DNF is an expression you hear a lot in ultra running. Did not finish. It means different things to different people, and experiencing your first one will either be an epic event, or a simple blip on the radar screen. Right? If only running were that simple.
I was looking forward to Deception Pass this year, because I had done the race in 2015 and wanted to go back having just had the year of my life as a runner. I wasn’t nervous about it. I was a tad worn down by training after my completion of Mountain Lakes 100, but overall, my body was cooperating and I had been able to keep up with the majority of my training leading up to race day. I was faster, a little overweight, but getting the work done. Every year at this time I get a little funky with the new darkness of shorter days and the acclimation to colder, wet weather. Heading out the door before work at 4:30 am isn’t as easy. I hit the snooze button too often. I tell myself, “I’ll run after work.” My mind and body feel heavy both in a physical and mental sense.
I headed up to Whidbey with a few friends on Friday before the race. I was in good company. My friend Keith was seeded to be a contender for the win and a fun wager was going on between him and a few other top guns. On race morning lining up I saw many familiar faces, lots of hugs exchanged. I was feeling great. I slept well the night before, I pooped, my pack was filled with all of my favorite goodies. The weather was brisk and dry. Last year it was raining and windy (30mph!). James counted down and off we all went from the new start line up the road for our first short out and back before hitting single track and the mighty bridge. I was in my usual routine of warming up and finding my groove. People were crowding the single track. I passed people as I set my pace. The trail was wet, but not too muddy. I ran the smaller hills without any hesitation as others slowed to a near halt to hike up them. As we ran along the Sound I looked up to see the leaders cruising across the first span of the bridge. Once you cross the bridge, you head down onto some sweet single track covered in roots, rocks and switchbacks. I clipped down that section confidently. There was a group of about 8 of us, all chatting and sharing introductions. For the first time ever I realized I was running in the mid pack. I smiled silently to myself. I thought about what an amazing year I’d had, and how far I’d come in training. By the time I hit mile four I noticed my left hip felt tight. I shook it off and figured it would work itself out once I hit 10k and was properly warmed up. You do a series of 3 lollipops on the first section. They’re solid fun. Ups and downs and switchbacks and the kind of PNW trails I’ve grown to love. The hip wasn’t happy and I kept having this sharp pain that radiated from my low back down into my IT band. It was getting painful to lift my left leg and I slowed down to remind myself to keep lifting my feet enough to avoid tripping or falling. *Those of you who know my history know I tend to fall and get scraped up often. I have grown to HATE this and am determined to avoid it at all costs. So here I was full of confidence, feeling like I finally belonged with the mid packers and my hip has to start acting up. I started getting pissed off. I wasn’t high fiving the leaders as they passed anymore. I got quiet. I was busy in my head and got stuck there. I tried every single trick in the book to stay positive. Just get back to the bridge and reassess. By then you’ll be a third of the way in and you can just run this hip regardless. I repeated this over and over hoping my back and hip would somehow get the message. Then a little light went off behind my eyes like an alarm–Black Canyons! I was about two miles from the bridge. Sure, your hip is hurting, you’re grimacing with every foot fall. But there is no way you can keep this up and not risk injury. I was alone on this section. Most of the people I had been running with were way ahead. I came back up to the road. A volunteer told me I looked great. My brain begged me to keep going. My body was in full pain mode. Being on flat pavement actually felt better. I relaxed and picked up my pace. I focused forward across the span as cars whizzed past.
Despite my disappointment I was quite pleased to be appreciably faster this year and got to see Glenn Tachiyama on the bridge in time for him to get my photo. I couldn’t enjoy the gorgeous view, because I am afraid of heights and can’t turn my head to look over the railing without getting dizzy. I simply kept running. This was when I said to myself, “DNF.” I hit the second span and had accepted the fact that I needed to stop running if I wanted to prevent a major disruption in training for my next race in February. I didn’t feel like I had any wiggle room to take time off if I messed up my hip. I felt flat. I wasn’t emotional. Race volunteers were kind enough to drive me back to the start. I met up with my pal Travis and he gave me his gloves and propped me next to the heater. He was the perfect person to share this downtime, because he was a great reminder to not take myself too seriously. I sincerely felt that I had made the best decision in stopping. It was a smart thing to do. In training for the past two years with Matt if I have learned anything, it is to listen to your gut and your body when they tell you something isn’t quite 100%. There is so much value in tuning into your inner workings while making choices as we push ourselves beyond the comfort zone and into our outer limits of physical and emotional landscapes. We headed home that afternoon and I still felt good. Sure, I wasn’t entirely happy about not finishing. I had planned to crush my previous time. Sometimes plans need to change.
As the days wore on I started to get fairly bummed out. I was hard on myself. Maybe I had not been invested in this race as much as I should. I didn’t train enough. I didn’t do enough squats or core work or yoga or hills. All of the self doubt I work so diligently to avoid came rushing back. I looked at my belly fat as the enemy. I made myself the enemy. I committed to a week off to get it together. Go to work, focus on other people. Take stock. By the next weekend I was ready to run again. A little rehab was successful and my mind was in a good place. It was time to focus on the next step and get prepped for Black Canyons. I made a mental note to take a solid 2-3 weeks off after that race to give my hard working body a chance to recover and get pampered. Even though this was my first DNF, I have had races I wasn’t able to attend due to injury. I don’t know at this point which one is more damning, the lost opportunity of not doing any of it, or getting there through your training and having to give it up in progress. I may never know that answer. Honestly, I don’t need to know. What I do need to know are my limits and when to obey versus push past them. I’ll likely always feel like an ultra novice. It seems I’ll be logging thousands of more miles before I feel truly at ease in this sport. It is a sport of unknowns. You take off from the start line and the longer you go, the deeper you dive to find your problem solving skills. It is unsettling when I miss the chance to do that. I’ll admit to liking that discomfort. I enjoy getting to the place where my body aches and possibly doesn’t want to go any further, but I somehow convince it to do so. I’ve had some amazing experiences this past year using my brain to convince my body to keep moving. I’ve had to run through pain, emotional crisis, and when plans needed to change on the fly for one reason or another. I always managed to get it done despite what I faced. This is my greatest source of pride as the season comes to an end. I not only became a better runner, but a better solver of race related riddles. You’ll hear all kinds of ways that folks claim ultra running is 90% mental. I don’t agree. I am pretty darn sure the miles I log in training get me to where I need to be on race day. Sure, the mental game needs to be strong. What I do know is that you have to believe you’re going to finish. This takes both the physical and mental chops.
My 2016 race season is over. It ended quietly with a DNF. I’m OK with that.
Deception Pass 50k takes place near Whidbey Island just SW of Anacortes, WA. It is a Rainshadow Running event. If you haven’t done one of their races, definitely go look at the website and plan to do one in 2017. They fill up fast, so set a reminder in Ultrasignup. They are well run races with tons of great support. Live music, wood fired pizza and libations await you at the finish. The course is beautiful! Mostly single track, moderately technical in sections, but a good entry level ultra for those wanting a good first race experience. The only caveat is the time of year if you do not like racing in mud or inclement weather. There is also a 25k option on Sunday. There is also plenty of lodging nearby, and other modern conveniences.
Altra Olympus (my favorite shoe of all time)
Salomon Sense Lab 5 pack (I carry about 1L of fluid fuel)
Oiselle tights, team singlet, and jacket
Fitsox crew trail socks
Team Seven Hills cap
Garmin 920 XT and HRM
Justin’s peanut butter packs
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