“The challenge of ultrarunning is 90 percent mental, and the other 10 percent is all in our heads…” (Ray Zahab)
Going into the San Diego 100 mile, I knew I was fit. I had logged more vertical, more tough weeks, more consecutive training days, than I had ever before managed to string together in a training cycle. I had climbed for hours on the treadmill, slogged up and down hill repeats on the toughest climbs I had available, ran in heat, shuffled under a weighted vest, performed endless lunges and step ups to fatigue my quads, ran spring tune up races over the hilliest and most technical courses I could, managed the niggles that show up with high volume training. I felt I had done everything possible to prepare. Physically I was stronger than ever.
I arrived in California with my crew the day before the event. All week my preparation was focused and methodical, but somehow devoid of excitement. I told myself this was because I was ready… I knew what I faced this time… I had run 100 miles before… this was nothing new. But my crew picked up on my apathy. When asked if I was excited I truthfully answered I didn’t know. I was clinical, detached, crossing off the to do list for the next day . But not excited… I felt nothing about the miles ahead.
My even mood gifted me with the best night’s sleep I have ever had before a race. I felt unusually fresh and rested race morning. Last minute preparations went well, and soon we were running lightly to the first big climb, less than two miles from the start. The morning started cold, enough so that I shoved my hands under my tank to keep them from turning blue, but the June day heated quickly as the wide-open ridgelines and cloudless sky poured the sun over us.
The first thirty miles rolled by without incident. I had been warned that San Diego was rocky and sandy. I thought I had known what that meant. But after two big climbs and corresponding rocky descents in the first seven miles, and miles of rolling hills through open desert ridgelines, I developed a new understanding of sand and rocks, and a renewed appreciation for their challenges. Still, I met my crew at mile twenty-nine in good spirits, dealt with a few blisters, and headed back into the endless heat, rocks, and sand.
The Noble Canyon section of the course is notoriously technical, with long descents over fields of loose rock before climbing back up in the still hot afternoon. My mood shifted descending into the canyon, as I cursed the rocks quite loudly into the air. But then trail smoothed into a fun, steep jeep road where I could fly as I sailed into the bottom of the canyon. By the time I made the aid station at the canyon floor I was giddy with excitement for having the “tough” part of the trail behind me. I have always been a better climber, and felt I could make up time on the next section. And yet, I had already made my first major mistake… lack of fuel. A small mistake initially, but one that would continue to plague me for the rest of my race.
Climbing out of the canyon it was still hot, and still rocky. I tired quickly and longed to take a nap under the rare shade that we passed. I had never been this tired in a race, never felt so fatigued that I just wanted to sleep. Looking back, I realize I had failed to fuel adequately for at least a couple of hours by then, but in the moment I didn’t understand that my dwindling energy was probably due to fuel. I dug myself in deeper as I barely ate anything and trudged ahead, continuing to slow even on easier terrain. My crawl out of the canyon had pushed me later than planned, and I only had my prescription sunglasses with me as night fell, making me skittish of the dark trail. By the time I reached my crew at mile forty-nine, I was exhausted, seriously under-fueled, and panicky from running with limited sight. I wasn’t even half way and I wanted to quit. I wanted out. I was done.
My crew managed to talk me down and get me back out on the trail, this time with a pacer. But my heart was never back in the race. I told myself if I at least made fifty miles that would be enough. When fifty came and went, so did my motivation. I hiked and shuffled dutifully behind my pacer. But I didn’t push, I didn’t try. I have hit lows before, but never have I given up during the low. Until San Diego. I knew this was just a low, I knew it would fade, but I didn’t want it to and I didn’t care. I didn’t want this anymore.
We missed a trail marker and wandered off trail for about a mile. Over fifteen minutes lost. My mind told me “this is it… you can’t recover now… you will miss cut off.” And I believed it. I mean, it was my mind after all. My husband calls it “little kid honest.” I could trust my mind, it wouldn’t lie.
I made cut off. At mile sixty-four after almost eight miles and over 2,000 feet of rocky descent through overgrown single track, we made the aid station with five minutes to spare. Five minutes to regroup, refuel, and head back up the trail we had just come down. Five minutes during which the volunteers promised they would turn me around and have me going, that they would let me head back out even if I was running a little behind. Five minutes before using my climbing skills and pushing back up that 2,000 feet with a mere 19 minute mile pace. And I can climb. I am good at climbing. I had passed people climbing all day.
But I didn’t make that climb. I didn’t regroup and refuel. I didn’t dig deep and find my fire and push back out of that aid station with an “ah hell no” determination. I quit.
I stood for five indecisive minutes, crying about wrong turns and low energy, darkness and rocks. But in reality the decision was made when I let myself think fifty miles was enough. The decision was made when I let running in the dark leave me panicky. The decision was made when I gave myself an excuse: “I got lost for a mile and lost too much time.” The decision had been made for so long, had been repeated so many times in my head, that there never was a decision to make at that aid station at 2 am. And so I turned in my bib, I quit, I went home.
It’s funny how when our mind fails, it gives us the excuses we need to be mediocre. Our mind is the only buffer between ordinary and greatness. That night at the bottom of the trail, quitting seemed so inevitable. In my head there was no way I could continue to make cut offs. The trail was too technical, the climb too steep, my legs too sluggish. I just didn’t have enough time. But by the next morning I understood that my problem had never been time. It had never been the trail, or the climb, or my legs. It had always been my head, my head and my heart. When it came time to push on in the face of challenges, to dig deep and keep moving, when it came time to find my fire, I found that my fire had burned out. In all honesty, I am not sure I even remembered to light it.
San Diego had never been my race. It was a race that fit with my schedule, where a friend was already running, at a time that my crew would be able to travel. It was a race that made logical and logistical sense. But it was never a race I drooled over. It was never a race I dreamed of. I never wanted it so badly I could taste it. Any marathoner can grind out a 50k. Heck, I think I can even gut out a 100k at this point. But you can’t just grind out 100 miles. Your legs, your strength, your logic, your planning, they won’t get you to the finish. At some point you need your head and your heart. You need a fire so deep that you keep moving… even when it makes sense to stop… even when everyone tells you its ok to quit, that some portion of greatness is good enough… even when you know they are right. You have to want it so badly, so deeply, that you can taste the bitterness on the back of our tongue. For only if you want it that deeply will you keep going when everything says to stop.
San Diego was a logical race, but it wasn’t my race. And this small distinction is the difference between a finish and a drop. I learned this the hard way. But I wouldn’t change San Diego, my DNF taught me so much more than a finish ever could. Before San Diego I wasn’t sure I wanted to run another 100. I thought I would prove I could handle a big “hundo,” be done and move on. But San Diego taught me that I will run another 100, and I do not want to turn away from that distance and the challenges it brings. It taught me I need to pick my races more with my heart than with my head. It taught me that I need to follow my passion, chase experiences that excite me. You never know what a race, or life, will give you, but even in failure there is success. San Diego wasn’t a failure, it was a successful lesson in racing 100 miles… You have to want it so bad that you can taste it…