After a series of pretty decent races I was certainly due a good old fashioned humbling and this weekend at the Gorge Waterfalls 100K I most certainly got one. My goal was to run about 8:30 and snag myself a Western States spot. Neither of these two things happened.
The Gorge Waterfall course is a stunning route that heads up the Columbia River Gorge passing several jaw dropping waterfalls before turning around at the half way point and reversing the course. Rumor had it that the trails were rugged and technical and sure enough they did not disappoint, seemingly providing a good proportion of Oregon’s rock quota. There was a decent amount of climbing but mostly rolling other than two major climbs at the start and half way mark.
I set the pace from the gun which I was fine with and was prepared to do. My usual dose of ‘mildly reckless’. Shortly after the first climb it seemed to be just myself and a Japanese runner, Rui Ueda whom I had previously run with at Sean O’Brien 100K last year. There was no chit chat, just silent forward progress, occasionally pausing to gasp at a waterfall or the sunrise across the Gorge. I wasn’t feeling particular great but wasn’t feeling terrible either so decided to maintain the pace with Ueda following behind most of the way to the turnaround. Shortly before the turn around I stopped to take a leak, at which point, Ueda took the opportunity to put some distance between us. I was not too surprised at him seizing the opportunity, I think I would have done the same. I was starting to feel a little depleted at this point so opted not to close the gap.
That was pretty much the end of the race for me. I ran the climb back out of the turnaround despite feeling a little weak but as soon as I hit the downhill/flat section, my legs completely locked up on me. I tried and tried to keep them moving but they were screaming at me and I was in considerable discomfort. The only time I’ve been in a situation like that was during my first 50M race 7 years ago.
I stumbled along the trail desperately looking for anything that might resemble a seat: logs, particularly comfy looking rocks. I used them all. Moko, Humphrey and Ghelfi cruised by me but there was nothing I could do. I wrestled with the prospect of taking my first ever DNF at the next aid station at mile 40. I simply could not see how it would be possible for me to get to the finish, 22 miles further, in my current state. I could barely handle standing up.
I wrestled with the prospect. Should I just try and walk it in or should I just drop. I’m not against DNF’ing in principal. This is just running after all. No one really cares.
Ultimately, like a lot of things in life, it comes down to two important drivers: ego and motivation. My main motivation of getting into WS100 had evaporated. My ego had taking a beating. I was close to the edge and ready to pull the plug.
If you’ve ever been interested in the psychology of performance then I would highly recommend a book called The Rock Warriors Way. Although it’s a climbing book, it is an excellent and brutally honest analysis of the components of decision making, focus and commitment. The ego is a central part of this book and I thought a lot about it on my slothy journey back to the aid station. Could I handle the failure of blowing up so hard? Was it better to just drop and avoid the poor result or should I just suck it up and walk to the finish? Could I walk to the finish? Did I want to walk to the finish?
I stumbled into the aid station and sat down in what was probably the greatest chair ever assembled. After a few minutes and without quite realizing it, the prospect of the DNF started to sound more implausible. A new plan formed. I would wait until Silke came into the aid station and I would try and finish the rest of the race with her.
The ego had taken a serious pounding but motivation had been restored!
As I hung out in the aid station watching the race unfold and chatting to friends and volunteers my legs slowly started to come back to life a little. Nothing amazing, but perhaps something that was workable for the last 22 miles. Sure enough, Silke cruised in and I jumped on the train and headed back out there on my renewed quest to maintain my finishing streak.
It wasn’t easy or pretty but it was fun running with Silke especially because the field was really thin at this point and she wasn’t feeling particularly great either. Suffering loves company after all.
3 hours and 20 minutes after my goal time I rolled into the finish line with Silke, got myself a pint of Guinness from my friend Lou and hung out with friends laughing and recanting the war stories from the day.
Although somewhat disappointed, it didn’t come as a total shock. Sometimes it’s just not your day. I’m ok with that. I’ve had plenty of bad days, however, and this was a little more cataclysmic than most. Usually I just get a little more of the type 2 fun than I would ordinarily like but there were some real signals here and being the data driven, constant improvement seeking nerd I am, I would be amiss to ignore them.
Silke and I have spent the past 3 months on a very structured training regimen of house remodeling which basically occupies all of our time outside of work. As such I looked back at my Strava training log and low and behold I had only done 3 long runs this year and a rather foolish 100K suffer fest to send my good friend Alberto back off to Italy with. That also went pretty badly and I suffered more in that ‘fun run’ that I have done in most 100 milers!
Ultimately, standing at the starting line, there was simply no evidence that I could point to that suggested anything other than a total meltdown. You can’t wing a road marathon, so what makes me think I could wing a tough 100K trail race. I thought old man experience might let me pull it off. It didn’t.
Then again, perhaps the old man experience is in fact what allowed me to rationalize, focus, and re-motivate myself and get to the finish line. After all, the best part of trail running is stunning locations, fun courses, great friends and getting to the finish line. Oh, and beer. Lots of beer.