Embracing the DNF on the Mountains of Oregon

I knew there would come a day where I would not be able to complete a race. The looming “DNF” is always in the back of the mind of an ultrarunner. When you dance with the devil called ultrarunning, you know that sooner or later, you’re going to trip up and get burned. And it was on the mountains of Oregon where I accepted this dance and got burned.

Mountain Lakes 100 ended in my first DNF (did not finish). It was the first time I was unable to reach a goal I set for myself and it was the first time I have ever had to drop out of a race. From the beginning of my running career almost 5 years ago, races have always come ‘easy’ to me. And I use that term ‘easy’ lightly. I struggled and I fought, but I always finished within the time that I wanted to. I had training runs that ended in worse outcomes than races. This time it was different. Strange thing was, while I had worried about completing races in the past, I really wasn’t worried about this one. I thought I had it. I did the training that my coach gave me, hired a nutritionist, and had a plan. I didn’t have mountains to train on, but I was getting my hill workouts. And afterall, Kaci Lickteig was able to win Western States this year training in pancake-flat Omaha, Nebraska. Ok…I’m not Kaci…not even close, but still. I would have thought I did enough to at least finish this race.

But it wasn’t enough for this course. At least for me. As a typical back of the packer, I needed to be stronger and the lack of strength training that I had this season was detrimental to my performance. I tend to perform better with lower mileage training and a lot of cross training, and if you ask me, when you don’t have mountains to train on for a mountain ultra, you need to need to find a way to get strong enough for the course. I was actually concerned about the lack of consistency with cross training that I had this season. Life really got in the way and it was a challenge to fit it all in. Still, I thought – I hoped, it would be enough. It wasn’t.

My hip gave out at mile 9 and I pushed on anyway. Every few miles it would give out from under me causing me to fall or slip. I continued to push through anyway. My energy was up and at this point, my legs still felt good. But deep down inside, this I knew this dance was beyond my capacity. The devil called ultrarunning had my number.

By the time I came down the mountain of the first 26 miles of the race, my quads were blown and my legs were fatigued. I pushed on anyway, keeping an eye on my Garmin which was so wrong that it had me at an average pace of 16:30 yet getting me into aid stations more in the 20:00 pace. I thought I had time so I took my time. And the more tired my legs got, the more my pace slowed, but I thought I still had some cushion. I didn’t. I realized it was going to be a fight to finish within the cutoff time.

As we headed into the night, I paired up with another runner, Christopher. The universe has an uncanny way of sending you people when you need them. He was exactly what I needed at that time. I wasn’t looking forward to the night run and having company was nice to get myself out of my own head. I was nervous about finishing and I kept dancing with the idea of the dreaded DNF. We chatted through most of the night taking turns pushing each other. As I started to feel my heart sink, I told him that I was about to have a moment.

We came across an open field and he paused and had us look at the stars. I looked at the brightest stars I’ve ever seen in my life. It was as if I could touch every single one of them. I’d imagine they’d feel like the sparkles that fall off the sparklers on the Fourth of July, stinging you just a little as they touched your skin. That was my moment. Now, I didn’t breakdown and cry like a baby, but I looked up at the stars and asked my heart, how bad do you want this? How much should I push this weak, struggling body? Is it okay to quit? And for the first time in my life, my big stubborn heart said yes. I took a deep breath in, exhaled and said to myself, okay. Dance over. I was done.

We took a brief moment and then continued on. Christopher caught his wind at the next aid station and was ready to take off. I was ready for bed. He chugged along ahead of me and I eventually lost sight of him in the darkness. Then out of the blue, I heard him shout out for me. And when I heard his bellowing voice, I laughed. And when I laughed I knew I was going to be okay. I told him not to wait for me and to keep going. Still, every so often, I’d hear his bellowing voice. And each time I did, I laughed again. I was going to be okay.

When I came into Clackamas (about the 55 mile mark) three hours behind schedule, Alex, my crew and pacer ran up to me with his big brown wide eager eyes, “I’m running the last 50 miles with you. We’re going to do this. Here, I’ve warmed up your clothes.” I looked at him and told him I was done. I was okay with a DNF and that I was tired, hypothermic, and ready to stop. I was completely and utterly done.

He wouldn’t hear it. Alex, with those oh so determined big brown wide eager eyes, wouldn’t hear it. “Let’s warm you up. Rest a little. What do you need? I’m not going to let you quit. Let’s get to the next aid station. Let’s get around Timothy Lake. We’re doing this together. ”

“I’m not strong enough for this”

“Yes you are. You are so strong. You can do this”

“No, I’m done. I okay to be done. I have nothing left.”

“Yes, yes you do. You got this. We’re going to do this together. YOU’RE SO STRONG! YOU CAN DO THIS!”

I argued with him and argued with him, but finally I gave in. I couldn’t look him in his unwavering big brown wide eager eyes and say no again. We took off to the next aid station. I made it to Little Crater Lake just about 10 -15 minutes before the sweepers showed up. I was finally done.

A week after my first DNF, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what went wrong and what I could do better and why was I not as crushed as I thought I’d be. Don’t get me wrong. It hurts. It stings. And when you watch your friends get their buckles, it stings a little more. I’m certainly disappointed in my performance and saddened that all the sacrifices I made just weren’t good enough to finish this race. But I know that this is all part of the game. It just is. And if I want to continue to play, I need to accept the fact that while this is my first DNF, it won’t be my last.

Christopher later sent me this quote that was sent to him. And every single freaking word resonated with me.

“You go out there to leave everything you have on the trail. You find something bigger than you, you throw everything you have at it, and *maybe* you come out on top… The finish line, it’s not the finish line. The external distance is just a distraction, an exercise. The goal is to cover new terrain in here.’ I tapped two fingers against my temple. ‘If you fall short, if you don’t cross that arbitrary line, it doesn’t mean that you suck. It just means that you have ambition, that you try to do big, heroic things. That’s what matters. A DNF should be a badge of honor. It means your dreams are boundless. Ultrarunning is the opposite of real life: when you fail, you win.'” — Mishka Shubaly

Every word, true.

And in that moment, I once again embraced my DNF.

And I knew that I would be back.

And I knew that I would be stronger.

And I realized that sometimes the suffering that you put yourself through in the anticipation of failure is far worse than the failure itself. What I learned is that I could fail and not be destroyed by it. I could fail and welcome the fact that in the search for the betterment of myself and finding my limits that failure can be somewhat comforting. It means that I live life to my full capacity. It means that I don’t just talk about dreaming big, but I do dream big. I means that my will, my spirit, my determination, my grit are all still intact because the failure lights the fire in my belly to get back out there and do better, be better, and succeed. And when I do succeed, because I know I will, I’ll start the cycle all over again.

mountain-lakes

Sunrise before Mountain Lake 100 PC: Alex Harris

8 thoughts on “Embracing the DNF on the Mountains of Oregon

  1. Sandra, Wow! That cut to the essence of what I experienced too. Thank you for sharing. I had the luxury of training for my first 100 miler in hills (living in Bend, OR), running my first 50-miler on a difficult course in July, and previewing the Mtn. Lakes course during the group runs in August. I knew the first 26 mile loop is the toughest terrain of the course, that heading back on the PCT would be a lot of uphill, and that the sights on our September weekend would be beautiful and motivating. Everything went very well for me: body, mind, food, hydration, weather, stars, pace, logistics…until about mile 85 when my left side began to “fade.” So bad that I walked with a stick the last 5 miles. Having to grit it out added to the scope of the event and left me with an even greater respect for the 100 mile ultra. As you mentioned, we’ll be stronger for having gone through what we did. Rest, recover, and look forward to the runs in your future. Niels #73

  2. Thank you for sharing. I had my first DNF at a marathon I trained really hard for and had similar feelings as you. I like to think that DNF made me stronger as the “failure” of not finishing a race showed me how brave I was to go out there and do something out of my comfort zone (running a race faster than I’d had before). I’ve PRd every distance under 26.2 since and now I’m going out to get that marathon PR next month.

    Looking forward to continuing to follow your journey.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s