Here’s an understatement: ultra running is challenging. I am continually humbled by this sport, and while it’s true I’ve grown immensely in terms of being physically capable of covering the distance(s), no two days are the same. On April 6th, 2019 I toed the line at the American River 50 mile with the intention of smashing a personal best in the fifty mile distance. What transpired however was an outcome I wasn’t quite anticipating.
From the gun, my stomach felt off. Quickly writing it off as pre-race jitters, I was sure after the first hour my tummy would settle and I’d find my rhythm. When at mile eight I suddenly had to go, I knew I was in for an unpleasant twist of fate. Relieving myself of the discomfort churning in my belly, I took deep breaths and carried on. Then it came on again, and again, and again at mile 17 knocking me out for a good five minutes. Praying to a higher power that the bush I was hiding behind wasn’t smothered in poison oak, I just sat there, equal parts humiliated and frustrated at how sensitive my body is. How could this be happening, I wondered to myself. How can one weekend of racing leave me feeling so strong, while another leaves me feeling chewed up and spit out only 17 miles in to a 50 mile race?
The rest of my adventure wasn’t much more glamorous. I slogged my way through 42 miles, throwing up stomach bile and dragging myself through what the course deems, “the meat grinder.” When I saw my crew at what was named, “Rattlesnake Bar,” I decided to call it a day. I didn’t want to risk further depleting my system, because lord only knows how much of a trench I was in already. I also didn’t want to jeopardize getting injured for a race that wasn’t what I call, an “A” race. I was immensely proud of myself for continuing to mile 42 despite the tremendous amount of nausea I had been experiencing throughout the day. Prior to I tried everything; deep breaths, walk breaks, hot broth, ginger ail, potato chips, ginger chews…everything I put in came out both ends (#glamorous). Another 90+ minutes of running just to cross the finish line didn’t seem worth the severe levels of dehydration, dizzy spells and body aches.
Deciding to drop out of a race is anything but an easy choice. Ultra marathons are rewarding because they are HARD. Running 30, 50, 60, 100 miles is hard, regardless of the elevation, altitude, terrain or weather. You can do all the training in the world and rock up to the start line with an upset stomach and sometimes that’s just the way it goes. I’m certain I wouldn’t be as obsessed with this sport if every race I did felt easy like Sunday morning. That’s the beautiful trickery of ultra-trail running. On a good day, the highs are impeccably high — and you chase that every time you toe the line. On a bad day…it’s brutal.
Lately, it feels like I’ve had a string of unfortunate races, and while it’s tremendously easy to focus on them as if they’re catalysts of each other, they’re not. I DNF’d two 100 mile races, and for the first time on April 6th, 2019, I DNF’d my first 50 mile race too. “Failing” means you have something to work on — it means you have to something to chase. I know my body is strong because of the way I felt completing an epic double header only two weeks before. I know my body is strong because I WON my first 100 mile race, on the same trails of this 50 miler. What I’ve been told (and consequently what is beginning to be learned) is that all of these races and adventures aren’t mutually exclusive. Sometimes you win some, and sometimes you reluctantly call it a day when your body is begging for it.
I’ve sort of found that there are two camps in ultra running. Those who refuse to end a race prematurely, and those who respectfully decline. I never imagined I would be that runner who chose opting out of a race; my first ultra marathon I pretty much crawled my way to the finish after sitting in an aid station for over an hour recovering from severe salt depletion. If there is one lesson I can personally impart on the ultra, trail or road runner reading this blog is that there isn’t shame in deciding the stop. It’s not an easy choice, the morning after is riddled with unwelcome thoughts of, “I should’ve kept going,” and “I could’ve kept going,” but I can assure you that the decision made is always the right one. I’m more embarrassed of dropping out of a race than I ought to be. It brings with it a sort of shame that’s like wearing a scratchy old sweater. It can make you feel constricted and claustrophobic, as if dropping becomes the byline for your racing career. And while it feels like this, learning to understand that that’s not in fact what’s happening is difficult.
As someone who suffers from nausea while racing, these unintended drops are all part of the plan. Doesn’t always feel like it…but that’s the way I’m choosing to see it. Because I know, when I figure out how to deal with the sensitive stomach that I have, it’ll make crossing the finish lines feel exceptionally worth it. And that’s why I ultra run. Because every race is challenging. Every race is brutal. Ever race has it’s highs and its lows. And learning how to navigate the fine line between an epic day and a deadly day is a dance that’s so much fun to take part in…even if halfway through I phone my dad for a distraction on the trail and proceed to throw down non-stop expletives (of the F bomb variety) for a good five minutes straight.
A few things to remember:
- Dropping out of a race doesn’t make you a bad runner.
- Some days don’t go the way you planned — period, end of story.
- Your mind is a really powerful tool, and while repeating positive mantras in your head is lucrative most days, sometimes it’s just not enough.
- If you haven’t been consuming water or calories for 3+ hours, usually it’s best to stop. We don’t want you to die out there.
- Even if a race is “easy” it doesn’t mean it’s easy.
- Ultra running wouldn’t be nearly as gratifying if every day were perfect.