A bloody messNovember 17, 2007
As I ran along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath in yesterday’s JFK 50, my right Brooks Racer ST racing flat felt kind of squishy, as if it were waterlogged from a river crossing. I periodically looked down but didn’t see any obvious problems. Finally, during my third or fourth visual check, it occurred to me that, on this red-and-white shoe, the red color of my toe box seemed awfully bright. I glanced at my left shoe for comparison; its toe box was white. I thought back to the big rock I had kicked at mile 15, just before leaving the Appalachian Trail, and realized that the damage had been worse than I thought.
The realization that my troubles were not confined to my right big toe sank in more gradually, between miles 22 and 30. My initial 6:40-per-mile pace on the flat towpath slowed to 7:00, then 7:20, then 8:00…. I’m not sure exactly what the problem was. I usually attribute this sort of meltdown to microtears in my muscles, but my relatively decent last-three-miles split of 21:30 suggests that the muscles held together better than on some occasions. A diagnosis of dehydration or insufficient caloric intake doesn’t quite fit either, since it was a cool day and I consumed the usual mix of Gatorade, water, and gels that has worked for me in the past. All I can say is that I was exhausted.
Since I don’t know exactly what happened, I don’t know exactly why it happened either. But here are some theories.
A. The Curse of Howard Nippert. Howard only does one or two ultramarathons per year, but he has attended three of my races this year as a handler/coach for other athletes or as an assistant to the race director. I performed well below my expectations in those three races (Mad City, Western States, and JFK), whereas my other four ultras went reasonably well.
B.The Germ Theory. Last week I had a cold; this week I had strep throat. My throat felt fine by race day, but perhaps these illnesses took more out of me than I thought.
C. The Overracing Theory. As previously discussed on this blog, I’ve had a very busy year. Perhaps the demands of this schedule caught up to me.
Howard has always been friendly and helpful to me, and I think we can safely leave him out of this. The other two theories are not mutually exclusive; trying to do too much (C) probably increases one’s susceptibility to illness (B). At any rate, yesterday’s dismal time of 6:41:09 (link to preliminary results) reinforces my suspicion that I need to stop racing for a while.
* * * * *
Between miles 35 and 42, I came very close to dropping out. The conversation that I had with myself went something like this.
“Why don’t I stop? I’m having a horrible race, and I’ll get no pleasure out of finishing 10th or 15th or whatever. I’ve already committed to taking it easy for a while after this race; why don’t I just begin the taking-it-easy period right now?”
“Yeah, but since I have no plans after this, I don’t have to save myself for anything. I can trash my legs now because I won’t be needing them again anytime soon.”
“Yeah, but let’s be rational. If I suffer through the next couple hours, what will my reward be? Nothing other than an unwanted finisher’s medal and the satisfaction of being able to say that I finished. Which won’t be very satisfying.”
“Yeah, but don’t you owe it to the race director to finish? He gave you a complimentary race entry, hotel room, and admission to the pre-race dinner.”
“Yeah, but who am I running this race for — myself or him? I need to do what’s best for me.”
“Yeah, but people say that you learn a lot when you force yourself to endure these experiences, rather than cutting them short. Maybe it’s time to learn something.”
“Yeah, but what exactly am I going to learn? That miles 35 to 50 can really suck?”
“Yeah, but do I really want to get in the habit of dropping out of races every time that I get into trouble?”
“If the alternative is voluntarily subjecting myself to hours of pointless suffering, maybe that isn’t such a bad habit.”
I continued in this way, unable to make a decision, until I only had a few miles to go, at which point the debate ended. The worst was over; I would finish this bloody thing. The race director greeted me warmly at the finish and thanked me at length for gutting it out. I was moved by his words and glad to have run far enough to hear them.