"You're just not there yet."
These words were uttered to me by a very close friend the day after my soul-crushing disappointment of a race this past weekend. I'm not sure if those are the hardest or the easiest words to hear in this case.
On one hand, maybe it's true. Maybe I'm just not yet capable of running 150 miles in under 24 hours. If that's the truth, then that's easy. I just keep running more and running harder and I'll teach my body to get there. Sure, I wanted to be there at this race, but if I'm not capable of holding that pace for 24 hours then I'm just not yet. On the other hand, maybe I am there and my body is capable of running that distance in that amount of time and something just went wrong this past weekend. Maybe I went out too fast (I didn't) or my nutrition was off (I don't think it was) or something else just caused me to stop running about 18-19 hours into the day (but what?).
To set the stage a little bit, this was the last possible race in the country to qualify for the US National Distance Team which will be competing in the 2017 IAU 24 hour World Championships to be held in July in Dublin. Entered in the men's division of the race were 6 athletes (of 11) who have previously met the 2017 qualifying standard (myself included) of 140 miles, Jon Olsen who has run the 2nd most miles ever for an American in 24 hours (who had not yet qualified for the 2017 team), a former 24 hour World Champion Roy Pirrung, and at least 2-3 other very accomplished athletes capable of running 140-150+ miles with a good race. That's right, of 23 men entered into the race over 10 had at some point in their lives run over 140 miles. This was set to be one of the most competitive 24 hour races in the country, possibly ever!
The Race Director, Greg Armstrong, was also an alumni of the 2015 US National Distance Team and competed in the 2015 World Championships for Team USA. He was not racing this day, but he knew exactly how to set up a race course and event to maximize mileage for every athlete entered. Greg is not only a fantastic race director, but an amazing and supportive human being and athlete (more on that later). There was no doubt that there would be big, BIG numbers put up at the Run4Water event. The only question was, who would do it?
I had way worse than usual pre-race nerves and was having severe doubts in the weeks leading up to the race. See previous post. Though, once we flew into Nashville on Thursday morning and got settled into our hotel my mind also began to settle down. I was here and damnit I deserved to be here and I wanted to make sure everyone knew it. My confidence levels grew each day as the race got closer, especially after a nice Friday pre-race pep talk with my Coach Amy.
Deep in my heart though, I knew that this race would be a "go big or go home" type of event. With this competition and everything on the line (i.e. a spot on the National team) there was really no other way the race could turn out. Not for myself, and not for most athletes. It would be either have the race you planned for or (figuratively) die trying. I knew that. I also knew that I had put in more work than I ever had and that I was/am in physically way better shape than I was back in December. The odds were in my favor, or so I thought. So, what did this mean? What does it mean to anyone outside of my head, to someone who isn't a runner or who doesn't run this kind of event?
What this means on paper is that in order for me to have a shot at running over 150 miles I would need to run the first 100 miles in approximately 15 hours and 15 minutes. This pace would be about 1 hour and 8 minutes faster than my previous best 100 miles. I ran the first 100 miles in a little under15 hours and 5 minutes averaging about 9:02/mile. A 1 hour and 18 minute personal best for running 100 miles.
As the race started there were several people out ahead of me for the first few hours. Some I knew would probably stay there, and others I expected would fade out. Through the first 3-4 hours my legs felt better than they normally did this early in the race. I had two of the best crew I could ever ask for in my wife (this was her first time coming to the 24 hour race) and Johnny, my now 3x pit crew chief. They kept me eating and drinking right on schedule. As the hours progressed I just kept mentally checking the boxes. Marathon - check. 50k - check. 50 miles - check. It was sometime around my 40-50 mile mark that my dad and step-mom made it down from St. Louis. This was a great mental boost seeing them as well. Next, 100k - check. Though, from the 100k to the 100 mile check boxes there lies a lot of time. I hit the 100k mark around 9 hours then had a while until I hit that next check box. At least by now it was starting to cool off a bit more and I changed singlets and hats to freshen up a bit.
Over the next few hours things went pretty smoothly with a couple of high/low spots mentally but I managed to alternate between some musical show tunes and hard core rap to keep me going. I'm pretty sure the other athletes and spectators were 100% LOVING my Eminem, DMX, and/or rendition of "Do you Wanna Build a Snowman" from Frozen. How could they not?
Through about 18 hours I had managed to run about 118 miles. This meant I had about 6 hours left to run 35 miles. This is only about a 10:17 pace, which sounds totally doable, right? Well, it does, until your legs stop working. I don't remember at exactly what mile the wheels came off, but I know they came off FAST and with a vengeance. This was unlike anything I've ever experienced before. It looked something like this:
As you can see, I have clearly never felt this bad in a race. Worse, I have never felt such a sharp decline in my body in any race or at any other point in my life. I was feeling AMAZING and within 30-45 minutes I literally could not force my legs to move forward any further. At some point around 16 and a half hours I went to take in a few calories and protein by having a Fuel for Fire pack (which I have had several of in the race) and as soon as I took a sip of it I thought I was going to vomit. I waited a couple minutes then had another sip. Then I began to immediately start violently vomiting all the fluid and potatoes I had been eating for the last couple of hours. Looking back now, I realize that I hadn't really taken in any electrolytes for many hours. I had been eating real food (banana and potato) and drinking ginger ale. Without eating any gels or drinking the tailwind, I wasn't getting the same nutrition I normally get in a race. My stomach was pretty calm and I was getting the calories but not much else. Maybe this was part of the issue? Though, immediately after throwing up I felt AMAZING again.
I was flying and cruising around the ~1/2 mile oval in right around 9:50-10:00 pace, which is where I needed to be to stay on track. I knew I needed to get back in some calories and fluid that I just lost so I tried to eat and drink at an increased rate but I think losing everything in my stomach would soon prove way too much to come back from. Within about 30 minutes or so I just couldn't move any more. My body wasn't working and my arms and face were tingling very strongly. I've had this sensation at the end of races before when I was really dehydrated, but never mid race like this. Every time I tried running forward the only thing I could do was try to lean forward enough to keep my momentum moving and swing my arms as much as possible which left me leaning so much forward that I felt like I would fall on my face. (similar to the 4th runner in this video, but with more of a forward lean) I also was not running in a straight line, but more like an S-curve, at best. My body had ceased to function as I knew it. My mind and my heart wanted to continue on and keep trying to run further, but my body had other plans. Not one bit to their fault, nothing Johnny or Woo could say or do would keep me moving. Especially once I started to do the math and I realized that hitting 153 miles was not only highly improbable but with each passing minute closer and closer to impossible the way my body felt. Looking back now, a week later I just wish I had tried and listened to them more. Tried to eat something even though I didn't think I could stomach it. Tried to drink more even if I may have thrown up again. Maybe I could have turned things around. The math would have still been against me, but isn't that better than looking back wondering what may have happened those last 6 hours? At least I would be able to say I finished and saw the incredible performances by the top 3 runners, especially 3rd place finisher Bob Hearn who ran his heart out collapsing at the finish line, a mere 200 meters shy of making the US 24 hour team. Read more about Bob's "masterpiece" of a race here. You won't regret it.
You may realize that I just changed my goal mid race-report here from 150 miles to 153 miles. If you did, good catch. I did this because once I hit about 80-90 miles I realized that I would likely only finish 3rd place at best. The race was taking shape and Jon was absolutely flying and looking smooth as buttah. There was no way he was slowing down or missing a team spot. Beyond that, Steve Slaby had passed me and was looking calm, cool, and collected. I knew he was hungry and I could see in him that he wasn't going to slow down either. Up to this race, only 1 other man had run over 150 miles in the last year and it only happened a couple weeks earlier. Though I knew to get onto the US Team if I finished in 3rd place at this race I would need to bump off the lowest 3 (of 6) current qualifiers. That meant running over 152.3 miles, so I rounded up to 153 for pacing. This may have also had something to do with my demise, but I'm not certain. Essentially at that point I just maintained the pace I was going for longer than I would have needed to do if I was only aiming for 150. The thing is, my heart rate and my body felt great. I felt like I was on pace and with a reasonable effort level to run that pace or close to it for another 8+ hours. I was in the zone.
As you may realize by now, this "high" did not last long. I crashed. I bonked. The wheels came off. I suffered my first ever DNF (did not finish) of a race and it was the most I've ever invested of myself into one single race. I failed and I am honestly embarrassed by my performance. I know I can do better and it has been and will be very hard for me to accept this result. (I know, I know, you all think that's crazy - but it's just how I feel) I know you also will say and think that "running 120 miles is amazing and most people couldn't do it" but goddamnit I am not most people and I didn't go out to run 120 miles. I know this sounds arrogant and I sound like an jerk, but I'm okay with that. I push myself because I know that pushing limits is the only way to see what we are capable of and because I want to be one of the best at this sport. I know that I will get there one day.
Now that I'm done beating myself up (as I have for the past week) as I've gone out and gotten drunk, pouted, eaten crap food, and generally been pretty insufferable to everyone around me...it's time to stand the F back up, dust myself off, and refocus. I'm not sure exactly on what yet, but it's time to get my head back in the game. As a good friend recently said to me "hating on myself makes it seem like I don't know how to handle when things go wrong...but I do because I haven't won every race, gotten every girl, got every job, etc." (Thanks Dfulz!) I will take this disappointment and I'll learn from it. Not only what went wrong during the race, but how to carry myself when things don't go my way. If that's the most important lesson I get out of this race, then it will have been worth it. A hard lesson to learn, albeit, but clearly one I needed to learn.
I also owe a great deal of gratitude to my wife Woo, Johnny, My dad and step mom, and my mother/father in law, all who showed up in the middle of nowhere-Tennessee to cheer me on. I really wanted them to see me succeed and finish this goal that I set for myself, but I know that at the end of the day they were proud of me for what I was able to accomplish and they got to see me put every ounce of heart I had left in my body out on that half-mile loop. I am extremely grateful for their support and the support of all my family and friends who have reached out since the race. It is because of your support and encouragement that I will get back up and I will work harder and focus better so that when I get another opportunity like this, I will succeed. I also wanted to thank the Race Director Greg Armstrong for a well run race and his personal encouragement and support when I was falling apart mentally and physically at the end of this race. Also a huge congratulations to Jon, Steve, Gina, and Bob for amazing races!
I originally wrote this post the 2 days after the race when I was still entrenched in my disappointment and self-loathing, but since then I've revised, reread, and rewritten it several times. Getting valuable feedback from a couple of close friends (you know who you are, thanks!) who I knew could understand my mindset was helpful in not only writing this, but helping me to move forward. I'm not sure if putting this here will help me feel better or not, but I hope it does give other athletes some insight into digging deep and working hard. Even if you don't always make it to the finish line you imagine.
I suppose only time will heal this wound. So, at the end of the day, maybe I'm just not there yet...but rest assured I WILL BE.