RUNNING: Limits

I have a friend who is writing a book on racing.  As a long time coach she believes that a giant missing piece of many folks’ training puzzle is the mental component – and that the event shouldn’t be the be-all-end-all of the athlete’s season.  Too many times folks put in hundreds of hours of physical prep only to completely blow up on race day.  No bueno.

Anyhow, I mentioned the story of my best race ever – a race when I DNF’d – and she wanted me to give her more details.  Rehashing my 25-page race report from 2010 brought back some great memories and reminded me why I do this running thing in the first place.  I am posting here what I sent off to her:

I attempted the Angeles Crest 100 back in 2010. It was my 3rd hundred, with previous strong finishes at Western States and Iriquois (now called Virgil Crest in upstate NY). After it was all said and done I wrote a 25-page race report that details not only the race, but also explores the philosophical side of why a DNF is an amazing gift. Of course the electronic copy has disappeared so I will instead transcribe some of the nuggets that support my belief that this was my most fortunate race ever.

A few items worth noting that might give the final details more relevance:

1. I was down 10 lbs. in the first 30 miles – nearing the mandatory DQ due to the weight loss. I then proceeded to lie to to the aid station officials about my starting weight (they never checked my wristband for verification). In 90 miles I lost 18 lbs.

2. My pre-race plan was to take speedy risks in the early stages of the race. I’d never done this before and ended up running each stage faster than I’d ever run in previous 100s.

3. By mile 45 I was running fast but also hallucinating. I had multiple visions (and I still swear they were real) of Mexican cowboys in full regalia, with horses and all, cheering for me and chatting with me in Spanish. They stayed with me until my wheels officially started falling off at mile 59 (Shortcut Saddle).

From the report:

“I started taking unplanned mini-naps regularly. Scary. Thankfully I still had the wherewithal to lean left as I snailed up the trail with Dusty (my pacer). To fall right would have meant certain death – an unknown drop into a black abyss. Twice I awoke with a shock as I dropped to my knees. “Dude, I’m so tired,” I whimpered to Dusty. “Keep on coming, brother. We’re kicking this climb’s ass!” he responded. But we weren’t. And we both knew it.

Mt. Sam Merril proved to be the metaphor for the day. Tough from beginning to end. Even with less than a mile to its summit, completion seemed elusive. I was loosening my grip on my mental faculties and kept referring to the distant, yet well-lit aid station as “that thing.” “When we gonna reach that thing,” I’d ask Dusty. “We’re almost there buddy.” But my breathing was becoming more labored and every minute or so I had to stop in an unsuccessful attempt to slow my increasing heart rate. I’d lean on a tree, barely breathe in, then begin to cough uncontrollably then spit up saliva mixed with blood and pain. I imagined that Dusty was witnessing me as a 95-year old man. When I was finally able to mutter a few words, I exhaled my pride, held back some tears and realized how amazing this moment was. The truth brought me joy unlike anything before it, on or off the trail.

“Dusty…so…(breath)…this…is…what…the…fucking…(breath)…edge…feels…like…” He chuckled, probably thinking I was being facetious. But I wasn’t. I was being handed a gift.

When we reached the top of Sam Merrill two hours later I fell into a cot and nearly stopped breathing. My heart rate shot to over 150 bpm and search and rescue evacuated me off the mountain. When they cut off my wristband I felt energized – but still I couldn’t move or barely breathe.

And just like that with a few minor additional events along the way, it was over. I celebrated as best I could in the Jeep as the medics hauled us along some amazing moonlit roads. Nobody talked. I occasionally laughed but nobody joined in. They were all on eggshells. But I knew I was lucky to have been given this clarity.

I wasn’t celebrating the DNF, per se. I was celebrating the moments that forced it to happen. Back when I started doing ultras I was searching for the moment when I didn’t know what to do next. Life had been so easy and I had been so successful. I wanted a REAL challenge to stop me in my tracks. I wanted to understand my limit. AC 2010 showed me this and made me more human. I could have cried from pain or failure, but instead I cried tears of joy even though it killed my lungs to do it. All I kept saying, in a whisper, was, “Perfect. Perfect. This is fucking perfect.”

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