Saturday at 1:47 p.m. I DNF’ed the Arkansas Traveler 100 mile ultra and I feel pretty good about it. I know that may sound strange but because I have never DNF’ed before there are some people out there, maybe most particularly my parents, who believe that I may not know when to quit and I have never had any proof that I do know when to quit until now. It is not my life’s goal to become a cautionary tail, rather, it is my goal to never limit myself without proof that a limit actually exists.
The day started out well enough with the race beginning at 6 a.m. At the beginning of the race the temperature was mild and it was still dark. The run began on an asphalt road and about a mile and a half later it turned onto a dirt forest road. The forest road was pretty nice, few rocks and no ruts. At this point in the race I was feeling fine and was just settling in mentally for 24+ hours of running. About four miles into the run I could see some flashes of lightening and about seven miles into the race I felt my first drops. By mile eight it was raining, a steady soaking rain that looked like it was going to hang on for a while.
Running in the rain actually wasn’t all that bad though it totally messed up my plans to keep my feet in good shape. The weather forecast called for partly cloudy and dry so I decided to go with tape and lots of foot powder, something I have used successfully before. Of course the wet weather quickly negated my foot powder and, as I would discover when I first went to change my shoes, completely wrecked my tape job. A better choice for a rainy, muddy run would have been Vaseline or Hydropel to keep the friction in the shoes down but I never got to that point.
Miles 11 through 16 are all on the Ouachita Trail (pronounced Wash-i-taw), a single track through the Arkansas wilderness. The trail stretches 223 miles through the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas and Oklahoma and on this day it was the picture of a temperate rain forest. The day before the race I went for a quick four mile run to stretch out my legs before the race and I ran about a mile and a half section of the trail and really loved it so on race day I was looking forward to running the trail again and wishing that more of the race took place on the trail, however, once I was about a mile onto the trail I realized why more of the race isn’t on the Ouachita; it’s very rocky almost everywhere.
The sections of the Ouachita that were rocky were almost completely or completely covered in turtle sized rocks and many of them were slick. Before hitting the trail I had passed two aid stations, Brown's Creek and Flatside Pinnacle, and at both I was on pace for a 24-hour finish. I had planned on setting this kind of pace early on as long as it felt comfortable so that I would have more room later in the race to slow things down as needed because I was actually hoping for something more in line with a 26 and a half hour finish. There are two aid stations on the Ouachita, one about half-way through, a different Brown's Creek, and one immediately after you get off the trail called Lake Sylvia. When you leave Lake Sylvia you are back on dirt road.
By the time I hit Brown's Creek aid station my overall time had dropped to a 25 hour pace and by the time I got to Lake Sylvia my overall time had dropped to a 26 hour pace. While I was already planning on falling off an early 24 hour pace I certainly wasn’t planning on doing it this early in the race but I still felt very strong and was running as well as I could given the footing. I figured that I would be able to pick things up a bit once on dirt road.
Most of dirt roads leading from Lake Sylvia to the next aid station, which is called Pumpkin Patch and is at mile 22, are all pretty nice but in the rainy conditions there was water flowing down the smoothest sections of the road and the clearing created by the road left you fully exposed to the rain. Now the run in the rain was less pleasant as my shoes became muddy and water logged and my shirt and hydropack were soaked and hung clammily on my body. Still, it was a new experience and I knew I had fresh shoes and clothes in a drop bag further up the road. In addition to the soaking some of the roads leading to Pumpkin Patch are classified as “unmaintained gravel roads” and they aren’t kidding. These “roads” were pretty much pure blankets of fist sized rocks and there really wasn’t any running around them or stepping in between them and I was able to feel each one individually in excruciating detail.
At some point between Pumpkin Patch and the mile 24.5 aid station, Electronic Tower, the rain subsided and the roads improved but I began to notice a pain toward the outside of my right knee. I noticed that if I tried to run at a slower pace and was careful not to allow any lateral movement I could avoid the pain but of course this meant a slower pace and having to approach a simple water puddle or little pothole like a genuine obstacle. I continued running and eventually the knee pain seemed to subside but I was now running a slower pace and noticed that small things like hearing other people talking were starting to piss me off. I knew this was way to early in the race to be having any negative thoughts whatsoever so I began to try and adjust my attitude by thinking about what I had enjoyed at Lean Horse but pretty much every memory I had that made me smile featured my New Mexico ultra buddies and the GeekGrl. I forced these memories from my mind, focused on the scenery and just moved ahead. One skill I have developed is the ability to pretty much wipe my mind clean for long periods of time and do nothing but observe. Though I had cleared my mind as I was doing it I was also aware that it was too early to be relying on this skill and my last though was “I’m just not feeling it today.”
The next aid station is called Rocky Gap and that is exactly what it is, a gap in the forest filled with rocks. The race website generously classifies the thing leading to and from Rocky Gap as a “four-wheeler trail” or "old road" and I suppose you could drive a serious four-wheeler along this thing but it sure made for difficult running and it brought back my knee pain full force. In addition to the difficulty of the terrain the rain had long stopped and the temperatures were starting to rise. While it was still overcast it was becoming muggy and somewhere around this time I received my first mosquito bite. I had some bug spray packed in a drop bag further along the trail because I was thinking it could be buggy in the early evening and I had put some bug repellant on before the race but that had long since washed off in the rain. Things were starting to suck and I began to have my first thoughts of pulling out of the race.
My first impulse when the DNF thought wafted through my head was to review all the good reasons I had to pull out. This is not a good strategy for someone who wants to stay motivated and stay in the race but it happened automatically. I had not planned on this race and only did it on impulse. I have a 50 miler in two weeks that represents the first race of the 50-Miles Texas Style Grand Slam, which it is my major goal for next season to complete. My knee was beginning to hurt in a way that suggested injury and not fatigue and, maybe most importantly, I was missing the GeekGrl, was becoming cranky and was starting to not enjoy what had otherwise been a fairly enjoyable day.
The more I thought about it the more I felt good about the decision to stop and the worse I felt about the idea of continuing. I knew I could continue but to what end? At this point I had fallen to a 28 hour pace and the chances were good that I would eventually get pulled with my only achievement being a longer recovery and a potentially season ending injury and if I did make it, well, at what cost and for what reason? I could not think of a single solitary reason to continue. I joke with friends as many others do that I hope one day to be old enough to be able to qualify for Boston and to be old enough to be able to qualify for Kona. Well, I'm only half joking and the only way it will ever happen is if I still have knees left when I'm 80 or 90 so the decision was finalized.
I only had about a mile to go until the Lake Winona aid station at mile 31.9 so I decided to mostly walk and enjoy the remainder of my day. When I did get to the aid station I went ahead and told them I was dropping but nobody seemed to take me seriously. I sat down and was handed my drop bag and I pulled off my shoes and socks and my tape job mostly came off with my socks and so did some skin. My feet were already completely tenderized and callouses were peeling off. I put on my fresh shoes and socks, stood up and started to take a couple steps down the trail. My knee immediately complained and I thought “What the hell am I doing?” and I turned back to the aid station and told them once again that I wanted to drop. They asked me twice more if I was sure I wanted to drop and when I answered in the affirmitive they cut off my wrist band and I was done.
The ultramarathon is still very new to me and the 100 miler is even newer and definitely an event unto itself with no parallel. What can I say but that I have a lot to learn. I learned a few important things at Arkansas but one thing that stands out more than anything else is that I need to add agility training into my program and I need to run more rocky trails in order to build up the lateral strength of my knees. The funny thing is that the more I ran road marathons and did my training on road I felt increasingly weak. My speed increased but in general I felt more susceptible to injury and my legs felt more fragile like they were built only for forward movement and could not handle anything else. I think this race proved the point so now it’s back to work, back to preparing for my next adventure.
The race wasn’t a total loss. I got in a good 50K training run in preparation for Palo Duro, I got to visit a new place and run some new trails and maybe best of all I got to cruise around in a convertible.
Oh, and one final note...these days 50K is just an easy jaunt so you can immagine I'm feeling pretty stoked about that!