Monday, May 12, 2014

The asterisk life revisited – OR – How I learned to stop worrying and enjoy failure

Is it possible to fail and enjoy it? The answer (as is the answer to nearly every question I ask on this blog) is “sort of.”

Before I explain, let me address the first part of that cumbersome title. An asterisk, for all its pretty, snowflake-like symmetry, provokes unease. It suggests an anomaly, something that appears normal on the surface but hold on! Look down at the bottom of the page and check the fine print; things are not as they seem, and what looks right may not count the way you think it should. There have been many times I’ve felt like some giant invisible asterisk was hanging over my head, and this year, in terms of the running I’ve done, definitely seems like one of those times. Nothing has gone as planned; every race I’ve run seems to require an explanation.

Or not. Slash all that jibber-jabber with Occam’s razor and the only real “explanation” is that I failed.

I failed to finish the 50K I planned in January. I failed to finish the 60K I planned in March. I finished the two long races I did in April but in some of my slowest times ever for those distances. It won’t take a lot of guesswork to figure out what happened to me at the 50-mile ultra on Saturday. I ran an ultra distance, yes, but 31 miles is not 50 miles, and I’m not really sure whether I should even count this as an ultra unless I affix an asterisk after the 31. I’ll have to figure out what sound to make to suggest an asterisk when I state this figure aloud; I’m thinking a cross between a slide whistle and a Bronx cheer.

Oh, there are explanations. I had bronchitis in January; I hadn’t done any runs longer than 16 miles in February and March, and as the 50-miler approached I suffered minor but persistent twinges in my left iliotibial band. It didn’t hurt so much as serve as a distraction, like someone constantly prodding my leg with a stick, and as I ran I would do strange things with my right leg to try to avoid the stick-poking sensation in my left. The result was I looked a bit like the Igor character in those mad scientist movies, lurching about the castle, and I felt rather like I had tetanus, as the change in my stride messed up my entire body. Two days before the 50, I tried to do a short, slow run to see how I felt, and while it wasn’t the worst pain I’ve ever experienced, the fact that I have to say that suggests how not confident this run made me feel. Fifty miles is tough enough healthy; with an injury of any sort, it might well be impossible.

Now here’s where things get interesting, at least from a first-world-self-absorbed-runner-problem point of view. Runners are constantly posting inspirational aphorisms about never giving up. I am not sure why. Endurance runners are already stubborn and obsessive; they hardly need to be motivated to keep running. If anything, they frequently need motivation to be reasonable and smart and stop doing idiotic things that make no sense. Concerned friends told me it was foolish to attempt to run even a fraction of that distance if I had an injury that was significant enough to change my running form. As always, they emphasized the fact that I might make it worse and end up paralyzed for life. Well, maybe they didn’t say that last part, but they might as well have. I didn’t quite buy it. I’ve run through injuries before, and while it probably took me longer to recover than if I had rested, my legs haven’t fallen off yet. What’s more, in each of those times I felt the disappointment of not running the race would have crushed me. What’s a little shin splint pain compared to the staggering sorrow of training for months and never getting a chance to see what you can do?

But here’s the other thing. Those races I ran injured? I ran poorly, and I didn’t enjoy the run. Moreover, when people congratulated me at the end because I finished, insisting that just finishing was enough to deem the experience a success, I had to restrain myself from shrieking obscenities at them. I have always been a little disdainful of people who put “marathon” on their bucket list and decide to run one, just once, just to say they’ve done it, no matter how long it takes them. In my view they’re missing the point entirely, and because of this I also felt that my own “just finishing” was in no way something to celebrate. If you’re going to do something difficult just to say you’ve done it, you’re probably not challenging yourself nearly as much as you think you are. You’ve probably picked something you consider brag-worthy and badass-like. That’s lovely, but would you do a tough thing if nobody was impressed that you did it—not even yourself, because you didn’t do it to impress anyone but because it simply needed to be done? Eh, I don’t know. External validation is an awfully gratifying drug.

This was the dilemma I faced the night before the 50. If I tried to run it, I almost certainly wouldn’t finish; what’s more, I definitely wouldn’t run well, and it would be a huge struggle to make the 12-hour cutoff. Most of all, my biggest fear was I simply wouldn’t enjoy any of it. I fully anticipated being miserable around mile 40, muttering “why the hell am I doing this” from miles 42-47, and gasping “where the F is the mother F-ing finish line” from mile 47 to the end—and that would be if things went well. But in most runs there’s still a point where you realize why you do this crazy shit you do. Call it endorphins if you like, but that simple chemical explanation still doesn’t take away from the high. You feel great. You love this. You want to keep going forever.

Without that feeling, in my view, there’s no reason to keep going at all.

Race day. I had thought about dropping down to one of the shorter distances, but I’d already done that twice this year, dropping to 25K from 50K in January and marathon from 60K in March. I knew I’d feel no joy or pride in successfully completing a half marathon when I was gunning for 50 miles, so at 6am I lined up with the other 50-mile attemptees and set forth. I fell back among the slowest runners, many of us clearly dealing with injuries or other ailments, and paced myself very conservatively, trying not to do anything crazy with my stride. The first five miles were painful. This wasn’t going to happen, I wasn’t going to finish, I’d have to stop running when we got to the nine-mile aid station and get my first DNF. The nine-mile aid station came and went. I kept going.

The race was on Wisconsin trails, just challenging enough to be interesting but not so bad that it would give me nightmares the way my last 50K still does. I swear those rocks jumped out and tripped me. Anyway, the trails were gorgeous, exactly the way I picture the ideal running trails to be. And at some point just after mile nine, after I had inexplicably forced myself to keep going, it happened: that magic moment when the endorphins kick in or the running gods decided to bless me (or tease me) and I felt good, really good. This was going to happen. I would finish, maybe one of the last to do so, but I’d do it, I’d get my first 50, avoid my first DNF, I’d succeed at last in this less-than-triumphant year.

From miles 9 through 22 I would change my mind about six zillion times. I can’t do this! I’m going to drop! I most definitely can do this! I’m going to finish! I suck! I rock! Shit I almost tripped on a rock! I hate rocks! I love nature! I love running! Running sucks! I suck! I rock! Wait, I already said that! Aw crap.

At mile 22 I checked my watch, something I’d avoided doing so I wouldn’t be freaked out about how many miles I had to go or how much time was left. It was closing in on 11am. I had seven hours left to do 28 miles. You can quickly do the math, as I did, and realize that this means I could have done a 15-minute-mile—basically a brisk walk, not even a jog and certainly not running—and still finish. This sounds so delightfully easy, doesn’t it? Wait, though. Ever seen a novice runner at the end of a marathon? Do you think they’re walking 15 minutes per mile? Ever seen that runner try to go up and down hills or stairs? Are they even moving forward half the time? Seven hours to go 28 miles meant I’d have to work very, very hard to meet the cutoff time. While hard work can be enormously satisfying, fruitless, painful hard work is never such. I had a decision to make.

It was a no brainer. I went nine more miles and called it quits. And thus I ran my fifth ultra distance and—wait for the asterisk—picked up my first DNF.

I failed. Oh, rationalize it however you will; I didn’t succeed in the ultimate goal of this endeavor, and that’s a failure by definition. On the other hand, I enjoyed the entire run—well, except for the last four miles, which were hell, but they kind of had to be in order for me to accept that I’d made the right decision. Many of the best ultra runners I know have at least one DNF, and I know some pretty astounding runners. This is, I hope, not a rationalization so much as a reality. It is difficult to run fifty miles. Failing to do so underscores this. I was injured and I wasn’t well trained, so it’s no real mystery that I didn’t finish, and I like to think it’s no discredit to my fortitude that I gave up.

I like to think this, but as the queen of second-guessing, I’m just not sure. I guess I’ll find out when I go through this whole business again for the next 50 mile attempt.



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