After successfully completing 5-100mile races, I finally achieved my first DNF (Did not finish). Now that I can be honest with myself, I am not surprised after spending time reflecting on the events of 2014 and the days leading up to the Grindstone 100.
2014 In Review
Unlike 2010 when it seemed like everything went perfectly when it came to running for me, I have faced numerous challenges this year. Despite starting 2014 with a new 5k personal best in March, I ran my slowest marathon since my first one over 8 years ago. This wasn’t a surprise since I had been diagnosed with pneumonia just weeks before the Boston Marathon. However, skipping this historic race wasn’t an option given the importance of this race after the bombings of the year before.
Weeks later I lined up for the Dirty German 50 miler and after going out too fast, the wheels came off and my breathing once again was a challenge. I dropped from 3rd place after the first loop to finish 24th and wondered if this new pattern of not being able to finish strong would continue.
At the end of June (7 weeks later) I lined up for the most iconic ultra in the world, the Western States Endurance Run. Despite feeling good at the start, my breathing was a challenge once again. Although the pneumonia may have played a role, I don’t believe it was the main issue. Rather I am confident it had more to do with the fact that I hadn’t heeded the advice of the race directors who recommended we cover our face with something such as a bandanna. They suggested this given the trails were so dry that dust would be kicked up and could impact some runners as I believe it did me.
While I was disappointed with my result at WS100, the race was an amazing experience. Then 7 weeks later, I completed the inaugural running of the Eastern States 100. I finished 18th overall and thought I would end the year on this high note.
Why Grindstone 7 weeks later?
The main reason I signed up for Grindstone, my 4th 100 mile race in 12 months, was primarily so I could qualify to enter the lottery for Hardrock 2015 (arguably the most difficult 100 mile race in the US if not world). Grindstone is a race with a great reputation and a difficult course. However I thought a 38 hour cut-off was extremely generous and all I needed to do was complete as oppose to compete.
The Week Leading up to the Race
The race starts at 6pm on a Friday which is not as common as early morning starts on a Saturday. Trying to come up with a plan to be prepared for this odd start time was a challenge until work provided a situation that had the potential to be brilliant or completely back-fire. The situation was that on the Friday before the race I found out I would be traveling to Taipei, Taiwan for almost a week where there is a 12 hour time difference. I thought if I could show up at the race and have my body believe it was 6am, that I would have a successful night.
To really challenge my body, I decided to run a race just hours after I landed in Taipei. I was less than a week out from Grindstone but thought it would be cool to run my first international race. It was a 17K trail race with lots of climbing and descent. The experience was a lot of fun even though it may not have been the wisest move.
I left Taipei on Wednesday and landed in Philly on Thursday. I went home to catch some sleep in the middle of the day before driving over 5 hours down to Virginia for the race. I would be lining up at the start after being back in the US for less than 36 hours.
Starting in the Rain
The atmosphere before the race was great despite the rain that continued to fall until the next morning. My biggest concern with the rain was wondering how my feet would hold up. They did great but it was the fog that permeated large sections of trails as we climbed up and down some significant elevation that was the most frustrating at times.
The great news was that my attempt to deceive my body into thinking it was 6am instead of 6pm worked throughout the night. I felt great through the first 12 plus hours and went through the turnaround point at a sub-24 hour pace. I was excited and believed the sun and a change into dry clothes at the Little Bald Knob Aid Station (AS) near mile 58 would give me a second wind and help me to run my best time so far at this distance and on this challenging course.
I had a long way to go
Somewhere shortly before the AS at mile 65 my stomach went south. I was not concerned and thought I just had to slow down and regroup…. Nothing a little chicken noodle soup and coke hadn’t fixed in the past. Unfortunately this was different and after sitting a few minutes, I decided I’d take off towards the next AS at Mile 72. This only made my situation worse and it was the first time I ever contemplated whether I would need to DNF. The idea had NEVER entered my mind previously… even during my worst bonk at the top of Hope Pass while running Leadville or when I struggled in my first 100 at Chimera. This was different and aside from my stomach, I felt as though my body was shutting down. I got to the aid station where I sat shivering in the sun and sipping soup. The awesome volunteer that was helping me told me that if I dropped here I wouldn’t get a ride back until late that night given the remote location. I eventually decided I’d walk to Dowells Draft AS (mile 80) with the hope that I would recover on the way or drop from the race there!
The section between Mile 72 and 80 was the most challenging mentally. A million things went through my mind as I hiked the next 8 miles. Aside from trying to objectively evaluate my health, I questioned what I should do. I asked myself why I was continuing on given that I had finished 5 “Centuries” that included 3 in the previous 12 months. Did I have to go on to prove something? Was it pride? It bothered me as I remembered from a section in the CS Lewis book, Mere Christianity where he suggested pride is the “utmost evil”. Some may say this is going too far given the task at hand. However while you are out on the trail for that long, you have plenty of time to over analyze things.
I decided to listen to some Christian tunes and was inspired by the music and the Holy Spirit to practice what I preach – “continue to take one step at a time forward”. I had over 20 hours to cover less than 24 miles at that point and was confident it was doable.
I arrived at Dowells Draft AS (mile 80) and had some soup, coke, replenished my supplies from my drop bag and continued on, always with the hope and prayer that I would bounce back and pick up the pace. This didn’t happen and rather than improve, things only became weird.
What was that?
I have had mild hallucinations while running at night and I know that I am not alone. For me they have included such things as thinking a bunch of leaves were a bird or that a stick was a snake. Friends have seen fluorescent chickens and much more. However, the common theme was that these have always been at night. As the sun began to descend and I climbed toward another long peak, my mind started to mess with me. I began to see dogs at my side, a white picket fence followed by a black one blocking the trail, and much more. However these were the most vivid.
Once the sun finally disappeared, it took my visions and body warmth with it. Just before arriving at Dry Branch Gap AS (mile 87.8), I began to shiver and thought another rest might help. The wind was howling and I was reminded by a volunteer that it would only be colder at the top of the last assent. I realized it was time to be smart and throw in the towel. My body was in bad shape and I didn’t have the proper clothes since I never planned to be out another night. Ultimately it was the cold that finally did me in.
Let the Reflections Begin
As I sat in my truck after the race and posted my DNF on Facebook. I read a couple of e-mails which included a daily devotional my friend Karl writes. It arrived while I was out on the course and the words were a great reminder of how we can grow in the face of adversity and struggle:
“Today, think about how complacent and prideful you would be if everything went your way. Then, during a setback or struggle, remember a school assignment, athletic training or fine arts preparation you had that was difficult and painful but that grew you. In the end, you prospered because of training through the struggle.”(click on link for full devotional)
Now a couple of weeks later, I am confident of the two key ingredients that resulted in my DNF:
Taipei – What was I thinking after spending a week in Asia, eating new foods the whole time and then flying halfway around to the world to line up for a race shortly after landing? My stomach has never been a huge issue since I am normally so careful about what I eat for 4-5 days leading up to race. This lack of discipline combined with the impact of travel clearly played a role.
Respecting The Distance – I tend to over prepare for any race from 26.2 miles and up. I prepare like a Boy scout and try to “always be prepared” when it comes to my drop bags and overall preparation. I had called my buddy Bob on my way to the race and shared how relaxed I was and the fact I didn’t stress about all the details I normally do. My goal was initially to just finish and thought I could do that with a 38 hour cut off. This lack of preparation and respect for the distance got the best of me. While it would have been ugly, I do believe if I had humbled myself and been better prepared with right attire to be out a 2nd night, I could have finished.
I was initially fairly hard on myself as expected. Fortunately my family and friends reminded me that I should be thankful for the experience and for remaining healthy. I have also been reminded numerous times that most ultra’s with this level of difficulty have a DNF rate that generally exceeds 30% and often may be well over 50%. Regardless of the excuses, the facts, and my ultimate result, I know the challenges and experiences of 2014 will better prepare me and have already fired me up for 2015!