On Saturday, January 14th, I found myself deep in the throes of tumultuous fervor, the delights of which promised violent ends. I had dressed in my tightest black compression, my skimpiest running top. I packed four pairs of shoes, unsure which would suit him best. I approached with timid, curious angst. He was tough. Undulating. Rugged. Winding and unpredictable, yet disarmingly calm. Unruly, dark, hot as a furnace, cold as a tomb, and in the end he grabbed me by the Camelbak and threw me to the frigid ground, staking claim to my dignity and DNF purity forever. His name was Longhaul 100. He was my first DNF. You never forget your first.
In ultrarunning speak, DNF means DID NOT FINISH. In all caps. Shouting.
The only thing that hurts worse than your legs and shoulders the morning after an ultramarathon is your legs and shoulders the morning after DNF'ing an ultramarathon at mile 62. The absence of accomplished bewilderment is like a lack of painkillers after having your wisdom teeth out. It's like waking up halfway through surgery and walking away from the table with your gallbladder halfway out; you sling it over your shoulder, tape yourself together, and try to get through the week without stitches, the gallbladder bouncing around yelling "What am I for? What purpose do I serve in the body? Are we there yet?" Instead of a gnarly scar, you have a gaping wound of grief for which there is no closure and a thousand questions. Except, you have to find closure. And that process is as tough as the race itself.
Granted, I don't regret my decision to stop -- I just hate it. I hate that it happened, but it was the right choice. F. Scott Fitzgerald told us that "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." While measurements of things like intelligence are relative, I think he was onto something. Because while I hate what happened at Longhaul, I also see that it was one of my more valuable running experiences. I walked away stinging with a full-blown head cold and a lack of resolved accomplishment, but with some new knowledge I didn't have before. As I sew myself back together, here's some of what I'm learning:
I'll never start a physical endeavor that big again unless I'm in 100% health. I wasn't last Saturday. I was underslept, underfed, and coming off of a sinus infection I'd picked up on a ski trip the week before. My breathing wasn't clear. My appetite was minimal all week. I'd been in law classes late at night and at work early in the morning, and I hadn't rested or prepared in the manner I should for something as big as 100 miles. But, I went for it anyway. It cost me.
Halfway through the race, I hit a low, low point. It was somewhere near mile 55. I just became physically ill. It had grown humid during the day, and when the heat had set in hadn't fueled properly. I went several hours running without any fuel. That was a mistake I paid for later when the sun went down, as I dry heaved and desperately tried to ingest something to no avail. I couldn't keep anything down. I couldn't refuel. I could barely hydrate. I cramped. I shivered. I ached. It was the domino effect, not to be confused with the Dominos Effect, which is what you feel when you finish a race and want to eat two large pizzas by yourself.
I staggered for the next seven miles, shuffling and jogging as much as I could, often throwing up in my mouth. I scared all the wild animals away. The otters I'd seen in the creek earlier in the day were literally underwater, holding their breath waiting for me to pass by. The armadillos were throwing hand signals at each other to stay hidden until I passed, sniffling and barfing. I was a big, nauseated, sloth-like monster with a flashlight and snot coming out of my nose. To win it, I was also crying. I was the ugliest, saddest thing in the woods. But I had headphones, so while I cried and stumbled across the next mile to the aid station, I listened to Janis Joplin singing "Piece of my Heart." Honestly, all I could think about was changing the words to "take another little piece of my foot now baby." At sixty miles, both feet were about to fall off. It was the perfect song for that perfectly fucked up moment. But I digress.
When I made it to mile 62, 100 kilometers, I stopped and sat by a burn barrel trying to get warm. Other crews and runners there were encouraging. The race director, Jen, sat down and talked through it with me to see if I could recover. I tried to find an ounce of myself that wanted to continue. But when you know, you know. And I knew in that moment that if I kept going for 38 more miles, I was going to end up in the hospital with pneumonia, or worse.
I asked myself, do you need to stop. Yes.
I asked myself, are you okay with this? Yes.
When I knew the answer, I dropped from the race.
I remember reading this blog by Mark Manson about how to break hearts and risk everything. If the question is, "I hate law school and know it's not for me. How do I quit?" the clear answer is simple: Walk to the registrar's office. Withdraw from the classes. Walk back to the car. Drive home.
But that's not really the question. The question is really, "How do I face failure. How do I explain this to everyone. How do I face my family and friends who expected me to succeed. How do I live with the guilt and feeling of inadequacy."
That's why a decision that seems so easy on the outside to others is actually extremely difficult for the person who faces it. It's not about the decision. It's about emotional boundaries, which are invisible and much harder to create than the logical decisions. The decision is like a gate. Opening the gate may cause a flood of emotions like guilt, sorrow, confusion. Closing the gate may shut down possibilities like love, triumph, fulfillment. Opening or shutting the gate isn't the hard part. Handling the world the gate begins or ends is.
I shut the gate. I don't have a 100-mile finish, and I don't have pneumonia. I do have my health back (almost), and I do have the possibility of trying again. But the exercise of going through this has not presented a limitation -- instead, it revealed a boundary: I'll never let any goal compromise my health, which is the biggest goal I have. I started down this path of distance running searching for a better life. The healthier I've become, the more my life has flourished. Saturday night was the first time I truly felt like my health was going to be compromised if I continued to run. I felt it deep inside. I knew the answer. And now I know more about why I run, and why I am here blogging about it like Janis Joplin going on and on and on.
I walked away with a truckload of other ideas about how to better approach an ultramarathon, from gear to fuel to mental strategy. But most importantly, I know where I stand when it comes to my desire to finish a race coupled with my desire to have a healthy and fit body. Janis let heroine take her heart. I wasn't going to let running take my health. Not today, running.
Not everyone shares this view. Some feel that you have to finish a race you start, even if you kill yourself in the process. But if first-rate intelligence is holding opposing views in both hands without malfunctioning, then a first-rate community is one where people can hold opposing views and still exist in harmony with one another. I firmly believe in that.
Onward to the next endeavor, after I tackle the rest of this head cold. I still have the 100-miler to tackle. And I'm still the ugliest, baddest, saddest, snottiest thing in the woods. Thanks to everyone who has supported me along the way. Go on, take another little piece of my heart, running. You know you've got it - if it makes you feel good.
Where To Catch Me