A bloody mess

November 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.


  1. Sorry to hear JFK was painful and disappointing for you. Great job of finishing [in an extremely impressive time for anyone else] anyhow. You have a remarkable ability to be objective about your own training and racing, so I'm sure when you have a chance to review the whole year you'll find something in this that can help you in '08. I hope the recovery goes well. best wishes,Dave Haaga

  2. Greg,My day was similiar to yours and I too was in the "I should just drop" inner debate (mile 29-39 for me). But, as things often do in ultras, they come around slightly.Thanks for the blog and sharing, your writing and your performances (on rare occasions-fortunately) really show just how human you are.Sorry I didn't get to talk to you after, and good luck in 2008.

  3. Sorry to hear that JFK didn't go well, Greg. I suspect the illness is what did you in.Illnesses can cut both ways, if they keep you from overtraining. The fastest 5 mile x-country race I've ever run (by more than a minute) was sophmore year at Wesleyan (28:44; I'm still inordinately proud of it). On Monday before the race I came down with a cold. I hardly even jogged the whole week, and slept as much as possible. By Saturday I was over the cold, and my legs felt incredibly strong.But I suspect that sort of "thank goodness I got a cold or I wouldn't have tapered enough" kind of thing may be restricted to shorter races, where cold symptoms last for much or all of the required taper/recovery period. Ultras require a much longer taper, so I suspect getting a cold the week before the race simply weakened you.

  4. one could argue that "voluntarily subjecting myself to hours of pointless suffering" is in the act of signing up for an ultra. enduring is part of the game, good day or bad.congrats for toughing it out and having a great finish time (maybe not in your mind, but in everyone elses).

  5. greg,i think you did the right thing.Remember World Domination theory? I think if you dropped out, you would have not forgiven yourself. Not for a long while.And from the sound of it, you contained damage.Physical and psychological. That takes some level of mastery, wisdom, experience.As you know (but like me probably there are times when we forget evrything we think we know) Man was not made specifically or optimally to run long distances. But we can do it. And like many of the things we were not built to do, we can still give a good shot a performing. The key word. Performing. Not that far away in shades and tones to its theatrical twin…So maybe there were some tragic elements. As often I have noticed in your prose, bordering on the comical. But, either way, you contained damage. Win, place, neither, nor.That is what long distance Running is about: a containing-damage performance. Ultra Running is an hyperbolic exageration of this. And what you have chosen to do in your spare time. Kinda comical, wouldn't you say?Have a great, superdupercompensating recovery.

  6. Tough race — strong finish. You absolutely did the right thing to go on, not so much because "it's always good to complete what you start" but because in one of your longer races in the coming years you'll gut something similar out and end up much higher in the rankings than you imagined possible when hurting. Really. And yes, I know 50m is long, but not long enough for this effect — at least not for you fast guys :)Get some real r&r and good luck in '08!

  7. Sorry to hear that the race didn't go as planned. From my way outside perspective, I can't imagine how 2 illnesses in 2 weeks didn't take a fair bit out of you.I'm curious, how is the toe?Recover well,Meghan

  8. Greg,Way to though it out and finish. Remember Carpenter's first Leadville? Everyone thought he had dropped out after he led for most of the way and walked most of the last 30 or so miles. The next year he came back to break the record by 1:30h.I agree with several others. You would have been mad at yourself if you had DNFed.I know that it is not very helpful to hear from a lot of others, after a crappy race, "you still ran better than I ever could", or something along those lines. You have your own goals, and own expectations, and clearly, whether it was for reason A, B, C, or some other unknown D, your final time was way off.Like Haille said: "Sometimes you have a good day. Sometimes you have a bad day. …" Saturday just wasn't a good day.I know you will have good days again next year!Corrado: "Man was not made specifically or optimally to run long distances."Actually, scientists think that in the evolution of "man" the ability to run for a long distance played a critical role. It enabled our ancestors to chase animals (food) until they (the animals) were exausted and easy prey.However, I'm glad these days we can go on long runs just for the joy of running and eat a good meal afterwards even if we didn't chase down any wildlife.

  9. Hey Greg – I call those kinds of races "character builders," and yours sounds eerily like my own JFK several years ago in which I sprained my ankle on the AT portion. I actually have some of my fondest memories not from wins but from the tough ones when I convinced myself to keep going.- Paul

  10. In reference to you report on this week's race, I'd add a link to your post from April 26th, 2007 as well. Serious racers rest seriously! I hope the recovery goes well.Cheers,Alec

  11. All you need is a little rest, and you will rediscover the joy of running and competing. You were feeling run-down at JFK…all part of the grand pageantry of this sport. Best of luck in 2008, your blogs are savvy and full of self-deprecation, awesome stuff.

  12. Greg,A big congrats on finishing! That's pretty amazing. While you may not have the satisfaction of a great performance, I've always felt that races in which it's all guts and no glory, give us a valuable glimpse into the "dark side," and our limits as human beings, which ultimately, make the good races all the sweeter. And I suspect you will have a lot of good races in 2008 and beyond. For now, eat, sleep, and "avoid turning an enjoyable activity into a miserable one."Sally

  13. Thanks, everybody, for your comments.Loomdog: Yeah, sorry I missed you afterwards. It would have been fun to meet you in person.Meghan: The toe is fine! Thanks for asking.Alec: I agree that "Serious racers rest seriously." The link you mention is:running-blogs.com/crowther/2007/04/damage_control.htmlI do think my recent training and planning reflect the lessons of that entry, as discussed in these posts:running-blogs.com/crowther/2007/10/do_as_i_say_not_as_i_do.html running-blogs.com/crowther/2007/11/the_long_hard_run_a_doubleedge.html

  14. Uli: yes, some scientists have indeed said this. But as much I can like and relate to it as a distance-runner myself, it does not make complete sense to me.Point-of-view "B" suggests that cerebral and behavioural mechanisms like the development of agriculture, animal farming and weaponry was more related to the evolution of man than the ability to run.For this reason I said specifically or optimally made to run, and not unable to run.I tend to think humans harbor this perpetual internal conflict between their birth-identity and evolutionary possibilities.In as much the small evolutionary steps (for example every-day nutrition, training) can lead toward what you want to evolve into, on the same daily basis they undermine that same birth identity necessary for daily survival. Which could sum up to injury or weakness. One and the same. Which needs you to know who/what you are and why you are doing the things you do.A case in point: the "why am i doing this?" query node, on the way to evolutionary transformation – as transparently and accurately documented by Greg in conversation form, on this post-race-post.But, Man Can.It is the most beautiful and empowering, immediate sensation to be had.Jumping with a parachute, going armed into battle, taking a gruelling exam or course of study, standing before hundreds of thousands only with a musical instrument in your hand, running 100 miles.Man Can.But even after you do one of these things, you have not changed; you have not evolved. They are only steps, taken away from your birth-identity into the realm of existential possibility. If you can endure the conflict within.Eventually years pass. And you realize you may have transformed.

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