a reminder that there is a gift in every running experience–sometimes especially the failures. ”
Afterward, though I believed what I had written, I realized my heart wasn’t fully in it. How could I tell others there is no shame in it when I still felt ashamed? I decided to wait. I simply had to get over the ill emotions first. That took longer than I expected. December is a rest month for me, and I didn’t race again until March. And then I ran a miserable marathon–managing to get sick with a virus and finish more slowly than I had ever raced in my life. But for some reason, I was able laugh this one off. In the process of overcoming the DNF, I had been trying to remind myself that running really had never been about racing for me. Racing was a new activity. I had run long before I had ever raced. And I could enjoy running without ever racing again. Maybe.
Then, jeez, what was I smoking??? I chased the thought with an announcement of a racing plan for 2012 to top all previous years, doubling up on 50 milers, securing my first 100, setting myself on a fast-track toward a big dream race like UTMB in a few years. And then I ran the horrible marathon. Right after my DNF. And then the April 50-miler I had signed up for and on which I was wait listed, turned out to be a no-go. I was the last one to be bumped up from the wait list. It didn’t happen. Then the 100 miler filled up early. All of my newly laid plans came crashing around my ears. Apparently I had not learned the DNF lesson well enough. Mamma said their’d be running years like this. I was beginning to think I would never race again. But I had signed up for the North Face Endurance Challenge 50 miler in June. Should I run it? Maybe I should quit racing for a while. I’m no elite. Why do I care? Weather was looking rough. Might be 90 degrees. Ouch. Oh, what the hell. The year already looked shot. I really needed a good race. I might as well give it a go. The pre-race anxiety grew to a fever pitch. Another DNF would not be good. I decided to go slowly, and just run to finish. And ah, it was so good to be racing again! The race turned out to be a beautiful gift. Heavy storms the night before made the weather lovely, but the course a serious mud bath. I slipped and slid through the muddy places, played on the short hills and loops, scrambling up, slaloming down, passing along my perma-grin to oncoming runners, and for not rushing, managed to finish 9th in my age group. (I usually manage the top third.) Not great, but not terrible. I made some new friends, and saw some old ones. It brought back my confidence, and I was reminded of the most important reason to do it. Races are fun. Still, I learned that for now, the primary reason I race is not for fun. Part of me has to do it. Something down deep is struggling to make itself known, and racing is helping it surface. DNF shame really had to do with something other than the race I didn’t finish. This eventual realization was the gift of the DNF. I still need badly to develop a sense of self worth. And though racing helps, it is the means, not the end; a surrogate for something more substantial: a practice that is more fulfilling and real that serves others that I have yet to find. I dream of starting a race in the third world. Somewhere where it will have a lot of impact to help transform individual lives and shape developing nations. For now, I will learn to coach. I will learn from the RDs I know. Perhaps one day I will realize these dreams. Perhaps others will take their place.
Running is a tremendous vehicle, especially for self realization. Most often it is all about the journey. But I hope that if I stick it out for long enough, I will get to where I am going.