BMC50K was my first attempt at an ultramarathon. And it was my first DNF. I am not ashamed of choosing to quit when I did.
I set my alarm for 3:30 a.m. Because I was starting an hour early – 6 a.m. – I planned to be there an hour early as the email suggested runners get there an hour before the start. I didn’t get enough sleep. I was tired at 6 p.m. Friday night, but I couldn’t get to sleep. I have no idea how much sleep I got, but it didn’t matter. I popped right out of bed when my watch buzzed me awake.
I ate breakfast and drank regular coffee — I’m only able to drink caffeinated coffee on race days or days with long workouts — and got out the door a little after 4:45. Tri-Citians joke that you can get anywhere in the Tri-Cities in fifteen minutes, and it’s frequently true. It’s certainly true before five a.m. any day of the week.
About a dozen of us started at 6 a.m. Last Saturday, I started my run over Badger at Bethel Church – the start line for the Badger Mountain Challenge – and I’m really glad I did. The first mile – Bethel to the start of Canyon Trail – gains about 375′. It’s a nice warm up before hitting the climb. I walked the entire way to the top of Badger, and then ran down the Skyline Trail to the first aid station. At the aid station, I grabbed some Gummy Bears and a gel and took off — no reason to linger when I’m feeling good and rollin’.
Made it to the top of Candy at 1:31 – an average pace of 15:10/mile. That’s an awesome pace, and I was feeling good.
And down Candy I went. The backside of Candy is hella steep. It loses 400′ in the first 0.4 of a mile. Strava thinks there’s a tiny bit that’s -44% grade. And in the steepest sections, there’s a lot of chunky basalt scattered around the trail, and some of it is loose.
The new race course takes a left at the bottom of Candy and goes through the culvert under the interstate and Jacobs Road. I was helping mark the Jacobs Road section last week, so I got to get a peak at the tunnel. I walked into it a little bit last weekend and knew there was no way I was going though it without a light.
I started the race with a headlamp around my waist. (Early starters were required to have one.) I took it off and stowed it in my pack before I got to Candy Mountain — I wish I’d kept it around my waist, or least more accessible than stowed. I got to the tunnel and made it about twenty feet when my atavistic, chimpanzee-brain fear of the dark kicked in. I had this light inside my vest. (The pockets of my vest are a sewn-in square of fabric, and it creates a pocket that stuff won’t fall out of unless I’m upside-down; thus far, I’ve never been upside-down while running.) My vest was zipped and the cross-chest strap was buckled. I couldn’t get the buckle and zipper undone fast enough – I needed that light!
The light was just enough to allow me to see the area just in front of my feet, which is all I needed. My dislike of extreme darkness is compounded by my over-active imagination. Too much darkness brings to mind demons, Satan worshipers, whatever danger lurks in the dark. And at 120 meters, there’s a lot of evil in that tunnel. So outrunning the evil and surviving deserved to be commemorated with a selfie.
I wasn’t sure how much I’d be able to run on Jacobs Road, but I was pleased by how good I felt. Several of the 50K runners who started at the regular time passed me along Jacobs Road. I arrived at the Jacobs Road aid station – Mile 10 – at 2:30. So I was smokin’ fast!
Once I got to the aid station, I checked out the selection. They had s’mores. I don’t particularly like marshmallows, but that s’more was so yummy. I didn’t actually need anything. I had plenty of water in my pack, my bagels, and I was taking my Hammer Endurolytes every hour. I was pretty well set up, but I grabbed gummy fruits and gels whenever they were offered. I knew I didn’t have enough fuel for the entire 50K — and I knew that aid stations at an ultra always have a lot of food!
I started to slow down here. The Endless Vineyard Road wasn’t truly flat. There was a slight uphill, and then I saw this. I admit I cursed the race director at this point. Strava thinks this was a -20% descent with a 20% climb on the other side. And – here’s the cool part – there was another descent on the other side the climb. According to Strava, my elevation change in Mile 15 was zero. Um, Strava? My butt is right here — you can bite it anytime it’s convenient.
The next aid station – appropriately called the Orchard aid station, since it’s in the midst of an orchard – was the first one at which I stopped. I had them to refill my hydration bladder, just in case. Since I had the pack off, I reloaded a few things. I was beginning to feel a cramp in my left gastrocnemius – calf muscle, for those of you who don’t own an Anatomy Coloring Book – and my left knee was beginning to hurt. I stated using the trekking poles a lot more.
The cramp meant I couldn’t run with my normal fore-foot strike. On the descents, I could heel-strike, but I couldn’t run that way on the flats – not that there were many flats in this section.
The 2.5 miles to the Fields Road aid station was rough. I was hurting. From the Jacobs Road aid station to the turn-around at Fields Road, I averaged 18:45/mile – although that does include the time I was standing around at the Orchard aid station.
At Fields Road, I switched from my running tights to my shorts, used the porta-potty, and dug through my drop bag to find the kinesiology tape pieces I’d cut in case I needed to tape up my right knee. They weren’t in my drop bag, but the roll of tape and my scissors were. I figured the pieces I’d cut were in my pack. The smart thing would have been to take advantage of the fact I was sitting in a chair with a roll of tape and scissors and make another set of tape pieces.
Ah, the smart thing. Spoiler alert: I didn’t do the smart thing. I wanted to get moving. I really wish I’d I taped my right knee, because it blew to pieces during the rest of the run. “Run” is a euphemism at this point, as I only attempted to run a few times, and only for brief moments.
There was one short stretch between Fields Road and Orchard that was incredibly steep – it felt like a sheer drop-off. Yeah, that was fun.
As I headed back to the Orchard aid station, I passed two runners who were headed for Fields Road. I guessed they started at the normal start time, so they were still ahead of me, time-wise.
When I got to the Orchard aid station, I couldn’t find the pieces of tape in my bag. They had duct tape, but that didn’t seem like a good idea. When I got back to that steep descent that looks like a freakin’ drop off in the picture above, I wished I’d used the duct tape.
I already knew I was going to drop out at Jacobs Road. Part of me wanted to drop at the turn-around, but I didn’t want to give up that easily. I knew as I left Fields Road that I made a mistake. Once at Orchard, I was faced with the choice of turning around and going back to Fields Road, or making my way to Jacobs Road. Y’all know how stubborn I am. I didn’t want to turn around, even if that meant suffering for four miles.
I didn’t see those two runners again, despite how slowly I was moving. At some point, I figured they must have dropped, meaning I was the last person out on course. By now, my average pace had dropped to about 18:20/mile, and I knew I couldn’t make the cut-off. With the cramping calf, I couldn’t run. I knew there was no way I could make it down Candy Mountain or the Canyon Trail on Badger.
I turned off airplane mode on my phone to let Jim know I was planning to quit at Jacobs Road. As I turned it on, I got a bunch of text messages from Jim. I’d asked him to post on Facebook that I was struggling, and I could use some positive energy. My friends responded by posting a bunch of messages, which Jim then relayed to me via text message. It was awesome – it almost made me feel bad that the only reason I was receiving them was because I was letting him know I was planning to quit.
As I got closer to the aid station, a woman was walking toward me. She asked if I’d seen her husband; I told her I’d seen him on his way out to the turn-around, and I kept expecting him to catch up to me but I hadn’t seen him since. She mentioned that his knees must be bothering him. Given some of those descents, I’m not surprised. Shortly after that, a car approached. The driver asked if I was planning on continuing after the aid station; I told her I would be dropping at the next aid station. She said she’d let the aid station ahead know. She planned to turn around up ahead and then come back, and she offered me a ride on the way back. I thanked her, but I wanted to get to Jacobs Road under my own power.
Once I got to the aid station, they offered me some oranges and water. They’d packed everything up, but that stuff was readily accessible. As we were talking, the driver I’d spoken with arrived with the woman I’d seen and her husband. I guess the woman I’d seen dropped out at the turn-around.
The DNF was the right choice. I’m proud of what I was able to do. I’ve never gone farther on foot in one day – 24.7 or 24.8, depending if you’re looking at Strava or Garmin (even though Strava gets its data from Garmin) – and I gained 4229′ and lost 3898′. I’ll admit to wishing I’d made it to 26.2 miles, so I could say I finished a marathon at least. But only briefly.
As a Facebook friend pointed out, “DNF” also stands for “did nothing fatal.” I’ll be back.
After I knew I was going to quit, I came to the conclusion that there’s only one thing I could have done differently that would have enabled me to complete the 50K: strength training. And that’s ironic, because I’d already decided to take some time off to work on strength training and core strength.
We found a bar and I got a BLT with avocado, a too-large beer, and tater tots – mmmmm fried food. For the past six or seven hours, my nose has been running like crazy and I’ve been sneezing and coughing a lot. I’ve been worried for a few days that I might have a cold, and with today’s efforts my immune system may have rebelled. The sneezing has finally stopped, and my nose isn’t running like it was. I hope that means I’ll well deserved full night’s sleep.
And now, I get to recover. For this week, I plan to do a lot of walking, and maybe some swimming. We’ll see how it goes after that.