Midway on the trail loop I ran this past weekend, I saw a nun coming out of the forest toward me. I’d only gone about 9 miles, not nearly long enough to be hallucinating, so I knew she was real, if bizarrely out-of-place. She was followed by a large group of teenagers, so I guessed it must have been some kind of school hiking trip. One of the boys in the front of the group spotted me and shouted to the others, “Runner coming! Please move to the side!” Almost as if they’d practiced ahead of time, the group instantly formed a single-file line so I could pass, cheering me on as I did so. Mind you, at this point in the race I looked, and probably smelled, like something that just crawled out of a fresh grave, so their kindness was nothing short of—well, the phrase “amazing grace” comes to mind.
This was a small moment, and it didn’t really affect any other aspect of the race for me; it was just a nice thing that happened, and stuff like that is worth remembering. This is especially true given that much of the rest of the race was not exactly a religious experience. Grace is hard to come by when you’re crawling up a hill of mud.
In the days before the race, it had poured rain, and if you’re keeping track, that’s four for four this year: four ultras, each with some type of non-ideal race weather. One high winds, two heat waves, and one pre-race monsoon. Scientists have discovered what causes global climate change, and it’s me. Mind you, the weather during the race itself was pretty good—overcast and relatively mild for early September—but there was still the matter of the mud to deal with. The pre-race monsoons had made many parts of the trail more suitable for wallowing than running. I picked out my trail shoes with the deepest treads, though it was a little like choosing a pint glass instead of a shot glass to fill with water to fight a forest fire.
The thing with mud isn’t just that you get dirty. That part isn’t a big deal to me. I’ve never been one of those runners who wears a cute running skirt and full make-up to a race, nothing against those who do, because I figure approximately 2 minutes into it I’ll already be a sweaty mess, so why bother. No, the problem with mud is that like wind and heat, it makes you work a whole lot harder than you were expecting to. On a dry trail, you put your foot down, push off with it, and move forward. On mud, several different things can happen. You can put your foot down, try to push off, and move backward. Or you can put your foot down, try to push off, and realize that in doing so you’re losing your shoe. When you secure your shoe and put your other foot down and push off, you finally move forward a little but also sideways a lot, toward the edge of the trail which also happens to be the edge of a ravine at the bottom of which is a pool of extremely scummy water. You expected to get dirty but there’s fun dirt and then there’s pond scum. Not the same.
The upshot was it took me a good half-hour longer to complete the first loop than I’d been anticipating, and I felt as tired as if I’d already done both loops. It was a good tired, the tiredness that comes from getting through something tough, but the thought of going back out for a second loop made my heart sink just the way my feet had in the muck. Another loop would transform the good tiredness into pissed-off tiredness. I did not want to go out there again. I so very badly did not want to go out there again. What in the world would make me do that? Pride? Determination? The need to uphold my ultra running badassery?
None of the above. I’ve had a lot of bad races over the years, from which I had already learned I did not need to complete a race to feel like a complete person. This was a goal I’d set for myself; no one was counting on me to do this but me, and if I failed, I’d get over it. As I got to the start/finish and the scorers recorded my number, I told them I was done. The race director handed me a 17-mile finishers medal and told me to help myself to the food—“The barbecue brisket is especially tasty!” he said cheerfully.
Quit a race, get a sandwich. Well, OK then. As I made my way into the tent, I saw three other runners, including a friend from my running group, all mud-crusted, all holding medals, all wearing bibs with numbers similar to mine. “Finished my two loops!” my friend joked. We laughed. All four of us had dropped, all four of us wearing the same expression on our faces: disappointment struggling with relief.
For the moment, relief was winning. “No way I was going out there again,” my friend said. “I’ve got a hundred miler coming up. Don’t want to screw that up by getting injured.” I nodded emphatically. This is a solidly built guy who looks like he could bench press an automobile with me in it. Nobody would say he wasn’t badass—nobody who wanted to keep their teeth. I was feeling better already.
Funny thing, too: for the next four hours I kept thinking I should have felt worse about my decision, but every time I thought, “If I’d kept going, I’d still be out there right now,” every time I looked down at my hands and saw the dirt still caked under my fingernails from when I had to climb up those mudhills on all fours, every time I felt the supreme satisfaction that can come from sitting perfectly still—well, I had a hard time feeling anything but delighted.
When you’ve dropped from a race, there are stages. Relief/disappointment becomes rationalization/regret. The heady emotions of the race have waned and now you’re left overthinking everything, trying to come up with a satisfactory explanation for why you decided to quit. It is, after all, the worst thing you can ever do in running, or so a lot of running culture would have you believe. I don’t entirely agree, though; to me there’s something worse than quitting a run, and that’s not enjoying a run. For whatever reason, I am not a person who will decide that this goal means enough to me that I’ll endure many long hours of suffering. That may sound very strange coming from an ultra runner—isn’t ultra running kind of all about long hours of suffering? Eh, not entirely. Hard as it may be to believe, I run for the sense of enjoyment far more than the sense of accomplishment. Maybe if I were a better runner I’d care more about going for glory, and maybe this is all a giant rationalization so that I don’t feel so humiliated telling people about my failure.
But I don’t feel humiliated telling you all this. If I had finished that second loop, people would be congratulating me for toughing it out, digging deep, giving it my all. Since I didn’t, I was praised for running smart, focusing on what really matters, and living to run another day. There’s a spin for everything, it seems, but I guess this time I’m going to say the takeaway is this: this is the race where I stop feeling bad about things that aren’t all that important. I didn’t complete the ultra, but hey, I saw a nun in the woods, and that’s not something that happens every day, is it.