My first DNF. It stings a bit to write it, but that feeling seems to be fading, especially after finally going for a nice sweaty run just now, 5 days after the event. It’s crazy how a rush of endorphins can change one’s mindset. I feel like I finally joined a new ultra running club. In fact, a very seasoned ultra runner took it upon himself to message me and told me “you’re not a complete ultra runner until you’ve had that DNF”. For those of you who don’t know what DNF stands for, it stands for (ouch) Did Not Finish. An acronym I have seen written many times on facebook posts, emails, blogs, etc…but it had never happened to me. Each time I read a DNF account or heard of one, I always brushed it off as “yeah, but that person still rocks and it happens”. I’d offer up generous consoling comments, making that person feel better. And in the back of my mind I always wondered “when” it would happen and “how” I would feel. Because I had been ultra running and marathoning for years now and it hadn’t happened. I’ve run 18 road marathons – never happened. 156 miles self-supported miles through the lava fields of Iceland – made it. Got through my first 100 miler relatively unscathed. My first 62 miler, 50 milers, many 50ks – no problem. I had never felt more prepared for a race. In the months leading up to Waldo, I took up private yoga lessons and got ART done on my right leg, ate super well, trained like crazy, sacrificing a lot.
The Waldo 100k is a race to be respected. It is not only a beautiful course, in the Oregon Cascades, but it’s an ass-kicker – some serious mountain running. The elevation profile is 10,000, which is less elevation than the Miwok 100k I raced back in May, but the altitude and terrain makes it an entirely different monster. There are 4 huge climbs, the last one being in the heat of the day and at mile 54. It starts off with a bang with a steep 1/2 mile climb when your legs aren’t entirely warmed up and from then on, until you get to the base of Fuji Mountain, it is constant and relentless runnable rollers. So you’re not taking huge hiking breaks – you’re running a lot (excuse #1). However, I took my time, knowing it would be a LONG day out there and I didn’t want to sap my energy early on. Stuck to my usual 300 calories per hour, like clockwork. I paced off a woman who seemed like she was slower than me and that kept me honest in terms of pace. I felt great. And happy. So as soon as we crested Fuji Mountain, I told myself I’d pick up the pace on the downhill a bit to make up for my slower paced uphill running/hiking. For 6 miles I cruised downhill towards mile 20, feeling incredible and feeling like I would definitely be able to conquer this course and finish strong. It even crossed my mind that I would be able to break my previous 100k time at Miwok – ha! Got to mile 20 and saw Joe Condon there. Joe drove up to the race to crew and pace me – he has always believed in me, even when I sometimes couldn’t figure out why, and says he still does. I barked out several commands to him and to the nice aid station people who always focus on one runner and take care of that runner’s needs until he/she leaves the aid station. But I always say “thank you for coming out here”. I really appreciate the volunteers and crew.
Joe took a few pictures and told me I was about an hour behind Gordon Ainsleigh who he was also crewing. For those of you who don’t know who Gordon Ainsleigh is, google him – he was the first person to cover the 100 miles along the Western States course, therefore starting Western States and specifically the 100 mile distance. He is a legend and without him ultra running wouldn’t be what it is. I’m not kidding. Otherwise known as “Gordy”, Gordy put up on facebook that he needed a ride from Auburn to the race. He wanted to get his Western States qualifier and the Waldo is a qualifier. I tagged Joe in the comments and a friendship was made. Joe was going to pick up Gordy in Sacramento and they were going to drive up together and camp at the race start/finish. I remember feeling like I wanted to cancel my plane ticket to Eugene, in order to spend time with those two for the drive up. But I did the second best thing and made my mark by making them various sandwiches (16 total) for the drive up. A Gordy special (very mediterranean) per Gordy’s request, a tomato basil on ciabatta, a tortilla espanola on a baguette, turkey/cheese/avocado. Anyway, I digress. Back to mile 20. Yeah, feeling great. Got over the second climb, which you don’t know you’re climbing since it’s gradual – so it’s rolling hills that you’re running but you’re climbing at the same time. Mile 32. Get there feeling a bit tired but pretty good. Nutrition was going well, stomach feeling good, legs feeling stronger than ever. I get to the mile 32 aid station and there’s a view of Charlton Lake. It was so blue, fresh looking and gorgeous. I wanted to dive right in as it was starting to get hot out there. Got my pack replenished and Joe tells me that my pace is fine. That I’m less than an hour behind Gordy (so I’m catching him!) and that if I kept up my current pace I would be ok in terms of cutoffs. Ok, I can do that. Stopped at the table to get some watermelon and a potato and I hear someone tell a runner that we had an hour to cover the next miles to mile 37. What? I note the look of panic on that runner’s face and I start to panic. I have never had to deal with cutoffs. Not even in Iceland when I was injured and hobbling. Negative thoughts crept in, thoughts of why would a race be so stringent like that? Ok, so I needed to basically run for my life to mile 37. All thoughts of taking care of myself seemed to leave me. I pushed the pace, forgot to properly stick to feed myself every half hour (excuse #2) and all I thought of was getting to mile 37 in time. What was going to happen if I were to be pulled? How did people pull people off the trail? How does it feel? Yikes. Make it to mile 36 and am hit with a flat exposed and dusty portion and am passing a few other struggling runners along the way. A wave of feeling completely and utterly crappy suddenly hits me like a ton of bricks. I’m freaking out, with 1 mile to go. But I make it there. Am greeted by clapping volunteers who shout out my number and it’s a hawaiian themed aid station. Everyone is upbeat and happy. A volunteer grabs me, asks me what I want. She doesn’t seem to be rushing me out of there, so I ask her how many minutes I have until the aid station closes and she says “you have 45 minutes honey, you are fine”. Really? But I thought…”no honey, you can hang out here for 45 minutes and you’d be fine”. Nice. But by now I go from feeling from utterly crappy to feeling like complete s#%*t. I feel absolutely no energy in the reserves. I feel horrible. But I take grab some watermelon and decide not to linger (in retrospect I should have sat down for a bit to regroup – excuse #3). I walk out of the aid station and start to run and see and know (based on the fact that I studied the course for months beforehand) that it was going to be all climbing for the next 7 miles. I start to fall apart, as runners pass me one by one. Tick, tick, tick…At that point, I didn’t want to be on the course anymore. I wanted to be in the air conditioned car, in fetal position in the backseat. I will spare you the details, but I will say that it was the longest 2 hours of my life, getting up to mile 44 and to Joe and to the car. I will also say that I got an incredible, clapping welcome at mile 44, including Megan Arbogast who sat down next to me and listened to me recount what happened. And then a few other people told me “a first DNF is never easy, and then it happens again until you learn”. Very true.
All that said, I ended up having a great post-race dinner at the finish line and watched Gordy finish strong. What a man and now a good friend. I wouldn’t change my trip to Oregon for a thing. Joe, Gordy and I hung out and ate and I got to talk like one of the boys. And I witnessed the crazy amount of people come up to Gordy (some giggling like mad) to introduce themselves. Also, Joe became famous as well, as a result. People kept telling me I had a famous pacer because he was crewing Gordy. Joe rocks, people. Get to know him. I made a few friends along the way, as well. Got back to the hotel and did the facebook DNF post as I knew that a lot of people were following me and were probably wondering what happened. I got about a million messages and comments and they were all pretty nice and what I expected they would be. I am lucky to have such great friends, non-running and running. My previous visions/thoughts of people whispering about my dnf behind hidden hands have faded – gosh, I’m so ridiculous. I am stronger person for sure after this experience and a bit jaded now but in a good way. In a way that will allow me to learn from mistakes. I will go back to Waldo to take care of unfinished business, just not sure if next year as I hope to race an even crazier 100k in the Alps around that time – that one is a lottery so it depends on that. So if any of you have just experienced a DNF, I hope that this post will help you get through it and give you hope and let you know that it is OK. I’m going to be OK and am looking forward to my next races. We are all human and not perfect and just need to get over it and move forward and it’s OK to also feel sorry for yourself but just don’t let it last too long. On to the next and if there’s no next that is fine too.