Monday, May 16, 2022

Aint Nothin Wrong with a DNF

Three years ago I had an amazing time at the Hellbender 100 in the mountains outside of Asheville, NC. That kind of race is my jam! Long, slow, unrelenting. 100 scenic mountain miles and over 20,000' of climbing? Hell yeah! The moment I finished, I knew I would be coming back, and it's not just because I was awarded a bottle of vodka at the finish line. I signed up for 2020, but yeah, we all know how that went. And out of an abundance of caution, the race was cancelled again in 2021.

By the time 2022 rolled around, I'd turned into a completely different runner. I no longer live within close proximity to the mountains. And in the last year, my focus on the Backyard format had transformed the way I'd been training. Then throw in trying to juggle a brand new side business (Long Haul), a full-time job, and parenting two young kids with my hard working spouse. At the end of it all, 2022 Chris is simply much different than 2019 Chris -- less mileage, more stress.


I'd run four 100 Mile trail races in 2019, but only one since. I was itching to get back into the mountains for a fun, tough 100 Miler. I knew I didn't have peak mountain fitness, but I ran for 84 friggin hours straight at Big's, so I figured I could, at the very least, casually stroll through Hellbender, enjoying the fantastic trails and scenery. And that was my plan. No hard racing, no stress, no worrying about a top place or solid finishing time. I just wanted to get out there and enjoy an amazing race with an amazing course, put on by an amazing race director and amazing volunteers. Simple.


But things didn't turn out that way. When, by all expectations, I should have been strolling to the finish of my umpteenth 100 miler, I was instead passed out in a cheap motel room 3 hours away. There were no broken bones, there was no heat exhaustion or hypothermia, nothing of the sort. My body just felt … empty. Depleted. Sluggish. Right from the start. So I quit. I gave up. I DNF'd.

I ran by this cool sign ... and then I quit

There's this underlying thread in ultrarunning, a machismo-fueled point of view, a finish-at-all-costs attitude. Many brag about having never DNF'd, others take pride in gutting it out through some genuinely sketchy conditions, and there are some who push their body so hard they spend post-race in the hospital. So much ego. I've never understood it. For 99.99% of us, running is a hobby, an enjoyable aside to the daily grind of normal life. It's not a war, or a deadly disease we must fight, it's supposed to be fun and freeing and enjoyable. And yes, at times it sucks, and there's a good deal of character-building to be had in gritting it out and overcoming obstacles. But there always needs to be an awareness of the difference between pushing yourself to achieve amazing things, and fighting against yourself.


I drove 10 hours to get to the race, battling a headache most of the day, then at bedtime I went into a migraine that nearly caused me to throw up. I maybe had 2 hours of restless sleep before waking up to pouring rain at 2:45am. Then it was time to get ready for the 4:30am start. Race morning adrenaline warded off the headache and provided me with about 90 minutes of decent running to begin the day. Through the pre-dawn rain, I led the race with a buddy, eventual 2nd place finisher Will Weidman. I was intentionally slow and collected. The objective: have fun, revel in the joy of a full day of mountain running. But by the 2 hour mark, that comfortable pace felt exhausting. I slowed. Still exhausted. I randomly lost my breath. Downhills were klunky and lumbering. I was walking flat sections of trail because I could not get my legs to propel my body forward. I was tripping over rocks and roots I had no business tripping over. 12 miles into a 100 mile race. If it had been halfway through the race, I might've muscled through -- maybe it would pass, just another race day obstacle to overcome. But I was hit with whole-body fatigue right from the start. Honestly, I felt hungover. It was clear that something was wrong. I probably could have powered through, spent a good deal more hiking than I'd wanted, and still finished in a somewhat respectable time. But at what cost? If this were an ordinary weekend long run, I would've skipped it and slept in, given the migraine. Or, if I were starting the run and felt sluggish and empty, I probably would've cut it short to focus on rest and recovery, to live another day.


There will always be another race waiting for us. Another chance to test our limits. Another opportunity to prove to ourselves we've put in the work and that we can do great things. To have staying-power in the sport that you love, you've got to listen to your body. Every race I've ever run, my wife has told me beforehand, without fail, "be safe, and listen to your body." I love ultra running, I love the trails, I love the grind, I love the process. 40 years from now, I want to be that old geezer, fighting cutoffs and loving every minute of it, showing those young whippersnappers how it's done. But I can't get there if I don't listen to my body, if I ignore it when it's clearly telling me that something isn't right.


After the first climb and descent, I just knew my day was over. I elected to lazily hike and jog the next climb and descent in the off-chance my body turned things around. And so I strolled into the aid station at Mile 33, after 5 hours of, quite simply, not feeling like myself, resigned to quit. I instinctively went to my drop bag and started pulling out nutrition for the next section of the race, then stopped, looked around somewhat confusedly, collapsed to the ground and sat for a moment, then leaned over and rested my head on the grass. It felt good to give up. It felt like the right thing to do.


Listen to your body! Are you injured? Do you need more recovery time? Did you bite off way more than you could chew? Know the difference between pushing yourself and fighting yourself. Do that and you'll have staying power. Perhaps I'll see you out there on the trails, 40 years from now, loving every minute of it!