My Epic Fail, Part Three
I need to tell you a few stories. I need to lay all my cards on the table. I ran an awful lot this last year but little of it was training. I ran a lot of ultras last year but none of it was racing. I suppose it’s better than not running or racing at all but not by much.
I had just run the Mountain Mist 50k, which was the most technically demanding and punishing course I’d run yet, and was set to follow that up by running a 12 hour race the next Saturday. I spent the night before the 12 hour race hanging out in friend’s carport drinking and cutting the fool. I can cut the fool.
It was very dark and cold the next morning when I got to the race to check in. We had such a good time the night before that it was only by force of habit that I even made it to the race at all. I got to the race site and RD filled me on what was happening.
Straw One: It seems the actual race start would be a quarter mile away. This meant lugging all my loop race gear down a long windy trail in the dark. This wasn’t in the advance “Hey so you agreed to do this race and this is what’s what” letter.
Straw Two: The RD then explained the course. It’s a timed event with a 4.5 mile course which the RD explained may cause us to run over 12 hours which means our times will list 12 hours and 30 minutes or whatever it took you to finish the extra loop.
This isn’t normal for a timed event. Timed events are usually run on a mile plus loop so it’s easy to drop right before the time’s up or so the last doomed loop you run isn’t an hour’s worth of work “wasted”. The RD then said we could run the loops in any direction we wanted as long as we finished each loop.
The Final Straw: The course was a series of criss-crossing trail loops. Each loop was blazed with different colors. The RD had marked the course using the blaze color for each specific trail, not a color specifically chosen for the race.
This is real important for the times when trails cross over. The native color of the trail you’re on is blue and the cross over trail blaze color is yellow. You have to remember to make the switch. Most RDs would have picked a neutral color easier for those times in the race when you have stopped cogitating much.
The race started. I immediately got passed by quite a few people but it was the big guy with the fists full of Oreo cookies passing me which brought home how bad my situation had gotten. I stopped in the middle of the sandy trail and started laughing.
It was so shameful it was funny. I had run an ultra a month for seven months and like I said, just finished Mountain Mist a week ago, and running for twelve hours was just too much. I walked back to the start, handed the RD my number and told her I was going home.
She pleaded with me to run just one lap. The RD was confused. I explained myself. She listened to a minute of that lameness and walked away in disgust. She clearly didn’t care. I drove home and took my friend and her pretty daughter out to breakfast.
I’ve quit a lot more than I’d like to admit. I have, in fact, DNF’d four times this last year including this last before mentioned time. The first three were races. The fourth DNF was running itself and that fact I only came to understand this very moment.
I am an okay runner. My 5k PR is 20:44. I had to do two speed work outs a week and starve myself down to 130lbs to get it. My dear friend Z. was slogging 10 minute miles each week and eating like a minister. I only beat him at that PR race by a few measly seconds.
And then Z. got faster than me. I was tired from running the 50 miler out at Wakulla that year and Z. had decided to get serious about training. It just happened. You need to understand that I know he didn’t do anything wrong. He kept dropping me on trail runs though.
He wanted to run more roads because he could go faster. I quit roads a long time ago. Bless his heart; he tried coaxing me into races, not to beat me but to get me running fast again. The more he tried, the more I fought the notion we should run together.
I think that’s when I started preferring my own company to the company of other runners. I didn’t want to have to keep up. I didn’t want what I supposed was their judgment. Z. was running faster and at some inexpressible level I really did blame him for my running slower.
We were training partners and he wasn’t supposed to get faster than me but he did. He got faster because he was better rested, younger, maybe smarter, whatever. He wanted to get faster and trained accordingly. I was falling apart. Your friends don’t care and strangers won’t believe you. Z. just got faster.
All I saw was the insurmountable tsunami of time washing over me and I chickened out. I knew no matter how I played this I would never catch up to Z. Maybe I did need a break. He would argue that. Everyone would have argued that.
My response to my wheels digging in was to run a lot of races because I had to do something. Let me tell you though, anyone can do that. There is a kind of flashy dance step that dancers do when they’re tired. It’s not hard at all but it looks hard. That’s what this last year has been.
I’m not saying I thought that, exactly, and I’m not saying that any of my DNF’s were necessarily invalid. I’m saying they were unnecessary. The whole year was unnecessary. It’s easy to show up and slog all day long. It’s easy to get a t-shirt that “proves” how tough you are. Anyone can do it.
Quitting on races was just a result of doing that flashy dance step. I was too tired to plan or train or recover. I convinced myself that doing lots of big mile races, breaking myself down month by month, was hard. It wasn’t hard, it was just grueling.
Hard is digging in and training. It’s showing up at the track week after week. Its showing up to run with stronger runners than you and fighting to the last inch. You show up and you work when you are supposed to work. You think it out and you do it right.
It’s taking care of the details so you can train and so that training might mean something. Its laying back and thinking out what to do next. Its doing less when less is called for. It isn’t about pride. It’s about courage.
You put your feet on the floor and you admit to yourself what’s what so that whatever you do out there is what you need and workout by workout you get stronger and more prepared to race because you’re honest with the one in the world that needs to hear the truth: you.
And when you finally go to a race, damn it, you race. You look at where you are and you say, I will fight until I have no fight left. I will do my best and then I will go harder than that. That’s what runners do all day long. Being slow should piss you off. The proper response to being slow is to fight.
Last week I did something I haven’t done in quite some time. I trained.
I went to the track on Tuesday. I ran as hard as I could but it was slow and even then I was I was nauseas until lunch from the effort, but for the first time in a while, I cared. I was DFL on the last 1200 but it doesn’t matter. Next week I’ll be smarter and more under control and maybe I will be faster.
It was like waking up. The next day I ran just a bit harder than my normal Wednesday run. The day after that I ran real hard. The day after that I ran through the morning woods, roots, ruts, desperately tugging at the loose threads of my old boundless enthusiasm.
Even Sunday coming up a hill at the back end of ten miles, preparing in cowardly desperation to shuffle it on in, something happened – I forgot to quit. Standing in the cold rain, exhausted and finished running, I felt like an explorer stepping on to the shores of the New World. I felt alive and dangerous.
I went home and made breakfast for Mrs. Baker and the dogs and sitting in bed eating with my family, I felt that for the first time in a long time I had earned all my life’s bounty. I spent Sunday repeating “Someday I will not be able to do this. Today is not that day.”
What a blessed life, the runner’s life. We have the gift of the stubborn heart. This running life is hard. Our bodies hurt and we struggle and some days we succeed and many days we barely survive. I am grateful for this struggle.
This week, for the first time in a while, I feel like a runner. Someday I will not be able to do this. Today is not that day.