It’s visual aid time! I’m partial to pie charts, mainly because I like pie, but Venn diagrams are fun, too, as evidenced by the number of comical versions floating around online. For my purposes today, however, I’m going to rely on an old-fashioned set of squares, which may lack flash but makes up for it in clarity and simplicity.
Now let’s fill in the chart with some of my recent races, shall we?
Good race, felt good = Howl at the Moon 8-hour ultra. This was one of my best races ever. I had been training solidly for a couple of months, and it paid off handsomely in the form of 40 miles with time to spare. I knew I would do well on this one and I ended up doing even better than I’d anticipated. That was August. That was a while ago.
Bad race, felt bad = Indianapolis Monumental Marathon. I knew I wasn’t ready to BQ two weeks ago. The longest race-pace run I’d done prior to the marathon was only 16 miles, and at the end of that run I knew I didn’t have it anywhere in me to do another 10 at that pace; the very idea made me want to gag on a shot block. I didn’t feel confident because I wasn’t ready, and the result was pretty much what I expected: short of the goal. And no, for the last time, I do not believe I “jinxed” the results. If you stubbornly insist on thinking this, next time a non-runner brashly proclaims that they could run a marathon next month without ever having run one before, you tell me how much you believe that where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Good race, felt bad = Ice Age 50 miler (DNF). This one comes with an asterisk, and in fact it’s hard to find an example of a “good” race where I didn’t feel confident beforehand given that lack of confidence generally stems from a lack of training—or a non-lack of injury. In this case, I was still dealing with ITB issues that had sidelined me for a few weeks. I knew I wasn’t ready to tackle my first 50 so I figured I’d go as far as I could until I couldn’t take it any more and then DNF. I took it nice and slow, let every damn person in creation pass me up, and ended up doing 30 reasonably enjoyable miles before deciding that I shouldn’t push it to the point of reinjury. Yes, it was my first DNF, and I didn’t achieve my goal, so that can hardly be called a truly “good” race, but still, a reasonably satisfying DNF beats a lot of other resolutions to races, as we shall soon see.
Felt good, bad race = this race. This stupid fucking race.
Yesterday was the Tunnel Hill 50-mile ultra. This was to be my second attempt at conquering 50, and I was eager to let the conquering begin. I also wanted some redemption after Indy, and Tunnel Hill seemed perfect: a flat, non-technical ultra in cool weather, with a distance so long that I would have no choice but to run slow, take it easy, stop at every aid station instead of running through—in short, just the kind of running I love. I was looking forward to this, and in fact for the first half of it I felt good, steadily on pace, happily letting people go by me because I was dead certain I’d likely catch many of them later on. That’s usually how it goes when you pace well. That wasn’t at all what happened.
When I say I felt good, I don’t mean necessarily that there wasn’t any pain. Running without pain? Yeah, that doesn’t happen. That said, there’s pain—burning lungs, achy muscles, rumbly tummy—and then there’s P! A! I! N!, the kind signifying that something is going terribly wrong. So there was this twinge in my ankle. At first it seemed like the first kind of pain, just a thing that happens during a run. After stopping to refuel on Coke and Pringles at mile 27, I started up again and whammo, the minor twinge had become something considerably sharper and harder. Some kind of tendon issue, it was clear, one that wasn’t going away the further I went. I tried to run. Couldn’t. I tried to walk briskly. That lasted a few more miles. For one fleeting moment I thought I might be able to walk the last 20 miles of this stupid thing even though it would mean a lousy finish time, when I was on pace to finish great. And then I got to the tunnel.
The “tunnel” in tunnel hill is the long, dark stuff of nightmares, and I had forgotten to bring my headlamp. There could have been a huge pit squirming with snakes right in front of me and I would have plunged right in. I started singing “99 bottles of beer on the wall” out loud in case there were other runners without headlights in the tunnel, so they wouldn’t smack right into me. Nothing really bad happened in the tunnel as far as snake pits or smacking, but it was there that I knew I’d have to DNF. The ankle was really hurting now, and at this point I risked turning a minor injury into one that might take months rather than weeks to recover. I got to 95 bottles of beer, the tunnel ended, an aid station appeared, and I declared my DNF status.
I got a ride back to the start/finish and sat, shivering and miserable, to wait for my victorious friends to finish. The top ten finishers were gathered nearby, excitedly recounting the details of the race, joking about how much they were going to eat and how drunk they were going to get, laughing, grinning, euphoric, completely ignoring me. Yeah, it’s just a race, nobody died, I failed no one but me, but this was definitely one of the low points of my running life.
I was saved from death by self-pity, however, when a woman working the aid station came over to talk to me. She’d recognized me, she said. I was startled; I did not recognize her. “You coach a beginning women’s running group, right?” I do. She told me she and her husband had just moved to the town where I live and she’d done a few Tuesday evening runs with my running group, a subset of which is the beginners’ group I work with. We got to talking and I asked what she was doing down in this part of the world volunteering for a race. Turns out she and her husband were both supposed to run the 50, but she was recovering from a stress fracture and still wasn’t quite 100%. “I got to marathon distance and decided that was enough,” she said. “So after I DNF’d I told the race director I could help with the aid station until my husband finishes.”
I told her my own story, and she nodded understandingly. “You know,” she added, “ten years ago I would have told myself to shrug off the pain, bear down, and push through it. But now? I know better. That’s just stupid. I’m satisfied with what I did. You should be too.”
It was probably the single best thing anyone could have said to me. I knew she was right, and I knew I’d made the smart decision. I was also reminded, talking to her, of the enjoyment to be had in other people’s running and not just one’s own, be it volunteering to slice bananas and refill sports bottles or encouraging women who never thought they’d call themselves runners to do just that. I’ll probably be out of running for a couple weeks as I recover from this latest injury, but running will still be part of my life.
And yet…and yet. I wish I could say that everything was all right after that, but it wasn’t. Not even close. It also reminded me of the dilemma I once faced as a creative writing teacher. I used to wonder if I was really doing my students a disservice by encouraging them to write. Almost nobody writes just for their own entertainment, after all, and almost everyone who writes wants their writing to be read and admired. And therein lies the struggle. Once you try to test yourself through external measures, you face the possibility of failure. And more failure. Again and again, heartbreak after heartbreak. True for writing, true for running. At some point you wonder, why bother? Part of me admires those runners who never run races, runners who truly don’t care how fast or slow they run or whether anyone else knows how fast or slow they run. That part of me thinks it would be nice to be that way myself.
But the other part of me already knows what it would feel like to decide to be that way: there would be relief, followed by profound disappointment. I know that because that’s how I felt when I knew I had to DNF for the second time. I like setting goals for myself. I like challenges. I do not, unsurprisingly, like failing in these goals and challenges. And giving up on running goals altogether seems like it would hurt just as much as failing. I don’t know about that, though. The pain from my injury is nothing to the pain from falling short of my goal yet again.