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So What Does it Feel Like to Crash and Burn in a Race?

Posted by on Apr 5, 2011 | 5 Comments

A recent post was a revisiting of my analysis of the running man theory, which I originally wrote back in 2009.  I also found this post about my DNF experience at the 2008 Burning River 100 miler.  I wrote it prior to my 2009 running of the Hallucination 100 miler, which I did finish.  As I prepare for the 2011 Western States 100 miler, it was healthy for me to revisit this now-distant experience.

If you’ve ever wondered what happens when you undertrain AND stop eating during a 100 miler, this pretty much sums it up:

In nineteen days, I will be running my second 100 mile race. The first time around (Burning River) resulted in a DNF. Many lessons were learned. I’m better prepared. I trained harder; I put in more miles. I solved many of the problems that arose the first time around. I have a better food strategy, better anti-chafing plan, better foot care plan, a larger crew with more pacers, and a more realistic expectation of what to expect as the race unfolds. The most significant preparation comes from the experience of having failed.
Ah, failure. It is perhaps the greatest of life’s teachers. Prior to Burning River, I read as many 100 miler race reports as i could find. The lessons were wonderful. I read about the death grip that hits sometime after dark. Based on my marathon and 50 miler experience, I was familiar with the physical and psychological peaks and valleys associated with distance running. I had enough experience to know the valleys were always followed by peaks… you just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I had developed some pretty good self-affirmations to help deal with the inevitable pain. I had run in the dark to prepare for the time after the sun went down. I thought I was prepared for that death grip. Oh, how wrong I was.
It was around mile 50. I was feeling fatigued. My knees had been hurting for the last 15 miles. Going uphill was slow, downhill even slower. My feet were swelling in my now-too-small Vibrams. I had to ditch my Injinji socks to help compensate for the swelling, which led to several painful blisters. The too-small shoes had caused the dreaded under-the-toenail blackening. My groin, ass-crack, arm pits, and hands were chafed. I could feel the salty sweat burning. The only thing that distracted me from the many pains were the other pains that sprung up with frightening regularity. The last food I consumed was a cold piece of pizza at mile 35 or so. As I coasted into this aid station, my crew was still chipper. I think I was smiling, but I started having doubts. Still, I kept pressing on. One foot in front of the other. Relentless forward progress. I knew the drill.
At some point between 50 and 55, I started to seriously question if I could finish. I went from about an hour ahead my goal pace (28 hour finish) to barely staying ahead of the cut-off pace. Miles 55-60 were horrid. Darkness fell. The pain that had been growing seemed to intensify with every step. I was reduced to a slow shuffle. Walking down the slightest decline was so painful, I had to walk sideways. I had pressed on with the expectation that this valley would eventually blossom into a peak. The pain would go away and I would be inundated with a rush of endorphin-fueled energy. The peak never came. The valley just kept getting deeper and deeper until it felt like a bottomless chasm. I wanted to quit. I kept hoping the aid station would be around the next corner. It felt like I was slogging through the darkness for hours. I seriously considered lying down on the trail knowing my crew would find me… eventually. The only thing that kept me going was the hope that the misery would end faster. The trail went through an area with several houses. Each light I saw brought a brief sliver of hope that this Hell would be ending… then I would fall into a deeper abyss when I discovered it was just a house.

At some point, I eventually stumbled into the aid station. This was the point where I was supposed to pick up my first pacer. I sat down in a chair as my crew hurriedly refilled my bottles, gave me some food that I don’t remember eating, and gave me some warm clothes. At this point, I was shivering uncontrollably. I was hoping an aid station volunteer would see my “obviously unable to continue” state and pull me from the race. I’m not quite sure what my crew was doing at this point, but it felt like I was sitting in the chair forever. Suddenly my pacer was pulling me out of the chair and on to the trail. The next 3-4 miles through the wilderness that is Suburban Cleveland was the low point of my life. I only have vague memories of that 2 hour journey up and down hills and stairs. It was a death march punctuated with moments of dull disembodiment followed by sudden, unpredictable episodes where I would be thrust back to the cold, dark, pain and hopelessness that had come to define the last few hours of my life. I remember having moments of clarity where I was able to talk. I even remember a point where I noticed my heart was racing despite the fact that I was moving at a 30 minute per mile pace (160 beats/minute… I thought I was dying). My other crew member eventually backtracked from the next aid station and met us. He informed us I was 30 minutes behind the cutoff pace. I was definitely done. I remember him telling us this… it was a feeling of relief but did nothing to change my severely handicapped physical and mental state.

We eventually slogged into the next aid station at 64.7 miles. Once they pulled my tab from my bib, I could finally relax. I think I thanked the aid station workers. I was the last person on the course at that point, so I was keeping them from getting the rest they deserved. I apologized to my crew for giving up. I ws a horrible feeling of defeat. It was the first time in my life I had tried to push my limits and actually failed. At the same time, it was such a sweet feeling of relief to sit down knowing I could finally relax.
Wouldn’t you know it, but 30 minutes after sitting down in the passenger seat of my pacer’s van, the chasm of Hellish suffering lifted. Suddenly I felt great! I was unbelievably stiff and still in some pain, but I would have been able to run at that point. Son of a bitch. It turns out the saying is correct- it never ALWAYS gets worse. The lesson learned was a difficult lesson to learn. Even the deepest chasms eventually lead to peaks.
So now I am on the verge of toeing the start line again. I am better prepared. i learned from my training mistakes. I learned from my logistical mistakes. I’ve grown as an ultrarunner. Most importantly, I now know what to expect. I know that Hellish chasm is awaiting me somewhere on that 12.5 mile loop. I know I will get the opportunity to experience the searing pains that accompany extreme physical activity. I know there will be points where the allure of stopping will be overwhelming. But I also know that the chasm isn’t bottomless. I know the pain and suffering are nothing more than a temporary condition that I can survive. I know how to silence the voice of self-doubt that echos in my head. I anticipate the opportunity to prove to myself that I can overcome my self-imposed limitations. Only nineteen more days…


On an unrelated note- a huge THANK YOU to everyone that has visited the site!  I just surpassed half a million hits!  I realize this is small potatoes for the big-time bloggers, but I’m still proud.  Hopefully many of you have found the site to be useful and will continue to do so in the future!

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  1. Ben
    April 5, 2011

    Also I’m so excited to see you’re running Western States!!! I know you’ll do an incredible job!
    All the best

  2. Ben
    April 5, 2011

    Jason, first of all it was great running with u at BR last year! I too DNFd my first BR, and also I DNFd McNaughton park 100 twice. I felt every one of those experiences you described! The physical and mental highs and lows. And you are absolutely correct that failure is one of life’s best teachers. I learned so much about myself from those races! The biggest lesson that I continue to learn is that any limitations we have are self imposed. We can do so much more than we know.
    Dream Big, Grow Big!

  3. Tyro
    April 5, 2011

    Exciting and miserable at the same time.

    I’m heading out on my 2nd 50miler in 4 weeks after getting a DNF on the first. If everything goes well this year (as I am expecting), I’m hoping to try my first 100miler next year. As of yet, it sounds like an almost nightmarish challenge but it’s just that quality which makes it so irresistible.

    Thanks for sharing your experience.

  4. Jim B
    April 5, 2011

    Jason, as always your writing is inspiring and motivating to others (me). You state that you learned from training mistakes. Can you give us some examples of those mistakes and what you learned and did to correct them? You may have already written this somewhere and if so, a gentle nudge in the right direction would be great. With the hopes of an ultra in my future (within the year) I would love some advice…maybe a post on these issues and a good training plan…thanks

  5. David Sutherland
    April 5, 2011

    I have run several marathons on lowish mileage (mostly 45 mile weeks, peeking around 55) and I’ve always been able to comfortably finish with energy to spare. Rather than trying to increase speed (I’m kinda injury prone with speed work), I’d like to move on to longer distances. After my April marathon, I have a hilly 40 mile race in June, and a flat 12-hr race in September. Do you have any advice for training mileage or race pacing (my marathon pace is around 7:00/mile)?