Three little letters and not something I thought I’d be writing about today, but I guess eventually it has to happen - a DNF.
Did. Not. Finish. I guess you don't read that much about DNFs. It's not something we want to advertise, to write about, to share with the world - "I failed” in bold faced type scrawled across your blog. But it happened - my first DNF - the first time I can say I didn't finish a race. It was a race I'd previously done twice with good results, but this last weekend it obviously wasn't meant to be.
I went into this race feeling confident - I felt well recovered but I guess I wasn't. It would be easy for this post to turn into a long list of feeble excuses, a list of reasons that in my mind could somehow justify the fact that I pulled up a mere 55 km into a 100 km race; but I don't want to make excuses and I don't want to necessarily justify why I stopped. But I stopped and that's just how it was.
Fact is, I don't actually really feel too bad about it. As I sit here two days later I'm mostly just disappointed I didn't get it done as I’d visualized; sure, I feel like I disappointed my sponsors, primarily Salomon and Compressport, but that’s something that comes with the territory. With sponsorship comes expectations, and I feel I didn’t live up to them. But you know it's not the end of the world.
I think that there's always something to be learnt from every race, whether you're beginner or a seasoned veteran, and whether you finish or not. Hopefully I can take something from this experience.
I was talking to Brian Gallant at the finish line an hour after I made the decision to pull out of the Blackfoot Ultra. Brian is RD for the Sinister7 ultra, and the new Blackspur Ultra in Kimberley, BC. He had some good points, and I enjoyed our chat. Brian talked about www.ultrasignup.com and how they don't publish DNFs. He told me he once finished an ultra after a hard fought sufferfest for him, during which half of the field dropped. This wasn't reflected on ultrasignup as they don't publish the non- finishers. To Brian it looked like he was pretty much dead last, despite having beaten half of the field. He felt he had made a hard effort to keep going when many people didn't have the strength or desire to continue. And it felt unfair, and didn’t represent his effort in the least. On paper it looked like he was pretty much the slowest guy out there.
It’s an interesting question. Personally, I have no issue with a DNF being published. I wouldn’t be writing this if it did. I don’t believe it's something to be ashamed about - at least not on this occasion.
Does any of this matter? I guess it really doesn’t, but on some deeper level I think it does bother me. We are all in this sport for the challenge - the personal challenge for sure; but some of us are also in it to pit ourselves against our rivals. We enjoy the competition, the rivalry. I certainly do, and I guess for Brian Gallant, that was important too. I suppose that’s why a DNF hurts, because ultimately we care about our performance, and want to feel like we gave it our best shot. For me, I want to see who DNFd. And Brian wanted to see which of his rivals were unable to drag themselves to the finish line, like he did.
So why did this happen on Saturday? There isn’t always a clear reason, and I suspect a number of factors combined, but maybe it was just one of those things.
Two weeks ago I ran the Zion traverse - an 80km bucket list run in Utah. It felt like a reasonable effort but I didn't push into the red. I knew I had Blackfoot just around the corner. The next day I did a 12km hilly jog just outside Vegas, to shake out the legs. I was a bit sore, but really felt quite good considering. The following weekend feeling good, I ran every step of the way to the summit of Ha Ling peak, a local test piece, which I had never managed to run in it’s entirety before. So when the gun went off and we set off on loop #1 of the Blackfoot 100, I felt confident and fit. I found myself cruising along feeling at what felt like a very comfortable pace, and soon with Philippe Legace on my heels we built up a pretty big lead. Lap 1 was completed in just over course record pace. Out on lap 2, still feeling comfortable we remained on pace for a fast time, but as always seems to happen to me at Blackfoot, lap 3 was to prove a bit of a disaster. Towards the end of lap 1 I had begun to notice some tightness in my right calf, not enough to be a major concern, but there, nonetheless. Then suddenly, climbing the first short steep climb of the Alley on lap 2, I felt a sudden searing pain right in the middle of my right calf and I was reduced to a hobble. By this point I had dropped Phil, who looked to be struggling some. I was still feeling good with my pacing, and nutrition, and the chances of finally have a good Blackfoot race. I stretched the calf out for a few seconds and set off again; things didn't seem too bad but as I came into the final couple of kms of lap 2 the pain was becoming unbearable. On the flats I was OK, but on every climb I had severe pain and no power.
I was passed by Eric Reyes the eventual winner just before the start finish area and lap 3, and a couple of kms later I was reduced to a slow walk. There was absolutely no way I could run. Despite lots of encouragement from other runners who were now passing me I realized sadly that my day was done.
I imagine it's never usually an easy decision to stop, but after a few hundred metres walking I realized that I was done. I try to justify it in my own mind despite the knowledge that there's always some adversity in an ultra and I have learnt from experience that things usually do get better.However, this time I really felt confident that this wasn't going to get better and in fact I was more concerned that I was going to turn a potentially minor injury into a more major issue which could easily ruin the rest of the season. So I sat down and handed in my race number. I took some solace in the fact that aside from Eric who had just passed me, I had a pretty massive lead on everyone else.
"Maybe the pace was too fast early on.”
“Maybe I didn’t warm up enough.”
“Maybe I should stretch more."
"It's really not my kind of course.”
The internal dialogue was a bit like this!
"I do a lot of steep hills and I do a lot of steep hiking in the mountains. This course doesn't suit me. Blackfoot is a very runnable and rolling type of course and I don't do a whole lot of this type of running.”
But it's starting to sound like I’m making excuses now!! Was I fatigued? Maybe. I had had a big run two weeks earlier but still, I was feeling good. My HRVs which I track faithfully, looked reasonable. So maybe it really was just one of those things - I tweaked a muscle after planting a foot awkwardly - an unexpected little injury. Shit happens. Who knows, and really it doesn’t matter, it’s not life and death. And at the end of the day, I ended up thinking about Dave Mackey’s recent injury. That puts it all into perspective.
But ultimately, what can we learn from our DNFs? What can I learn? Are there any positives to come from a DNF, and this DNF in particular?
I think so. Here are a few of my random thoughts.
- Race specificity is key. I should've trained on terrain more akin to this course, at least in the final build up. I need to think about this more.
- I should have rested more. Maybe two weeks after an 80km run is not enough. My HRV was OK but not stellar. Maybe this was an early warning sign.
- Maybe I should exercise more patience when racing this one, and stick with the main pack early on.
- It was a good training day! There aren’t many days when you get a sub 4 hour 50km under your belt before lunchtime. I’ll look upon this as a big positive.
- My nutrition was stellar. I didn't have so much as a niggling discomfort in my stomach, despite the pace.
- Aside from the injury, I felt great. I had a lot left in me, and 2 days later, writing this, aside from my right calf, I have little soreness.
- I’m gonna use this DNF to fuel the fire within. I’ve heard it said that the first DNF is the worst. If that is the case, well it’s not so bad.
- Vincent Bouchard commented that I’ve ticked off the first DNF, so can now move on. No need to worry about that one again! Good psychology I think.
- And finally, at the end of the day it's really not a big deal - it's May and most of my racing doesn't come until later this year. And it's not like I'm hitting the big time! A million bucks wasn’t on the line.
- As a runner who has been generally very robust over the years perhaps it’s good to be reminded occasionally that this is a hard sport and the body can quickly break down, sometimes unexpectedly.
For now I will concentrate on rest and recovery and try not to be negative mentally. There's a lot more racing to be done this year. It’ll soon be time to saddle up again and get back on the horse!
Congrats to race winner, Eric Reyes, who laid down one of the faster times in Blackfoot history. Thanks to race RDs Gary & Lisa for another fun and well organized event, and to the weather gods for keeping everyone in good spirits with dry feet.