Thursday, November 22, 2012

My First DNF - Pass Mountain 50k Report

My dream of becoming the world's fastest cross-legged pirate (shirtless division) was short-lived
Saturday the 10th was supposed to be my third 50k since Paatuwaqatsi in September. As you have probably figured out by now, things didn't quite go as planned. In retrospect, I guess I had set myself up to fail. Although I'd been enjoying my most extended period of injury-free running ever, my race schedule was probably a bit over-ambitious. My third 50k was going to be nine weeks after my first, and three weeks after my second, and I'd also been gradually reducing my tapers in order to prepare for a 50 miler in January. That by itself might have been okay, but I'd also started adding speedwork and hadn't been sleeping as much as I needed to. I was also just preoccupied by my book.

Whatever the exact cause, a week before the race I did a hard tempo session and tweaked my left Achilles tendon. It wasn't terrible--just a bit of tenderness to the touch--so I thought that if I just took it easy for a week I'd be okay for the race.

Long story short, I wasn't. It was a cold morning, so my legs were thoroughly chilled by the time the race started, which didn't help. By 4 miles in, my Achilles felt off, and by mile 8 I was starting to run weirdly because I was favoring my left leg. Things were definitely not going well but I didn't know what to do about it. It was a beautiful, fast course and under normal circumstances that sub-7 hour finish I'd had my heart set on should have been within reach. However, as it was I really didn't feel like running. I just wasn't having any fun. (I also forgot my hat, to add stupidity to injury.) In retrospect, I was probably overtrained. That would explain the malaise and the proneness to injury.

Around mile 10 I started thinking seriously about dropping. Although I wasn't enjoying the race, my inclination was to try to finish. I'm not a quitter--or more accurately, I'm someone who really likes to think of himself as not being a quitter. I was pretty sure I could still finish. My Achilles was uncomfortable but not excruciating and if I babied it there was a good chance it would last to the end. Then I would still on schedule for my 50 miler, and I wouldn't have to write a blog post about DNF'ing right after I'd written a post about all the progress I'd made in being healthier. I decided to stick it out.

I came into the mile 15 aid station planning to soldier on. I'd forgotten my hat at the start and it had been a while since the last aid, so I applied sunscreen and gorged myself on food. Refreshed and determined, I started off the second half of the race.

My Achilles was now twice as bad. Confound it. It was time for a more honest analysis. Reasons to quit: there was a chance I'd injure myself if I kept running; ever if I didn't injury myself, I'd probably slow my recovery from whatever this was; if I dropped I'd have a better chance of running my 50 miler and my next 50k in December. Reasons not to quit: I wouldn't feel like a quitter.

Okay, this put things in perspective a little bit more. It was basically my brain versus my pride (or possibly my brain's ability to rationalize versus my pride; it was hard to tell for sure). A half mile later I came to the fork where the 26k runners turned to go to the finish. I sucked up my pride and headed in.

Normally when I'm on the home stretch of a race I speed up but somehow I just couldn't force myself to do that this time. I kept plodding along at a conservative 50k pace, taking frequent walking breaks. I don't know if it was because I was mentally still in ultra mode, or if I was demoralized from DNF'ing, or if it was further evidence of being burnt out, but the end result was that I did a lot of walking while a stream of 26k runners (who had all started an hour after me) flew past on their way to the finish.

I briefly considered pretending to be the winning 50k runner but I'm not (that big of) a sociopath. I don't think I would have fooled anyone anyway. Based on the reception I got at the finish line I don't think anyone thought I looked like someone who could run a 3:30 50k. On the other hand there fortunately wasn't any of the outright booing I was subconsciously expecting. I went through the chute without making eye contact, picked up my finishers beer glass (I did finish the 26k, after all), and quietly took off my 50k bib so I could blend in with everyone else while I snacked.

So that was my first DNF. It obviously wasn't my proudest moment, but the real question at this point is whether it was the right decision. Looking back a week and a half later, I suppose I'd have to say yes (probably). There was definitely something wrong with my Achilles, and I'm still feeling burnt out and under-rested. I've never maintained consistent training for for more than a few months before, usually because of injury, and maybe my body needs a periodic break (or maybe the dark fall mornings are just making me lazy). I'm hoping that if I reduce my mileage for a few weeks I'll be able to come back stronger and healthier--and hopefully be able to finish the darn race next time.


Order my children's book about barefoot running: What Should I Put on My Feet to Go Run?


  1. I have had a couple of DNFs and they hurt and took a while to come to terms with. I would have better if I had considered being sensible and not started each one. Common and sense and running is not something I am good at though. Don't beat yourself up.

    1. Thanks. Now that I'm starting to heal the challenge is getting out the door again. I have a pretty easy time maintaining 100% effort or 20% effort, but I have the hardest time maintaining a 50-80% effort.