I DNF’d the Vermont 100 in July. I failed. I failed to complete the race and, more significantly, I failed to maintain my integrity. It wasn’t a moral or an ethical breach this time (though I’ve had my share of those since I am a human and, thus, an inconsistent and incoherent wreck), but the kind of integrity lapse which has to do with saying something to myself and others, and not following through. I’ll get to that. It’s the crux of this ramble…
I’m on my local school board. I’ve developed courses in critical thinking and analysis, and’ve taught them internationally. One of the things I have affirmed time and again in my life is that education does not just happen in the classroom. It happens at home, it happens while listening to a podcast on your long run, and it happens while sipping a Heady and telling stories at the bar. It also happens in races when you have no one else but yourself to converse with in the deepest and darkest hours. Being pathologically metacognitive, which is to say that as I go through a thought process:solve problems, generate ideas, argue, make decisions, etc, I am painfully aware of why I am thinking what I am thinking in the moment. It is distracting at times, sometimes it is useful. This race taught me something.
Amy Rusiecki directs a great race. The Vermont 100 is a delight. Rolling hills through bucolic crunchy granola pastures populated by Holsteins and Highland Cattle, sylvan gambols dodging branches hurdling rock and root, and simple trots across covered bridges and through quaint and welcoming villages. I live in Bethel, Vermont about 30 miles away from the race start, as the crow flies, and have never appreciated my state as much as I did as when running that race.
I saw this as a perfect race for my style of running. Technical single track, while fun, slows me down and frustrates me (and I have a niggling fear of falling and breaking my face on the downs), and too much pavement or flats bore me. This one has a lot of undulating dirt roads, a bit of single track, horse trails, and some friendly rugged Jeep roads. Not much pavement.
I ran Rocky Raccoon in February, my first 100 mile race and did well enough, getting a sub-24 buckle. I had a bad ankle sprain at 25 miles, but got it done, running very intentionally, slowly, gingerly, and pretty much ugly-slogging through the last 45 miles. Though I wasn’t thrilled with my time, I was happy with my grit. The mental game seemed to be on point.
Karl Meltzer was my coach for Vermont, as he was for Rocky. A noob, having only started running ultra distances in Aug ’16, I figured I could use Karl’s expertise and being held to account on executing my plan. He has been great to work with. This race was my 2017 target race and a step up for me. Much more challenging than Rocky in terms of ascent, temps, and weather. Karl had me running 65-80 miles and 10K’ of climbing per week for the two months prior to the race, followed by a 12-day taper. I worked hard, and executed the plan.
Race weekend came and I felt more ready for this than any race in my life: light, strong, focused, confident, fit, and prepared. Amy, smiling and wearing her big ol' rubber Wellies, briefed us on the ins and outs of the race, talking about signage, aid stations, drop bags, and all the rest of it. She also shared a throw-away anecdote about some forlorn soul last year who missed the turn to bring him back into Camp 10 Bear for the second time. (Runners come in to 10 Bear at about mile 45, run a 25-mile loop, and then come back in again at around mile 70.) This guy missed the turn and ended up running that 25-mile loop again, and he went on to finish. “Holy shit; poor bastard,” I thought. Prescient.
The race began and I felt great. The miles clicked by and my watched buzzed. “Too fast; slow down. Too slow, speed up. Power hike the hills; don’t blast the quads on the downs-you’ll need them later. Work your plan, Todd.” So, that’s what I did. I ran with some locals I know and along the way I met some new folks, and enjoyed just chatting about Life, the Universe and Everything. Temps began to rise early on and by the time I hit Stage Rd at mile 31 or so, it was getting hot. No problem, though. I was hydrating well, peeing pale. Nutrition was working. I was on it.
After Stage Rd, on a few of the hill climbs, little muscle spasms deep in my hamstrings on both legs surprised and worried me. Electrolyte issue. I drank some Tailwind and it helped. I got into Camp 10 Bear feeling great. The med check went well. I was hot and tired and I had the spasms on my mind, but they were being managed. I felt coherent, focused and ready to run 55 more miles. I grabbed some S-Caps on my way out and began that marathon loop before I got back to the Camp 10 Bear festival for the second time.
I had written a plan for a sub 21-hour race. I was pretty much on it when I left 10 Bear, maybe 20 mins slow. But that was OK because my splits were faster than expected when I left. So, I ran the loop- 50 miles, 55 miles, 60 miles, 65 miles. I was back on plan, running smart. At mile 65, I was running 3 mins/mile faster than I was doing at Rocky, and feeling strong. No cramps or spasms. I passed a few 100K-ers with a cheery, “Good Work!” As you do.
Then it all went wrong. I was at around 68 miles, following the signs, expecting to get into 10 Bear soon to re-cock my gear, and prepare for the coming night. I ran on, not remembering exactly where the turn should be. After a while, probably 30-40 minutes beyond where I thought I should be dropping into 10 Bear, and getting nervous, I noticed some things I had seen before. “Hey, that backhoe in the field looks familiar. That field of sunflowers is like one I’ve seen before.” I continued for a few more minutes until I accepted the fact that I had run this before and that I was on that marathon loop for the second time. Are you freakin' kidding me? Sunuvabitch. I had done the same thing that dude from last year did. I stopped. I stood. I went inside myself and pondered.
Then I had a total mental collapse. I can’t even describe the concoction of frustration, disappointment, anger, and ignorance I felt. I'd been running the race of my life, and then, all at once, I find myself in this dark place. I raged, I shouted, I clenched, and I created profanities which had probably never been uttered in the history of human existence. I wish I could remember some of them. They were quite rich. My body felt fine, if tired, the spasms had gone away, and I felt remarkably fresh, physically. But, I knew I was at a crux moment, mentally.
I often listen to ultra-running podcasts when I train. The athletes and their stories inspire me. So many diverse backgrounds. So many different life trajectories which got these runners where they are today. I thought very specifically about interviews I’d heard with Andy Jones-Wilkins and his 2016 Hardrock, and Kaci Lickteig’s about her 2017 Western States experience. These are elite runners. These are runners who are well known and highly respected in the community, and have won huge races (AJW is a past VT100 winner, in fact). But on these days, they didn’t win. They found themselves in a dark dismal pit, but somehow, using some mechanism I don’t yet comprehend, found the strength and finished. It was hard. Physically painful, and psychologically tumultuous, but they got it done. I found these stories to be profoundly moving.
During my dark time, I found no such strength. I did some quick calculations, and reckoned I would have to run 4-5 miles in addition to the three extra miles I had already done to get back into 10 Bear. This stupidity would cost me about 1.5-2 hrs. And here is where my integrity caved.
When we run, we almost always have goals. I do, anyway. We have an A Goal, usually secret and unspoken, and that would be our moon shot. Then we have a B Goal, which is challenging, but achievable on a good day. Finally, we have a C Goal, one that is probable and satisfactory. So, when asked about my VT 100 goals, I would say, “Well, 100’s are hard, so I’ll be happy just to finish the thing. But if I have a good day, I think I can get a sub-24.” And that’s all I’d say. Finishing is my C, sub-24 is my B, and I’m the only one who knows my A.
Turns out that was all complete Bullshit. I didn’t mean what I’d said. If I’d meant it, I would have done it. I could have and would have finished. I have no doubt. I could also, if things had gone well, (maybe) have gotten a sub-24, even with my not insubstantial navigational screw-up. So, both my C and B goals were attainable. But, No. I was on track to achieve my A goal, which was a sub-22 hour race. (I wrote a sub-21 plan, knowing that wasn’t going to happen, but I did it to give me some buffer and enable my actual goal.) Getting that sub-22 was the only driving force in my mind. So, since I couldn’t attain my A goal, I folded. Granted, at the moment I was physically fatigued and probably somewhat cognitively compromised. Still, I felt like some grand universal power had marshaled forces against me, and denied me what I deserved. All the time, all the work, all the suffering. I was owed this finish on my terms. I was entitled, Dammit!
What a crock of shit. Fact is, no one owed me anything. Hard work didn’t entitle me to achieve my goal. It doesn't entitle me to squat. At the time, I was acutely aware of the ridiculousness of my internal dialogue. It was patently silly and wrongheaded. I know this now and I knew it then. But in the moment things played differently. My reason didn’t work right. I recall doing a visualization exercise in the midst of it where I imagined looking into a mirror and having a conversation with myself. I said to myself, “Hey, Jackass, you are only going to lose an hour and a half. You feel good, you’ll finish, and maybe even get in around 24. You'll hate yourself if you don't. This is just bad luck. Think of Kaci, AJW, Walmsley. They missed their goals, but they got it done in spite of their frustration and disappointment. They found something. Just sit down for a few minutes, regroup, and power through, you colossal whiny asshole.” Or words to that effect. But I didn’t find it. My rage and frustration won the day, and I gave up. The mirror I was imagining exploded into shards which sliced into my stupid self-pitying brain. So, I walked down to the road, hitched a ride back to 10 Bear, cut my wristband, grabbed a shuttle to the Start/Finish, and drove home in seething regretful silence.
Now, just over two months on, I’m feeling better about things. I had a solid podium finish in a tough mountain heavy half, our ultra team won the 100 on 100 Relay, and I annoyed a friend to her first ultra finish. Not bad. I regret quitting the VT100. It was an unnecessary DNF. I should have finished. I learned a lot about myself that day, not all of which I like. But as long as there is room for growth, there is reason to move forward. And I intend to do that. I have a busy 2018 race season coming up.