Monday, June 06, 2011

Mind Games and Life Lessons - 2011 Kettle Moraine 100K

I knew something was not right before the race even started.  I didn't really want to be there, or at least I didn't really want to run.  Not 63 miles.  I knew what was out there.  I knew it was going to be hot and humid.  I knew I had to run through that seemingly interminable section of open grassy meadows, exposed to the sun, bottling up the heat, intensifying the suffering.  And I'd have to go through it twice, out and back.  I knew it would be even more sweltering on the way back.

"Eh.  Just another long training day."  That's what I said to myself.  I was trying to think of anything to take the pressure off myself.  And, that was the problem.  Just a training day.  No pressure.  This is the mindset that makes quiting too easy once things get really hard.  I knew all this before I took the first step.  But 6AM came, and I did what I do.  I started running.  Well, my body started running anyway.  My mind was someplace else.  No, not someplace else.  Rather, my mind was no place else.  I wasn't focused.  I had no goal that mattered to me.  I had never been less mentally committed to an endurance event.

This is not a good way to start a 63 mile trail race.  I knew it.  But I was off and running with the rest of the pack before I managed to set my head straight.

I ran like I'd forgotten just about everything I've learned about long sufferfests over the past decade.  Fresh off a surprisingly good 50 mile performance three weeks earlier, I dismissed the fact that today was 30 degrees warmer, and I pushed hard.  I knew I was going too hard, and I did it anyway.

I fell in behind a guy who was setting a solid pace for a good part of the first 15 to 20 miles, brain turned off, body slowly spiraling downward toward distress.  I was drinking, but not enough.  I was eating, but not enough, and running too hard in the hot weather for my body to properly process the food anyway.

And then, the meadows.  Around mile 16 or so, the trail opens from the forest trees and spits you out into 6 to 8 miles of rolling meadows of tall grasses, with intermittent short sections of trees.  It was warm and humid, but didn't seem crazy hot yet.  But, I was hot.  And, yet, I hadn't been taking ice from the well stocked aid stations.  Brain still disengaged.  Not surprisingly, I started dragging.

I didn't exactly feel sick, but I certainly didn't feel good. I wasn't throwing up, but it felt like my nutrition wasn't flowing through.  I hadn't peed for hours, and had no urge.  Not good.  And, despite all that, at the last aid station before the half-way turn around, with 5 miles to go to the Scuppernong aid station at the 50K point, I failed to take enough fluid.  I filled my handheld bottle, but didn't bother to restock my hydration pack.  Sure enough, two to three miles before reaching the turnaround, I was out of fluid and my mouth was dry.

I started having a conversation with myself inside my head.  It was short.  I was done. I was dehydrated and trashed and dragging ass.  I couldn't fathom heading all the way back through all of that to the finish.  I couldn't face those f---ing meadows again.  I walked and shuffle-jogged the last couple miles to the aid station at the half way turn around.

The first person I recognized there was Brandi Henry who had been a bright smiling face at every aid station all day.  She cheered for me and asked how I was doing.  "I'm done.  I'm pulling the plug."

Some people would respond to that with a sort of sympathy and understanding.  "It's a tough day out there. You just did a 50K on a brutal day.  That's something to be proud of!"  Those are the sorts of things most people would say.  "Nothing to be ashamed of."  "You did your best."  "You'll get 'em next time."

Brandi didn't say any of that.

"No you're not."

That's what she said.  Just matter-of-factly-like.

But she was wrong.  She didn't understand.  No, really, I'm done.  Don't you know?  I decided this, like a few miles ago.  I'm pulling the plug.  It's just not my day.  It's just a training day.  50K on a day like this is plenty of training.  I'm dehydrated.  I had 'em all lined up in a tidy little row in my head.  Every reason to quit.

It doesn't matter.

I don't care.

I truly don't care.

There's this little place, though.  Somewhere inside my head, or heart, or soul, or something.  It's buried in there deep.  It knew what was really going on.  "This is too hard.  This hurts.  It's hot.  I don't want to go back out there. Going back out there is hard.  Like, really hard.  Sitting here is easy."

Quiting is easy.  Quiting takes the pain away.  Quiting is better than a shortcut.  It's like time travel right past the pain you otherwise had coming.

So, I sat there.  Quitting or not, I knew I had to re-hydrate and refuel.  I drank a bottle of ice water, then another.  I ate an orange and a turkey sandwich.  I drank some more, and then some more.

Michael Davenport came in about 10 minutes after I did, and told me I was going back out with him.  "Nope. I'm done."  He went about his business, and when he was ready to head back out, he encouraged me once again to come with.  I just shook my head.

I had texted my wife, Jenni, soon after I arrived at the aid station, letting her know I was dropping out.  After some time, she called, worried about me.  I told her not to worry.  I told her I was fine, just done with the race.  I told her I could find a ride back to the start/finish area.

And, I told her to tell Derek that I was sorry he couldn't finish with me.  That hurt.

Jenni and the kids were planning to come up to the race after Derek's soccer double-header.  Derek's turning 7 next month.  I've been crossing finish lines with him since he was two months old, at numerous Ironmans and ultras, whenever the family could be there and whenever the rules allowed.  He likes it.  I love it.

I remember once telling Jenni that I wanted to be Derek's hero.  I wanted to be the guy worthy of being the man he wanted to become.  I wanted him to grow up seeing, experiencing, people "achieving their impossible".

When I got off the phone with Jenni, I sat and thought about Derek.  I thought about the conversation to come.  Derek was going to want to understand why I didn't finish.

I couldn't come up with anything that didn't sound like a lame excuse. I had no honest answer I could give him that would serve as a useful teaching exercise. There was no way to make, "It was too hard", sound heroic.

Don't get me wrong.  There are perfectly valid reasons to pull out of events like this.  At the same time our race was going on, a young man died at a half marathon in Chicago, just a couple hours' drive away.  These things can be dangerous, especially when it gets hot.

But, I knew I wasn't really in trouble.  I knew that I was just quitting because it was too damn hard, and quitting was easy.

I knew something else, too.  All of a sudden I had an urge to pee.  That's a good thing.

I got up and did my business, and I noticed something else.  I felt...pretty good.  Much of the pain and stiffness was gone from my legs.

And, that was it.  A switch just flipped in my mind.  I filled my bottle with ice and sports drink.  I filled my hydration pack with ice and water.  I grabbed some more food.  As I was stuffing all that in my back pack, I started to tear up.

Finish what you started!


I was yelling at myself inside my head.

This thing I didn't care about.  It mattered.  It DID matter.  Finishing what I started mattered.

I wiped away the unexpected tears, suddenly extremely pissed at myself for having given up, realizing the only reason I decided to quit was because the race was hard, and it hurt, and continuing on was going to be harder, and hurt more.

Did you think it wasn't going to be hard?  Did you think it wasn't going to hurt?  It's an ultra you dumbass.  It's supposed to be hard.  That's why you choose to do them.

You do this stuff for the very purpose of pushing past the urge to quit when things get too damn hard.

I sent a text to Jenni, telling her I was feeling much better, and that I was going to finish!  I headed toward the timing mat, where Brandi was still there, encouraging other runners.

"I'm going back out."

A little cheer erupted from the few who knew my plan to drop out.  I raised an arm in the air, determined to get this thing done.

More than an hour had passed as I sat in that aid station, but my mind was finally in the right place for the first time all day.  I needed to finish.

Now, all I had to do was cover another 31.6 miles, in 90 degree heat with high humidity.  The adrenaline wore off in about five minutes.  After that, it was hard again.  But, I was determined.

I ran past Bill Thom on my way out of the Scuppernong trails, proudly announcing to Bill that I had quit, but then "unquit".  There's an example for you.  I'm not sure if Bill has EVER not finished a race.  One of the nicest guys you'll ever meet, but hiding inside that dude is a will strong enough break through any obstacle placed before him.  He knows finishing matters.

It didn't get easier.  It got harder.  But, my mind was right.  My body was as good as it was going to get.  I was loading up on ice, keeping myself cool, and making steady progress.

The meadows ate me alive again.  That's why they're there.  Those steamy meadows are there to stop anyone who doesn't want it badly enough.  They took their toll, but they didn't take me down.

Jenni and the kids had arrived by the time I finally came out of the meadow section and made my way into the Emma Carlin aid station.  I guess I was looking rather haggard. I wasn't feeling great, and I guess I wasn't all that pleasant to be around just then, but I was determined to push on.  And, I was very happy my family was there for me, despite outward appearances.

15.8 miles to go.

Hugs! 7.5 mi to go
Slowly I pressed on, as happy as I could reasonably be to be out of the meadows and back in the forest.  When I arrived at the Bluff aid station, 7.5 miles to go, I was met by Jenni and the kids, with smiles and little kid hugs.  They didn't even really care how dirty and smelly I was.  I was tired, but feeling better than I had 8 miles ago, and ready to get this thing done.

I'll never come to appreciate the never ending roller coaster of hills that comprise the last few miles of this race, but I endured them as best I could and finally heard the sounds of the finish line as darkness was settling in.  Derek came running out to greet me, and we ran together, hand in hand, across the finish line.

I started the race with the mindset that it was "just a long training day".  I nearly misused that mindset as a rationale for quiting.  Just a training day.  50K in the heat, that's good training, right?  No shame in calling it a day early.

But, it turns out the real training benefit of the day wasn't physical at all.  It was mental.  If I'd have quit, the most valuable lesson of the day would have been lost.  I hope this is a lesson that will stick in my psyche permanently.  I'm going to need it again one day.

Finish what you started.  It matters.

Darcie (tired), me (happy), Dustin (What's going on?),
Derek (unwitting student in the game of life)


  1. Nice write up. I'm impressed that you took the time to listen to that quiet voice that pushed you out your comfortable chair and on to the finish.

    Kids are an amazing motivational force as well. I know I think of my daughters when I find myself in those lows and wonder how I would explain to them that Dad quit.

    Nice Race,

  2. Nice report. I too have finished races that I "quit" in the middle of.


  3. Excellent race report, Steve! I was sitting on the deck at Nordic watching people roll in. Your family was nearby (but I didn't realize it at the time), and your daughter was climbing on and off the deck, asking, "where's daddy? When is daddy getting back? I miss him!" It was so adorable!

    Great job getting it done, and ignoring that little voice!

  4. really enjoyed this. I have done both now...quit and unquit, and also quit and stayed quit. We both know which one is worth doing again.

  5. Steve, I really enjoyed the report. I was telling Mike Johnson over a beer last night, that I admired you for what you did. I felt fine on Saturday dropping at 27 and all day felt it was the right thing as I saw people dropping like flies and I was better off being able to help those in need, then be carried off myself.

    Then Sunday afternoon and Monday came and I was getting bothered by my choice. You said it in your report. Didn't I expect it to be tough? If it was supposed to be easy, everyone would do it. When I gave up, I alerted the aid station immediately. You, however, took a break, recomposed your attitude, got hydrated and fueled up and set out to complete your mission.

    Well done my friend, I'm glad I was there at the aid stations to cheer you and at the finish when you claimed your victory.

  6. Well done. Reminds of what Martin Dugard talks about in his latest book. Two choices. The pain of suffering or the pain of regret.

  7. Nicely done! I can relate to how you felt, but not the outcome. I could have used these insights around 9pm on Saturday... Made it all the way back to Bluff and reluctantly started heading in. Ran into Dominic on his way out for the night run, and he told me how proud he was of me that I would finish on my first attempt at the distance. Shortly after that I cracked. The little voices told me I couldn't take 2 more hours and I headed in the direct route to Nordic. Handed in my chip. No fanfare. No relief. Just a sort of numbness. Now I have only the "pain of regret" of not showing the perseverance you write about. I know there will be other days, but to have gone so far only to give up so late is a tough one to swallow. Great work.

    See you on the trails.

  8. Thanks for the nice comments everyone. Glad to hear my words could strike a chord with others.

    @Steve: I think I just got a little lucky that I didn't immediately turn in my chip. I didn't do so consciously. Time, food and drink bought me the opportunity for my mind to clear and body to recover. For most of the hour I sat there, I was sure I was done. I wasn't consciously trying to get back in the fight. Finally, I'd recovered enough that quitting just felt too wrong. If I hadn't taken the time, on purpose or by luck, this report would have been very different. Thanks for being there for me for the rest of the day! It helped!

    @Lee: Dude, I gotta admit, that's tough! There's no way you could have ever imagined you'd get over 55 miles in, and not be able to push through the last chunk. Just like I never could have imagined I'd come that close to bowing out at half way. Really goes to show how brutal the day was for so many of us. Don't beat yourself up. Just tuck this experience away in your back pocket and try to remember to pull it out and use it next time. My experience that day tells me, when you made the call to drop, if you'd have gone back to the Bluff AS, sat down, taken some time, got some more food and drink in you, there's a good chance you could have mustered up the will to push on and finish. You'll get another chance to stamp out this "pain of regret". Don't forget, you did in fact cover 57.2 miles (counting the 1.5 miles into Nordic). That's a damn long way. The line between finishing and not just gets really thin when it gets that damn hot and humid, especially so early in the year. Good heat training for L'Ville, right?!

  9. Glad you were in a place where you could rehydrate and refuel, or else I would have pulled the plug for sure.

    I agree it's best to finish what you started, but only if you can do it without taking unnecessary chances with your health, and you didn't do that because you gave your body what it needed so it could keep up with your will to finish.

  10. Thanks for posting this. I, too, started to struggle after those fields & didn't take the time at Scuppernong to recover. Started cramping and stopped sweating shortly thereafter. I finished, but it was a LONG second half of the race for me, finishing about 2-3 solid hours beyond what I'd thought I could do. Glad I finished what I started, without doing any serious damage.

  11. Excellent post, Steve!! I read it several times and it spoke to me each time. Thanks for the lessons learned. Keep finishing what you start. I like that!

  12. That was awesome! Thank you for sharing that adventure!!