Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Mauled By A Raccoon

I headed down to Texas to pick up my 50th ultra finish, my ninth hundred mile finish and a shiny new belt buckle. Instead I came home with a DNF and a whopping dose of humility.

I was rapidly stripping clothes as I headed to the starting line at 6 am. As the start time  approached it was already 61 degrees with 93% humidity and it felt muggy. The first couple miles I was in a nice conga line, struggling to stay smooth. Being behind many people made it hard to see and there were a lot of roots in this section. My legs just didn’t have that strong feeling, and I had one minor ankle turn. But when I hit the jeep road, I could stretch out the legs and I felt a lot better. But it was already hot and sticky and I was asking for water down my back at mile 6! I must’ve been running pretty well on the jeep road because I soon caught up to Nicole Studer, Michele Yates, Gary Gellin, Ford Smith, and Jason Fingar, all of whom had gotten out ahead of me and were running together. I think my presence fired up the competitive drive in Michele as she quickly took off and the rest of the group strung out with Nicole and I hanging in the back. I ran the rest of the loop with her and enjoyed getting to know her and having someone to chat with for a bit.

As we came back down the rooted trail to the start finish I felt really good and figured I had just needed a bit of time to warm up. 2:47 was a bit faster than the 2:50-52 I was aiming for, but I also knew it was a slower first loop than several of the women’s winners in the past couple years and Michele was already 8 minutes up on me. On the out and back, Michele looked like she was already in focus mode and Connie Gardner assured me she was going to blow up and I just needed to stay steady. I wasn’t concerned if Connie was right or not, I just knew that Michele’s pace was definitely too hot for me and I needed to stick to my plan. What I didn’t know was that my plan wasn’t right for me either! 

As soon as we hit the roots once more, I was hurting and struggling again. Much of the Rocky Raccoon course is like an M.C. Escher drawing: you have to go up and down lots of steps, but your elevation really never changes. Spending September through December training for a track race and only getting two short trail runs in January, this was incredibly hard on my legs, particularly my hip flexors, which just weren't prepared to lift a few inches higher than usual to clear all the roots (not to mention I am a low clearance shuffler to begin with!).

The enigma of RR: there's really not much climbing or descending, but there sure are a lots of steps!


But I held on and kept pace with Gary and Nicole through this section and through the Dam Nation loop. Gary was pretty cheery as he announced us going through 50k in 4:26 (8:35 pace). It was a touch faster than the 8:45 pace I was hoping to keep up through 60 miles, but in theory it didn’t seem unreasonable to me. The reality was different: “Gary, my legs really don’t feel good.”

“Yes they do. They feel great!”, he answered. My nutrition and stomach had been good but I quickly chugged a bunch more drink mix to see if that would help. It didn’t.

I stopped at Dam Nation 2 and really took my time to drink, soak myself and eat more. But by the time that minute or so was over, my legs had completely locked up, particularly my hip flexors, which felt angry and inflamed. I let Gary and Nicole go and walked a bit. I figured I would jog as slow as I could for a while and I was aghast to find my slow jog was 12:45 pace, and even that was killing me! I had three miles on the road till the next aid station and I made a couple more jog attempts but they would all end after just a few minutes with cramping and pain in my hip flexors and a bit in the hamstrings. Neal Gorman was also having a major low and we walked in to the aid station. He had an impressive comeback from the dead to finish 5th, but my day was done.
You know you are in bad shape when your crew gets so bored waiting for you, that they have to start knitting!
I don’t like to be a quitter, but I don’t regret my decision. I was honestly in more pain than I have ever been in during any ultra. Could I have gutted it out to the finish? - yes, I am absolutely certain I could have. But I exorcised that demon with my 29 hour finish as Western States in 2012. I embrace a certain amount of suffering for these events (and even thrive on it a bit), but I am not out here to torture myself for 65 miles just to prove I can. I run because I love it, but at mile 35, I didn’t love running. In fact, I didn’t even like it in the tiniest bit, and so I am ok with my decision. What’s eating at me, though, is that I let myself get to that point.

***
Unfortunately, things didn’t go too smoothly for me after Desert Solstice. I did a little too much running right after the race so that I could be part of our group’s annual “Elf Run” leaving goodies on all our friends doorsteps, so my legs were flat and tired for longer than usual. At Christmas my sister came out with her three kids, and some mega- GI bug that knocked me out completely for three days. I had the toe surgery, which went really smoothly and I am completely happy with it, but there was certainly some stress and a few days of missed running for that. And then MLK weekend, I got hit with another crazy GI bug that took me out for a week after losing 6 pounds in three days (via numerous bathroom trips). What was meant to be my biggest training week went from 90 planned miles to 42 actual miles, and all of them slow; I did only three speed workouts and essentially no real trail running between DS and RR. My longest run in seven weeks was 19.5 miles. But the Monday before Rocky Raccoon I had one of my fastest 6x400 sessions ever (sub 80 sec on a couple- great for me) and I grasped on to the idea that the low training meant I was well rested and ready to run. But conditions at Rocky Raccoon were less than ideal; humidity can be brutal to run through and the only other race I have done at high humidity did not go well for me, either. It is just not something we are accustomed to in Oregon.

But I am not offering these as excuses to exonerate me, because the reality is that none of these were the true cause of my demise. Plain and simple: I messed up.

I have success in running lately and success breeds confidence. But there is a fine line between confidence and self-delusion or hubris, and I stepped over that line. I convinced myself that I was capable of running a certain time at Rocky Raccoon and even though my legs felt bad from the start, I stubbornly held on to that goal and kept pushing, hoping for things to get better. I don’t think the pace I was running early on was egregiously fast and in theory I believe I should be able to do it. Indeed, Nicole was right with me through 50k and held on strong for the win. But for where I was at on that day, with that training, it was too much. I have never had any kind of psoas muscle pain or cramping and can only assume they just weren't in shape to handle that terrain or the conditions. There was certainly a common theme: many of those pushing for a faster run succumbed to the oppressive humidity with only a 58% finishing rate. Those who ran more relaxed and focused on finishing over running a specific time fared much better, and there were many impressive performances in the 17-24 hour range, with lots of runners showing how an even, conservative pace will get you to the sub-24 buckle. I tend to be a conservative runner and I pride myself on pacing, but I failed at this completely on race day. I kept running the pace I so desperately wanted to run, until I just couldn’t run anymore, and sadly that was pretty early in the day. It’s good for me to get out of my comfort zone, but it is also good for me to learn how far is too far, and Saturday I got that lesson: if it feels too hard, it is too hard and it is time to back off and let go of time goals.

Perhaps the hardest part of dropping, is explaining it to others. It kind of feels like the walk of shame in college (not that I would know about that!). Even though I was convinced I made the right call for me, the guilt and the apologetic feeling was overwhelming. To explain why I dropped felt hollow and lame. I understand why you don’t see most people right after they DNF, but I wasn’t about to the let the pride get the better of me. While no longer running, I spent another 9 hours enjoying the race as a spectator, cheering folks on, and offering a little bit of help to those who were having a better day than me. And you realize pretty quickly that you’re the only one having a pity party and you need to snap out of it because there are so many wonderful stories around you - maybe not yours today, but you can still live vicariously and be moved by the people still out running. I loved hearing crews tell runners after their 4th lap that they were well ahead of 24 hour pace. Watching guys like Steve Moore and Neal Gorman rally to strong finishes was inspiring. Roy Pirrung blew me away with his steady determination. And my favorite moment all night: when Shaheen Sattar started her final lap and her crew yelled,”Keep this up and you’ve got Western States!” So many great achievements  out there, and while I was bummed not to have one of my own, I am still glad I got to be a part of it. Plus RD Joe Prusaitis made me a honorary Texan. He said it was because I have been to Texas seven times in the last five years for running events, but I think it is because I look so good in a cowboy hat! ;)

So, now I am going to take a couple easy weeks to make sure I am healthy and completely recovered (and to make sure I don't miss any of the Olympics - I am a sucker for them!). Then it heavy duty training time. The good thing is, I know what I need to do (ie. pull out last year's WS training plan and copy it exactly). Plus, I am motivated and hungry with a little something to prove once again - and that sure worked out well last year. A DNF isn't fun, but it's not the end of the world either. The failures are great lessons and a good way to grow for the future. So while I am disappointed, I am not going to beat myself up about it. Like I said to someone Saturday, "You're not a real ultra-runner if you don't have a few shitty races!" One more positive: My big toes feel awesome! No regrets on parting ways with my toenails!
The "elite" meet and great Friday morning: Gary Gellin, me, Ian Sharman, Connie Gardner, Ryan Ghelfi, and Dave James. Or more like "Club DNF." Seriously, what did they put in those sandwhiches?!? Thank you, Ian, for brining some credibility to the group!

8 comments:

April said...

Pam, you are such an honest, thoughtful, supportive, take no bull writer about your running. I get so much out of reading your posts. Thanks for sharing your runs with me!

Shining Speidel said...

Thanks, Pam. You are such a class act and great role model for us ultrarunning moms :-) I so appreciate your candor and humility, and explaining in detail the mistakes you made in prep for RR. Really helpful...and your DNF was an illustration of courage and smarts. Rest up and enjoy the Olympics!!

Dave James said...

Pam, Club DNF but we tried out there :)

Jackie said...

Thanks for keeping it real and sharing the good, the great and the not what you expected with us! And I was wondering about the toenails. Every time mine hurts (anything over 10-12 miles) I think of you and wonder, do I have the guts to do what Pam did? Enjoy geeking out on the Olympics, I'm right there with you!

crowther said...

I couldn't believe you were racing again so soon after DS! All I can say is, "Serves you right." :-p Maybe you could master that kind of "double" eventually, but, in general, I wish more elites limited themselves to 4 serious races per year, which I think would be good for mental and physical health.

crowther said...

(I should add that I am speaking based on the experience of my own past stupidity. In 2007, I raced ultras in January, March, April, May, and June of that year.)

Steve Speirs said...

Love the M.C. Escher analogy!

Thanks for the blog post, Pam. Really sorry about your DNF, but it sounds like it was the correct decision on the day.

Great to see you on the out-and-back in the first loop - you were all smiles and didn't appear to be struggling at all.

Good luck with the remainder of 2014 and keep inspiring the masses!

JR and Sarah said...

Come run in an Okie summer if you want experience with humidity ;) Those Portland summers are phenomenal, but not sure I could take the clouds and rain for the rest of the year….