In running, ultra running in particular, there's always some kind of adversity to overcome. Whether it be a sluggish day on the trails, a poor result, finding your way through the pain cave at Mile 80, a bad season, an injury, and yes, even a DNF. What's important in facing these obstacles is that we take the time to rationally assess them and to use them as a chance to learn and grow, so that we can move forward and face our future goals with more confidence and better preparation.
So, what in particular happened to me? And what lessons are there to be had?
Before the Race
Seven weeks before Eastern States, I had the best run of my life at Western States (race report here). It was The Perfect Day, one of the best days of my life, and it gave me a level of confidence in my running abilities that I'd been lacking for years. I made sure to recover carefully. I ran here and there, but always easy and with plenty of rest days. One thing I didn't do much of that I should have was STRETCHING. I'm notoriously inflexible and I fully admit to being lazy, resting on my laurels after States, and not taking the time to keep up the flexibility I worked hard for in the first half of the year.
Twenty One days after States, I went on my first long run: 3 hours of easy trails. It felt comfortable and I walked away from it knowing it was time to get back into my training. Still, I made sure to not overdo any of my runs. A few days later, on a whim I decided to hit the track and try my hand at 4x1600m to see if my speed-legs were back yet. The workout went about as well as I could expect. Nothing noteworthy occurred. But the next morning I had a tightness in my left hip ... the back of the ball of my femur was tender. I likely strained my gluteal tendon, but I'm not quite sure how. Oh yeah, full disclosure: I didn't stretch before those repeats! Full Disclosure #2: It was my first speed session in 3 months. I can be an idiot sometimes. So ... I was cautious and took a couple days off.
After some rest and then a pain-free run, I ran a local 50K as a hard long run. It wasn't an all out effort and I made sure to dial back in the latter miles and not overdo it -- it was hard convincing myself not to chase down First Place, only 30 seconds ahead of me with 5 miles to go, but I did, and it was the right thing to do. My hip felt a bit tight at times, but it was never limiting or painful. Never-the-less, I took a couple days off afterwards. More importantly, I started stretching and doing hip strengthening exercises every day.
My next week of running was 3 uneventful runs, followed by an entire weekend off. Then the hip pain returned, seemingly randomly, on a short Monday run. That began a stretch of 11 days with only 2 runs. And the second run was only a mile long, with stinging pain in the hip from the get-go. Suddenly, I was questioning my ability to complete Eastern States.
I did nothing but rest the 4 days before Eastern States...
I had no pain in the 2 days before race day so I was cautiously optimistic. I toe'd the starting line feeling fresh and ready to take on a long day of running in sweltering heat and humidity on technical, cambered trails. It was go time!
Over an hour in, I was feeling good. I was in the Top 10, I wasn't working hard, the humidity didn't look to be an issue for me. I had tackled the first 2 climbs and descents with ease. More importantly ... NO HIP PAIN!
About 2 hours in, things started to change. My hip started to tighten ... then ache ... then sting. I was having to work to drive my knee, my stride was shortening, and I was having trouble pushing through my stride on steep climbs. Things were turning sour quickly. WHEN I would finish was now IF I would finish.
No one should be battling with stride problems 2 hours into a 100 miler! Ugh!
By 14 miles it had gotten even worse. My left leg felt like it was just being drug along for the ride, and worse, my hip was losing the ability to prevent lateral movement in my knee. I couldn't climb, the flats felt like I was running in water, and I was reduced to a hobble on the technical descents. I got passed by 3 runners like it was nothing, then another, and another. Then the hip problems started to infect the rest of my leg -- my hamstring started to feel weird, my knee started to stiffen, and the stabilizer muscles in my lower leg were occasionally feeling funny.
At this point it occurred to me that a finish would get me a coveted Buckle. I thought about it for a hot second ... and ... I didn't really care about this buckle. My first 100 -- Grindstone -- I would have done anything to finish, because of what it meant to snag my First Buckle. And Western States, well, that's self explanatory! But this race ... I just couldn't find the value in finishing at the cost of a potential serious injury. I had come to Eastern States not for a buckle, but to compete. I wanted to have fun out there, but hobbling and walking my way to a 30 hour finish, just for a buckle, seemed like a bad decision. My second Grindstone was 8 weeks away and I wasn't willing to potentially sacrifice a good showing there. IF I would finish became WHEN to throw in the towel.
For about a half hour I debated with myself. Do I try to make it to the halfway point? 25 miles? The next Aid Station? All the while, my stride kept devolving into a painful hobble. I made my way up to the Aid Station about 18 miles in, threw down my bottles, and hung my head in shame.
... But ... only a few minutes later I was over it. I had made the right call. This DNF wasn't a reflection of my fitness, it was the result of a weird kinetic chain problem that came out of nowhere (kind of...). Continuing on would've served no valuable purpose. It would've left me banged up and uncertain of how I'd be able to handle my Fall lineup.
For the first time in my life I wouldn't be crossing the finish line. And that's okay.
The DNF is official, now it's time to figure out how I can learn from this experience.
I didn't stretch much at all for an entire month after Western States. If I was Gumby then maybe that'd be cool, but I'm not. I NEED TO STRETCH ... DAILY! I'm not a kid anymore, I need to take care of my body and that begins with making sure my muscles and tendons are long and flexible. It's probably not just coincidence that my failed hip is absurdly inflexible -- last year I had a PT gasp in horror at my left hip's limited range of motion.
I have a decent amount of strength, for a runner. But not necessarily in the ways that matter for a runner. I need to do all of those little tedious exercises to strengthen my core, my legs, and most importantly, my hips and glutes.
Picking My Training Battles
I run ultras. There a time and place for speed work, but I don't do it enough to be able to just jump into a random set of 4x1600s without risking injury. Speed work belongs in its own Training Block, and when I do speed work outside of that Training Block, I need to make sure I've at least been maintaining a speed session every week or so, that way my body isn't shocked by the effort. I can't just pop into speed work right after my multi-week recovery from a 100 mile race!
I Can't Race All The Time!
This spring I had 5 ultras and a marathon. Then I ran Western States. And for the rest of the year I had lined up Eastern States, Grindstone 100, Mountain Masochist 50M, another marathon, and Hellgate 100K (if Horton lets me in!). That's A LOT of racing. My body clearly can't handle that load AND still get in valuable Training Blocks. So for next year ... less racing and longer stretches of training.
Take these lessons to heart.
Head to a physical therapist.
Do whatever it takes to get to Grindstone healthy.