Last week on June 3rd I started the Kettle 100. On June 4th at around 6AM I dropped out with somewhere around 20 miles left to go. I was exhausted. I was in pain. And there was no chance in hell that I was going to finish before the cutoff.
I spent almost 24 hours on those trails. The best part was all the great people I met. I love the solitude of long lonely trail runs. It’s the main thing that has drawn me to ultrarunning. But there is nothing that can compare to the energy that race day brings. Of the wonderful people that I ran with there are four that stuck out.
There was Eamon, a tall man with a long beard and a yellow shirt. He was a fellow connoisseur of nerd culture. We spent some time discussing the finer points of Star Wars and Star Trek. As far as I know he finished.
There was Dale, from Canada. Dale had run Kettle multiple times, but was unsure if he would finish this year. he hadn’t been able to train properly because he had dislocated his shoulder in an ice skating accident, which is possibly the most Canadian way to obtain such and injury. Dale dropped at the 100k mark.
I ran for a time with a woman named Erica, a mother and wife who I’m sure can literally run miles around me. It was a huge boost to know that I was keeping up with her and to hear about the multiday run for charity she had done only a week before. That run was her downfall. The last I saw her she was limping and most likely going to have to quit.
And there was John. John showed up like a guiding spirit after dark fell. I was hurting, I was tired, and I was 100% going to quit at the 100k mark. You see, at Kettle you can stop at 100k and still have an official finish for the shorter distance. I was done. It was going to be 13 miles farther than I had ever run before, and I just wanted to go home. Then John came out of nowhere and ran with me. John has completed more ultras than I can fathom. He’s done at least one 200 miler. He told me about his job back home, and asked me about mine. He even seemed to care. I thanked him sincerely for giving me the motivation to keep going past 100k, even if I knew I wasn’t likely to finish the full 100 miles. He nailed it on the head “You’re here already, you might as well see how far you can go.” I’d be surprised to hear he hadn’t finished.
By morning though I was in too much pain, and I was too exhausted. I couldn’t eat. I could barely drink. I was clocking 25 minute miles. Then 30. Then 40. I made up my mind that I was finished. I got to the next aid station and Megan shoved some watermelon in my face. I dropped my eyes and said I was done. Mom said, “No you aren’t. Here’s some hiking poles. Get your ass out there.” I said no, I was done. One of the aid station crew showed me the boot he was wearing. He had fractured his foot and finished a 50 miler anyway. Great, I said. I’m a pussy and you aren’t. I’m still done. And Megan grabbed my hand and said let’s just go until it’s light out at least. So we set off. I made it about a mile before I was done. I turned around, ready to cry. And I turned back around again. Another tenth of a mile. Excruciating pain. I could no longer bend my left knee. I had blown it at mile 30. That was almost 50 miles ago. Every rock and root that I tripped over sent blinding pain up my leg. I laid down on the trail and closed my eyes. The sun had come up. The idea of going another 21 miles in six hours seemed impossible. At that point in time it was. I stood up and walked forward anyway. Five minutes or an eternity later I turned around one last time. I was finally, truly finished. I hobbled back to the aid station and dropped from the race. I laid everything I had on that trail. It wasn’t enough.
To say the least: It’s disappointing to fail at something you’ve trained so hard at. I’ve had a week now to really digest what exactly went down, and I think I’ve got a few things nailed down.
First, there’s what I can’t control.
We had thunderstorms around the 15 mile mark that turned a good half of the trail into a foot deep muddy soup. Trying to go up and down the Scuppernong trail loop in those conditions was hellish. A difficult cross country ski trail, Scuppernong would have been difficult on the best day. Add in mud and high heat and humidity… it was a thing out of my nightmares. I’ve always had a problem with my left knee. Runner’s knee, IT band syndrome, whatever you want to call it, my knee goes out from time to time. It did at mile 45 or so of the DPRT 50 last October. Sliding around on the hills in Kettle around mile 30 I felt my knee start to give. Favoring that knee led to me rolling my right ankle. Not bad, but that early in a race, I knew it would come back. It did. By the 100k mark I had tightly wrapped my left knee. Every step was agony. Pain in the knee led me to favor it. That meant more strain on my already sore right ankle. I knew attempting 100 miles would hurt, but this was unbelievable.
The rain stopped just in time for the midday sun to come out, making the long trek through an open plain a hot humid hell. Everyone who knows Kettle calls the plains the most debilitating part. To me, it really wasn’t so bad. It was miserable, don’t get me wrong, but I slowed my pace considerably and drank as much water as I could. I honestly think I handled this part as well as I could.
The last and possibly most obvious problem caused by the rain: Wet feet. I had dry socks in every drop bag that I had. It helped immeasurably. My feet were still a blistered mess by the 100k mark. I’m still recovering a week later. Again, I feel I handled this as well as I could.
Then there’s what I can control.
Training. I thought I did enough. I was wrong. I hate strength training. I hate the gym, I hate weights, I don’t want to do lunges or squats or pull ups or… anything. Any excuse I can think of to avoid it works. I’m always willing to put it off until tomorrow or the next day or never. This has to change. I wouldn’t have blown my knee if I had been at all diligent with my strength training.
I did well with sticking to my main training plan until I went to San Antonio for two weeks for work. I ate atrociously for the whole time and barely logged any of the miles I needed to. This started a downward spiral that I never quite got out of. My nutrition has been horrible for months. I’ve consistently run the least amount of miles I could, and even skipped workouts. I stopped all speed work almost two months out from the race. Most of this is due to stress from work. Not bad stress, mind you. I started a new position, one I had fought for. But any major life change brings stress. And good stress is still stress and I handled it poorly.
Which brings me to possibly the biggest area that I messed up. Mental training. I made compromises with my training. I skipped workouts. I ate poorly. I even entertained thoughts of injury. Maybe I would get hurt and not have to run this race! That would be terrible, but not my fault. No shame there. For some reason I had lost the joy of running. I don’t think it was any one thing. It was a lot of things that lead to a perfect storm of negativity that eventually brought me down. And it all boils down to poor attitude. I can’t pinpoint when, but at some point I let the idea into my head that I might not finish this race. That was all it took. When I trained for Des Plaines last year I would tell Megan that I was going to finish no matter what. If I broke my leg I would crawl. If I timed out I would leave the trail and run down the road until I hit 50 miles. And if I had a heart attack I expected her to tie a rope to my body and drag it 50 miles before they took me to a hospital. But for Kettle I admitted to everyone, and more importantly to myself, that I might not finish. And so I didn’t.
I didn’t finish. But I did do the best I could with what I had. And I’m proud of that. I’m proud that I laid everything out there, even if it came up short. I passed up the opportunity to take an early and easy exit. I chose to keep running even knowing that I most likely would not succeed. I got over that hurdle. I quickly tripped over the next ten hurdles, but I got over that one. My ego is bruised. I’m disappointed. But I know what went wrong. And I will fix it.
July 1st starts the next round of training. Kettle is the first weekend of June every year. That gives me just under a year to iron out these kinks. I’ve laid out the training plan. I’ve included strength training. I’m working on a plan to fix my nutrition once and for all. Most importantly I’ve decided I’m going to finish. No matter what. If they have to drag me. If I have to do it alone. If I time out and it’s unofficial. I don’t care. Mark my words, because it’s going to happen.
I’m going to finish.