I’m leaning against a tree, probably only 400m from the Grand Portage Aid Station, feeling my heart thudding against my chest. This isn’t normal. Last year, I spent a minute at this aid station. This year, I spent probably 5 minutes there, drinking pop, trying to slow my racing pulse and calm my breathing. And here I am, minutes after leaving, the aid station still in sight through the trees, wondering if I should turn back. Take more time there. Pack in the race. I’m sweating, not an exhilarating sweat from a hard race effort, but a panicky, sick sweat. The kind of spontaneous, uneasy sweat that usually means I need to sit down, immediately. But I’m standing.
I stand there for probably 10 minutes. I don’t really know how long I stand there because later I realize I hit pause instead of lap when I left the aid station. I’m only passed by 3 people, since I was already in the back of the pack (though I didn’t think that far back), which means I don’t have to keep explaining myself. Keep saying I’m fine, I’m fine, even though I’m not sure I’m fine. I ran 6 power line hills in July at Curnow in heat with a half marathon in the books already and I cruised. I did two of them, slowly, only five miles into the race, and I’m destroyed. They were slick and muddy from the rain that’s fallen since the race start, and I slipped and fell 4 or 5 times while trying to scramble up and over, but that shouldn’t take this much out of me. What am I doing?
I can’t quit now. I had 5 great miles, slow but steady. I felt good. I walked the uphills, ran the flats and downhills. It’s the easiest part of the course. This next section isn’t bad, but it’s got a few short-but-steep uphills. You can do this. You can take it slow. Put one foot in front of the other. So you’ve stopped, so you’ve just lost all progress you made toward beating last year. You can still rally. Let’s go, start walking. So I do. I feel terrible and am blowing my nose into my hand every 30 seconds, it seems. I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m quitting. I’m done. I should turn around and go back to Grand Portage. I see that my watch is paused. It makes me want to quit even more. I’m not even getting a correct pace anymore. I have no idea how slow I’m actually going, and I have no idea how far I’ve gone with the watch paused. Maybe a mile?
Eventually my heart calms down, and it doesn’t feel like my heart is playing a Slayer drum track on my thoracic wall. I even run a little on a nice downhill and some flat sections. I’m not running very fast, but I’m running. I figure I can keep this up, maybe rally a bit more at the next aid station. I can finish this race. It won’t be fast, but it’ll be badass. I remember I don’t have a headlamp, that complicates things if I slow down a lot.
I hit another hill and I can’t handle it. It’s not really that hard of a hill – a steepish grade, but it’s short. It’s one I can power through on a normal day even though it feels crappy. Just keep those legs moving. But I can’t. My heart’s racing again, I’m breathing heavily. I’m stopped. I’m leaning against a tree. I’m crouching on the trail, hoping there’s no one else who’s going to come up behind me. Hoping I won’t run into a 100K runner when I look this pathetic. I’m in last place (second to last, I later learn, as a man hiking with trekking poles overtakes me with a mile or so left to the aid station) and I’m breathing this hard only 7 or 8 miles in? It’s not who I am as a runner. It’s not what I trained to do.
I think about what’s realistic. I think about the logistics of dropping. What do I do? Am I supposed to call someone? I don’t have a crew. My husband is asleep. My dad is probably 30 minutes away. My friends are all busy. Do I have to beg someone for a ride? I need to keep going. I need to get closer to town before I drop. So I keep walking, make it up the hill, let my heart calm down. Ok, maybe I can make it to Magney. That would be good. It’s the halfway point, it’s more than a half marathon.
I start running into 100Kers going the other way. They are so kind, so sincere in their encouragement. It only makes me feel more frustrated, though I paste a smile on my face and wish them well. The trail is slippery due to the intermittent rain. I slip on a switchback and come closer than I’d like to falling down a steep hill. I try to keep sure footing, but my feet still have moments where they could slide out from underneath me at any moment. I grab onto trees and try to stay upright. The trail is going to be a disaster once all these folks come through. Twice.
I go up another hill and realize it’s all over. I am not going to finish this race. I’m not going to go any further than Munger. There’s no point. The climb up and over Ely’s Peak is going to do me in. I’ve completely underestimated the effect that this cold/crud has had on me. I walk it in, slowly, every hill taking me forever and a day. I feel dejected and embarrassed walking into the aid station. They probably thought all the 50K runners were through. The aid station folks try to convince me to keep going. They kind of stop once they hear the baritone cough that erupts from my lungs. I take off my bib and they figure out what to do with me. I have some pop and cookies, and it takes three people to get my Houdini jacket pouch open, because there’s crud in the zipper. I put it on and stand under the canopy as the rain intensifies. I wait while they tend to a 100K runner with a deep gash in his hand. They clean it out, wrap it up, and he goes out. I feel like an idiot. A real trail runner wouldn’t have quit. I feel like a fraud.
Two lovely volunteers take me back to the start, but we have to stop and pick up supplies first. Just as we pick up supplies and head to the aid station, we get a call that they need other stuff. Bread and oranges. So we head back to the store. Go to the aid station. I sit in the car in my wet clothes, semi-wrapped in a blanket, feeling chilled. Feeling like a nuisance. We have a fun conversation in the car, talking about the weather (the worst weather in the young history of this race, by far), other races, all kinds of stuff. I still feel like an inconvenience. We finally go back to the start, I thank them, I get in my car, drive home, shower, and then eventually take a nap when I realize there’s no other way I’m going to get warm.
So, there’s my first DNF. 11 miles into a 31 mile race. It took me 4 hours to cover those 11 miles (20 minutes slower than last year, and that is after running the first 5.4 miles at the same pace [technically faster, but I spent longer at the aid station this year]), and I had given up well before then. Part of me is like, I am so soft. A real runner would have gutted it out. I wasn’t missing cutoffs. There were 13 and 14 hour finishers. Those people are amazing. I am less than amazing. I was angry about a lot of things, mostly around getting sick, staying sick, not doing enough to get healthy sooner, not doing enough to avoid getting sick, traveling too much which led to me being both run down and exposed to germy people in close quarters. Angry that I had already skipped the Birkie because I hadn’t slept the night before, and had consoled myself by saying this was the real goal race.
Another part of me is like, look, you were sick. Maybe another runner would have gutted it out, yeah. But you felt like garbage all day Saturday, and felt pretty crappy on Sunday, too. And you had to get a plane on Tuesday (I’m writing this from Edmonton). What shape would you have been in if you had finished the race, if this is what you’re like after 11 miles? How do people with heroic tales of destroying themselves during ultras get up and to go work a day or two later? In reality, I shouldn’t have started the race. But I didn’t know that. I didn’t know how running would feel so different than just going through my day to day life. I thought I’d given myself enough time to heal, but I hadn’t.
I’m still not completely over it, but that’s mostly because I haven’t raced in a long time, and I’m missing that great feeling of running miles and miles in nature, as fast as I can handle. I’m missing the triumphant payoff of months of training. I have another race in mind (Fall Back Blast 50K in Eau Claire) that I’ll run, provided I’m able to get some miles in this week and next, and the cough goes away. Maybe then the sting of frustration from this race will fade, but for now, I’m still pretty annoyed about it. Now I feel like I have something to prove to myself. I have to show myself I’m not a quitter, that I made the right choice and that under different circumstances, I’d have dug in and finished.
On the bright side, I actually got a couple hours of sleep before the race! I thought at the time that would be a good sign. Silly me!