ar50…. not

Starting my 3rd AR50 mile race, knowing I had not trained enough and that, specifically, my miles are significantly under what I should have run to this point in preparation for a 50-mile race. Last year I was in the middle of a long break and had dropped to the 25-mile distance and then did not start that, but this year I have been building up and decided to toe the line anyway. Recently I completed Fourmidable 50k (albeit after the cutoff) and sweeping half of Ruck-a-Chucky and my endurance is feeling good. My calf and plantar fascia is another story.

A week before the race I did a lake loop without any problem. This is a big deal because the pavement n the bike trail is what bothers my calf/foot the most. Although I had some discomfort, I am confident I can run 50 miles and, maybe, in about 12:30, which would be a 30 minute PR from my last finish of this race. I am carb-loaded, tapered, and ready to go.

The plan is to run with my buddy, Dave. We have run together off and on since he got me into this crazy sport and we plan on running the whole 50 miles together and chose not to have pacers. I pick Dave up at his place at 3 am and make the drive to the finish in Auburn (all trails lead to Auburn) and catch the bus back to the start. We are lucky enough to meet up with some other friends (some volunteering and some running) at the start and find a car to sit in to keep warm until race time.

We don’t have long to race time and, although it seems cold, it’s not bad for 6 am and I decide to run in shorts, short sleeves with arm warmers and a throwaway jacket, had and Hoo-Rag. Right before the start Dave and I get separated and I’m thinking that the whole “run it all together” plan is probably a bust.

We run, en masse, up the Brown’s Ravine road in the dark until we turn onto the dirt trail that takes us around the lake. The poison oak is abundant this year and my main focus at this time is the ladies in front of me that, clearly, don’t have a clue about it. I’m pretty sure they hit every poison oak vine that was growing into the trail. I kind of wonder how they are fairing now.

By the time the sun comes up I am already warm enough to lose the jacket. Right before the first aid station, I make a pitstop at the smelly potty at Folsom Point. Dave and I reconnect here and drop our jackets at the aid station. I could put my headlamp in the box and pick it up at the finish, but I opt to leave it hanging from my spibelt. It’s a little annoying to have bouncing from my waist, but I figure I can deal with it until I get to Beals, where I will see my wife.

We come out of Folsom Point onto the road and my pace is right where I want/hope/plan to be. I am trying to push the pace a little to build some time in the bank for the tough terrain later. This is a fast part of the course as it is on road and mostly downhill to the bike path.

Heading onto the Bike Trail and then across the footbridge to the south side of Lake Natomas, we are making pretty good time to the Willow Creek Aid Station. 

My calf starting tightening up and I start thinking about my lack of preparation and other mistakes.My pace is slowing a little, but I am still in range of my goal pace and on track to get to Beals within a few minutes either side of 11:30. My compression socks keep sliding down and are not offering the compression I need on my upper calf. I later discover that I had grabbed my wife’s socks by mistake and they don’t fit. I’m feeling a little warm now and I removed my Hoo-Rag and slide my sleeves down to my wrists. I keep in my headphones, but, since I am running with Dave, I don’t play music. I just use them to keep the wind out of my ears and avoid the nagging earache that is brought on by that. The pavement is beginning to wear on my legs and I am looking forward to the trails on the other side of the lake.

We somehow missed the fact that the aid station at Main Ave. is no longer there and our plan to use a single handheld water bottle for the first half of the race begins to look like a poor choice. Somehow we stagger into Negro Bar aid station, both out of water, but I am feeling pretty good and gaining some confidence back.

The last 3 miles have been slow, however, and we will need to pick it back up to make Beals on our scheduled pace.

Dave is feeling some spasms in his lower back and my calf is pulling enough that my PF is making itself know. We have 4 more miles of uphill pavement and about 40 minutes to get there.

I have my share of DNFs. None of them are fun. All of them are frustrating. This one feels different. Worse!

My first DNF was my first ultra attempt. Way Too Cool. I had an injured knee and made it 21 miles before taking a ride back to the start. Euchre Bar Massacre is a Barkley style event in which I got lost and completes 32 miles of a 25-mile course and added an extra 10,000 feet of vert. I missed a book. Similarly, MeOw marathons is another Barkley modeled non-course during which I missed a turn and wondered into a checkpoint from the wrong direction and began to develop my reputation for bonus miles and alternate courses. My first attempt at Folsom Lake Ultra Trail I missed a cutoff and had to drop at the halfway point. My first attempt at Fourmidable, I dropped because I had a date with my wife that night and I needed to get home. It wasn’t my A-race, so I cut it short.

The big difference today is that I know I can finish this race, maybe even meet my target time, but I’m not going to.

In the 24 hours that follow, I go through a gambit of emotions that closely resemble the stages of grief. First, I try convincing myself that I would have been missing cutoffs and not finish anyway. Then, as I see results posted and people who finished that I am able to keep up with, I get angry with myself for quitting. I go from giving up on running altogether, to lowering my expectations, and, finally, to determination.

I dust off a training plan prepared for me by my friend Sean Ranney. This is him at this year’s Barkley (yellow shirt). He is everything I want to be as a runner and he offered to create a plan for me a couple years ago. I did a lousy job following it and still cut 30 minutes off my 50-mile time. It’s been in the back of my mind since then to see what I could do if I actually followed the plan he spent so much time creating for me. The only way I can truly show my gratitude is to utilize it and give it my best shot.

Truth be told, every DNF has lessons in it. The lesson of knowing that you didn’t give it your best is a hard one to learn. I could have finished, but I didn’t. I could have trained better, but I didn’t. I have a lot of miles left in me. The challenge is to take those lessons, recover mentally and physically, and tackle the next challenge.

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