My long term goal since getting into the ultra-running community has been to run in one of the UTMB events in Switzerland through the Alps. The past two years I have been using the same points to enter the lottery for the OCC, but both times I have not been lucky. However, third time is the charm with UTMB where if you fail the lottery twice you are guaranteed a spot IF you accrue the necessary points. It was bad timing because most of points expired and I only had 3 from running the 2018 North Face 50K in Massachusetts. With less than 6 months to achieve a total of 5 points, I was on the lookout for a run that could allow me to make the threshold and thus run Switzerland.
My first try was at the Vermont 50 miler this past September. Long story short, I wasn't even able to start the race. My training has been thrown off with some personal life goals, such as moving apartments and applying to graduate school. I was able to travel to Vermont though, and it would have been a fun run, but with my lack of training it really wouldn't have been good. As a result I looked around and found the Mines of Spain 100 in Dubuque, Iowa. This race appealed to me precisely because one of my co-workers is from Dubuque and I have only heard good things. After reviewing the course map of the 100K I thought that this could be the run that could get me to Switzerland as well as finally visit Iowa.
This was the first running of the Mines of Spain and the entire event was amazing. Great scenery, course and trail upkeep, and of course awesome race staff/organizers as well as fellow runners. For me, this was my first 100K and anything over 50 miles was going to be a PR distance and time wise. With a 23 hour cutoff I had plenty of time to run the 3 loops and time at the end to take a nap.
The first loop was great, I was feeling amazing and paced with other runners around 13 minutes per mile. About 3/4 through we all encountered a giant part of the course that literally got flooded and we had to wade through almost hip deep water for about 250 feet. This being my first 100K it was a nice reprieve to cool of my feet. The first loop I finished in about 6 hours.
The second loops fared about the same as the first, relatively good but the runners have severely spread out with the faster ones probably on their way to completing their second loop as I was starting my first. I kept my chin up and ventured off and completed the second loop in just over 6 hours.
As I came into the finish of my second loop, the sun fell and the moon rose. It was nearly pitch black. Lucky I had my headlamp but for some reason it was malfunctioning so the illumination was low and it was hard for me to see. This slowed me down and started to get me concerned about another 6+ hours in the dark with a malfunctioning device. Before starting my third loop I was luckily enough to borrow a working headlamp from the race organizer which I am eternally grateful for. I wasn't even sure if I would be able to keep running.
As I went out for my third loop, the first mile felt great but then it went downhill. Literally and figuratively. At this point I have never run past 12+ hours. Exhaustion. Feet hurt, big toe numb due to hitting the toe box, and lower back starting to act up. I slowed down, began to collect myself, and called Susan to get some mental and moral support. She ran me through some good exercised to relax my feet, hips, and quads, as well as some mental support of just keeping one foot in front of the other. After some time conversing on the side of the trail, I went back out and continued on. Between that phone call and the first aid station, about 5 miles later, I felt amazing. I had a second wind. However, with the darkness and scarcity of runners on the trail it began to be a bit eire on the trail doing the first loop to aid station 2. With no pacer, limited visibility, and trying to make time, it made it extremely more challenging to run than during the daylight. I was not prepared.
As I got halfway through the loop to aid station 2 I started to fade. The exhaustion was getting to me and it was something I had not trained for. A big failure on my part. As I continued on to aid station 2, I noticed that I was no longer running but walking, and had a hard time moving forward due to my feet starting to ache, as well as my lower back and shoulder starting to act up. This is usually fine on its own, but the combination with exhaustion and the darkness added an element which I was unprepared for.
Getting closer to aid station 2, it was getting harder to walk forward and keep going with myself getting hot flashes sometimes as well as my hips giving me more limited mobility along with the darkness giving me limited visibility. During this time, some runners passed me and I passed on word for them to inform the aid station. Fortunately a race volunteer came out as I got closer and helped me walk it in.
I didn't know what to do at that point. By the time I hit aid station 2, I was at 17-18 hours (a pace which if I kept up I wouldn't make it to the finish in time) which for anyone is a long time, let alone running for that period of time. My lower back and shoulders were making it hard for me to ambulate along with my feet telling me that we were not ready. As I sat down getting an awesome pep talk from the folks at aid station 2 I honestly didn't feel comfortable moving forward. Although I had about 5 hours left to run the last 9 miles, with the darkness, washed out trail, exhaustion, and weird muscle quirks acting up I didn't feel like it was appropriate for me to continue as I could injure myself. The exhaustion was particularly concerning for me because with the scarcity of runners I was worried that I may just fall asleep, as I was encountering some sleep deprivation with physical exertion that I didn't anticipate. It was at that point that I had to make a choice. Do I continue or do I quit?
I never quit. I have never quit anything that I put my mind to, let alone running. I finish everything I start and exceed at that. This mentality was one I have lived with for years. As I was getting a pep talk from probably the most experienced ultra-runners volunteering a the aid station I felt incredibly inadequate. Yes it was my first 100K, the longest run in both time and distance I will do, yet people adequately train and prepare. I was not ready. My equipment failed (headlamp, shoe toe box), I never trained for exhaustion (running for 12+ hours), and I had limited training mileage over the past few months. Honestly, I am surprised I made 9 miles from the finish, as the only thing I think that helped me get that far was my past experience and resume of marathon and ultra-marathon running. My body was used to it. But it was not prepared for this.
As I was considering accepting my nightmare scenario, dropping out, I realized that if I dropped that I wouldn't be going to Switzerland. It was honestly one of the hardest decisions I have ever made: finding your physical and mental limit and ACCEPTING it. Feeling uncomfortable to continue, I accepted my limit. Sacrificing short term pain for long term success works in most cases but in this case I was gambling with short term success for long term pain: a potential injury. I rolled the dice starting the race and cut my losses once I had that epiphany at aid station 2. I took the DNF.
Although I got my first DNF at this race, it probably won't be the first. Coming to terms with a decision, I am unwilling to continue due to lack of training, and ACCEPTING that it is the right decision was eye-opening. As I have never quite before on my OWN terms, as in I have only encountered true failure due to external events this was truly the first one where I had a choice. Do I continue, truck on into the last 9 miles and risk injury? Or do I accept the fact that I was unprepared and move on to the next event. I accepted the fact. I don't feel sad or upset by quitting, it was the right thing to do. The only thing I feel is embarrassment. I feel like I let down my fellow runners on the course, the race staff/volunteers, and myself for not pushing through. It was an embarrassment that I have only felt once or twice before.
The key takeaway form this event was more of a psychological success for myself. I finally found my baseline physical and mental limit. I realized it at aid station 2 and through acceptance I made my decision. Even though I was so very close to the finish, I was getting close to a potential injury. Although I live by the motto "Never Quit" from the book "Never Quit" by P.J. Jimmy Settle I did quit so I could run another day. It was completely irresponsible of me to begin the race in the first place with poor planning of training. I realized this and payed the price: my first DNF.
Many people get DNF's and I don't see it anymore as a mark of shame but rather a mark of self-reflection and self-awareness. It shows that we are human and that we do have limits, either mentally or physically. It is our duty to test those limits and if we do reach it: train, train, train. Preparation is key and how can one prepare if we don't know what to prepare for? Just do it and see what you need. Everyone is unique with varying limits. For myself, exhaustion was my limit. Thus I have formulated, along with the assistance of Susan, some strategies to train for exhaustion.
I will be focusing on 26.2 marathons for the next year but I am still gunning for Switzerland. It will always be there and if it is 2020 or 2025 until I get there to run I will be happy.