It was going to be difficult month.
In June, I was faced with a daunting list of obligations; family, kids, baby, work, household and personal tasks, followed by a myriad of other obligations. The fog was going to push me to my emotional, financial, and time-in-the-day limits.
It was going to be a short sprint, lasting only a few weeks, but at the end I knew I would be in need to a return-to-zero.
So I found a trail run to do just that.
Preparing for the race would keep my mind occupied and focused, while whatever little training time I could sneak out of my day would bring some peace to the noise from the rest of the day. It was an obligation I was happy to take on, for the benefits outweighed the risks.
Unfortunately, training time was even more sparse than I expected, and I found myself missing my daily and weekly mileage targets, drastically in danger of being ill prepared for the 50K that lay in wait on my calendar.
My peak weak was…horrid…and my longest run was a 13 miler. This 50K was going to rely on my mental fortitude more than my muscles, but I felt I was ready.
As we were going to be near Santa Cruz, I told my wife that we could sneak over the ocean in the afternoon and spend some family time in the surf and sun.
Friday – The Day Before
It seems I am always reading about people arriving in Colorado weeks before Leadville and Hardrock to acclimatize to the elevation, or seeing Facebook posts from runners arriving at a location days before a race to get shake out runs in on the course, or just generally decompress and prepare, mentally, for the challenge ahead.
My life is never that easy.
I put in a full day of work before my family met me for dinner and the drive down to the hotel near the event. It was going to be a late arrival, so we would get a few hours in before waking the next day. Fortunately, the race was scheduled to start at 8, so we could “sleep in” by many race standards.
That night, after we were settled in the hotel, my son and I took a short shakeout run at about 10 pm to loosen up after all those hours in the car.
We woke up with lofty ambitions of eating and arriving early, allowing time to settle in before the event began. Two week old babies, however, have different ideas then their parents and despite our best attempts to plan and prepare we missed the mark. We arrived in the middle of the trail briefing….something you never want to do. It clears up any confusion you may have had while reading the online maps, and provides critical last minute guidance….like….which way to go when.
Troy, the RD, had graciously allowed me to accompany my son on his 1 mile run, before heading out to put down my own distance.
At the start of the event, Galvin and I took off. We trotted down the course, and as the other runners disappeared around the corner, my son and I had the trail to ourselves. After seeing a flyer posted at his school, my son has been running kids races back east, where he spends the school year with his mother and this was the first I was able to enjoy with him. I cherished every step; I was a very happy dad.
After finishing the 1 Mile with my son, I grabbed my vest, kissed the family and set off to do what I had come to do.
After the month I had, I was running to process it all and leave the stress out on the trail behind me. I had come to exhaust myself and find the meditative clarity that only presents itself through long, intrepid journeys. I needed to find my center.
There were quite a few people running the 24 and 14 mile distances, and although I was now about 35 minutes behind everyone else, I expected to at least catch the back of the packers from those races.
I set off, optimistic and hopeful. There was only one other runner in the 50K, and it was now a question of whether or not I would ever catch her, and if so, when? Although I was running “for myself”, a competitive spark would help motivate and drive me, and any “victory” would provide an added sense of accomplishment.
I started up a very long hill…a doozy of a climb. Three deer came trotting out of the woods, and bounded down the hill across the fire road and paused to assess me. I asked the venados for their running wisdom as they bounded away.
I crested the hill as a large pick up truck rounded the bend, with Troy at the wheel wearing a very confused look on his face as to why one of his runners was on the wrong trail at the wrong time.
I had taken a wrong turn and hiked up a very long, high hill – If he hadn’t arrived when he did I would have done the final loop first.
After a bitter slice of humble pie I was back to where I was supposed to be, at the fork where I should of have gone left, instead of right.
I was now a hour behind everyone else, and I had another long, arduous climb to make right off the bat. While big hills are not the problem, it meant I wasn’t going to be making up time for at least another hour, leaving me a projected two hours behind everyone.
There were a few unmanned aid stations with watermelon, bananas, snacks, and drinks; and one manned aid station at a particular point where the various trail loops all passed over. It was manned by the medical technician – a perfect place, considering it was literally in the middle of everything.
The only other person running the 50K distance was a woman, so even if I never caught up to her, I would still make first place Male!
It was getting hot fast, and I was taking in a lot of water, filling up both bottles every aid stop. The salt was caking on my shirt and shorts, so I kept an eye on my intake. My wife kept my Salt Stick supply going, even handing some out to a cramped runner who could not move after completing his race. As I reflect on the race now, I am pleased with my fluid and calorie intake, having consumed plenty of food at the aid stations, and never feeling like I hit a low.
For 12 miles, it was only the course and myself. Wonderful, undulating single track, wide dirt roads, exposure and shade. Challenging hills both ascending and descending. It was a pretty spectacular course. Without having spent much time training for the hills at my usual spot, my pace was slowing. I went in hoping for 5 hours, but was realistically expecting 6. My training had been too light for a PR this time around. Despite my diminishing strength, I was finding peace in the solitude.
I always enjoy “trail chat”, and running with others for periods of time. Trail and ultra racing is a fantastic community, the people are endearing. But out there, it was just me and the problems I brought with me.
For each and every mile, I digested them, feeling more at ease with the day, my life, and the events which had recently come to pass.
Eventually I found myself closing in on the other 50K runner. We ran the last mile and a half in to the start/finish area where the loops all connected. We talked of racing and family; the both of us finding enjoyment in having some conversation for the first time since the start of the race. She was going to withdraw, the hills were just too much.
Coming into the start/finish area, I loaded back up with water and snacks and set off for the next loop, a 10 miler. My son started to walk with me, asking to join me for the next loop. I explained that 10 miles was a lot, and that he would not be able to do it quickly without a lot of training. This was his first time with me at an Ultra, so he wasn’t not as versed as my wife in the long time requirements of a race. With a frown on his face, I told him we would run more together and that I loved him, returning to the task at hand.
I power hiked the hills, and ran the downhills and the straights. I took pictures of the beautiful landscape, and enjoyed every minute of being out on the trail. I was going slower than expected, but still strong enough to keep moving. My quads were sore, and the day was hot. I forced myself stop once after a urination revealed I was approaching dangerous dehydration, despite my consistent fluid intake, and drank 2 full bottles of water before continuing.
A few miles later, I sat down to pause for a moment. I thought of my wife sitting in the chair, unable to run, as she had to tend to our two week old daughter. A runner herself and veteran of a previous TCTRun, she was looking little forlorn at the gorgeous trails. I thought of my son, who was out for the summer to spend time with us, collecting rocks and wanting to run more with me. I thought of my snuffley little Olivia, two weeks and tiny.
I thought of the volunteers who were out here supporting the race. Everyone had finished the 24 and 14 mile events, and it was now just me on the course. I was coming up on just over 5 hours – even a 6 hour finish was gone at this point. I was slow, but not broken. I was sweaty and dirty, but hydrated and fueled.
I sat and massaged my legs, staring at my feet.
They had taken me much farther, and over tougher terrain. I had nothing to prove on this course. I came out here to clear my head, and find comfort in the chaos of life, and enjoy doing something I love deeply. I had found what I sought.
I finished the 10 mile loop and told my wife and Troy that I was done. There was no sense in everyone sitting around while I finished the last 6 miles, a distance that would conceivably take me another 1.5-2 hours. I had promised my family a trip to the beach, and it was getting to be the afternoon. Troy and his volunteers were out there for one person, me. It would be selfish for me to ask them to remain while I loped about the countryside.
I had gotten what I had come for – what I had needed. Now it was time for me to get back to my family, take them to play in the Pacific, and let the amazing staff of the race get home to theirs.
We loaded the car, and thanked Troy and his staff for another wonderful day.
I dropped to a “24 Mile Finisher”, which means I completed a race. However, I did not complete the race I had set out to do that morning. I may not have finished my 50K, but I didn’t quit because of a sprained ankle, or stubbed toe, or even lack of resolve. It may not be a technical DNF, or it may be a DNF by proxy, or a DNF* (asterix intended), or a straight up DNF by some standards, but it doesn’t not feel like one to me. I made the choice not because I couldn’t go on, but because I did not need to.
To me, the three letters I hate the most meant something different that day. I Did Not Finish, because I wanted to Deny No Fun.
The miles I moved gave me the accomplishment I needed – and some things, are far more important than an award.
Many thanks to my Family for being my crew and my support, and to Troy of tctruns.com and his dedicated staff of volunteers for putting on another amazing event. Beautiful scenery, fantastic people, and incredibly well marked and mapped (my wrong turn was my own lack of understanding before I set out!).