The Long Walk

The long walk isn’t a marathon. That’s the whole problem. It’s much shorter. It’s me, fighting my way through the crowds on the Capitol grounds to get to the gate of the finish line area, bib clutched in hand so I can prove I belong back there. Then it’s swimming upstream of runners in their medals and mylar blankets, trying to avoid being noticed while I retrieve my drop bag. My fingers can’t untie the knot I enthusiastically cinched it with five hours prior, so I rip it open and put on the jacket I tossed in there before I handed it over to a volunteer. And finally, it’s leaving the crowds behind and walking a mile and a half back to my car at Union Depot, just like I did the year before, but without a medal and a mylar blanket of my own, because I didn’t finish. Of course, it’s also spending that walk thinking about what went wrong on the race and second guessing my decision to drop out.

There’s no traditional race report to be found here, not just because it was a DNF, but because the entire 13.3-ish miles that I completed before dropping out, I spent trying to figure out what went wrong. I don’t really have splits because the first mile was so jacked up from being in downtown Minneapolis that it looks like I set a mile PR. I promise I didn’t even come close. This will be a list of excuses couched in overwrought language.

I slept poorly the night before, as I usually do, but I did manage to get a couple hours of sleep. I’m not sure how many, maybe as little as one, maybe two and a half, but either way it was enough that I didn’t feel completely woozy like I do on no sleep. I got up, got dressed in clothes I’d put together the night before for the cliched “flat lay” for my Instagram, and completed the remaining items I had on the obsessively detailed checklist I made for the race. Items on the list include “remove rings” (I don’t race in my rings because my fingers get puffy and they get tight, especially my Order of the Engineer ring, but I forget to take them off sometimes) and “fill soft flask” because it’s too important a task to leave to my forgetful brain. I left a little later than planned and had to park a little farther away from the light rail station than I wanted to because the Union Depot parking lot was unexpectedly full. I had to hustle a bit and got on the train with only a couple minutes to spare before it left.

The start area was absurdly crowded and it took me quite awhile to get to the bag drop. I had to meet my colleagues at 7:45 to take a group pic, and I barely made it back in time. I only met up with one (who had flown in all the way from Houston!) for a pic and then tried to find a spot toward the back of Corral 3. That didn’t work because there were Biffy lines that prevented me from going much further back. I did find my other colleague and he and I stood together until the start.

Right from the beginning, it felt hard. Yes, a marathon is hard, but it felt too hard. I don’t know what pace I was actually running at the beginning because of the GPS errors from running through downtown, I know that I hit mile 1 at about 11:50, so I was about 25 seconds over my A goal pace, and slower than I went out last year, so I know I wasn’t out of control. I chalked it up to the lack of warm-up and the wind through downtown, and then the second mile felt slow because there’s a hill there. But the third mile felt hard, too, and the fourth. I grabbed some Gatorade at the aid station around mile 4, and at mile 5 ate my first gel, thinking that maybe I just needed some more fuel. Through 5 miles I think I was at about 58:40 or something, so just below 12 min/mile pace. The last 5 mile run I raced, my pace was 10:01 or something. I finished the Run Baby Run 10K back in August at a 11:09 pace. I think I was still around 12 mins at the 6 mile mark (I had to glance at elapsed time on my watch and I think I was at like 1:11:XX), and if Run Baby Run felt hard a minute faster in high humidity, there was just no reason to be through 6 miles at a pace 40-50 seconds slower and feel like I couldn’t hold it. And yet I did.

Between Lake Calhoun and Lake Harriet, I started taking walking breaks. I thought maybe I could give my body a chance to take in the gel and the Gatorade, I’d start to perk up again. The Chain of Lakes section is supposed to be a section to cruise through, not a place to struggle for no apparent reason. But I thought maybe I could turn the race around. The section around Minnehaha Parkway (which is really nice! I need to run there more often) has one of the bigger hills of the race so that slowed me further since I walked the entire thing. My walk breaks were becoming longer and I wasn’t feeling any better, despite having more Gatorade and another gel at mile 10.

I also wasn’t having any fun. I had a few sections where I gave thumbs up to people who cheered for me by name thanks to my bib, and I saw my friend Laura at mile 4, which perked me up momentarily, but I wasn’t smiling. I smile during races a lot, partially because I’m having fun, partially because it helps keep my spirits from sagging, and partially because it suppresses the gag reflex. I wasn’t thanking as many volunteers or enjoying the surroundings and the music and the general party atmosphere. It was a grind.

As I started the section around Lake Nokomis, I started to think seriously about quitting. I had thought about quitting several times, but I often do when I’m getting settled in to races and then that feeling dissipates once I’m in a groove. But I’d keep talking myself out of it, saying I could do a run/walk and keep on surviving. So what if I didn’t make my A or B goal? Maybe I could still make my C. Or maybe just a PR. Or maybe I’d battle my way to a finish. Instead, I came through the half marathon mark at around 2:50, and at that point knew I’d spend most of the rest of the race chased by the sag wagon. I didn’t have enough water and fuel to continue on the sidewalks on my own (and there would be no value in doing so) and if I got on the sag bus at like mile 16-17 I’d probably be bus-sick all the way to the finish. I’d gotten nauseated on the light rail on the way to the race and that was before running (although it was also because a woman was smoking on the train).

The thought of running down Summit didn’t appeal to me, or that amazing point in the race when the course crosses into St. Paul. I didn’t care about seeing the Cathedral and then heading down into the Capitol to the finish. I love so much about this course and nothing was giving me joy at all. I didn’t want to learn a lesson or tough it out or force them to cut me. I just wanted to be done.

Conveniently, my mom was spectating at the half marathon mark and I was able to drop out and get a ride back to the Capitol with her. I didn’t know you could just drop whenever, so I continued past the half marathon timing mat to the drop station, thinking they’d need to take my number or my bib or whatever. I guess they don’t do that in big races! Weird. I’ve never dropped out of a road race before. So I added probably an extra half mile of walking to my daily total because I’d walked to the drop station and then back to my mom. Then she and I walked back to her car, which was parked like… maybe another mile away, maybe a little less, at my cousin’s house. This ended up giving me time to cool down and stabilize so that I didn’t get so claustrophobic when I got in the car. I felt sort of crappy in general at that point: my lower back hurt, and my face was sunburned (if I had continued this would actually have become a huge problem, because I wasn’t carrying any extra with me), and I’d been feeling slightly breathless the whole day, likely due to the wind and the cold-like symptoms I’d had earlier in the week (as well as the overall labored running).

I’m so disappointed, and I can’t really tell what the cause of my dead legs/low energy was. I didn’t have a designed taper, but I also didn’t run a lot of mileage so I didn’t think my legs had been overly taxed, and this week I ran like 15 miles with two rest days so I don’t think I overdid it. Of course the converse could be true, that I didn’t run enough miles, but that would become evident later in the race, not from the get-go. I didn’t sleep, sure, but I never sleep before races. I had a bit of a cold last weekend, but I got over it and it was never in my lungs. I don’t eat very well, but I never have and I’ve still managed to run a couple miles without my thighs turning to cement. Maybe I put too much pressure on myself for this one event, but I didn’t really.

Maybe there’s nothing to figure out. Maybe it just wasn’t my day. I’ve been stressed at work and that’s probably taken its toll in ways I didn’t realize. The good news is that I am not hurt or sick or otherwise impaired in the long-term, so I can go out and run some other fun races and try to make at least a few of the goals I’ve made for myself this fall. The bad news is that I didn’t have an amazing Twin Cities Marathon experience and I’d really been looking forward to it. Next year, I’ll be ready.

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Race Report: Wild Duluth 50K 2017

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!