A few weeks ago I ran 50 miles for the first time. Actually, that's not an entirely accurate statement. I stumbled, walked, hobbled, and ran every once in awhile for about nine and a half hours to complete this distance.
It wasn't my day. I could tell almost as soon as the race started the stars weren't aligned. My legs didn't feel sharp or well rested. I didn't feel spry. There wasn't any kind of spring in my step. The one day on which I needed things to go well just didn't happen.
It would have been easy to bail out as I had a feeling I was going to suffer immeasurably in the latter stages of this death march. But, there was a lesson I learned from my very first (and best) coach back in high school that has always stuck with me. That lesson is to simply finish the job.
Kick, scratch, claw, or crawl, but find a way to finish things. I've never dropped out of a race for any reason even when I (unknowingly) had a broken femur years ago. Bad day or not, I had invested too much time and energy to not knock this one off.
While I never contemplated stopping despite continuous GI issues and legs that felt flat from mile one, I did take a very leisurely pit stop at the last fully stocked aid station. Someone was kind enough to ask me what I wanted my water bladder refilled with and after a pregnant pause I simply said, 'Vodka.'
Unfortunately, they were out of Grey Goose, so water would have to suffice. I'm not sure how long I lingered at this aid station, but it was long enough for one of my friends who was working at the station to tell me I needed to leave. That's what friends are for.
I stumbled away from this aid station and descended into one of the darkest, most uncomfortable places I've ever been. I've heard some folks refer to it as 'the pain cave'. It's a pretty apt description. I had a feeling I would enter this place about 10 miles out, so I was right on schedule at mile 40.
My quads were destroyed making running uphill nearly impossible and downhill inordinately painful. This was a bit problematic as this course was nothing but hills. Adding insult to injury, numerous stream crossings and seemingly omnipresent mud made footing a bit challenging.
I found myself in a scary place where it seemed there was a disconnect between
my brain and my body. Despite focusing intensely on the ground in front
of me, I was stumbling, struggling, and not really sure what I could do
to remedy things. So, I walked...a lot.
I found myself reflecting on the blog posting I'd published a few weeks prior to undertaking this journey. In this posting, I referenced J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. I started thinking about The Lord of the Rings and Frodo's perilous journey to Mordor.
I began to wonder if the fatigue, pain, and discomfort I was feeling was comparable to what Frodo endured en route to Mordor. I wondered exactly how Frodo survived. Then I remembered that he simply had to. If he didn't get to Mordor and the destroy the ring, mankind was doomed.
While the stakes weren't quite as high for me, I realized I simply had to finish. There was no other option. Eventually, the battery on my watch died after 8 hours or so. Somehow I managed to get to the final aid station at mile 45.
I tried not to think too much about the fact that I still had 5 miles to go and my body was completely shutting down on me. I simply ingested as much fluid as I could handle, refilled my water bladder one more time, and tried to run.
I don't know if it was the fluids or divine intervention, but I somehow found a way to run most of those last 5 miles. I will never forget how relieved I was when I saw a sign indicating '1 mile left!'
I've struggled the past few weeks to fully process this experience and what it was about. I heard so many stories from so many people about how running an ultra was an amazing, transcendent, life altering experience.
I can't say this was my experience. I can't say I fully understand the people who embrace this kind of thing on a regular basis. This is not to say I don't respect and admire those who do. Maybe if it had been a good day for me, I would feel differently.
I have decidedly mixed feelings about this journey. What I went through to get into the kind of shape to even attempt running fifty miles was huge. I did all kinds of things I had never done before.
I ran farther than I ever had in a single run. I logged a couple hundred mile weeks. I suffered through massive cramping, GI issues, and more. I ran in uncomfortable heat and humidity. I soldiered on through torrential rain and gusting wind.
I have memories from my training cycle for this event that will never fade and I am proud of everything I did to prepare. But, I don't know if I will ever want to do something like this again. My curiosity has been sated for the time being. I'm confident I can do better, but I don't know if I care enough about it to try again.
At the end of the day, I finished which is all I ever really wanted to do. Setting aside the challenges I faced on the day of the race, I did something that only a few years ago I thought was nearly impossible for me. I run because there's glory in finishing.