My First DNF – What a gut punch!

February 9th I attempted my second 100 mile run, first in the mountains, with two of my running buddies.  They are amazing ladies and stronger/faster runners than myself, I figured all 3 of us had great chances to earn that buckle.  

Karl “The Speedgoat” Meltzer calls this one of the toughest 100’s he’s run as well the most technical one, there’s a reason he is called Speedgoat.  It’s the combination of elevation changes, the obscene number of rocks, the slight touch of altitude, long and winding flats, climbs, descents, and false summits that keep you asking “am I there yet?”.  If that wasn’t enough there are like a dozen types of cacti that you have to watch for, if you aren’t paying attention they’ll get you (I was still picking needles out of legs and hand several days later).  I think that sets the tone for what us runners were up against.

Leading up to the weekend I had great recovery from my 100 miler in mid-December and focused my training on core, posterior chain, and building mountain legs.  3-4 two a day workouts a week including numerous multi-hour incline treadmill and stair stepper sessions, hours of spin sessions on the Peloton, hill repeats, fast 10-12 mile runs of various iterations, deadlifts, squats, lunges, step-ups, box jumps, and anything else that simulated what I was about to face and have to endure.  Having put so much effort into training I did an extended taper session to be ready, I was ready.

I felt confident.  I was physically and mentally ready for those Franklin Mountains.  I ran them 3 straight days back in November.  I thought I knew what I was up against, little did I know what those mountains are really about.  They lured me in on my first visit, made me fall in love with them and maybe played a little coy to make sure I came back for the big test.  They got me.

We got to the park Saturday morning with perfect timing to get there, get our bags dropped off, last minute prep, and get after it.  Little time to stand around and let nerves or doubt set in about what we were about to tackle.  The weather was perfect compared to what the 200 miler and 200k runners had been dealing with earlier in the week.  Upper 30’s at the start with a moderate wind swirling around the mountains.

 

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Jen and I prepping for the start.  Photo:  Stasulli Photo/Trail Racing Over Texas

The start of this race commences with a 1.4 mile “up and over” along a ridge line that gets the heart rate and blood flowing, this is still tied for my least favorite part of this course.  A nice little taste of what you are in for the 24+ hours.  Then you get a nice downhill bombing section to recover and use the opposite sets of muscles you just burned up.  

From there you go straight into Schaeffer Shuffle (aka more technical climbing with some sections you can sort of run).  This section is many peoples least favorite part of course, but it has become one of my favorites.  Except for while in the dark that morning I put my fist down to help myself up a tall rock feature, only to realize I just planted my fist in a cactus.  My glove looked like a porcupine attacked me. 

After that is an immediate technical downhill section filled with tricky switchbacks that make you speed check yourself frequently so as to not end up eating shit into those jagged, sharp rocks or some species of cactus.  From there is nice rolling terrain with a bit fewer rocks that allow you to get into a bit of a running rhythm taking back up to the pavilion where you go back out to do the lower trail section that is much of the same as post-Schaeffer that takes you back into the start/finish area.  This is also where my failure to speed check going into a downhill corner forced me to go off course and hurdle a tall thorny cactus to avoid being punished by its medieval looking thorns.  Later Sunday morning I discovered I did not quite escape thorn free.

That is the first 8 miles…

I felt great, other than my cactus needle riddled hand, and needing to hit the port o john.  It was exactly what I was expecting and we were right on pace.

We left the start/finish aid to start our ascent up to the summit of North Franklin Peak.  This is right around 2.5 miles from trail head to summit, I think…you start with a scurry up a scree field to the tree line where hop on Cottonwood trail for a quick glute burning climb up and over Mundy’s Gap and down to the next aid station.  All systems go, feel great, legs already recovered and ready for the summit climb.

 

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The Scree Field.  Photo:  Me

The climb up to the summit of North Franklin Peak went as well as expected.  Rocky switchback climbing where you just put your head down and keep putting one foot in front of the other.  The wind was still relentless at the higher elevations and very glad for the new UA Storm running pants I had on.  I think Jen and I took some turns leading and pulling each other along, she is clearly the stronger climber between us.  We kept a steady, solid pace that got us to the summit in right around 45 minutes.  Not too fast, not too slow, we still had to do this 2 more times through the race.

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Almost there…Last bit of effort before summit.  Photo: Stasulli Photo/Trail Racing Over Texas

After grabbing our summit bands, you had to grab one for each time up, we had a quick snack to replenish calories and fluids while admiring the view and taking a few photos we started the descent.  It took a minute or two after standing around to get the legs flowing again.  This is my favorite part of mountain running, gliding downhill while playing one very long game of hopscotch as you make sure of your footing as you go.

The views both on the way up and down were amazing.  You can see El Paso, West Texas, New Mexico, and Mexico from up there.  You could see long stretches of the southern end of the Rockies.  This reminds you why you signed up for this and why you love mountain running.

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One of amazing views from North Franklin climb.  Photo:  Me, I think.

We also crossed paths with many friends, giving hugs, high fives, and words of encouragement.  As we came back into Mundy’s aid station my quads were obviously a little spent.  I came in hot, aimed right at Meg who was finishing up her stop, I couldn’t stop.  It took every bit of strength I had at the moment to make sure I didn’t take her out.  She just kept looking at me like whoa dude as I got closer, I tried saying look out but don’t think the words actually came out.  This is something we laughed about quite a bit the next day.

From Mundy’s to the East aid station it was business as usual on the trail.  Leapfrogging a few people as you start settling into run/hike mode.  We were about 40 mins ahead of our target pace at this time so I was trying to slow us down just a bit.  Nutrition and hydration was good, staying pretty much on schedule with eat times and fluid levels were where they should be, meaning just about empty as East aid station is where I had my drop bag to resupply and have fresh clothes and spare gear if needed. 

As we came into East I was running through my mental checklist of things I needed to do.  After topping off water bottle and bladder I make my way over to the drop bags.  I find mine and immediately realize who’s is next to mine…Speedgoat’s.  As soon as I realize this I immediately tell Jen and she’s like “you better take a picture of that shit” (or something similar to that).  I deviate from plan of course to take a photo.

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I had to take time out to snap this photo.  Photo:  Me

***NOTE***  Aid stations can be the biggest time suck during ultra’s, you need to be focused to get in and get out but still be courteous, gracious, and thankful for the volunteers out there on their own time to support you and the other runners.

Coming out of East I was still feeling strong and curious what the rest of the backside of the course consisted of.  I knew we had a few more miles of downhill before we start a climb up and over to the mountains to get to the West aid station.  About 3 miles out we were on a nice straight downhill stretch that was relatively smooth all things considered.  I was preoccupied looking at my watch checking pace and mileage calculating how much more we could slow down to conserve before we started climbing again.  Then it happened.

I stumbled over a rock and was about to go down.  I’m guessing my brain quickly processed if trying to catch myself and recover or hitting the rocks, dirt, and cactus at the speed we were traveling was going to cause more damage.  I somehow managed to save it, but in the process way overextended my left leg putting all my weight and momentum into and back instantly seized up.  I could tell it was bad as soon as I could right myself, but I got back to moving as soon as possible to keep it from making me immobile.  Through trial and error I was able to find a way to shuffle along and maintain a decent pace while I sorted through what kind of state I was in.  Jen helped by taking lead and being the rabbit, giving me something to chase but the further we got the more difficult it was becoming to keep up.  The left paraspinal was rock solid and showed no signs of loosening up anytime soon.  Because of this and the change in my gait I could feel added stress to my hips, quads, core, and glutes.  The last thing you need in a mountain race is added stress to those body parts to go with a damaged posterior chain.

Now the focus was to get to the next aid station, get to West and re-evaluate the situation.  I tried blocking out thoughts of not finishing and the pain and focus on Jen in front of me, “keep up” I repeated to myself.  She’ll pace us in.  As long as I can move I’ll keep chasing her.  

We eventually made it to the West aid station.  We had lost time but were still around our 34 hour pace.  I realized I was so focused on keeping up with Jen that I neglected to eat as much as I should and stuffed as much fruit and PB&J in my face as I could, maybe an Oreo or two as well just in case.  I wanted to get back moving again so off we went.

These next 7-8ish miles before getting back to the pavilion, then the start/finish, actually feel like 12 miles when you are healthy.  It was more like 20 miles as I struggled, continually slowing and stopping more frequent to try and stretch the back out.  I had to keep changing my stride and gait to find something that was somewhat tolerable.  This is when I had to seriously put the tough guy act away and ask myself if I can really keep going, is there something damaged that I am just making worse.  Most importantly, I was not going to be the reason why Jen has to slow down and put her race in jeopardy.  

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Photo:  Me

I came to terms that I was not going to finish all 100 miles of this beautiful race, worse was I wasn’t going to do it with my best friend either.  If I chose to keep going I would be on my own.  With about 5 or so miles to go to finish the first loop, I started to tell Jen to go ahead.  Get back on pace.  Run your race.  I know I’m not going to make it.  Like a best friend would, she said she wasn’t going to leave me.  This was a hard moment for both of us.  I had worked so hard to attack this course, these mountains, and walk away with that big, beautiful buckle.  She came into the race unsure of what she could do with limited training time due to family commitments.  But we made a promise that we’d do this together, finish or DNF, together.  But due to these circumstances I wanted her to push on and leave me.  I finally convinced her to do so a mile or so later, it sucked.  

As I watched her fade away into the distance it was time to do battle with my mind.  I had to focus, get to the next aid station.  Do that, go back across the up and over in the opposite direction, and get to the start/finish where I could get medical to look me over.  

Just over an hour later I made it in, over our original goal pace, but well within the 36hr pace.  They could tell I was hurting as I came in and asked if I was ok, immediately I told them no.  The Jaime, the race medic, and Rob, the amazing Race Director were right there listening to me describe what happened and what’s wrong with me.  Jaime took me into the aid station tent where he went to work for a good 20 minutes.  He helped get me stretched out, did some adjustments, hit me with Biofreeze, and KT Tape.  Once back on my feet I felt pretty good.  Stuffed my face full of food and had several cups of Coke and ginger ale, I knew I’d need the caffeine and as much as I just ate I may have stomach pains shortly.  I got to my drop bag, changed socks and got an annoying rock out of my shoe, topped off all my supplies, and put on a long sleeve shirt for the cool night to come.  Before I headed out Jaime checked on me one last time and said to check back in as I complete the 8 mile loop to let him know how I’m doing.

I went out and started loop 2, a small victory.  I took my time and gingerly climbed and descended the up and over to the pavilion and headed over to Schaeffer.  So far, I’m good.  Not running, but back to a shuffle.  I had hope as I was wrapping up this 8 mile loop back to the start/finish.  If I could do this loop in 12 or less hours I could get out and start loop 3.

I stopped long enough to top off a water bottle and let Jaime know I was good and that I was continuing on.  That good feeling last all of about 10 minutes into the scree field after stepping on some loose rocks jarred my back and the spasm and pain intensified again.  I refused to turn back or quit at this point.  Focus on eating, drinking, and climbing to Mundy’s.  Re-assess when you get to the next aid station.  After several stops to try and stretch or massage the spasm area on rocks I had made it to Mundy’s.  Now time to get up the big boy again, I knew it was going to be a struggle but since I’m here I’m climbing it.  Even if it takes me all night.

It wasn’t all night, but easily twice as long as what we had done in the morning.  I did see Meg on the way up, she was hobbling down on her bum leg.  As much as it hurt to see her struggling it was good to see a familiar face and give each other some encouragement.  As I got near the summit the wind was howling and cold, I stayed just long enough to try and stretch before the now not so fun descent back to Mundy’s.  There were not many others on the trail on my way down.  Now the mental tests were about to start.

Back at Mundy’s I topped of my water again, pocketed some cookies, and bid farewell to the amazing volunteers, I knew I wouldn’t be back again at this point.  I started my way to East aid station telling myself I gave it a good effort, now it’s about getting from aid station to aid station.  It’s going to be dark and lonely, you are in a lot of pain and struggling to keep one foot in front of the other.  Get the mind right.  Have some good conversation material to entertain yourself with.

The next 6 miles seemed to drag on for hours!  Probably because it did, over two and half hours, the vast majority of which is downhill.  I was taking a beating, every rock I kicked or stumbled on sent painful jolts from my shoulder to the back of my knee.  Glad it was just me and the creatures for the most part out there because I was unleashing some foul language.  The lone bright spot of this section came as I saw what looked like a car headlight coming up behind me, but clearly a runner on a mission.  Speedgoat himself was flying by me and as he did so he said “nice shoes”.  My race was just made…

At East I was taking my time eating cups of ramen and pop tarts followed by shots of ginger ale and Coke.  I did the math and realized I only had a touch over 4 hours to finish this loop.  In my current state I may need that just to get to West.  I could’ve called it quits there, found a comfy spot to lay down and wait for the shift change to get a ride back.  But no, I wanted to get this second loop done. 

This next segment is where I fell into the black hole of the pain cave.  Fatigue was setting in hard, my mental state was melting away, the pain being handed out with every step had taken its toll and the body and brain said its time.  I was stumbling from side to side of the trail almost sleep walking.  I was at the point of no return, halfway between aid stations and it’s uphill both ways.  Everything was shutting down, it was game over.  This dragged my emotional state to an all time low as the last of the positives I could make out of this race are gone.  I’m going to be lucky to make it to West before the sun comes up.  I needed to stop and think, get some rest, and regroup, get myself together.

I laid down on the side of the trail for a quick snooze, a difficult task but found a suitable rock.  I set an alarm for 10 minutes.  I was hoping for renewed energy and mental clarity when I woke.  Not so much.  I woke up after 9 mins as two runners came by.  They stopped to make sure I was good, I waved them off but as I started to get up I hollered for them to come back, I needed help getting up off the rock.

I trudged along the next couple miles feeling slightly less groggy but way more stiff and immobile.  My spirits were not uplifted, my mental state was no clearer than when I had laid down, and my body was in full revolt.  Only thing still working was my appetite.  

I finally came out of the little valley that I thought would never end and came upon the crest of the ridge line crossing over the West side of the mountains.  I could see the lights of the aid station in the distance and had my next goal.  It was nice to have something to visualize.  As I made my way down all the switch backs I reflected on the events since the start.  Replaying everything caused a stir of emotions because I knew when I got to that aid station I was done.  Loop 2 was not going to get done.  5am was fast approaching, the cutoff to start loop 3, and I wasn’t even to the next to last aid station.  As I was accepting my fate, staring at those dreaded three letters, I was angry and mad and sad.  Angry to the point I threw my poles at a rock I had just stumbled over.  Mad at myself for not paying attention and causing my injury.  Disappointed that all that work, mentally and physically, and I don’t know how I would’ve faired in an even fight with these mountains.  Sad, sad that my race is done, that my time in the mountains is over.  Concerned, concerned about Jen and Meg.  Are they ok?  Did they get out for loop 3?  I hope one of them finishes this race.

I bravely tried to shuffle in the last few yards to the aid station, always wanting to finish with whatever I have left in the tank, the West aid station was my finish line.  I swallowed some pride and let the volunteer there know I was done and would appreciate a ride back.  No rush.  I took a seat and got my phone out.  Turned it on to see a message from Jen, she was done…DNF, my heart sank.  I messaged back letting her and Meg know that I was at West and calling it a race, waiting for ride back.  Then I texted my wife, in doing so I started to tear up, she’s my biggest fan and I felt like I was letting her down.  I’d wait and text the boys a little later, let them know I’m ok.

As the Jeep pulled up to the start/finish area I had mixed feelings.  I was relieved it’s finally over, my mind can relax, my body can start the healing process.  A little shame, no ultra runner wants to be driven to the finish line, but shit happens.  It took a few minutes to get out of the Jeep and hobble to the tent, but there were Jen and Meg.  I was relieved to see them both, wish it was under more desirable circumstances.  

My next stop was to see Rob to turn my bib in and say thanks for giving us the opportunity to run these beautiful mountains.  First thing he did was give me a light Rob style hug and ask how I was.  Gave him the summary of what I could remember of the 2nd loop and handed him my bib.  He told me to keep it, save it, look at it every day as a reminder to come back stronger and better next year.  He reminded me this course demands your perfect race to finish it, what I was able to complete is nothing to hang my head over.  I painfully hugged him again and told him thank you and that I’ll be back next year.

In summary, this race is deceptively hard.  It is by far one of the most difficult mountain 100’s out there.  You literally need to bring your best to finish.  Suffering your first DNF is hard.  It  has taken me 3 weeks to put all this together from various notes and journal entries I made and post to the blog.  It took almost 2 weeks for me to mentally regroup from this whole thing.  I’m still on the mend physically but recently got good news that there is nothing structurally wrong with back or hips, mostly muscular issues that I need to work through a little longer before getting back on the trails.  I’ll be back stronger and more determined.  I have my bib taped to my bathroom mirror holding me accountable to make myself better every day for my return trip next year.

I’d like to wrap up with a few thanks to all who make this possible for me.

Thank you to my wonderful wife Jenn, you put up with so much as I train and travel for these races.  Thank you for supporting and believing in me as I continue to chase bigger and harder events.  Sorry I came back broken and haven’t been myself off and on the past few weeks, but I’m better now.

Thank you to my two awesome mountain buddies, Jen and Meg.  Sucks we were 0 for 3 in buckles but we were in good company in doing so and have built a good friendship between us.  You guys have been great to talk to in the time following this race to help each other through our issues and be supportive of one another.

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Me, Jen, and Meg…Mountain Buddies.  P.S. My favorite photo from the weekend.  Photo:  Meg

Thanks to all my family, friends, and followers that support and cheer me on from afar.  It’s always appreciated and noted.

Thank you to Rob, Jaime, and all the rest of the staff and volunteers that make these races possible.  You are what keep us runners going out there, you sacrifice your run time so other may run.  Y’all are the best!

2 thoughts on “My First DNF – What a gut punch!

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