Monday, September 26, 2011

No Longer a Virgin

Okay now that I have your attention where to start, what to share and how to finish?  Well finish is something that I didn't do at the Vermont 50 this past weekend and this means I am no longer a DNF virgin.

I know that there has been a lot of debate on the topic of DNF's recently in the world of ultra running.  From my perspective it is too easy to be critical of others when you are not in their shoes, whether their shoes are bought from the local running store or supplied by their sponsor.  I know that for me running is not my profession, but rather my passion.  With this said please don't get me wrong as I am extremely grateful for my sponsors and do everything I can to represent them in a positive light.

To preface it, years ago the Vermont 50 was my first ultra and it has become what I consider to be my home course.  I know the race director, many of the volunteers, participants and it has become an increasingly special event to me.  I always find myself to be more nervous and eager for this race than any other.  It is just a chance for me to do what I love, in an area that I love, surround by people who mean a lot to me.  Also how could I not love a race that has an edible display like this for me to munch on at packet pickup?

The week prior to the race I knew my body was fighting some sort of virus.  With a fever and purple feet one day, and sinus symptoms other days I just did my best to eat and sleep well.  On race day I felt that I was well enough to toe the line, I didn't really even question it since my training that week had been on target despite not feeling one hundred percent.

Photo By: Jan Leja
Just before the race I got to catch up with Salomon teammate Glen Redpath.  In my mind Glen is such an amazing ambassador for the sport of ultra running and he always immediately seems to put a smile on my face.  I also had the pleasure of meeting Salomon teammate Sue Johnson for the first time the previous night at packet pickup.  After reuniting, Glen and I headed to the start line where we wished each other well and then both made one last stop in the woods.  The race then started and I fell in line with Mel Fryer.  We both had an idea who the other was as we introduced ourselves.  Right away I noticed how positive and upbeat she was and I loved it.  She is like a little firecracker and will be one to watch next year at Western States.  We shared some miles as we got to know each other a little better and then I unintentionally pulled away as I just ran my comfortable pace.

Around mile 6 I found myself looking at my watch checking the mileage.  This continued for a few miles and I was eager to get to mile 12 where the first handler station was.  My mother and step father were my crew for the day and were waiting for me to swap out packs.  Without missing a stride I handed off my pack and grabbed the fully stocked one.  It was now time for a short paved road section followed by a long dirt road climb.  As I turned onto the road I caught glimpse of a pack of runners and spotted Glen's red Salomon cap in the mix.  I was very tempted to put forth a little more effort and join the gentlemen.  Instead I continued to sip my pack, fuel and run my race, but again I found myself looking at my watch to examine the distance.  Internally I recall thinking "seriously I have only gone 15 miles?" Then without warning Mel came up behind me and asked me how I am.  Without hesitation I respond that I am bored and then we run together for a few more strides before she takes the lead.  I know I can join her but there seems to be no desire.  I look again at my watch to see if it is malfunctioning and this coupled with the lack of desire to run with Mel sets off an alarm in my mind.  Reality is that my watch is working just fine and then I start to go through a mental check list.  Legs feel fine, effort feels fine, fueling on point, breathing is calm and regulated so what is going on?  I then found myself thinking about dropping, which is something I have never done before.

I don't give up, I don't walk away, I finish things.  I knew this might be a low that I was experiencing so I focused on getting to the next aid station and then reevaluating.  I did just that and made it to the next aid station where I convinced myself to go one more.  Maybe I just needed a little more time to settle in, maybe I was short on calories so I ate a gu, maybe just maybe things will begin to fall into place.  I checked my splits and was still running well and was in second place.  Before I pulled into the aid station at mile 23 I started framing in my mind how I would tell the race officials that I was going to drop.  I stop  at the station, grab a cup of water, linger around the table, ask how far to the next aid station and then take off running.  I tell myself just 4.4 miles and I work to see if I can pull myself together as I continue to drink and fuel.  I am still running everything as I play leap frog with the mountain bikers.  Eventually I find myself at the bottom of a switch back climb in an open field and I spot Mel, still very much in reach considering I have been dwelling.  I clock our the gap between the two of us at just about one minute.  I know I am still in this, but that doesn't seem to make things better.  I am now at mile 27.6 and I now tell myself it is just easier to make it to Dugdale's, which is mile 32 and then drop because my crew is there.

These miles between 27 and 32 are some of my favorite on the course.  As I descend out of the aid station one of the mountain bikers whom I had been around for miles reminded me to look at the amazing view.  It is at the moment I begin to realize what a mental funk I am in.  I've missed the beauty and joy of the past 27+ miles that I had just covered.  I wasn't enjoying my running and that was a hard thing to swallow.  I was determined to get to mile 32 and as I approached the aid station my mother was waving to me to catch my attention.  I think at this point I stopped running and went to a walk.  I told her I wanted to drop as we continued making our way up towards the aid station.  She said that was okay, so we made our way to my step father who had my next pack waiting and some soda (oh dreaded soda).

When I saw the soda I told myself, "okay one last ditch effort" and I took a few sips and then told them I would try.  Within about 20 feet I decided again it was time to DNF and I headed down to the race officials to make it official.  I couldn't bring myself to do it.  I know that I am a rather indecision individual and am usually very afraid to make a wrong decision.  I say again that I will try and my mother offers to pace me out of the station to get me going, also because she is worried.  We head out together and make it about 1/2 of mile and without thinking I stop running and say "I am DONE, something just isn't right today".  We turn around and walk back to the aid station and this time I walk up to the race official and give my number to withdraw from the race.  My mom gives me a big hug and I can see she is still proud of me, that meant so much to me and I will never forget that moment.

So how did I come to my decision, which I own and accept?  How do I explain to friends, family and others that I dropped at mile 32 physically not injured and in the hunt for the win?  We all run for different reasons, but I run because it brings me happiness, peace and gives me sense of being alive.  For some reason on this day I lacked these emotions while running. I felt that if I continued I wouldn't really be true to myself as I would be running for the wrong reasons.  I feel blessed to have my all my parents supporting me and at the same time recognizing that it was a difficult decision for me.

With this said I do accept my DNF and I am proud of my decision.  It took me over 18 miles to finally drop, but I did it.  I made a decision for myself  and if someone wants to judge or question my choice that is fine, but please remember that "You never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them." -Harper Lee (Did I mention the course was a little muddy?)


So what now, how to proceed?  I think I will have a little unstructured time from running.  I will go back to exploring the mountains, I will run around the woods until I get lost and then eventually find myself again.