Monday, September 9, 2013

Game Over, Man! The Sting of the DNF

"I'd rather be in the mountains thinking about God than in church thinking about the mountains" - John Muir

OK, so way back at the beginning of the year, as most of you who read this blog know, I was enticed by Race Director David Tosch's Southeastern Trail Series. "This will be great", my 66 year-old mind said with 35 year-old enthusiasm. Back in the day (God, I hate that term), I could do marathons and ultras left and right and recover pretty quickly. However, since a several year bout with well-documented ankle problems, my pace, endurance, and general "bounce-backedness" has sort of fallen off the Continental Shelf. Unfortunately, my mind is a little slower in getting the picture that things have changed in the Al-ultrarunning world. Because of my enthusiasm that I could run at all (giving considerable credit to switching to, and having complete confidence in Hoka shoes), I signed up for the Long Series...basically twice the distances of the Short Series in this 7 races in 7 months on the trail systems of Birmingham, Alabama.

Before I go on, I've got to tell you that David Tosch is quickly getting the reputation of the David Horton of the South. If his mileage is no longer than 10% of the advertised distance, he's done well. If the grades of his "hills" are below 20%, the course is considered rolling. Heck, he can even add a race here and there, and although not considered part of the official series, it's just added like you would add salt to your potato. David has slyly become an ultra coach for the Bham community by holding these gradually increasing distance races over increasing rougher and technical terrain. Of course the SECOND race of the series was a 50k (or 12 Hour Race) - so much for increasing gradually! If you stick with it, you've got to improve, or go down in a tailspin like those old WWI fighter bi-planes. David also writes an excellent training blog "How to train for your first hundred miler".

Ok, so back to the issue at hand. I've been doing pretty good, despite my slow times (remember, comparisons are done in my 35 year old mental scrapbook), and I've been putting in the necessary training trail mileage over the long, hot Alabama summer. Throughout this whole ordeal experience, the last two races of the 7 are the real "A" races. The first is a 3-day stage race held the end of this month is which you run each day on a different trail system, the last day of which is the most difficult with the most elevation gain. Now, depending which email from David you read, it's anywhere from 53 to 57 miles total (within the 10% David Mileage Allowance). The last race is a very technical 50K in November.

This past weekend, race #5, there was a 20 mile (actually 22 miles) race Sunday in which you do two 11 mile loops, each with over 1500' of elevation gain. The day before (Saturday), there was one of these "Throw in" races...a FREE trail race to all Birmingham Track Club members that consisted of 4, 8, or 14.5 mile options. Although I originally signed up for the longest option, I showed great restraint and dropped down to the 8 miler (of course it was 8.9 miles). I figured this would be good training for the 3 Stage Race. Despite the 1000'+ elevation gain, the run went well, taking a little over 2 hours. So, after the race, I rehydrated, ate, wore compression socks the rest of the day, and even took a short nap. I felt pretty confident about the next day. Then the walls of Jericho came crashing down.

In a nutshell, for the third time in my running career, spanning 35 years and 135 marathons/ultras, I DNF'd (as in the dreaded Did Not Finish). Yes, the day was warm (85 deg) and muggy, but it's been that way since the late Spring here in the sunny South. The course was a two loop course of unrelenting tough hills (some as long as a half mile long at >20% grade - sometimes as much as 39%). The two toughest pulls came in the first half of the loop, leaving your legs completely dog-tired for the second half. As I drug myself through those last couple of miles of the first loop, my legs, then my mind, felt as if they had nothing to fight with. It's funny, as an experienced long distance runner, I knew exactly what was mind was going completely south because my legs were feeling shot. I ate gel, drank, tied my shoes when they didn't need it...nothing was clicking. You know those cartoons where one devil sits on one shoulder telling you to do bad, and an angel sits on the other telling you to be brave? Well, the angel was taking a huge whipping in this fight. I just lost my will to go on. I lost my will to fight. 

I came into the finish of the first loop and sat down and drank some sugar drink (Heed?) and really actively tried to convince myself to get off my butt and head back into the woods. What got me was that I simply could not bear the thought to put one foot in front of the other on the steep mile long climb that comes in the first 2 miles of the loop. The night before I had seen a TV show about these Everest climbers and they were doing like 50 yards an hour - two steps...breath, two steps...breath - that's how I pictured me going up the hill(s).  I still could go on but recognized that the finish time would be WAY later than expected and just didn't want to deal with those logistics. I sat on the bench for 5 minutes before giving in to the bad devil. A DNF stings, but whenever you pull the plug and commit to the DNF, it almost seems that your mind and body shut down virtually instantaneously.  Like flipping a switch.  All of a sudden, you go from a run to a full stop, and you KNOW you just can't go on. I hate that!! Just for the record!! When I made the decision end it, all of a sudden I thought of that timeless quote from Bill Paxton, in the movie Aliens, when they're waiting for the Rescue Ship to save them. All of a sudden the Rescue Ship crashes in a fireball and Paxton goes bezerk..."That’s it man…game over, man, GAME OVER! What are we gonna do now? Build a campfire and sing songs?". Yep, game over.

Of course, within a half hour I was kicking myself for dropping and wished I had just gone on, no matter how long it took me. But sometimes you have to know when to fold 'em and that's part of the game. And I know it would have been just short of idiotic to go on. That's not trail's trail stupid. The only fear I have is after you drink the Kool-aid the first time, sometimes it gets easier to pull the plug the next time when things ain't as dire as this time. But, that's a future fight. Now, bring on that 3 day race (gulp!!).

BTW, as I was driving out of Oak Mountain, there is a church right at the entrance that has a message board. On that board..."Failure is an event, not a person". Message for me? Yep.

I'll see you all on the roads - Al

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"


Yo Momma Runs said...

I'm so happy that I've gotten to see so much of you on the trails lately! First off, you are one of my heroes for sticking with running through pain and injury and finding solutions to help you keep going. Very inspiring!

From this actual 35 year old, I will attest that that hill was a pure beast on the second trip through. I almost convinced myself that I was about to hyperventilate at one point. There is at least once in every race when I wonder (through the pain), why the heck am I doing this?! I thought it in the middle of that second loop, and then right after that we saw a couple of deer bounding through the woods. And that's one of the reasons why. But this long distance stuff hurts! I seriously think I keep going sometimes because everyone is so nice, and it gives me five hours on a weekend to talk to adults.

And my watch clocked closer to 24 miles, but who's counting? (me!)

AL said...

Thanks for the kind words Lisa. I'm not sure about that hero stuff, but I sure do enjoy being out there, sometimes more than others! Always good to see you