This past weekend was my fourth major trail race of the year, the North Fork 50 miler. I went into the event with a good dose of confidence and optimism. After recovering from the Dirty Thirty 50k one month ago, I’d had a solid block of training with some strong runs and was excited to put forth my best effort at North Fork.
Not only that, but on paper the stats for North Fork (50 miles with 15,000 vertical feet of elevation change) were very similar to those of the North Face Endurance Challenge at Bear Mountain, at which I set my mountain ultra 50-mile PR of 10:17 last year. With how my training had been going in recent weeks, and with the build-up of races to this point in the season, I felt that both a new PR and a sub-10-hour finish were both well within the realm of possibility.
There was just one possible but potentially major snag: in a stroke of unfortunate timing, a major stomach bug had been working its way through our household in the week leading up to the race. It hit Marin first, who was down for the count Monday night and through Tuesday. Kelli got hit next, even worse, Tuesday night through Wednesday. Mid-week I could tell I was fighting something—I was fatigued, my muscles and joints ached, and I was having sharp abdominal pain. But by Friday, the day before the race, I thought I was in the clear.
The race took place in a national forest in the beautiful Buffalo Creek area of the state on almost exclusively dirt-packed singletrack trails. Gorgeous stuff. Plus, after a week of temps in the mid to high 90s, the forecasted high for race day was the low 80s. Mercifully “cool” compared to what it could have been.
At 7:00am we were off, and the course lived up to expectations. Awesome terrain with long, gradual ascents and descents on smooth trails that made it very runnable by mountain standards.
Within the first few miles, though, I could tell that something was majorly off with my body. If I were a computer, my screen would have been flashing something along the lines of Warning: System Malfunction.
The sharp abdominal pain from earlier in the week was intermittently starting to creep back in. I felt a heavy fatigue. Muscles ached. My legs were dead (by the time I hit mile 15, my legs felt the way they usually do after mile 35 or 40). And most disturbingly, though I’m usually both laser-focused on the trail in front of me and able to enjoy the gorgeous scenery through which I’m running, I could do neither on this run. My head felt dizzy and in a fog. I was having trouble even focusing on the trail ahead of me, and my eyelids felt heavy. I had the overwhelming urge to duck off the trail, lay down in the pine needle duff, and take a nap.
On top of all those challenges, this race had the least gluten-free-friendly aid station nutrition of any recent race. But I was dependent on those options—the first three aid stations were in the backcountry, and I wouldn’t see Kelli and the girls with my own nutrition until aid station #4 at mile 16.3. Until I got there, my options were limited primarily to some sliced banana and perhaps some gummy bears. All told, though, that was the least of my problems.
Before I reached aid station #3, I’d made the decision to drop from the race. My will and determination to see it through just weren’t there. It wasn’t worth it to fight through the sickness. But before I could drop, I had to make it to aid station #4 where the ladies and my ride would be waiting. It was there—in the distance between aids #3 and #4—that I hit rock bottom, projectile vomiting four times in the mile before aid station #4.
As I jogged into the aid station, I could see Kelli running over with my aid bag, ready to refill my bottles and offer me some food. I put my hand up motioning for her to stop. She thought that was strange, and when the first words out of my mouth were “Who do I tell I’m dropping?” she knew things were going wrong.
With such high hopes and potential for this race, it was a crushing disappointment. Even more, when I looked at my splits through aid stations #1, #2, and #4, I was staying just ahead of my target pace to break 10 hours, despite how terrible I felt.
I slept for part of the car ride home, got back to the house and slept a couple of hours more. Two days later, I’m still not back to 100 percent. Days later, the sting of disappointment is still there, though its edge has dulled a bit. Even though I know I made the right decision for my body, it doesn’t make that decision any easier or less disappointing.
Ultra runners sometimes talk about grit, that character quality—somewhat akin to determination—that allows them to persevere in the face of adverse hardship and continue to put one foot in front of the other despite some measure of suffering. They usually talk about grit in the context of an individual race, but as I reflect on my DNF, I think there’s also a season-long element to grit. The week in and week out challenges of heavy training loads, staying healthy and injury free, and maintaining focus on the long vision (a perspective not lost on ultra runners who cover very long distances) requires its own form of grit.
And so I now look ahead to the remainder of my ultra season, with a major race looming exactly two months away. For now, my focus is on resting completely—no running whatsoever—for the next one to two weeks to recover from this virus and get my legs and body back to full strength. Then it’ll be time for a new block of solid training, followed by the main event of my season.
Just as there are often low points within a race, there can be low points within a season. I’ve hit my low point, and it’s now time to start the climb back up.