North Face Endurance Challenge DC 50K
RACE NAME: The North Face Endurance Challenge DC
LOCATION: Algonkian State Park, VA
DATE: Saturday April 28, 2018
Welcome to a “choose-your-own-adventure” style race report.
You get to choose between the PITY PARTY VERSION written in the hours following my race, and the CHILL THE FUCK OUT VERSION written about a week after the race.
As you might have guessed, the (1) PITY PARTY VERSION is heavy on self-loathing and doubt and bullshit and the (2) CHILL THE FUCK OUT VERSION offers a more dispassionate and deliberate assessment.
(1) PITY PARTY
I don’t like this version of myself.
I’m out of shape, a little apathetic, too comfortable with my current mediocre state and nowhere near as good as I’d like to think I can be. I’m overwhelmed with this feeling that I really suck right now.
My current state of affairs is exemplified in my 50K attempt at the 2018 North Face Endurance Challenge DC. After a pretty good marathon in mid-March, I fell into a running funk: fatigued and injured. My back hurt and my left leg was weak and lacking any and all snap.
To put it bluntly: I knew I shouldn’t have run the race but I figured I’d give it an honest effort and hoped, arrogantly, that I would still, even in my depleted state, put up a fight.
I had considered the possibility of an epic flameout, but I never really believed in was in the cards. Turns out, it was the only card in the deck.
I went out strong and thought I had a good strategy - run the flats hard and power hike the hills. I really thought I had it figured out. Even though my left leg was only at about a quarter strength, I ran in first position from the gun for about 6 miles. I felt really good or the first few miles but I was caught on the first climb by another runner. I let him pass me on the first big climb. He was bounding up and looking good but I knew chasing him was a losing proposition. So, displaying uncharacteristic discipline, I didn’t chase. I figured if he could keep that up for 50K, he’d have me beat and I’d gladly take second.
As I continued, my back began to tighten but I kept going. I was sure I could hold it off.
Then, around mile 10, I was caught by my friend Sam Graul (my Rock n Roll DC “partner”). This was his first attempt at the distance, his first ultramarathon, and a big day for him.
I tried to put on a good face about getting caught, which wasn’t too hard since I was genuinely happy to see him crushing it but inside I was furious with myself. He’s never caught me in an event like this, and certainly not this early on. I was also disheartened by how good he looked compared to how I felt. I was having a hard time keeping the pace that seemed relatively effortless for him.
I knew I was in trouble and could feel my back and left leg getting tighter and more useless. I was driving almost completely with my right which was causing fatigue and an imbalance I really had no tools to counteract.
Sam and I ran together on the 6 mile Great Falls loop, passing the halfway mark at, more of less or goal pace (more for him, less for me but both on track to crack 4 hours). I could feel myself getting weaker with every step. Nutrition was good, hydration was good, but I had a neuromuscular mountain to climb and didn’t have the skills or gear to reach the summit.
Sam broke away from me at the mile 19 aid station on the way out of Great Falls back to Algonkian State Park. Despite my back and leg, I refilled my flasks hopeful I could catch up to him in a few miles and that we’d each finish with podium spots.
But soon after, my pace cratered and at mile 22 I could no longer keep stride - forced to stop and stretch. Too little, too late. My jog quickly turned into a walk. Every step was painful. I fell into fourth position, then fifth and I knew I had to call it.
It sucked to be let down by my body. I wanted to crack 3:50 for the first time in a 50K and I didn’t come close. And now I’m depressed and angry. What if this thing I want just isn’t in the cards? What if I’ll never run at the level I think I’m capable of? I’m 35 years old. It hasn’t happened for me yet. Will it ever? And even if it does, is it worth the time and the work? The early mornings and lat nights and stress for my wife and the mental bandwidth?
I don’t know. Even though this is just one race, just one result, it’s shaken me. It’s made me question what I want and why I want it. Most frustratingly, it’s apparent to me that I just don’t have the answers.
So I’m living in this state for a while. It’s not pleasant. It hurts. I feel broken and lost and angry that I can’t shut the book on this and move on. But I know that I have to, and that I will. This won’t be my last race or even my last awful race. Amongst all of the “what ifs” is one that I can, mercifully, answer for myself: What if I had packed it in when I blew up on this same course three years ago? What if I gave up then? What if I assumed that single failure was indicative of my potential. I would have missed my greatest running achievements. I would have missed hours (days?) of fun with friends, of PRs and milestones and breakthroughs.
And also, while it was a shitty day for me, my friend got to podium in his first attempt at the distance. He did that with my help and coaching and that’s a source of great pride for me, even if that pride is tinged, ever-so-bitterly by disappointment in my own performance.
(2) CHILL THE FUCK OUT
In the wake of my very bad 50K race, I’ve had to remind myself - more than once - that I was fully aware that DNFing was a possibility. Not only was it a possibility but it was a fairly likely one and I decided to use it strategically - my peace with that as a possible outcome buoyed my aggressive early pace and attitude.
I wanted to run the course hard and shoot for a time in the area of 3:45. I knew I’m not in great shape at the moment, that I’ve got a lingering issue in my back that’s wreaking havoc up and down my left leg and while I had no indication whatsoever that I could run this successfully, I didn’t want to phone it in. So I went for it and my body said no, I suffered for it, and the outcome was not terribly satisfying in terms of pace to effort ratio or ultimate result. That’s fine, but it really was a likely outcome and I was aware of that going into this.
It’s true, I lost that thread in the hours following the race, but I it was a conscious part of my stratagem. Given my initial reaction to having to drop, it’s possible I didn’t fully embrace that possibility, that I had tricked myself into thinking I could pull off a magic trick and perform better than I felt. I failed in that.
But like all failures, there’s much to learn.
So what are the takeaways?
I know my body - and I know when I should and shouldn’t run a race. If I decide to chance it, I need to be ready to accept the higher-than-usual chance of failure.
I got a decent long run out of the day and I don’t think I did any lasting damage.
It took me more than 3 years and dozens of races to log my first DNF, I logged my second less than 9 months later. I don’t want to make a habit of them, but I’m becoming less scared of them (for better or worse) and I think I’m willing to risk more on race day than I did before. Like disarming the safety from a firearm, I’m finally ready to go off and racing with less fear.
My guidance helped another runner have a great day and scratch a big running milestone off of their to-do list. I can’t take credit for it - ultimately every runner races their own race - I can take satisfaction in it.
I need to get healthy so that I can achieve my potential. I clearly have a physical issue that needs helping, and I’m going to focus on that process, and on the work of becoming a stronger runner.
The outcome wasn’t what I hoped for but getting tied up in possibilities beyond the reality of ones moment is the surest path to disappointment, anger and anxiety. This is an excellent reminder to focus on the here and now and to commit.