By Gary Griffin,
Peter, Paul and Mary had a folk ballad back in the ‘60s that asked the question, “When will they ever learn?”
I was asking myself that same question – except instead of a more personal nature – as I drove home with Peg from the Mississippi 50 yesterday. When will I ever learn?
You see, I went into yesterday’s Mississippi 50 fresh off of a Christmas Eve Day stress fracture and here I was, some 9 weeks later at the starting line of a 50-miler through the swamps of the DeSoto State Forest outside Laurel, MS. My friend Ed Baggett was alongside, toeing the line in his first attempt at the distance. Having watched him grow as an endurance runner over the past year I had no doubt that his day was going to have a happy ending. As for my hopes going in, I was aware that my fitness was nowhere near where it was back in December, having run no further than 7 miles at any one time since that ill-fated Christmas Eve Day. But, I also was facing no pressure. I just wanted to run for as long as I could and not do any harm to the still-healing fibula that reminded me from time to time that it was still not totally right. Ed and I had completed the 30-hour Swamp Stomp Adventure Race down in Myakka River State Park two weeks before, and the deep mud and thick swamp grass had posed a bit of a problem that weekend; although the word was that the Mississippi course was fairly dry, there are varying degrees of “dry” when you are talking about the Mississippi 50.
And so, we were off into the piney woods on a pleasantly cool and comfortable morning, looking at four loops of a 12.5M course. My plan was to run with Ed as long as possible, knowing that he would be patient and that he would run well. That, my friends, leads to mistake number 1. I should have done what I said I was going to do, i.e., try to run with Ed. That doesn’t mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that I would have been able to stay with him for any time, but perhaps if I had done so for more than the first two miles, I might have had a better chance! Maybe it was the fact that I was just so happy to be running in a competitive environment again, or maybe it was just the fact that my legs felt good and the air was cool and I was just doing what I love doing. I don’t know why I do some of the dumb things I do, but I did one early on Saturday when I decided to leave Ed and run hard early in the first loop of the Mississippi 50. Abandoning my pre-race plan and leaving behind one who I have come to know is a man of not only great wisdom but great patience (they tend to go hand-in-hand in endurance sports, don’t they?) was just plain dumb — and it led directly to the rest of the mistakes of this day, the second of which came shortly after mile 8 of the first loop.
Taking a wrong turn in any race – I don’t care whether it is a 5K or a 100-miler – can just be mentally troubling. Some people handle it better than others. At mile 8, I was running along with a group of 8 or so, conversing about this and that and clearly not paying attention to the course markings. Ed told me going in that he had briefly missed a turn last year on the loop, and the race director had warned us of this potential problem at the pre-race meal. As usual, I thought that this warning applied to others and that I would never miss a turn – although it is truly something that I have had a knack of doing over the years. This one, as it turned out ,was a doozy, as the group of us went a full mile and a half down the wrong road before realizing the error of our ways and retracing our steps. So, I ended up turning a 12.5M loop into a 15.5M loop. I don’t know if there is a good time to take a wrong turn in an ultra, but mentally this one did not sit well. I knew right then and there that this was not going to be a 50 mile day, particularly since I had already begun to feel some discomfort in the bad leg and was well into the consequences of mistake number 3.
Ed is a major proponent of getting adequate fluids and calories to fuel the body for miles and miles of running. Most people would agree with Ed’s approach, as would probably every single “how-to” guide to distance running. Nonetheless, after 85+ of these things, I still manage to go out and fail to hydrate and get sufficient calories for the journey. On Saturday, I managed to avoid any liquids until I had already finished the 15.5M loop and then only took a sip or two of water before heading out for loop number two. Had I been with Ed as I should have been, I would have been (a) not running with an extra 3 miles on my legs, and (b) not running on empty. For what it is worth, I didn’t begin even drinking more than a handful of water until the mid-point of the second loop, and never did take any aid station food or any of the gels that were conveniently situated on my backside. Go figure. Needless to say, as I neared the end of loop two, I was struggling. But, I perhaps could have even survived that and gotten back on track had I not made mistake number 4.
Several years ago, on a particularly warm day at this race – when I had the good fortune of entering just the 50K – the last finisher in the 50M was rushed to a local hospital suffering from the heat. As I recall, he spent a few days there and the talk of the incident in the ultra community led to what I considered to be the boom era of electrolyte capsules. I remember that until that point in my life I had battled cramping nearly every time out, due in part to my failure to drink sufficiently, but also due to my lack of awareness that there were products on the market that would for the most part eliminate such problems. The talk after that Mississippi 50 incident was of Succeed! S-Caps, and I ordered a jar immediately. Since then, I never have left home without them, because they flat work. Shortly after sunrise yesterday it began to turn warm and I started sweating. Because I was not drinking (see mistake number 3) I really needed something to fight off the cramps that soon came upon my legs. Did I eat any Succeed!? Of course not! That would have made far too much sense.
I didn’t make any more mistakes after the finish of loop number two, and actually made a wise decision: I dropped out. I don’t like DNFing one bit, but this was a wise move in light of the fact that the leg injury was still lurking there slightly sore, and was markedly weaker than the healthy leg. The net result was that I lacked the confidence to come down hard on it or to aggressively tromp through the stream crossings on a course was getting more and more chewed up each time around. It seemed like a recipe for disaster, and I called it a day after 28 miles. In light of the fact that three weeks ago I could not run at all and any kind of mileage at the MS 50 seemed like a far-fetched dream, even the DNF seemed tolerable.
The fact that there were success stories all around me certainly helped ease the pain. Ed Baggett finished his first 50-miler in a very respectable 9:05:14 – good enough for 16th overall. His wife Kirsten was the third female in the 20K (and the first master) in a time of 1:47:46. And, my long-time good friend from Atlanta, George Songer, battled hard and finished his second 50K. I admire all of them – not just for their grit and determination and prowess over a challenging course, but also for their wisdom in the manner in which they went after it. My hope is that I can take some of that out on the course the next time I find myself toeing the start line.