Saturday, January 23, 2016

San Diego 50: A Perfect Disaster

It's been since Bear 100 last September that I raced (and far longer since I updated this blog), and to be honest, I didn't intend on racing this soon.  Frankly, I hadn't planned on running much other than some maintenance mileage for the rest of 2015 post-Bear; it was my first 100-mile race, and I had an overall great experience with it.  No real low points until around mile 90 or so, and everything went pretty smoothly.  As much as that race took out of me both mentally and physically, there was never a point in that race where I thought that I wouldn't be able to finish; I knew I was going to cross that finish line, and I did.

After Bear 100, I took about 10 days or so and ran probably twice, with a cumulative mileage total of about 6 miles.  It's not that I couldn't run more...I just didn't want to.  I wanted a break.  Mentally the race had broken me far more than physically.  I'm not an emotional person, but as soon as I crossed the line at Bear, I lost it.  I'm sure part of it was fatigue; I just couldn't control my physical body at that point, let alone my emotions.  I've had friends and family pass, and while sad, I never lost my composure when hearing the news.  This was nowhere near as significant in my personal life in the grand scheme of things, but seemed to affect me far more, and I just broke down for a solid five minutes.  It didn't stop there, and for three or four days after, I was especially emotional (not to mention the physical fatigue combined with a post-race case of acute narcolepsy).

After a couple weeks had passed, I was pleasently surprised with how well my body recovered...physically at least.  I did the typical ultra-runner thing that everyone tells you to avoid, and before I had fully recovered, I signed up for my first race of 2016.

San Diego 50 is a race that appealed to me for a few different reasons.  It was mid-January, so I knew the weather would be cool, which was different than most of the races I had done in 2015 (Bear being the exception).  It was relatively close to home; no need to have a one or two day drive just to get there.  All I had to do was just leave the evening prior, a couple hour drive, a stay in a cheap motel, run the race, and then drive home.  The biggest draw for me, was the course itself.  This was not a big mountain course, it wasn't on rugged, technical terrain, and compared to most races I'd been looking at it was flat.  So I registered.

When I started serious training for SD 50, it was right at the beginning of November.  With a solid month of unspecific running (not even anything I'd call training) between Bear and the start of my build up, I felt physically well recovered, and still in pretty good shape.  As time progressed through November and December, I got all my runs in, and was hitting all my key workouts.  I was running all my normal routes faster than I had all year.  But there was still a problem - my head was not in it.

Several times during my build up, I seriously considered stopping my training, withdrawing from SD 50, and just taking the real break that I should have had.  I needed an off season, but I didn't give myself one.  That would come to bite me in the ass later.

As race day approached, I felt ready, but I wasn't excited to run 50 miles.  It wasn't the race that didn't excite me, it was the physical act of running that distance.  I knew I was in shape, probably the best running shape I've ever been in.  This wasn't what I would call my typical "mountain fitness," which is what I tried to have for most of my 2015 races.  I knew for SD 50 I'd need to be able to run consistently for the entire race, so I had spent plenty of time focusing on more flat running, and tempo runs.  I should have had the best race I'd ever had based off of my training.

The morning came, and there I was again, lined up on a start line in the pre-dawn hours.  It didn't feel wrong, but it wasn't right, either.  My body was ready to go, but my head wasn't in the game.

The usual pre-dawn ultra start.  I'm the one in the blue jacket.

As we started the race, I tried to keep it mellow, and not go out too fast, which seems to be a problem I have (and I'm sure I'm not alone).  I'd done many back to back long runs at an effort that was much harder than what I was moving, so I didn't feel like I was overextending myself in the first part of the race.  The first 10 miles came and went pretty easily.  I wasn't flying, but I was steady.  I came into the mile 10 aid station, saw my wife (who is the best crew chief ever), and took the time I needed to grab a snack, refill my bottles, and grab some more gels before I took off again.  There were 3 or 4 runners who passed me while I was in the aid station, but for the first time ever in a race, I didn't care.  I was only out there to run my race, not anyone else's.

The next 10 miles to the next crew access aid station was more of the same.  I moved along steady, running almost all of it at a casual pace.  There weren't any climbs that I would consider major, but there was enough rolling to keep the terrain varied, which was nice.  There was a section going around Lake Hodges that was some steep, but short, ups and downs that were rutted out, but I was enjoying the views.

This is a good spot to point out that the SD 50 course, while in a relatively urban setting for the most part (you are running near houses pretty much the whole course), is actually quite beautiful.  Sometimes we seem to forget what natural beauty can be found, quite literally in this case, in our own back yards.

I rolled into the mile 20 aid station, and there was quite a cheering squad.  Aid station volunteers and other crews are always very supportive during ultras, and this was no exception.  There were even two members of other runners crews who stick out in my mind:  one guy dubbed me "Honey Stinger," presumably because I was wearing a Honey Stinger hat, and cheered for me every time he saw me; the other would randomly appear on different sections of the course, and was easily the most optimistic guy I've ever seen.

Rolling in to Mile 20 Aid Station.

As my wife did the usual aid station routine, changing bottles, gels, etc., I ate a little bit of fruit, and took the time to make sure everything was still functioning as it should.  Things were going well, so I pushed on to the mile 25 turnaround point.

Miles 20-30 is where the bulk of the climbing is on the course.  It's an out and back course, so you do have the benefit of knowing what's next after you hit the turnaround.  I didn't struggle in this section, I just dialed back my pace, and tried to keep my effort as consistent as possible.  I did just as any ultra runner should:  I ran when I could, and hiked when it was more efficient.  I managed to pass some people in this section, particularly when the climbs got a little steeper.

It was during this section, when I was at around mile 22 or so, when the race leader came flying back my direction (he would have been around mile 28 at that point), and he (Michele Graglia) was just floating along.  It was probably a solid 15 minutes or more after he passed that I saw the next runner inbound to the finish.

I hit the turnaround, and headed back, keeping my efforts measured.  It was around mile 29 or so, when the low spot hit me.  I came into the mile 30 aid, and saw my wife again.  I can't tell you at this point if I looked any different, but I was definitely starting to feel it.  It's pretty typical for me, regardless of the distance, to have a low spot around the 50k mark of a race.  I can't really explain why...anything I change in training or nutrition has never seemed to make a difference.  High fat diet, low fat diet, more speedwork, less's never seemed to matter.  I've just grown to expect it, and so has my wife.  She's well aware that when I get to that point in the race, I'm generally not feeling that great.

I ate some fruit, drank some coke, ate a Honey Stinger waffle, and pushed on.  Things started to slow down...not just my pace, but mentally.  Usually I do a pretty good job of shaking off the low mental spots, knowing that in a few miles, they will pass.  This one, for reasons I'd soon realize, wouldn't.

At mile 35, I was over it.  I wasn't over the low spot, I was over IT...running.  I didn't want to be out there anymore.  This wasn't the typical "I'm feeling sorry for myself because things are getting hard now and I want to have a pity party for myself."  This was much deeper than that.

In 2014, I raced Pacific Crest Trail 50, and had a pretty low spot around the same time in the race.  I was whining, because I was fresh off an achilles injury, and it was hot and windy, and I was tired and nauseous, and things just weren't going the way I envisioned them.  I moaned about how I wanted to drop to my wife, and made the excuse that my achilles was flaring up (physically, it wasn't, but in my head, it was), and that I should quit to avoid further injury.  She was smart enough to tell me to go to the turnaround and back (about 5 more miles), and if I didn't feel better, I could drop.  Well, in that race, I hit the turnaround on the course, and in my attitude.  I came around in the five mile stretch, and when I saw my wife again, I was motivated and on the hunt.  That's the way it usually happens.  With time, it almost always gets better.

This time, when I left the mile 35 aid station enroute to mile 40 where I would see my wife again, things got low.  Lil' John was singing the soundtrack for me at this point "Get low...get low, get low, get low, get low, get low..."

I immediately regretted doing this race.  It was at this point, that I knew it was too soon.  While I may have been physically prepared for the effort, mentally and emotionally, I was just burnt out.  I didn't just want to stop this race, I wanted to stop running...period.  I began to question why I was doing this type of activity altogether.  Even more, I felt like a failure.  Not because quitting this race would be a failure, but because I believed that I had failed at who I thought I truly was.  I identified as a runner, and I was failing at it.  In that moment, somewhere around mile 38, I detested the fact that I had seemingly built my entire life the past several years around who I was as an athlete, and now it was all in shambles.  I didn't think about my life outside running, and how great things were, how much I loved my family or my job, or more importantly how much my family loved me.  I only thought of failure.  I was done running at that point...maybe forever.

And so I walked.

I didn't care that people were passing me.  I didn't care that I wasn't running.  I had given up.

I came into the mile 40 aid, handed my wife my hydration vest, and before she could say anything I walked straight up to the aid station captain, and said the two words I've said only once before, and barring death or serious injury, vowed never to say again...

"I'm dropping."

"No," she told me.

In that moment, before the aid station captain could say anything else to me, all sorts of things ran through my head.  Did she just tell me no?  She can't tell me no!  I can drop if I want to, and dammit, right now I don't want to be here anymore!  Does she know what I've gone through the last 10 miles?

"Why?" she asked me.

"It's too soon.  I wasn't ready for this.  I haven't recovered from my last race."  I said.

Then she told me the simplest things, that I already knew somewhere inside, but I needed to hear from someone.  From someone who wasn't my wife, but from someone who didn't know me from anyone else.

"I've been where you are at.  Take a few minutes, or even a few hours if you need, you've got the time.  Sit down.  Eat.  Get your head together.  You're only 10 miles from the end.  You can do this, and you're not dropping."

I sat in the chair, but turned it around to face away from everyone except my wife.  I didn't know whether I should be angry, upset, happy, sad, or what I should feel.  So I sat there.  I ate something.  I probably drank some more.  I sat thinking.  I don't know how much time passed...10 minutes?  20?  40?  My head just wouldn't come to where I wanted it to so that I could finish this race. head came to where I needed it to.  And I got up.

And I ran.

It started out slow.  My legs were stiff, my spirits were low.  But, after one mile...two got easier again.  I could run.  Maybe not fast, but it was running, and once again, I was a runner.

Next thing I knew, random guy was out along the course again, cheering for me.  I'm sure he was cheering for everyone that ran by, but it felt personal.

"You look amazing.  You're killing it.  You're going to smash the rest of this race."

I believed him.  I didn't just need to believe him, I wanted to do so.  I kept moving.

Mile 45 aid station.  Bottles.  Eat.  Move.

The big climb up the last hill was next.  I could see people in front of me.  I didn't get excited, and charge after them, I  I was methodical.  I had five miles to reel them in and pass them.

Three miles left.  Three people in front of me that I could see, and I made it my mission to pass them before the end.  I'd never been running this fluid before at the end of a 50 miler.  It just felt...effortless.

Small hill, he's walking.  "Run it."  I said to myself.  One down.

She's stopped to tie a shoe.  "Pick up the pace."  Two down.  One to go.

Two miles left.  One more left to pass.  He was a nice guy, we had a short conversation about how he had been scared shitless because this was his first 50 miler.  "You've got it now.  We're almost done.  Nice job."  He smiled.  I ran faster.  Three down.  Bingo.

I came to within sight of the orange grove that I knew the finish line was just on the other side of.  One more person came into view.  I was hurting, but he was walking.  "Four is better than three."  I thought.  I picked up the pace, and got one more notch in the belt.

And then it was over.  Crossed the finish line, and I was done.  All the drama, all the mental anguish and doubt evaporated.  With everything that happened, I looked at the clock, and then realized that I'd just run the fastest 50 miler I'd ever done by 45 minutes.

"Damn."  I thought.  "What could it have been if I hadn't stopped at mile 40?"

The finish.

Truth is, we never know.  Maybe I could have run 30 minutes faster if I'd just pushed through.  Maybe, if I hadn't taken that time to reset, I would have gotten worse, and slogged it in 3 hours slower.  They say hindsight is 20/20, but it's not.  Sometimes looking back is just as muddy as being in the moment.  Either way, you take what you get, and considering what I experienced that day, I'm more than happy with what I got.  It ended up being a perfect disaster.

Needless to say, I learned quite a bit from this race.  And being a week removed from it at the time of this writing, I've made some key decisions moving forward.

1.  Mentally, I need a break from the ultra distance for a bit.  I even need a break from running.  I'm not quitting, that's for sure...I just love running too much.  I do need time off, mentally and physically.  I'll start running again when I want to run, not because I think I need to.  Maybe that will be tomorrow, or maybe that will be a month from now.  I honestly have no idea, and I'm just fine with that.

2.  At this point, I'm not planning to put another ultra on the schedule.  Maybe I'll tackle something later this year, but right now, I'm excited at the thought of getting back to some shorter distance stuff. There are a couple of shorter trail and road races that I did a couple years ago that I want to go back to, and see how I fair against my previous times.  Money says I'm faster, I guess we'll see when I'm ready.

3.  Race volunteers are awesome.  I need to volunteer at more races, and up my game as a volunteer when I do.  I don't know what her name was, but at that mile 10/40 aid station, the captain saved my race, and possibly my running future.  That might be a little melodramatic to say, but I think it's relevant.  A DNF would likely have left me guessing whether I should even be doing it; now the only question I have is when is the right time to do it again.

4.  It's time to diversify.  Not just my running distances, but my physical activities.  If I keep fitness through other ways, I'm less likely to experience mental burnout from strictly running alone.  I've started dabbling in climbing recently, and I really enjoy it.  It's also a nice activity the whole family enjoys, so I think that will start being a more regular part of my training moving forward.

5.  And does eventually get better.  I'm not going to be naive, and say that necessarily applies to life.  I realize that in this world, for some people in poor circumstances or situations, that may not be in the case.  But in running, specifically in a race, it does get better.  I think it was Ann Trason who has once been quoted as saying that in a race it only hurts so bad, and then after that, it doesn't get any worse.  I suppose that's true both physically and mentally...the trick is just finding out where that bottom is.

Consider my bottom lowered.  Time to move forward.

The spoils.  Lot's of black and white.