I was beyond tired Saturday morning when my 4:35 am alarm sounded and I went through a familiar routine of half asleep arguments with myself. My protest against waking up involved me rattling off a list of entirely reasonable reasons why it would be ok to just keep sleeping instead of go to the race. I could run on my own, or take a “down weekend” and focus on sleeping and feeling better. I have been contending with a ton of minor ailments and I justified that maybe it was enough to just keep sleeping and give my body and mind some much needed R&R. I snoozed my alarm and fell back into the deepest sleep of my life. I surrendered to the idea of a DNS (did not start), which in this case was me quitting before I even put my shoes on.
Eventually I got up to go to the bathroom. It was 5:15 am and I had planned to leave my house at 5:30. The window of time felt tight, I had one last chance to convince myself I didn’t have enough time now to make it. But the lights were on and I was awake so I made the quick call to turn it around as best I could. I knew that departing at 5:45 would still leave just barely enough time to get to the start line on time with no wiggle room.
Once I made the decision to go for it I quickly warmed up tea and oatmeal, got dressed and headed out the door. I was still quite groggy and wishing I had some caffeine (something I only save for race day). I felt like I was going through the motions of getting to the race start, but didn’t have my normal pep in my step where my heart, mind and body are in sync with the task at hand.
I finally made it to the start line with a few minutes to spare. I raced to the bathroom and shed my jacket layer. It was 42 degrees so I wore arm warmers, gloves, a short sleeve shirt, shorts and headband. The race began before I was situated so I put on my hydration vest/pack and headphones after I was already running.
The first lap (13 mi) was uneventful. The early morning miles are always my favorite and I wish I could have taken a picture of the clouds hanging over the Pedernales river, but my hands were so cold! There was no chance of being able to use my phone to take a picture without making it a 10 minute ordeal. The clouds hung low and you could see the hill tops above the clouds. The light hit the wild grasses in such a way that made the dew-kissed blades look like there was a sparkly layer of frost on them. It was such a beautiful site.
I hadn’t taken the time in my hasty wishy-washy morning to tie my shoes (I just slipped them on), so of course they were too loose. I figured I would wait until it got warmer to try and retie them (my hands were useless and frozen). But of course my right shoe became untied so I took off a glove and it took 4 times as long to tie it but I was finally able to get it done.
The first lap was the muddiest. There was a heavy clay-like mud that caked onto the bottom of my shoes and made each step so much heavier. The extra weight with each step tugged on my already niggly calf, so I took every opportunity to stomp and get the mud off my shoes as I was running.
At mile 10 I saw the shadow of the second place woman right behind me. I ended up dropping her at the start/finish station at mile 13. I decided not to stop at the aid station because I had plenty of fuel and water on me.
By about mile 19/20 I started hurting and slowing down pretty significantly. I was headed to bonk-town quickly. I ate a little, but it didn’t do the trick. It was warming up so I shed my headband, arm warmers and gloves. The 10 km from 20-26 was the lowest point of the whole race and everything felt like it was hurting. The hurt was mostly embedded in my mind. I just didn’t feel like working that hard. Every step felt labored and my mind, heart and body were out of sync just like they were when I was trying to convince myself to DNS in my warm bed. I just felt like I was fading away, my energy was dipping to an all time low, and I didn’t feel like I was committed or “in it.”
I couldn’t get out of the funk. I remembered my friend Muz’s warning about not getting addicted to racing. The problem with doing too many races is that you’ll have a bad one and then sign up for other races to try to fix the bad race. I had done two races the weekend prior, so this is where that thought was stemming from. I thought to myself that I should have just stuck to my original plan of signing up for the marathon distance. But two days prior to the race I decided “what the heck, it’s a training race for Bandera 100km, so I might as well just do the 52 km...”. It turns out that the additional 10 km is not “nothing.”
I never resorted to walking. I kept running even though I knew my pace and effort were slowing down quite a bit. I convinced myself that it was just a long run and that running 26.2 was PLENTY! I could quit when I got to the finish line/last aid stop and not do the last 10 km lap. I kept remembering how I had basically quit before I even started. My mind hadn’t fully grasped the task at hand and so I felt non-committal which made quitting feel easy, tangible, and right there. Perhaps I needed a greater purpose before toeing the start line to keep me grounded when I felt like I was floating in a dense fog with no way out.
Sometimes I feel this way in other areas of my life. Quitting and running away from something hard is often the most tempting path of least resistance. It’s a form of self-preservation. I tried to convince myself that I would be happy with having run 26.2 that day even though it would be a DNF. It wasn’t exactly working, because in my heart I knew I was giving up on a hard thing just because it seemed/felt/was hard. But that self preservation option was tugging at me with such a strong pull that I couldn’t combat. I kept trying, but I kept fading further away from the present moment and letting the sea of agony wash over me. Slowly but surely I was completely submerged and sinking in this sea of despondency. I succumbed to it completely and each mile felt like a lifetime.
I finally reached the finish line/aid stop where I would need to embark on a third lap. I heard my friend Muz shouting and cheering “go Jackie!” He came out to go climbing on one of the walls at the ranch with me after my race. I should have been finishing my race at this point, but theoretically I still had 10 km left! I crossed the timing mat and promptly told Eric Stanley, the race director, that I was done. He and some others were confused and asked “so you raced the marathon? Or are you a 50 km runner?” I had to clarify that I was DNFing the 50 km at the marathon finish. They asked me why and all I could say was “because it’s hard and it hurts.” It sounded pathetic even as the words were coming out of my mouth. But that was the truth. It was all I had.
I had come up with a long list of actual more respectable reasons too that I then proceeded to tell Muz about when he didn’t eat up my “this is too hard” excuse for DNF-ing. My right hip was hurting. My calf was bugging me. My stomach was off. I had poison ivy on my arm, leg, and some rash/inflammation outbreak on my neck. I had an earache, a cold, a sore throat. I was tired. Muz didn’t let me throw in the towel so easily, but little did he know I had already given it 1.5 hrs worth of thought! My mind was made up. But he calmly said “let’s go get some food and drink from the aid station and I can walk a few minutes with you and then you can decide. I figured his request was small and easy so I could humor him.
We walked over to the aid station and I began to eat some banana and drink some Tailwind (electrolytes). This was the first time I took in any electrolytes and the first time I had stopped at an aid station. I had only consumed about 10 oz of water on the last 5 hours. I knew that probably wasn’t enough. It was pretty warm out at this point in the day. I decided to have a second round of Tailwind and even went for some Pringles.
The second place woman came through and I looked at Muz and told him, “well there goes first place.” He shrugged it off and reminded me gently that it didn’t matter. That this wasn’t the trail running world championship race and who cared what place I got or how fast or slow I finished. He then began to ask me if I continued would I be risking injury? I made him define injury for me. He clarified his question in a less open ended format by asking if any of my pains (hip, calf) were getting worse, staying the same, or getting better? The fact that it was difficult for me to even answer that question demonstrated that I was most likely not anywhere close to injury. “Um, my hip started hurting an hour or so ago and seems to maybe be getting worse? Everything just hurts and it’s hard.” He suggested we walk half a mile. Ok what the heck. Walking with a friend for a few minutes seemed like a nice idea.
Wow. Walking felt amazing! Soon we hit a downhill and I started trotting. I did a more thorough body scan to see about answering the injury question more accurately and realized nothing was actually hurting. Every step felt completely fine. I could tell the Hydration pit stop was already doing wonders for my body as well as my mind. I suddenly felt on top of my game and started to actually run. We saw the woman in 1st right ahead of me. Muz reminded me I had time and distance to hunt her down if I wanted to, but again, it didn’t matter. Then Muz turned around and said he would see me at the finish.
I caught the woman right after Muz left. and was now leading again. I started to feel stronger and felt like my body and legs were running and moving as they should (prior to that it felt like running through molasses). Wow. I could not believe what a difference hydration had made! I was moving, my heart and mind were present and the sea of fog began to feel more and more distant. I felt more like myself and time started passing with more ease. The miles ticked away without notice. I was back. I passed another guy who had passed me in the second lap when I was struggling. I definitely hit a second wind.
I rolled into the finish area hot. I was running well. Nothing hurt at all. Was it all just in my head? Had the pain felt stronger because I was looking for an emergency exit? A way out? I moved through the pain. There were no shortcuts. I didn’t finish feeling awesome and all smiles like I do a lot of the time when I have a more controlled race experience. I got lost in my mind during this race and was able to find my way out somehow. I finished realizing that I was hanging on by a thread though. I even struggled with a tear or two in the last mile.
Without the nudge from Muz I most likely would have given up on myself. I had gone to a pretty low place. It was dark, foggy, and disorienting. It took a long time and some hydration/nutrition to re-orient myself and dig my way out of that hole. I knew this race was important in my training to relearn about how to navigate mentally dark and tough places. My takeaway from this race is simply to stay with uncomfortable feelings, don’t just bail. See yourself through to the other side.
My Rogue Running coach Chris McClung sent an email later that week to his group of athletes with a Robert Frost quote: "The best way out is always through." I have been sitting with that mantra this week and it has helped me to not DNS/DNF in other areas of my life as well. I have never before thought about DNFing in a race, and I never have DNFed. I’m proud that I stuck this one out and found my way through some blindingly dense fog.