I am laying on my stomach in my room at a Super 8 motel, drinking hot chocolate, and feeling down. Outside, temperatures are in the low thirties and snow dusts the pine trees and mountains. It is a picture-perfect scene in West Yellowstone, Montana. It is the day after my very first attempt at running a 100 mile ultra-marathon, and I am gorging myself on humble pie.
To be honest, I went into the race not knowing if I would be able to finish. I think there's probably nothing more boring than another blog about ill-fitting shoes written by a disgruntled runner, so I'll spare you the long version of the story.
The short version: I made the very rookie mistake of switching to a new brand of shoes just weeks before my race.
The Outcome: Arriving at the starting line of a 100-mile race with two already-swollen toes, and the sinking feeling that perhaps I'd bitten off more than I could chew. I'd compartmentalized the feeling in order to get myself to the starting line, relying entirely on an act of God to magically heal my purple toes at the last minute.
The Lesson: Don't let optimism cross the line from helpful to hurtful. Just because you get lucky sometimes, doesn't mean that unicorns are going to visit you in the middle of the night and leave new shiny feet under your pillow.
The Backstory: The days leading up to the race, I loaded up on carbs and protein. I made sure I was super hydrated, and that I got enough rest. I was very aware of everything that I was putting into my body. I wanted to give it exactly what it needed, so I didn't eat anything that I didn't consider perfect fuel for my body. The months leading up to the raise I trained hard, and I trained smart. I arrived in town with enough time to rest and get ready for race day. I met my coach Lisa, which was brief but exciting. I met some of the other runners who I have been reading about and looking up to for years. I was excited about racing and about challenging myself. But in the back of my mind, the gnawing suspicion that my feet were going to cause me major problems was starting to develop as a full-blown fear.
When I put my shoes on at 4:30 am, and headed out the the finish line, I was painfully aware that the race would be extremely difficult. From the first steps of the race, I pretty much knew I was in for an extremely arduous fight.
I started meditating immediately. When experiencing pain during a run (not from an injury, just from soreness/fatigue), I am usually able to manage it through breathing and meditation. This is usually how I do it.
1) I focus on the feeling of pain completely. I try to feel every uncomfortable sensation fully and observe the feeling casually, without judging it as bad.
2) Then, I put parameters around the pain, and keep it from growing to be a bigger part of my awareness.
3)So then I'll switch back from focusing my attention on the pain, and then focusing on the nature that is surrounding me. I'll continue to do this switching of attention until the location of the pain is easy to find in my awareness, and it is separate from what I am experiencing externally (the road I'm running on, the runners next to me, the path that lays ahead).
4) Then, I focus on the pain more intensely, trying to make the parameters smaller and smaller. I then take the pain, and put it in a small black box that I visualize, lock the box, and refuse to let it out. When I begin to feel the pain overtaking the larger part of my awareness, I imagine the black box, making sure that it is staying inside of the containment area, and isn't creeping into my external awareness.
This usually works. I didn't read any books about pain management techniques, I just kind of made this up myself. I don't know if it will work for other people, but it works swimmingly for me.
But then again, I've never really employed this technique for use with anything but the soreness and fatigue associated with running long distance. By mile 8, I felt like my both my big toe nails had ripped completely off, and I was afraid to look at them because I felt that it would dissuade me from finishing the race. So I kept running, despite the steadily increasing pain and discomfort. Between mile 48-49, the pain was so terrible in my feet that I could barely walk, and I spent the last 45 minutes crying as I walked down the road, realizing that I wouldn't be able to finish the race.
And so my first ultra-marathon attempt resulted in a failure. More than anything, I'm embarrassed. And I am embarrassed that I'm embarrassed.
I didn't finish a race. That it a first for me. And, my coach was there to witness it. She didn't actually see me drop out, since she was busy facilitating the entire race, which was being run by some of the biggest names in ultra-running. The fact that she wasn't there to see my defeat almost makes it worse. I just dropped off. I would have rather had her there, maybe to convince me to keep going, or to give me the okay to eliminate myself. In the end, I guess I didn't need anyone's okay at all, however I wonder if someone telling me that the kind of pain I was experiencing was a normal part of the sport would have pushed me to go farther. I pushed myself as far as I could go, and then I stopped. In the end, I was able to run fifty miles on two swollen, black toes. The amount of physical and mental focus it took to complete that was legendary. But it wasn't enough.
It doesn't matter that it was my first ultra, or that my shoes screwed up my feet just weeks before the race, or that I did everything else I could to prepare. It doesn't matter about the 7,000 ft elevation difference, or the fact that I'd never experienced weather so cold in my entire life. The outcome is the same: I didn't finish. What can I learn from this? Well, there is the obvious answer, which is also the easy answer; I have to take better care of my feet. The harder answer, the one that I don't want to think about? There is no faking long distance running. It is not something that you can do with style, not something you can pull off at the last minute, not something you can power through. Running a one hundred mile race takes long, intense mental and physical training. You have to constantly be pushing yourself past your limitations.
Not only that, but I have to recognize the fact that I'm a rookie. Unlike the legends that were present at the race in West Yellowstone this weekend (Pam Reed, for one), I'm new to this. I'm green. I'm not Andre the giant showing up to an amateur weight-lifting competition, about to be discovered for my innate talents and a perfect genetic make-up for the task at hand.
Here's the truth, which will make me sound very arrogant at first. People have told me throughout my life that it seems like everything comes easy to me. I like the sound of that, it makes me sound like I was well-crafted, a genetically superior human being. But the fact is, I'm not smarter or more capable than anyone. I'm just about normal.
I think it is really important for me to remember this in my training. I'm not gifted like Dean Karnazes or Pam Reed or my coach, Lisa Batchen-Smith. I don't have a natural talent or ability for running. Hell, I don't even know if my form is right. It seems every day a new article comes out about the new scientifically-proven perfect running form. Half of my nervousness about this weekend was centered around the issue of whether my coach would tell me that I had the wrong foot-strike. The result: The fear was valid- at mile 20 (or so), Lisa told me to stop running on my toes. But I thought a fore-foot strike was more natural, healthier? So much for that.
I have to remember also to congratulate myself in some ways. It took a lot for me to get to Montana. Financially, I really had to work a miracle to be able to make it here. Support-wise, I couldn't have been more lucky. Matt drove me all the way from California to Montana, and was there supporting me the whole way. He made me drink water, eat food, and accept encouragement--even when I didn't want to. When I was walking down the road crying the last several miles, he gave me my space, drove up the road a while, checked back in to see if my situation improved, and was the most supportive and awesome one-man support team anyone could ever hope for. He drilled holes in my toenails, made me one of the most disgusting energy drinks I have ever smelled (I refused to drink it.) and played nurse to me for the rest of the trip. Lisa, my coach, wasn't able to give me a whole lot attention (seeing how she was the one who organized and administrated the entire race), but she was able to give me really solid advice and encouragement whenever I saw her.
Also, despite the self-disparaging tone of this blog, I have to say that if it weren't for my feet, I know without a doubt that I would have been able to finish the race. After running 50 miles yesterday, I'm not even sore today. My legs feel amazing, and I have a ton of energy. Today we spent the day touring around Yellowstone. We went to Water of the Gods, Hot Springs located in West Yellowstone. We went to Big Sky Montana, and saw where infamous Yellowstone Club is located. We walked through Hebgen Lake and Quake Lake, and I climbed down a slope to a sun-bleached carcass of a tree tree that had been uprooted decades before. I'm sure that had I doubled my efforts yesterday, and completed the entire 100 miles, I would have definitely been hurting more today, but know that I could have done it.
I am lucky to have come out of this without a sustained injury, which might have been the inevitable result had I pushed myself a little farther.
The only things that hurt now are my battered and bruised toes, and my tender ego. I'm pretty sure the latter will take longer to heal.