Finish lines, personal records, and triumph. When you daydream about races they always end in glory. In the fantasies I never get tired. There are no cramping muscles, tripping over roots, or nutrition concerns. In my illusions, trail races are easy.
This past Saturday, after 15 miles, I cleaned the mud out of my shoes. I was three loops deep in a chilly, wet Ohio ultra, and on pace to finish with a respectable time and possibly a personal record. I felt like I was pushing a little bit but had no doubts that I could finish strong. With my feet feeling more comfortable, I headed out for another five mile loop at Bills’ Badass 50k.
The course for this race begins on a country road near a covered bridge in Everett, Ohio. It promptly swings left up a significant hill and flattens out for roughly two miles. Then it drops you into three stream crossings with easy rolling trails in between them, followed by a steep hike back out of the valley. Each loop ends with nearly two miles of downhill or flat running. Elevation wise there are two significant climbs and two runable but HR-spiking inclines. The course registered on my watch as a touch over 650’ in gain per loop. Since it’s a 50k, you run this circuit six times and then add an extra hill climb that’s across the road from the starting area.
I didn’t get that far though.
As I started lap four it started to rain again. After nearly two hours of letting my shirt dry, the clouds decided to open themselves back up for us. The trails were already soaked and held ankle-deep mud in many areas. The climbs were already slick and the temperature was already cool. More rain would not help.
On this lap I consciously hiked the uphills. My heart rate had been trending higher than I would like and was not settling as quickly as I wanted. I slid sideways down the steep mud slope into the stream valley, the worn edges of the trail sloppier than ever. I crossed the knee-deep, swollen creek, with its current getting swifter and my feet getting colder. And then I hiked up toward the gravel bridle path that would slope me back toward the turnaround. Then, at mile 18, the all-too-frequent nausea hit me.
Shit. I thought I had figured out my nutrition.
I made awful retching noises but nothing came of it. It happened again ten minutes later. I made plans for raiding my drop bag at the aid station for anything to solve this once and for all.
As I approached the start/finish area Bill, the RD, looked over his glasses at me. Are you okay? I lied and said yes. I gave him an insincere thumbs-up and busied myself looking for a salt pill in my dropbag and getting ginger ale from the aid station.
“Only two laps to go. It’s only a 50k,” I told myself. “Get it together, man.”
Lap 5. More rain. More mud. I made my way up the first hill, through the smooth hardwoods, and onward. I can run with a sickly stomach. It’s kind of becoming my thing. During mile two there is a slight incline; my calves cramped as soon as it started. Both of them. I hiked it instead. The next rolling hills brought the same result.
Hiking the hills lowered my body temperature, and a chill set in. I threw up my ginger ale. “This is stupid,” I said out loud. I walked and jogged my way over the flooded trails toward the end of the loop.
Then I dropped out of the race.
This whole post-race week has been a struggle. I made the right decision and chose my health over a finish. It was an easy choice to make in the moment: warmth or misery. Comfort versus anguish. But it feels awful now.
The final results show that I was on pace for a top 5 finish before my stomach turned. If I didn’t get cold, I could have at least been top ten. If I didn’t get sick, maybe top 3. It would have been an exclamation point at the end of an up-and-down, pushing-my-limits year of ultra running. It would have made all those hours of training pay off. It would have felt fantastic.
It also would have pushed up my Ultrasignup score and earned me dozens of Strava kudos. My race report would get plenty of Reddit karma. Instagram strangers and weird, off-brand companies would comment with celebratory emojis. The ambassador programs I applied for would have noticed me.
And my hubris would have been even more inflated.
Then I remember the ride back to the hotel. I struggled to change out of my wet clothing because I was shivering too violently. We had to pull over twice so I could vomit. My feet ached from the cold water and wet shoes, but I couldn’t reach them because my legs would cramp. I was a mess and my body rightfully revolted against my insolence and indifference toward it.
I got my butt kicked because I was overconfident. I failed to respect this race because it’s “just a 50k” and “only 4,000’ of gain.” I strolled into it casually and without the right preparation: I didn’t fuel my body right, I failed to dress appropriately for the rain, and I paid the price for it.
God, what an ass I was.
The real tragedy is not that I failed. The true misfortune is looking back and, in hindsight, seeing the signs of looming disaster. Like any good tragic hero, I took it all for granted, ignored the obvious omens, and played the fool while everything crumbled around me. My nemesis was never a race, a distance, or a time. My nemesis, as always, was myself and my pride. And that is why I love this sport.
Now it’s time to regroup.
After a long race season, there are five months of training between now and the start of next year’s first ultra. That’s five months to get faster, go further, and build the mental toughness I’ll need for next year. My aspirations aren’t getting smaller, so it’s up to me to get my ability up to par.
And stay humble while doing so.