The field was small, but the vibes were great. I was lined up for my first 50 miler and my nerves were wreaking havoc on my emotions as the cool air of the morning sent chills throughout my body. I had planned, as always – start slow, keep it steady, and just be happy. But, I didn’t. I started hot and fast.
There was no immediate punishment for this careless decision and I was quickly letting thoughts of glory bicker over which podium spot I would take. Obviously not first (too humble for such an honor), but who’s to say I’d have to settle for third instead of reaching for second… I can be quite the overachiever in my daydreams.
The first two hours had passed successfully. I was running two minutes under my goal pace and even got a ‘Nice job!’ from the RD at an aid station for coming in at #11 close enough to see a top 10 pack of runners headed out. This was going to be my moment to shine. I took a quick swig of water and grabbed a handful of something I wasn’t paying enough attention to know what it was but still ate, and took off down the trail after the pack.
This was what I dreamed about during training. This was also the moment anyone objectively assessing the scenario would be able to say, “Oh yeah, you’re about to be fucked.” But damn how they would’ve been wrong. I kicked it into high gear, asserted my dominance on the trails, and wound my way through runners until I could see the podium squad off in the distance. I spent much of the late teens and twenties on my own, contemplating the accolades that would adorn my humble abode after pushing through such agony to attain this accomplishment – my wife would cook me the finest of meals, my family would shower me with praise, and the world would know that there is a new up and comer (I’m almost 40) to the trail running world.
With such grandiose visions rattling through my brain, I knew it was now or never. I began to push myself even harder, fighting through abdominal pain and cramps to make my way to within a breath’s distance of third place. Letting our feet sync, pounding into the dirt with the same rhythm, I waited for the pristine moment to pass. It came to fruition in a sharp turn, followed by an uphill climb hidden by a dense thicket of pine trees that nature, and the trail designers, had laid out beautifully. His feet stuttered on the turn, losing a step, and losing his rhythm while I charged past, never looking back…. Yeah, this is all bullshit.
Remember that aid station bit about how the RD told me ‘Nice job!’. I started bombing a few miles after that. I had completely screwed my hydration plan, did not pay near enough attention to what I would need to eat to sustain such an effort (an effort I hadn’t even trained for) and wound up rolling my ankle so bad at mile 31 because of the cramps I didn’t address. As my gait changed I couldn’t run properly and found my way slowly crashing into my first DNF.
One of the loveliest things about trail running is the trails. One of the most unforgiving, uncaring, unapologetic things about trail running is the trails. They do not care about your emotions, your plans, or your effort. If you do not put in the work needed to calm your thoughts and desires, the trails will humble you at no extra charge.
If you’ve been properly training, you will run multiple long-distance efforts at a moderate training pace before your ultra. But come race day, that moderate pace for the entire run can be stunted into a blow-out effort within the first half if you aren’t honest with yourself about where you can comfortably run and be happy and safe. For most of us, it’s a minute or two added on to our training pace, not subtracted from. Do some runners go out hot and find a way to finish at the podium? Yes. Do the vast majority of runners who go out hot wind up in the same predicament as I did? Abso-fucking-lutely.
Your pace for an ultra is not your PR for a half or even a 25k. If you aren’t a nose down, precision training semi-pro to pro, then let yourself off the hook. There is an overabundance of DNF’s, injuries, and finish line fatigue that can be directly correlated to runners overreaching their pace, and I am an unfortunate ambassador to that statement. It has taken me the last few years of honestly questioning my goals, honestly asking myself what I intend to achieve, and honestly reminding myself that I am not an athlete.
I’m a trail runner.
I don’t need to fight for a podium spot because I don’t train for a podium spot. I don’t need to harangue myself if my pace is a mid-13 or 14 when an 11 isn’t so unreasonable from there.
When reason comes along to shine a light on the situation, I can see I am pushing myself to accomplish something only worth it if I enjoy it. Why? Because that’s all I want from trail running. I want to enjoy it. I want to enjoy the other people who enjoy it, and I don’t want to struggle through training sessions to take mere seconds off of my finish time. If you do, awesome. Kill it, crush it, and dig in and grind your heart out. But if you’re like me, give yourself a break. Finish wherever you finish and be all the happier for the memories and smiles.
I’ve most likely run my PR for a 50k and 50 Miler, and that’s fine. I’ll take a finish line walking in and smiling over pushing myself to the breaking point these days. Besides, you get to eat a lot more aid station food, and talk to some pretty cool people when you’re not in a rush to get anywhere but to that next step in front of you.