Friday, November 8, 2013

Son of a...DNF

My car was packed, OCD was in overdrive with crates of race supplies meticulously labeled and ziploced to protect from any potential elements, and my crew chief, Tim Worden, was here in the driveway to chauffeur me to Oxford, Alabama to run my first 100 mile race. There was no turning back now. A last minute decision to run Pinhoti 100 myself, rather than crew as originally planned for a good running friend, Annie, left me little time to stress over the particulars and build any doubts. I was ready. I wanted to join the hundo club that my ultra-running idols and mentors were already a part of, and I felt confident that I would be walking away Sunday morning sporting a shiny new buckle, the coveted award in the ultra running community for a hundred mile accomplishment.

The 5 hour drive to Oxford was broken up with a stop in Atlanta to pick up Jason Rogers, the 2nd member of my 3 person running crew, and a quick lunch break. The schedule was set out to give us enough time to get checked in at the hotel and make a grocery run to stock the car with essentials for the weekend before we met the rest of the group at Mellow Mushroom for packet pick-up and pre-race dinner.

Mellow Mushroom quickly filled with crew, pacers and runners. My 3rd crew member, Lauren Castor, joined and the 4 of us got acquainted over pizza and beer.  I sat back, soaking it all in, listening to the chatter. It was surreal to be in a room full of people that were all there to accomplish one goal, that most people, most runners cannot fathom – run 100 miles...and I was part of it!

Back at the hotel, last minute gear checks, shenanigans with the group, and raiding Sully’s candy and Advil PM supply distracted any last minute nerves. Bedtime came early as we had to leave out by 430am to make it to the start line. I was expecting a restless night but fell asleep as soon as we turned off the lights and didn't let any wonders or worries creep into my head.

The alarm went off and I started on my normal morning of a run routine. Geared up and lathered with A&D ointment we loaded up the remainder of the car and headed to the start line in Heflin, Alabama, about 40 minutes away.

Check in went quickly. 545am. 15 minutes and I would be kicking off an estimated 28 hour journey. I was oddly calm and other than my typical "I have to pee" because I'm about to run, I don't think it hit me yet just what I was getting into. The line to the one bathroom was at least 20 people deep. Knowing that I wouldn't make it through before start time, I ventured off to find a private tree and thought to myself " I may as well start now because I won't see a real bathroom for 40 miles". Just as I thought I had walked far enough away from the crowd, I turned my headlamp off and started to pull my shorts down to find the tree already occupied. After informing the other runner that he scared the F out of me, we shared a good laugh and went on with our business.

Rushing back to the start my anxiety kicked in. Not because of what lay ahead of me, but because in the dark crowd, I couldn't find my crew. Jason, Katie, and Annie were also running the race and my plan was to stick with them. We had trained together for months. I relied on them for motivation, laughing until I cry stories and a lot of smack talking to lighten the mood when things get bad.  I couldn't start without them, that wasn't the plan. That fear quickly subsided as Sully grabbed my sleeve when I walked by.

A couple quick pictures and an inaudible announcement from the RD and we were off...slowly. Starting intentionally at the back of the pack kept our pace in check and didn't let adrenaline take over. Our group got separated as soon as we turned to single track. Bo, Katie, her brother Ryan and Scott were with me but Sully and Annie got held up in the traffic jam. I remember being told to be cautious the first 3 miles as the trail was technical and in the dark it would be easy to turn an ankle. The constant concentration of footing makes the time slip away and before I realized it, I no longer needed my headlamp. The sun came up and with quick glances of my surroundings I tried to take in the colors. We were running through peak fall foliage and it was obvious. The colors were vibrant and I smiled thinking I had an entire day left to take this in.

I celebrated every mile with quick "woohoo" each time the Garmin notified us of another mile down, a tradition I started when Katie and I ran our first race (The Annihilator) together a few months prior.

Coming up to the first Aid Station, I got excited when I saw my crew waiting on me...and would continue to each time throughout the day. Tim and Jason quickly took my pack, refilled my water, made sure I was ok and sent me on my way down the trail. I remember telling Tim I was really thirsty and I was surprised how much water I had taken in so early on. I contributed it to not forgetting my gum that I normally have while running and didn't put much more thought into it.

My mood quickly changed when I realized Katie and Ryan were about a minute ahead of me and each time I tried to catch up, I was held up by another runner. With minimal opportunity to pass, I settled into my place, reminding myself they weren't far ahead, Sully and Annie weren't far behind and we would all meet up at the next Aid Station. My celebratory cheer at each mile continued despite not being with my friends.

Coming around a bend in mile 8, I saw runners ahead jumping and swatting and feared what was to come. Yellow jackets. After a bad experience and allergic reaction the year prior when I was stung by 18 at once, I did what I could to avoid them. I went off the trail, detoured several yards and joined back when I thought the coast was clear. I felt it on my ankle. One got me and when I stopped to remove the stinger, I was encouraged by the lady behind me to keep moving, or I may get more. My ankle was on fire. My heart rate tripled. I couldn't tell if my adrenaline had kicked in or if I was having a reaction to the sting. I was a scared. Just as I started to get myself worked up, I heard Sully's voice and forgot about the sting. I was back in my comfort zone and quickly calmed back down.

As we reached the ridge I was in awe of the view before me. I stopped for a second to take it in. I could see forever: yellow, orange, red, valley below, mountains in the distance and heard someone say "That's where we're headed". Sully and Annie passed while I took in the view. I started back down the trail to catch up and again got stuck behind other runners. I tried to pass, but couldn't. I started getting angry. I could see them moving further and further ahead. I felt myself pushing to pass, running faster than my planned pace, getting angry again to be held up. I had to stop that. I couldn't tire myself this early on. I told myself over and over again that this was my race, I needed to run my pace, I had my crew, I would be ok away from Sully, until I settled back in. And before I realized it, I was at the next Aid Station and my crew was there with everything laid out that I needed. I carried my phone with me and texted Tim as I went, letting him know what I needed at the next aid station. It worked great saving time and I'm sure minimizing the stress on them with my demands.

I hit my usual slump around mile 15. It happens every time. My legs cramp, I begin to doubt myself, I battle between wanting to quit and knowing better not to. I've been through this on every long run and have learned by now to expect it, know that it will last a couple miles then I'll be back in my zone. And I was. I rolled into the next few aid stations with a smile on my face, happy to see my crew and ready to take on what lies ahead. Coming in to each aid station, I saw Katie or Sully heading out and at this point had stopped worrying about where everyone was at. I was well ahead of the cutoff times and I felt good. I felt better than good and I was loving every minute of this journey.

At Bald Rock, my crew met me on the deck for the scenic overlook. The view was amazing. When they told me I came in 30 minutes ahead of pace, I couldn't believe it. The last few miles just flew by, effortlessly. I was 40 miles in and was not only physically at the highest point in Alabama, but mentally on top of the world. This is where Lauren was meeting us and I would be picking her up as a pacer. I took advantage of my early arrival to use the bathroom and sit down for a minute to eat. A couple hand-fulls of Tostitos scoops filled with mustard and a couple sips of hard cider, because I so desperately wanted to drink something other than water and Heed, and Lauren and I made our way down Blue Hell. Past the rocks, the section turned easy as we made our way down Hwy 28, then Silent Trail sharing the scoop about our children, relationships, etc. It was nice to have a lengthy conversation with someone other than myself for a few miles.

Reaching the next Aid Station is where I would pick up Jason as a pacer for the following 20 miles. It was getting dark at this point and I when we set out on the trail I took the lead and wanted to walk for a bit. I was getting sick to my stomach and started cramping. I was still well ahead of cutoff and felt confident that I would be able to keep it that way with the pace I was able to walk/hike. I started having a hard time taking in water. It made me nauseous each time I took a sip but I kept moving. We caught up with Sully and Annie during this section and my mood immediately improved. I found that Annie wasn't feeling well either. Focusing on trying to cheer her up and just being so glad to be back with my friends helped me forget that I wasn't feeling well myself. It wasn't much further that Annie needed to stop to get sick. I was worried to go on ahead knowing that she wasn't doing good, but Sully insisted.

The next few miles proved to be a challenge for me. This race was my first experience using a pacer. As Jason went ahead of me, I got angry. I was mad that he had fresh legs and was making this seem easy. I was mad that he was going ahead of me. Each time that I looked up the trail to him, because we were in the black of the night, all I could see was the reflection of his headlamp. I tried to walk straight to his headlamp, but the trail wasn't straight. I found myself stepping off the trail and getting scared that I would do the same on a ledge and injure myself. I decided at that point that I was going to turn my ipod on, focus on the ground in front of ME and not let the mental and physical strain of the past 15 hours wear me down. I struggled. Struggled having a pacer. Struggled with stomach pains. Struggled to drink water. I was relieved when I came into the next aid station. I had planned on this being the point that I change in to dry clothes. The first person I saw when I came off the trail was Bryan, Annie's husband. I told him she was sick, it just came out, then I questioned myself as to whether or not I should have told him because I knew he would be worrying himself sick about her.

I changed quickly in the car. Sipped some chicken broth and told my crew I was doing the next section on my own.  I could tell there was some hesitation on their part when I said it, but I assured them I needed this section alone. I love running at night and needed to get my mind back right. My body was starting to tire and I didn't want any negative thoughts effect it anymore. I headed out into the dark and immediately felt better. I had dry clothes, warm clothes, and started talking myself back to where I needed to be. The few miles of fire road was exactly what I needed. I didn't have to mentally focus on the trail. As I reached the ridge of the mountain I was surprised to see lights on either side from towns below. I was expecting just me, my headlamp and darkness. It was beautiful and it's amazing how something so minor could have such an effect on your mood. Sully, Annie and Joe Parker caught up with me during this stretch of fire road. It was nice to be back with them again and to see Annie still going.

Coming in to Clairmont Gap put me at the 60 mile mark. I was still feeling nauseous and having trouble drinking. Nothing tasted good. Every sip of water made me want to get sick, but I was mentally back where I needed to be and told my crew I would stick out this next section with Sully, Annie and Parker. We set off and while I wanted to stay with the group, I felt my pace was a little faster and was afraid to lose anytime on the cutoff buffer I had built. With each step I heard their voices fade behind me and I steadily began passing other runners. Off the fire road, back to the single track, I was back in my zone. Ipod playing, focusing only on what is in sight of my headlamp, trees and rocks and roots rushing by. I spent this section thinking about my time in the Marine Corps. Moving through the night, on a mission. Being back in this area alone had a special meaning to me as I had attended military police training just miles down the road at Ft. McClellan 15 years prior.

A lady had set up camp off the trail, she took my picture and asked my name as I ran by and informed me the next aid station was only 1.3 miles. I kept moving and after the next climb started feeling sick again. The blisters on my feet were starting to rub and I kept telling myself I had less than 1.3 miles and my crew would be there, waiting to take care of me. I ran and walked for what seemed like forever with my stomach in knots. Leaning on a tree I tried to make myself throw up, thinking that once I did, I would feel better, but I had nothing there to come out. I realized at that point that I hadn't eaten much the last few hours and had barely taken in any fluids. I grabbed ginger snaps out of my pack and kept walking. I was able to stomach them with a few sips of water and could hear noise in the distance...the aid station. I started running. I saw the bridge ahead and my crew standing on the other side waiting for me. I let out a loud yell as I had coming into every aid station before, not only to let them know it was me coming, but because I was so damn glad to see them. I told Tim I was getting sick as soon as I got there and between him and Jason they had given me pickles, electrolyte tabs and chicken soup trying to help my stomach while Lauren geared up to take on the next section with me.

Everything went down from here, drastically. One minute I was cold, the next I was hot. I couldn't get my breath or heart rate regulated. I couldn't get my stomach to relax. I stripped down to my tank top and took in the cold air. The temperatures were fore casted to drop down to high 30's, that I wouldn't normally find comforting to run in, but now each breath was refreshing and I couldn't get enough of the cold. Lauren turned on music and we pushed on. It hurt to run. The impact of each step shot up my body and I felt like I was able to move faster walking than I could run. It was a quick 3 miles into Porters Gap, marking mile 69, where Tim informed me I was losing time on cutoff and needed to keep moving. My hour, hour and a half buffer had cut down to 21 minutes. Caught up in the rush I didn't realize this would be the last time I would see my crew until mile 85, where Tim was picking up as my pacer and bringing me in to the finish. I needed to change my shoes. I needed to take care of my blisters. I needed my ipod. I needed my stomach to stop. But I didn't have time.

Lauren and I headed up to Pinnacle. This was expected to be the most challenging part of the course with a steady climb on tired legs. Only a few minutes in, Sully and Parker caught up. They were running up the hills. We don't do that. Annie wasn't with them. I knew something was wrong. They informed me that not only was Annie out of the race but the sweepers were only minutes behind. I got caught up in the whirlwind and let my anxiety get the best of me. My mind went crazy worrying about Annie. I thought about all the work she had done to get here, she was physically the most prepared, she didn't even eat cake at her sons birthday party the previous week. There was no way she wouldn't be crossing the finish with us. I realized it was bringing me down and tried my best to turn my thoughts to the trail. Sully and Parker flew by. They made it look easy and told me to keep up, we just had to get over this mountain and we'd be home clear. I tried. I tried running each time the course leveled out or went down hill. I did my best to keep them in sight but the rush, the hurt, the negative thoughts started taking over and they slowly slipped away from sight. I spent the next few miles in fear of the sweeper and it wore on me. Each time I saw a head lamp approaching or heard voices I feared I was about to be pulled. I was starting to get clumsy. I began tripping over roots, stubbing toes on rocks, twisting my ankle. I battled with cramps and stomach pains and kept moving. We passed runners that had turned back, not able to take on Pinnacle, dropping from the race. I told Lauren I had made it too far to quit, they were crazy, no matter how slow I got, I wasn't done until I was pulled.

The last climb to Pinnacle broke me. I could hear the music from the Aid Station but I couldn't reach it. Each step hurt more and more. The blisters on my feet made it painful to climb. I was dizzy. Sick to my stomach. I was overheated and couldn't get enough cold air. My body felt like it was giving up on me. My mind wasn't ready to be done but I couldn't get my body to do what I needed. I told Lauren there was no way that I was going to make it 25 more miles like this and considered stopping. She went on ahead to the aid station hoping to gather something to calm my stomach and help my feet. One step at a time, one slow step at a time, I made my way to the top. Each step brought me further and further down physically. The previous 13 Aid Stations, I greeted with a yell and a smile, but not this one. I looked at Kyle, the aid station volunteer, and told him I was dropping. I was done. Lauren sent Tim and text, who was napping at mile 85, waiting to bring me in to the finish, letting him know I was out. 

Kyle wasn't having it. He told me I couldn't drop here, it was only 5 miles to the next aid station and if I wanted to stop, I could stop there. The volunteers at Aid Station 14 were amazing! They sat me in front of the fire, wrapped me in blankets and started handing me food and drinks. Kyle assured me that he could fix my feet up and I could continue on...and he did just that. I was disgusted by the fact that he was popping my blisters and wrapping them back up. I got light headed from the pain and was worried that I was going to pass out right there. I seriously couldn't understand why a complete stranger was willing to help so much. I thanked him a million times and stood up to head down the trail. My head was back where it needed to be, I wasn't done.

The next .65 miles of fire road lasted a lifetime, but it was flat and easy footing. I took careful, painful steps. Even with the blisters popped and freshly wrapped, it was a struggle. My stomach was convulsing. But I was moving. My body was shaking uncontrollably. But I was moving. I was dizzy. But I was moving. The second I stepped my foot onto single track, my body stopped. I tried another step and felt like I was going to fall to my knees and pass out. I wasn't moving anymore. My mind was telling my feet to keep going, to just take one more damn step, but they wouldn't. My body and my brain were no longer connecting, they were no longer working together and I was furious.

I felt my world falling apart. In one step, everything was over. Everything in me that wouldn't let me quit, wouldn't let me give up on my goal, had went away. I knew this was my breaking point and feared pushing myself any further. I went through a range of emotions as I made my way back to the Pinnacle Aid Station. I was embarrassed. I was angry. I was disappointed. I wanted to cry but couldn't. I felt like I had let everyone down; my family who had stepped aside and lost time with me through my training, my crew who had given up their entire weekend to cater to me, the Marines I still talk to that know how hard and dedicated I am, my kids who get so excited when I return home with a race medal and a finish, Sully, Annie, Parker, Katie who have trained, raced, and traveled with me over the past few months, Tim, who was supposed to be pacing me in from mile 85, and myself. I have never DNF'd a race. I have never not finished what I set out to do. Ever. But today, I couldn't do it. That was all I had.

The sweeper had already come in to the aid station when we got there, the volunteers were packing up and trying to coordinate how they would get Lauren and myself, along with another runner that the sweeper stopped down the mountain and off the course. I sat back in the chair, back in front of the fire, wrapped back up in the blanket that I had left shortly before. I felt I needed to apologize to Kyle. I sat there, starring at the fire not completely understanding what was happening. I was done. I would not be walking away with a buckle. I would not be crossing the finish line at the track with Tim and collapsing in the grass. I would not be going back home with my head held high from yet another feat I had accomplished.

I gave Pinhoti 77 miles over 22 hours 34 minutes. I had given everything I had and it wasn't enough.

I didn't want to face Tim when we were brought down the mountain. I didn't want to see the disappointment. This was not the plan and I always stick with the plan. We rode to the finish line to get a quick shower before the 5+ hour drive home. Walking into the rec center, the first place finishers were already there, showered, waiting on breakfast. I didn't belong here. I showered, cried, and loaded back into the car wishing the ride was already over so I could be back home, in my bed, alone.

I have played a million "what if" scenarios in my head over the past few days each ending with me crossing the finish line and getting my buckle, but that's not what happened. I knew there would be a point where I would DNF, eventually. Everyone says it happens, especially if I kept pushing myself as I have, advancing from my first marathon 1 year ago to the point I'm at today. But I wasn't expecting Pinhoti to be it. I wasn't ready for disappointment.

Despite my whining and complaining, this has not been a total loss and I can walk away with lessons learned. Not only about the course and where to make improvements for next year, but about myself and accepting limitations.