Friday, April 8, 2011

Umstead DNF...

I was not in a good place from the start. I was toeing the line and viewing the race as another item to cross off the list. I’ve always been a bit of an over-achiever, but the balancing act of writing my dissertation, finishing out experiments (which never seem to end) and submitting papers, finding a job, selling the condo, attempting to be a supportive husband to my expecting wife, and training for a race was pushing the limit. But somehow when the gun went off, everything was serene, as if I could finally breathe. I started amongst friends, many of whom I’ve shared hundreds of miles of trails with, and life seemed okay.


My plan for this race was to run my style – lots of fast hiking during the first half to save the running muscles for the second half. I planned to hit the 50-mile mark in 9:30 with the hope of a second half in 10:30 to break 20 hours. I had meticulously planned my nutrition for each loop (8 x 12.5mi) down to the last calorie. Six miles into the race, I was miserable. I was running through beautiful woods, but on a groomed crushed limestone trail that felt much like a four-lane highway. This would not be a race to enjoy, but one to just put my head down and run. I finished the 1st loop in 2:10 (10 min faster than planned) but the legs felt calm and relaxed. I grabbed another bottle of heed/perpetuem mix from my lovely wife and headed back out.


The 2nd loop would prove to be a major turning point. Early on I realized my nutrition mix was too thick and I wasn’t getting enough water with the calories. I also hadn’t peed, which is strange for me. My feet started hurting, and while I may be used to finishing with banged up feet, this was really early. But again, this wouldn’t be a race to enjoy, but to put my head down and run. I finished the 2nd loop in 2:15 (5 min faster than planned) and rolled through the aid station. I tried stomaching the same rice burritos that had served me so well at Grindstone, but couldn’t choke them down. So I grabbed a handful of pretzels and oranges and headed out.


The 3rd loop is when the pain set in. The tendon sheath that crosses the high ankle/shin area (anterior tibialis tendon) was starting to protest loudly. The problem is, these tendons are engaged with every flexion of the foot; thus, their use is unavoidable. Five weeks prior to the race I took some time off to let this heal, and really hadn’t had any problems since (despite a few long runs and high-mileage weeks). But this was just another issue to put my head down and run through. I was also worried about hydration, despite drinking nearly 80oz of fluid per loop – I peed for the first time at mile 35, and it looked a bit radioactive. Nevertheless, I finished loop 3 in 2:20 (5 min faster than planned).


I was getting really emotional. I teared-up a few times on the trail for no apparent reason. I think I just felt a bit overwhelmed. Katie and I weren’t looking at each other in the eye because I think we both knew the consequence. She is so amazing and supportive and feels the fall of every step. I still couldn’t stomach more than a bite or so of the burritos, so I grabbed another handful of pretzels and as many orange slices as I could carry and headed out. I was amazed the 2-3 gels per loop and light snacking were still powering my legs.


Loop 4 was uneventful, except the increasing pain in the ankle. Mercifully the feet hadn’t gotten any worse. I had my IPod shuffling through my running mix, which was allowing my mind to disassociate. The Zeidner’s had driven down from Columbus, and Steve would begin pacing me at the end of this loop, so that was something to look forward to. Other than the ankle, my legs felt great – freakishly great. I finished loop 4 in 2:25 (5 min faster than planned) for a 50-mile split of 9:06. I spent a minute or two at the aid station fueling up, and then headed out with Steve.


Loop 5 rolled along. I bitched about the airport spur. We caught up with Patton and stuck together for much of this loop. I didn’t say much of anything. The ankle pain was increasing and I had gone to that place where anger was pushing me forward. We finished loop 5 in 2:30 – exactly as planned. 62.5 miles in 11:40 – something was clearly wrong with me, but my muscles felt amazing and I didn’t have so much as a mild complaint from the knees (which tend to be my issue). It was just that damned tendon. I was worried about the decreasing flexibility in my footfalls and the increasing pain, but we headed out for another loop.


Loop 6. Loop 6 would prove to be my undoing. The transitions from running to walking to running were met with screaming complaints. Steve and I spoke very little. I must have been horrible to pace. I finally peed again. Count it – twice in 70+ miles. I think I saw the plant die. I was getting loopy (no pun intended). I was having trouble recognizing people and my thoughts were cloudy. I needed calories. We finished this loop in 2:45 (10 min slower than planned). 75-miles in 14:30 – the muscles still felt great, but it was time to reassess. A blessed man with a goatee and British/Irish accent worked with me to get some calories back in. I came around quite quickly. Another aid station worker grabbed my hand to lead me to my crew and was startled by its chill. The temperature was dropping. Katie got a coat and gloves on me and we talked briefly. Steve needed a breather so I headed out on my own…


I’m afraid the few minutes of standing and the dropping temperatures locked up the anterior tib tendon. I hobbled along to the airport spur and broke into run – no go. I could no longer flex the foot. I tried some alternative running styles to simply lift the foot and let the knee and hip do all of the work, but 25 miles of this was a recipe for serious injury. I determined if I could maintain 20-min miles I could walk it in and still finish with a respectable time (~22 hrs). The problem is, as I soon realized, flexing the foot is required for both walking and running. Game over.


I apologize for the self-centered nature of this race report. I saw many of my dear Ohio friends on the trails and at the aid stations and am so proud of each of their accomplishments. It was a great representation of a team – runners, pacers, and crew – all working together. I am honored to have witnessed it all first hand.


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It is now five days later and the realization of my first DNF still stings deep. I’ve played the scenario at mile 75 over and over in my head. What if I had kept moving and didn’t stand still for three minutes? What if I had plopped a bag of ice on the tendon for 20-minutes to calm the inflammation? What if I had popped a handful of Advil and then just sucked it up and ran? At this point, I’ll never know. I know the swelling and pain that still plagues me right now suggests that no good could have come from continuing...but it that just an easy justification? I did wind up with credit for a 50-mile finish in a time of 9:06:11…hardly a consolation prize.


As I think back over the race, there are a number of positives that both excite and disappoint. The fact that I was capable of running the first 75 miles in 14:30 still blows my mind. Additionally, my muscles felt great and my knees held up beautifully (all those PT exercises did something!). This is equally disappointing in the fact that my day came to an end short of the finish due to some other ridiculous ailment… But I now know I am capable of running a strong race.


I used to be terrified of a DNF because I thought it would make me weak, or more likely to DNF in the future…but if anything, this DNF has made me hungrier and given me a deeper determination to train and succeed. The Wasatch Front 100 is in 153 days…and when the injuries heal, I’ll be back at it harder than ever.