There isn’t a more appropriate title for a story about a DNF.
A few weeks ago, I made a fifth attempt at the Beast of Burden 100 mile ultramarathon. Before the race, I wrote extensively about my previous experiences with The Beast, and the plan for this time around.
Plans only carry you so far in a 100 miler. And in this case, it wasn’t far enough. I DNFed (Did Not Finish). They’re one of the unpleasant realities of running ultras. The race doesn’t care about the months of training and preparing if your aim is too high.
It’s a frustrating, sensitive topic. Who wants to carry a badge of self-defeat around? Certainly not this guy. I prefer the belt buckles. But like most aspects of life, there’s more to be learned through failure than success – DNFs are invaluable in that context, and I’ve been meaning to unpack this one.
THOUGHTS ON TRAINING
Heading into race week, I was feeling pretty confident that I had the potential to finish in under 24 hours. This was conservatively expressed as “I haven’t felt better prepared for any edition of The Beast than I do right now.“
The unabridged version that was edited down for the sake of brevity was this: “My longest run of the year heading into this race is only 17 miles. But I’ve logged over 1,000 miles, over 40 10+ mile runs, and climbed over 65,000 feet of elevation – all with the fastest net average pace of my adult running career. I’d squeeze in a few longer long runs if I could redo it, but this is good enough. I haven’t felt better prepared for any edition of The Beast than I do right now.“
In the midst of what was an exceptional training year, I also implemented calorie counting for the 90 days leading up to the race with an astonishing level of success, losing about 10 pounds with no negative impact. Physically, there was little juice left to squeeze – except for maybe those few longer long runs.
COVID SCARE, PART ONE
The week of the race was high-stress. Both kids were sick. So sick that Maya missed a full week of summer camp and had to get a COVID test. Fortunately it came back negative on Thursday afternoon, but there was a stretch where making it to the starting line was up for the debate.
Had either Christine or I also got sick, the debate would have ended. Christine seems to never get sick, but I’m usually less lucky – so I increased my intake of water, vitamin C, and electrolytes throughout the week and hoped for the best. I lucked out, but didn’t feel great about leaving a sick household for 4 days.
2021 SUMMER EDITION | 12:54:50 (DNF) | Strava
Race conditions couldn’t have been better. It was a perfectly positioned, unseasonably cool weekend in between “heat domes”. Unseasonably cool meant lows in the low 50s and highs in the low 80s; the heat domes were consecutive days of 100+ degree heat indices. There was a looming threat of rain and storms at some point during the race, but the forecast changed too frequently to call it a certainty.
The overall field size was on the small side at maybe 60-70 participants across all three races. Earlier in the year, the original race directors shut down the race series, but about a month later it was taken over by new management. Another ultra in the area was also scheduled over the same weekend. Both of these factors likely affected the final headcount.
The first 25 miles went exactly to plan. I established a pace between 10 and 12 minutes that felt comfortable, and kept the nonmoving time at each of the aid stations to just a few minutes. This continued for the second 25 miles without too much drama. I paired up with Mary, Mike, and Jason on and off for those first 50 miles. The company was good, and helped pass the time.
Between miles 37.5 and 50, we had the bizarre pleasure of watching someone joyride a small plane over the rural parts of the canal. It was the equivalent of doing donuts in the middle of a field, in the middle of nowhere, with a truck – but in the air, no more than 50 feet over our heads. I guess there was nobody around to care. It went on for as long as we could see and hear it as we shuffled along.
My legs felt responsive in spite of the lack of long-distance training runs. Running 50 miles shouldn’t feel that easy. Strava doesn’t track estimated best efforts for distances longer than a marathon, but I’d say with confidence that the first 100k of this race (almost right up to the DNF point) would have been my best effort for that distance.
Behind the facade of a strong first 50 miles… my state of mind deteriorated. Hydration, urination, anti-chafe – these were all on point. The food was not. What I had available in the truck with my dad was carefully planned around what I had come to expect from the original race directors. There was a serious lack of continuity between old and new here, with the new aid stations being understaffed, more sparse, and on the very light and sweet side of nutrition that my stomach doesn’t respond well to. My body demands pizza slices, not watermelon slices.
Miles 50 to 62.5 became the scene of an unexpected round of psychological warfare. I started mini-bonking, and I couldn’t fight back the realization that I didn’t have sufficient calories to self-support for a full 100 miles to compensate for the reality of the aid stations. I felt powerless, and frustrated.
This was compounded by some other feelings that I couldn’t shake. I missed my family, and felt guilty about being away for so long for a race. Things quickly snowballed, and by the time I arrived at Middleport at mile 62.5 at 11pm, the mental wall arrived and I checked out. I was done. As in Forrest Gump, “I’m pretty tired, I think I’ll go home now” done.
This was a super disappointing ending to the race. I got punched in the mouth, and I couldn’t even convince myself to walk for a bit to see if I could get back up. My mind had already moved on to the fact that I would be home a full day earlier than if I were to finish the race. The physical tank wasn’t quite on empty, but the bottom of the mental tank fell out. “Never again” found its way back into my vocabulary on the ride home.
The absolute worst kind of DNF is the kind where you skillfully talk yourself out of the race. And that was exactly what happened here. But why? Was it just a bad day? Am I over 100 miles? Am I over The Beast? Did I overtrain? Undertrain? Not taper enough? Not focus on mental training?
I can see the value in longer long runs and more mental training (i.e. embracing discomfort) before attempting another 100 miler. And eliminating dependencies on aid stations. Collectively, this would make me better prepared for an eventual return to the KEYS100, which incidentally has removed aid stations and now requires 100% self-sufficiency. But for now, I just want to enjoy the act of getting out for a morning run – which has certainly been the case for most of this year.
Maya still thought I did an amazing job, and she made a “finish line” for me to cross in our front door. Having a supportive family with a sense of humor is the best.
COVID SCARE, PART TWO
The story gets better.
I returned home, tail between my legs, thinking “I’m so not even sore, I’m going to run 10 miles tomorrow to prove it.” Both kids were still sick, and given that my immune system was most likely compromised from what I had just put it through – I immediately felt ill.
Experiencing mild flu symptoms after an ultramarathon isn’t uncommon, so I didn’t think much about it until a few days later when my sense of taste and smell mysteriously vanished. Ugh.
One COVID test and four days of waiting in self-quarantine later, the results came back negative. I couldn’t get a doctor to see me prior to having a test result, so during that time the real illness continued to get worse. Diagnosis: a bad case of sinusitis. A consolation prize from The Beast.
Today is 16 days after the race. I’m feeling somewhat normal, and am thinking about maybe heading out for a run tomorrow morning. This sickness-induced mini-off-season has been good, but there’s a pair of fall 50k races in my future before I can slack off a bit.
I also still need to finish running 2021 kilometers for the year. Times like this end up generating epic story points in the “running the year in kilometers” narrative: