Yup, you read it right. Despite a beautiful day and perfectly organized race at the 2008 Quicksilver 50k/50m last Saturday, I had my first ever DNF. In over 100 endurance events, that three letter acronym for “Did Not Finish” has never been next to my name in the results. Now there it is. And I’m feeling pretty damn good about it.
I had always wondered what it took to DNF, especially among the ultrarunner crowd. Like many endurance athletes, we share a collective “don’t quit” fortitude that gets us through all kinds of pain and misery. Isn’t DNF’ing a sign of weakness? Shouldn’t you just be able to power through anything the day dishes out and find that finish line? I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve seen people drop and say to myself “c’mon…you’ve got more than that”. Then again, I’ve also seen runners drop and think “that guy should have dropped 20 miles ago and will need an ambulance, stat”. Where is the line, and how is the decision made? I learned at Quicksilver that the decision sometimes comes easy.
The morning of the race, my body was trying to signal me that a 50-miler might not be a good idea. My resting heart rate was still 10% too high (which is the case when I’m recovering or overtrained), and my legs were still heavy from the Eugene Marathon six days ago. Usually I can slip back intro training 3-4 days after a marathon, but my speed test at the Eugene Marathon had taken a bigger toll than I suspected. But it didn’t “hurt”, so I packed my gear and hoped for a long run on tired legs for the upcoming Western States 100. Heat, hills, tired legs…sounds like a good simulation.
At the start, I found I wasn’t the only one rubbing the soreness out of stiff legs.
Mark Lantz, Mark Tanaka, Jady Palko, and many others had done the Miwok 100k last weekend and were here to race the 50-miler. Sheesh! I only ran a marathon, so I guess I’m out of excuses. We lined up at the start with all the 50k and 25k runners and RD Paul Fick sent us off!
The pace was brisk at the start, much in thanks to the short course folks taking off like banshees. Graham Cooper (QS50 course record holder), Victor Ballesteros, and Chikara Omine were setting a wicked pace for the 50-mile race, with Mark Lantz, Ian Torrence and Mark Tanaka not too far off. I settled in with Inov-8/Nuun Teammate Devon Crosby-Helms who was first among the women. Devon and I ran the 50k here last year, where she “took it easy” due to a health issue and still managed to win Women’s overall. This year she was kicking up to the 50-miler as part of her Western States 100 training, but was getting over the flu and was taking it easy again. Hmm, perhaps another win?
We hit the first few climbs along with Mark Tanaka, Jon Kroll (training for Western States), Sean Lang (training for the Cascade Crest 100), and Martin Spierings (just a month past Ironman Arizona, tackling his first 50k). Mark is good at pacing early and slowly turning up the heat, and his recent romp at Miwok hadn’t changed his tactics. We stuck with him for about a mile before he broke out on the single track and was out of sight.
We hit the first aid station (mile 6) and soon spread out onto the fire trail. The weather was perfect, and Jon Kroll, Sean Lang, Marty Spierings and I kept a swift pace to make the most of the morning. My energy level was at about 80% and my legs felt heavy, but the chirping birds and Spring flowers lifted my spirits up enough to keep chugging along. It was great to chat with Sean, Jon, and Marty too, all of whom are having stellar seasons.
Jon and I hit the next aid station and stocked up before tackling a long, grueling hill. There was a lot of silence on this stretch as we each pulled/pushed each other to keep an strong pace. We caught up to Adam Rays (doing the 50m) and 30-year-old Toshikazu Hosaka who was tackling his first 50k, and began the first long descent to the Dam Overlook aid station (mile 18).
The downhills felt unusually uncomfortable to me. That’s too bad, because the downhills at Quicksilver are super-fast and you can make up a lot of time. But I felt this odd soreness in my hip flexors and at the base of my hamstrings when I fully extended my legs. I promised myself that I would take a short walk break on the next uphill section if it continued. It subsided after filling up at the Dam Overlook Aid Station, so I picked up the pace again.
Toshi, Jon and I pushed the rolling hills and caught up with Mark Tanaka right near the bottom of the hill. I couldn’t believe Mark was doing so well so shortly after Miwok, and he had no trouble pulling away as soon as we got on his shoulder. I surged to keep up, but my hip flexors and hamstrings started having that deep, dull ache again. Something was definitely not right, so I slowed to walk up the hills and drank my water. I popped an ibuprofen and marked my watch for a 5 minute walk, as Jon, Mark and Toshi all ran off in the distance.
Getting back into a run stride was proving difficult. By the time I got back to the Dam Overlook (23.6), the deep pain was still there and literally “cramping my style”. I was doing the mile 60 shuffle, and I wasn’t even half way through a 50-miler! The reason was obvious – I hadn’t given my body enough time after the fast marathon in Eugene, and now all of the parts I overstretched at that race were coming back to haunt me. Why wasn’t I ready to race again?
Then I realized my mistake. I had changed my race goal at Eugene! It was supposed to be a long, slow run, but I decided to go fast once I found out I would be running solo. I didn’t even think about the ramifications for Quicksilver, and now I was deep in it. Darn. I hate it when the culprit turns out to be my own bad judgment. ;-)
I took my time up the long climb back, sharing smiles with the runners heading down and snapping a few pictures. As I topped the peak and started heading down the next valley, my hip flexors gave me a choice – either take 4 more ibuprofen and grit through it, or you better be dropping soon. My instinct said to tough it out and do the distance, but my brain started playing out the six weeks between now and Western States. Tough it out, and you risk showing up at States injured. DNF, and you can stick to your training. Lord knows I can’t wait another three years to get into Western States. When you put it that way, a DNF doesn’t sound so bad.
So I made up my mind to drop at 50k, had a big snack at Englishtown (mile 27), and kept my running to a controlled shuffle. Suzanna Bon came flying by me on the downhill, well ahead in the Women’s division for the 50-miler. Not much later, Graham Cooper was heading back out for part II, a few minutes ahead of his course record pace and with Victor Ballesteros and Chikara Omine right on his tail. Chikara always has some kick and Victor usually pounces at the end, so this was certain to be a crazy finish!
Michael Buchanan (50k) walked with me for a bit in the last mile and shared stories of his own marathon recoveries. He is no stranger to fast marathons (he’s a sub-2:30 marathoner), so I felt much better after talking to him. He took off to squeeze under 4:40 for the 50k, and I came in around 4:42 and let them know I was dropping. The RD’s were great to make sure I wasn’t just wimping out (since I was still smiling), but also let me know I was the first DNF. Double ouch.
Any issues I had about DNF’ing were soon relieved by the next group of 50-milers who all dropped. Devon Crosby-Helms felt her flu dropping into her lungs, so she stopped instantly. Sean Lang was also saving up for a full weekend of training, and Jady Palko dropped to make sure he recovered from Miwok. These folks are all smart runners and dropping for similar reasons, so I felt like I was in good company. In talking with them all afterwards, most of us knew there was a fair chance we wouldn’t make it, but stubbornly didn’t step down to the 50k. (note – you don’t get 50k credit at Quicksilver for dropping, but you can opt up, so I would suggest to anyone contemplating a 50k drop to race the 50k and move up to the 50-miler if you feel good at the end) But we still got to enjoy the BBQ and beer, and we were all feeling good about our decisions. I only felt bad for Devon, whose 50k split would have been enough to win the Women’s 50k by 10 minutes. ;-)
In the end, Graham Cooper won the QS50 for the third time, taking three minutes off his course record for a 6:35:28. Chikara Omine snuck under 7 hours with 6:59:36, while Ian Torrence got third (7:19:18) and Mark Tanaka toughed it out for fourth and winning the Masters division (7:22:20). Jon Kroll did an amazing time of 7:42, so he’s well on his way for States. Suzanna Bon won the Women’s division in 7:45, nearly an hour ahead of Francesca Conte (8:39:44) and Kelly Cronin (8:45:12). In the 50k, first time ultrarunner Scott McClennan crushed the competition in 3:51:58, with Nate Bowen (3:58:03) and the ever-fast Ron Guiterrez (4:14:21, Masters winner) rounding out the top 3. Florencia Gascon-Amyx won the Women’s division in 5:03:06.
I should have known better than to race so soon after a marathon PR, and should really know better than to change my training plan. But given the circumstances, I am pleased with my decision to stop. The day was not a failure by any means – a great run in the mountains, catching up with good friends, and enough time left in the day to get Mother’s Day planned. For me, DNF means “Did Not Fail” to see the big objective, despite the lure of another ultra finish. I have a newfound respect for those three letter next to anyone’s name.