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

North Face 50-Miler – Freedom Run

“She was born to be free, let her run wild in her own way and you will never lose her.” ― Nikki Rowe

On Saturday, April 9th, I ran my 4th 50-miler in DC. This was my 3rd time running the DC North Face Endurance Challenge. And for the first time in a very long time, I went into a race without a goal. As I started running ultras, I became more and more focused on goals (if that’s even possible for my obsessive brain) and the pressure of meeting these self-imposed goals started to get to me. Race after race, I would put myself through moments of despair and self loathing that I would come out wondering, why am I so mean to myself? I was afraid that I was heading towards being burnt out so I re-evaluated my goals for the year and frankly, they are pretty aggressive. After taking a look at the big picture, I realized that I needed a freedom run. I needed to toss out the goal of setting a PR and let my spirit and my heart run free. And so I did. Continue reading

2016 HAT Run 50K Race Recap – Chasing Seven

There are several races that I have scheduled this year where I have set a goal to achieve. The 2016 HAT Run 50k was one of them. My goal was to run this course in under 7 hours. Specifically, I wanted to do it in 6 hours 50 minutes. I had PRd this course last year when the course was in one of it’s worst conditions by 47 minutes from 7:59:29 in 2014 to 7:04:52 in 2015. Surely I was ready break 7 hours. Continue reading

See You on the Other Side of 100-Miles

Strong body, strong heart, strong spirit, patient mind. This has been my mantra over the past two weeks. It’s what’s going to get me through the 100-miler, along with a lot of grit. I haven’t been nervous, yet. In fact, this taper has been nothing like those taper periods in the past. I have no doubt that I put in the training and I have ran in just about scenario that can come up on race day. Continue reading

Hallucination 100 Training – Nobody Trips Over Mountains

“Nobody trips over mountains. It is the small pebble that causes you to stumble. Pass all the pebbles in your path and you will find you have crossed the mountain.” -Unk”

Right before I ran my longest run to date, a 54-mile training run, someone told me this quote. It’s funny how one little quote puts things in perspective. Over the past few months, I have tripped over quite a few small pebbles, but it’s what’s going to get me across this mountain that is my 100-miler. It’s also hard to believe that my 100-miler is less than a month away. ACK! HOW DID THIS HAPPEN? Continue reading

North Face Endurance Challenge DC 2015 50-Miler Recap – Stupid is as Stupid Does

Saturday, April 18, 2015 marked my third 50-miler race. I died a thousand deaths on that course on that hot humid day. Okay, so I don’t have to be so dramatic about it, but this was a tough one for me. I did everything wrong, and I knew I was doing it wrong, but I did it anyway. Stupid is as stupid does. I don’t understand why I couldn’t get my head in the game, perhaps it was because that I had such great runs after less than stellar training that I thought I could get away without proper nutrition, hydration, and pacing during the race. It’s a 50-miler for Christ sake…you HAVE to be diligent about all of those things. I wasn’t, I got lazy, perhaps cocky, and I suffered. Continue reading

HAT Run 50k Race Recap – Mud Run Anyone?

I died three times on the HAT Run 50K course yesterday. Maybe even four. And in my time of dying, I managed to pull out a PR. I had an unofficial time of 7:04 compared to 7:52 last year. Kendra had asked me if I had planned on shooting for a PR earlier in the week and I said it was a game day decision. Well, I woke up and said, hell…let’s PR. I initially had a goal of 7:00 set in my head, but by the end of the first big loop (mile 17-ish), I was on pace for a 6:30 finish time…and while I fought the mud I was feeling GOOD! Continue reading

2014 JFK 50 Mile Ultramarathon Recap – Chasing Cutoffs.

When I registered for the JFK50 at the beginning of the summer, I knew that there was a chance of burning out. I have been training non-stop since I started running almost 3 years ago, but I got caught up in the moment and signed up anyway. There were spots left in what is typically a sold out race, and it was the oldest foot race in America, so why not? I had only trained for 9 weeks with my last 50-miler (NorthFace Endurance Challenge DC) and wanted to see what I could really do if I hunkered down and trained hard. Well, if you’ve been following my blog, you know that the exact opposite happened. I got sick, and busy, yada, yada…needless to say, the training really didn’t happen. Continue reading