What makes a person persevere at one time and quit at another? The Laurel Highlands 70 mile trail race was this last weekend, a race that I have DNFed the last two years in a row. The title of this post was supposed to be "Third Time is the Charm" but, alas, it is not.
After my DNF at Massanutten, I wasn't sure that I wanted to do this one again. In the end I signed up and tried to make the necessary corrections to be successful this time around. Last year I attended my son's graduation the night before and didn't get into the motel at Ohiopyle until midnight. This year I got there at 8pm and was in bed by 9pm. I got pretty good sleep the week before and was feeling good overall. This year I had pacers waiting for me at mile 46. My brother Jim and friend Sonya were there and would take turns pacing me until mile 57, where Tara would be waiting to pace me the rest of the way. I had spent a few weeks trying out a new nutrition/hydration plan and felt that I would be able to stick with it for a good part of the race. The only negative thing going in was my hard effort at Rothrock the Saturday before. I knew my legs wouldn't be completely recovered but felt that my legs have never been the issue at ultras, just my stomach.
It was nearly a perfect day for running. The race started at 5:30am and the temperature was in the mid 50s with highs to be in the lower 80s. We left Ohiopyle and hit the trail and I settled into a comfortable mix of walking and running. The bulk of climbing at Laurel Highlands is in the first 7 miles as you scale the ridge. The rest of the race stays mostly on the ridge, although the course still rolls somewhat and there are some tough, although relatively shorter climbs.
I rolled into the first aid station feeling good, in fourth place overall. I wasn't expecting to be that close to the front as I really wasn't pushing it, at least I didn't think so. I was mixing my own drink so it took me a few minutes to get that done and a few guys caught up with me while I was there. The next aid station was at mile 26, in the Seven Springs area. I was keeping up with the hydration/nutrition fairly well, drinking about 18 ounces of an Infinit mix every hour. This was to supply my hydration, calories and electrolytes in an easy to process mix. I did start to notice, however, that I was always on the edge of my belly feeling full. I kept sipping at it, but couldn't drink very much at a time because I felt slightly bloated. I wasn't too uncomfortable, but it was kind of bothersome.
My legs definitely felt heavy when I got to mile 26, but I kind of expected that. My energy was decent and my stomach was decent, so I couldn't complain too much. I was still running in 4th place and didn't have anyone behind me that I could see. There was some pretty good climbing to get into the aid station at mile 32 and I was pretty tired when I got in. During the next leg I really started to get heavy legs and my stomach became more bothersome. I wasn't nauseated but I was full and it just didn't feel great. I had to keep loosening the belt from my hydration pack because it kept getting tighter. I decided I would sit in a chair for a few minutes and rest my legs and maybe let my stomach do some processing. I sat down at the mile 39 aid station and drank some Ginger Ale and just chilled out for about 10 minutes. Numerous runners passed me here. Suddenly I felt bad and got up and went behind the aid station 10 yards and started throwing up. Fortunately, I didn't pass out, but I did throw up a large volume of liquid.
After I was done vomiting, I went back and sat in the chair, trying to decide what to do next. I wasn't sure what I should try to eat or drink. I had them fill my bottles with ice and water and tried to eat a little PB&J. I definitely felt better to get rid of that stuff in my stomach, so I had some more Ginger Ale and headed down the trail. It was only 7 miles to the next aid station, where Jim and Sonya were waiting, and I thought I could get there. I knew I was done with the Infinit mix and probably wouldn't be able to eat anything else, so I was running on borrowed time.
I definitely did not get any better in the next few miles. I did a lot of walking. At one point, I just sat on a log for a good 5 minutes and decided I would drop out at the next aid station. I didn't want to do it, but my legs were so heavy and I just wasn't making good time. I wondered what the heck I was doing here and just wanted to end the suffering. It wasn't fun. I eventually got back up and stumbled down the trail as it was my only way out. About 4 miles out from the mile 46 aid station, I stumbled across Jim and Sonya. They were getting in some additional mileage before pacing me in preparation for their first 100 mile race in the fall. I was so happy to see them and it definitely lifted my spirits. I told them I was probably going to drop and Jim started working on my psyche to change my mind. I started to feel a little better, just talking to them and being with them, so I started to run again on the flats and downhills. I definitely rallied a little. I began to think again that I could do this. They let me run ahead, as they weren't supposed to be pacers yet, and I rolled into the next aid station.
In a last ditch effort to get some calories in my system, I had told my brother to get me a milkshake. I knew there was an ice cream place a mile down the road from the aid station because I had milkshakes in defeat the last two years. He wondered whether that would be good for my stomach but I was hoping it would rally me and give me some needed calories. I sat down and waited for him. He eventually showed up with the milkshake and I drank most of it. It did taste good, but my stomach was fairly full again. I was starting to have second thoughts about continuing, because I still wasn't feeling all that well. I stood up and immediately felt a little light-headed. I went behind the aid station and felt the nausea coming again. I kneeled down and threw up another large volume of liquid. I decided to lay down for awhile to see what would happen. I lay there awhile and then my left calf, which had been bothering me since mile 5, started to cramp. I thought about the 11 miles I had to next aid station and how long that was. Jim tried every trick in the book to convince me to continue, including saying, correctly, that I only had to go 1 mile, not 11. I still wavered a little, but then I pulled the trigger. Done. DNF. Dang.
In retrospect, I wimped out this time. In my other DNFs at Laurel Highlands and Massanutten, I had real concerns about my safety. I was worried about passing out in the middle of the trail. This time, I felt better (despite the vomiting) than I ever had at this point in the race before. My legs, however, were heavy, I was suffering and I just wasn't having fun, so I quit. I couldn't get over the 11 miles to the next aid station. If it had just been 5 or 6, I think I would have kept going. I didn't want to be 5 miles in and want to quit and have to walk it out.
So what is the answer to my question in the first paragraph? I think part of it was that I asked myself why I was running this race and I had no answer. At my first 100 at Burning River, I felt worse between miles 60 and 80 than I did here (I threw up twice and passed out there), but I never questioned why. I've seen pictures of myself and I looked terrible. Even though I was concerned that my condition would force me out, I don't remember even considering dropping out. I just kept walking/running. I was there to conquer the 100 mile distance and complete the race. At the Vermont 100 last year, I felt pretty bad between 75 and 85 (although probably the best of any of my ultras longer than 50 miles). For some reason, I don't think I questioned "why" there either. I just kept going.
At Massanutten and Laurel Highlands, I did a lot of questioning why I was doing this stupid thing which made me feel terrible. I've already completed the distance so what am I trying to prove. I once said that if running trails for 20 miles was fun, running them for 100 miles was just more fun. I'm going to say now that just isn't true. 20-30 miles is fun, 100 miles is just 65 miles of suffering after the fun part (in my experience the last 5 miles have been pure joy and transcendance).
For most people who try it, running a 100 mile race will be the most difficult thing they ever do. You have to understand that going into it. Is the amazing feeling of accomplishment at the end worth the suffering? I think it is one time, for sure. Beyond that, I'm not so sure. Especially in light of some recently revealed research on endurance running and what it does to the body, I'm not sure that it is a good idea to do a lot of these long ultras. I've never said that I want to, and only have done a couple a year. I'm not sure that I want to do any more. Certainly not without having a good reason "why" going into it (apparently "finishing what you started" is not a good enough reason for me). I think I would even write it down in my own handwriting so my crew could produce it at the appropriate moment, when I have "trail-brain" and just want to end the suffering.
I am signed up for one more long ultra this year, the Oil Creek 100 in October. I was planning to run it with Jim and Sonya, to support their effort. Now I am wondering if I would be better support if I just crewed them and paced them at the end. If I don't know why I am doing it, I might just drag them down in the last 50 miles. On the other hand, I will most likely feel a lot better at a slower pace and might be able to help them through the rough spots, although they will get tired of me telling them to "just walk faster."
These are a lot of ramblings and I don't have all of the answers. It would be so much easier if I didn't have so many stomach problems. I know it is common, because of the body using its resources to support running instead of digesting food, but it just makes it miserable. I'm in no rush to figure it all out right now. For now, I am busy just kicking myself for quitting last weekend. That will keep me occupied for awhile.