If you race frequently enough, eventually, you are bound to have a bad day. A race that doesn’t go as planned. A race where you didn’t feel as strong as you knew you were capable of. Sometimes a bad race is simply bad luck. Other times, it’s self inflicted. More often than not, it’s a combination of the two. But the point is: bad races happen.
And if you race frequently enough (thank you $30 club), sometimes you get a little cocky. A little TOO comfortable, to the point where everyday training runs and actual races blur together into the perfect storm of self destruction, with a healthy dose of humility and pain.
I bet you know where I’m going with this.
I’ve DNF’d some pretty big races in my time. I’ve made epic declarations, and fallen woefully short. I’ve shown up to races I had no business attempting, and eaten a whopping slice of humble pie. But in the 13 years that I’ve been racing, I can say that hands down, without a doubt, the 2019 Last Chance 25K in Huger, SC, was my worst race EVER (well…so far. I’ve hopefully got decades of this nonsense left in me.) and it was no one’s fault but my own.
But, spoiler alert: I DID finish.
I contemplated not even writing this race recap, because a) it was so bad it’s not even worth writing about (my fault, not the race directors) , and b) it’s a classic case of “do as I say, definitely don’t do what I do”. But, today is not the day I stop oversharing on this blog. So here we go:
In ascending order of least to most self destructive, I present you with a list of “things that led to Heather’s race day failure”:
One: This lingering cough from this upper respiratory virus that just won’t go away. Alright, I suppose I shouldn’t beat myself up over that one, I didn’t get sick on purpose. But I also probably could have, you know, NOT RACED while breathing is still somewhat difficult.
Two: Tired legs from hammering on my bicycle not 12 hours earlier. Geoff and I thought it would be fun (and it was!) to ride the race course the day before, since it was such a gorgeous day. However, mid ride the gorgeous day shifted, the sky opened up, and it started pouring . I PUSHED on that bicycle in a hard gear for miles, and my quads, who have not taken nor taught a spin class in 5 months now, retaliated with a gnarly case of DOMS and fatigue.
Three: (the excuses are starting to get really good….) Once we returned from said bike ride around 3:30 pm, Geoff said to me (and friends) well, should we crack a beer? We were all camping for the evening, and now had nothing to do but hide from the rain.
And thus began an afternoon and evening that consisted of four Sierra Nevada Torpedo Double IPA’s around a campfire laughing with friends between 3:30 and 10:00 pm. To some, four craft beers over the course of 6.5 hours may sound like no big deal. For me, that’s enough to leave me seriously, and woefully intoxicated. I’m a lightweight.
This is the part where the peanut gallery condemns the runner (that’s me), saying things like “oh I would NEVER do that before a race…” Yeah well, neither would I.
Until this one time. We all make mistakes.
Four: You know what happens when I drink? I can’t sleep. I definitely saw 2:45-4:30 am from the “awake” position. Don’t get me wrong, I went to bed around 10:15, but woke up around 2:45 am and started contemplating the meaning of life, as one does at this ridiculous hour.
But eventually I did fall back asleep, and woke up feeling mostly normal. I ate breakfast, got dressed, and looked forward to a morning on the trail. I was running the 25K option (there was also a 50K option, that I ran last year). I had planned to just use this race as a training run, and seeded myself towards the back of the pack on purpose.
This years race course went in the opposite direction as last year. We headed West on the Palmetto Trail for a 5.1 mile out / 5.1 mile back, then passed the start/finish and ran East 2.6 miles out / 2.6 miles back. I knew this course was flat (hello, Francis Marion National Forest) and relatively fast, save for some short boggy sections full of cypress roots.
Geoff said he was going to stick with me “until I dropped him”. Lately, he hasn’t really been running very well and he usually drops off after a couple of miles. However, right out of the gate I couldn’t keep up with him. Everything hurt, and to be honest, the hangover was the least of my concerns. My lungs burned, my feet felt like lead, and every step took far more effort than it should. I kept him in my sight for maybe a mile before I told our friend Brian (who was on pace with me ) to go on. I needed a walk break to reset myself.
So I did.
I walked for about 30 seconds. Took a drink of water. Told myself to suck it up, because it almost ALWAYS gets better after the first few miles.
Let’s cut right to the chase: it never got better. In fact, it only got worse. Coughing, lead legs, an overall feeling of exhaustion. Any ideas of “racing” were gone within the first mile; the last 14+ miles were simply about finishing what I started. There were more than a few moments where I was frustrated, embarrassed, and pissed at myself. It’s never fun when your body doesn’t want to cooperate. It’s even more frustrating when you knew that most of this was totally preventable. There were a handful of times when I wanted to quit, including:
- Just before I hit the 5 mile aid station.
- When I fell flat on my face and slammed my hip into the ground (approximately mile 9.5).
- Mile 10, when I stopped at the start/finish to talk with race director Chad and friend Nathan, who both looked quite comfortable NOT running.
- Mile 13 ish, where I stopped at the aid station to talk to Kevin and Anne (who were volunteering) for a solid 5 minutes about the pros-and-cons of the couch to 5K program.
But I kept going. Partially because I am a stubborn ass, and knew that much of my dismal experience was self inflicted. Typical “I made this bed, now I must lay in it” thought process.
But more so, I kept going because it was a beautiful freaking day in the forest. I try to make a point to always appreciate how fortunate I am to be able to run, period. And that day, even while feeling like I’d never run a mile a day in my life, I was still happy to be there. Suffering on a trail is still better than a Saturday morning doing , well, most things
Plus: every crappy situation is an opportunity to train your mind to get better at suffering. Ultramarathon training 101.
So instead I focused my attention on simply trying to smile at and cheer on everyone who passed me (or that I passed – though that was significantly less frequent). I got to talk to people on the trail – like Kelly from Portland, Maine, who was running her very first ultra marathon. I got to cheer for friends who were having a stronger day than I was like Carl, who didn’t think I’d actually mention him in the blog. I laughed at the younger guy who ran the entire 50K in a velour elf suit and elf hat, carrying a heavy ruck, blaring Christmas music as he ran by.
He won, by the way.
Eventually, I dragged my sorry ass to the finish line, in a time of 3:00:17. Significantly slower than most of my long, slow, training runs have been this year. For reference, in 2017 I ran the 25K in a time of 2:21:55 , and last year, the entire 50K, at an “easier” pace thorough the pouring rain in 5:37:28 . So this was the opposite of a PR, by about 38 minutes.
Clearly, this was not my year.
But, I finished with a smile on my face. Because even on the worst day, even when I’ve self sabotaged in close to as many ways as imaginably possible, I still really freaking love what I do. I hope to never forget that.