As I drove to the Endless Mile race start Saturday morning, I had a feeling in my gut that this race would not go well. While not my goal race this cycle, the Endless Mile — a race with 48-, 24-, 12-, and 6-hour options — was still an important race for me. I wanted to prove that my fitness had improved since my last race, get in at least 30 miles during the 6-hour option, and place in the top 3.
Goals C, B, and A aside, I knew from the evening before the race that things weren’t going my way. I could almost anticipate what was coming race day: GI distress, tired legs, sluggish paces, salty salty sweat. Yet, I felt helpless to stop the spiral. Negative expectations are almost 100% effective. In this case, as I made bad decision after bad decision, it seemed that I was incapable of resisting the urge to try all the things I knew didn’t work in an attempt to save my race.
It all started Friday morning.
Early Friday morning, as I completed my shakeout run, my legs felt heavy. That, on its own, was not a cause for concern. It’s why I do the shakeout runs the day before the race; I’m often sluggish the first runs after recovery days, but in hindsight, it feels like a bad omen. On my run and after consulting with Salties, I decided to cancel my hotel room at the race destination, and stay at home. It’s only a two-hour drive to the race, and since the race started at 9 a.m., this seemed like a prudent choice. However, apparently there was a big downtown party where I live Friday night, and live music that felt like it was literally in my bedroom pushed my bedtime to midnight. I had my alarm set to 4 a.m., so you do the math. Not a lot of sleep occurred.
I’ve learned in my prior races that I do much better when the race is just a 15-minute drive away, plus there is something about go to the race destination that puts me in “race” mode. When I stay at home, I’m not as able to get into race mindset mode.
When I do travel for a race, I always pack all of my food for the meals leading up to a race unless I book by a Chipotle, which allows me to ensure that I’m adequately hydrated and fueled race morning. Without the anchor of packing for a trip, I was lax on my nutrition all day. When I woke up around 1 a.m. (yes, after about an hour of sleep), I decided to try Meb’s race night fueling idea, where he’ll eat during the night before a race. Now, that might be wonderful for everyone (or just Meb), but even if it could have worked for me, I broke the cardinal rule of racing: Do not try something new on race day. I ate a nutrition bar, which was much more food in my stomach that I was used to race morning.
Related to mistake 1 and 2, because I woke up at 4 a.m., I ate 5 hours before race time, and was starving by the time I got to Veteran’s Park in Alabaster, so I had to eat again a full hour before the race start. The only thing I’d brought to eat was a Perfect Bar, which is literally my all-time favorite food group — just not for pre-race fueling. It was like I’d eaten a brick. Combined with my midnight snack, my stomach was feeling much fuller than normal. And that kept me from staying on top of nutrition once the race began. I simply didn’t want more food.
The race began promptly at 9 a.m., and it was a balmy 65 degrees with 85% humidity. It felt perfect, but I knew that this would not last. It was forecasted to hit 80 degrees by 11 a.m., and knowing that, I had already decided to bank miles while I felt good, aiming for a 10:00 pace until it got hot, then dropping to a 12:00 pace. This was not the mistake (my coach agrees); a 10:00 pace is well below my easy threshold, and this was a pace that incorporated walk breaks from the beginning. Given the beautiful weather, these early hours were when it was imperative to stay on top of my fuel and hydration. I’m new to running in the extreme heat and humidity that characterizes my new life in the South, and I haven’t quite figured out how to handle the extremes. From watching my paces and HR, I know my easy pace differs by almost 2 full minutes in 53-degree weather versus anything over 70 with 80% humidity or higher. I also know that once I fall behind on my hydration, I will be in trouble.
Yet I still fell behind in my hydration. Exacerbating this, I wasn’t hungry because of the brick moving through my digestive system. I fell behind on fuel too.
And then the heat hit around 11 a.m.
Despite all this, I was moving well through mile 18, when, as anticipated, my stomach seized, and I had to sprint to the nearest bathroom. Luckily, because this race is a 1-mile loop (hence the Endless Mile), I was fairly close to a bathroom. That mile split was a delightful 13 minutes. I hoped that this would be my slowest mile of the race, but that was not to be the case. I’d been feeling pretty good despite slowing a little as the heat increased, but after I emptied my stomach, the lack of hydration and nutrition hit me hard. My stomach still was not feeling great, but I tried to eat and drink. Anything in my stomach, however, made the stomach discomfort worse, and as I slowly ran out of fuel, I slowed to a slog.
It was hour 3 and I had 3 hours to go.
Those 3 hours seemed impossible.
I started drinking water and eating the only thing that sounded good to me, orange wedges. On every loop, as I slogged around the course, I filled up my bottle with water and grabbed another orange slice. I started to feel better, but now my shins and calves felt like they were disconnecting themselves from my body, and all of this new fuel and hydration meant that stomach distress hit when I tried to go faster than a 12-minute pace. I’d been with the leaders until this point in the race, but now I was fully in the throes of the death shuffle. My shoulders were slumped, my gaze directly on the trail in front of me. Every step hurt. I felt like I did after mile 70 at Burning River two years before. It was a scary and demoralizing feeling — self-doubt crept in, and I wondered if I was just in terrible shape and unable to compete at the level I wanted to (and thought I could). I wanted to quit. I’m not exactly sure how or why I didn’t, but I remembered Bryon Powell’s Relentless Forward Progress, and just continued putting one foot in front of the other. This is hard to do on a 1-mile loop course, as there is an easy option to quit every single mile.
But I persisted. Just in time for one final mistake.
I have tried taking salt tablets multiple times in the past in the hopes that their “life saving” electrolytes will resolve all of my hydration needs. But they don’t. They make me very sick. However, as I stood at the aid table, grabbing as many orange slices as I could without seeming greedy (read: I literally grabbed all of them), I saw the salt tabs and decided to take one. I knew I needed to replenish my electrolytes since I had just been drinking water and taking gels, and I had race-induced amnesia about the other times I had taken them and wanted to vomit. So I took one, around mile 20. And, not shockingly, my stomach issues increased! Delightful.
Stomach reeling, the slogging continued, and my not-so-logical race brain decided that if I was going to be moving this slowly for the next three hours, I didn’t need to up my nutrition game by, say, eating.
This is always wrong. In a 6-hour race, no matter how slow I am moving, I still need to eat. And yet, I didn’t, aside from those truly amazing orange slices. My face, I’m sure, was sticky with sweat, sunscreen, and orange pulp. It’s a charming mental picture. Reality would have broken a camera.
I kept moving. Everything was rubbing me the wrong way (foreshadowing: butt chafing!), and I couldn’t even listen to music. I just moved slowly in circles, feeling more discouraged with every step and runners passed me.
Around hour 5, I decided to check in with the race organizer to see how far I’d fallen in the standings. As I waited for him (really, the computer) to calculate the numbers, I think I was trying to decide what measure I would use to give myself permission to quit. After all, in a 6-hour race, any full loop completion means you’ve finished, so it wasn’t like I would have a DNF (although, frankly, anything less than 6 hours would have felt like a DNF to me). As he pulled up the results, I saw I’d fallen to 5th. Apparently, the heat was affecting everyone, and I’d been a great position until the wheels came off.
Not wanting to quit now but not feeling ready to put the hammer down either, I sludged back onto the course, grabbed another orange slice and a pickle, and kept on moving. After about 250 meters, I suddenly realized that I had been sludging in a posture of defeat (head down, shoulders slumped), and I decided that if I couldn’t run and I couldn’t place, I was at least going to look like a contender. I squared my shoulders, lifted my head up, and smiled.
About 500 meters after that, I found that I was able to run strong again. I didn’t want to burn myself out, so I kept things conservative, walking up the hills, but I ran the rest. I felt good again. Not fresh, start of the race fast, but strong. I maintained that strong pace until the finish. I finished 4th woman.
I’m not happy with my performance or my finish, but I am happy that I was able to come back strong after an hour and a half of demoralizing drudgery. This race was a good reminder that this is ultra running. Maybe not to this extreme, but there are highs and lows in every ultra race, and if I can just push through (and fuel and hydrate), my body will come around.
I also have a clear set of lessons for my next race:
- Don’t break what isn’t broken. Sleep (or don’t sleep, if you are Meb) where it works. For me, that means I’ll stay in a hotel for important races more than 15 minutes away or I won’t race them at all.
- Don’t try new things on race day. Has been said before, will be said again. I am going to stick with my tried and tested pre-race day nutrition.
- Eat 3 hours before the race. Not 5, not 1.
- Eat early. Eat Often. Hydrate and fuel during the race. This one is a bit more complicated to solve as balancing what works is very individual and I haven’t figured my solution out yet. However, it’s clear that I have got to do something. When I calculated the calories I took in over 6 hours, it was around 300 calories. Total. That is not enough, even if I had walked the entire race. I should have, at the bare minimum, been getting in 200 calories an hour, so 1,200 calories total. And that’s just a minimum number.
- Don’t try things that you know don’t work in the hopes that miraculously they will suddenly start working. No more salt tabs for me.
While I can’t fix what I broke, I am happy that I found the second wind and had a strong finish. This is a fantastic race (and all Southeastern Trail Runs are). It is well-organized and the folk(s) at MarathonRuns take fantastic and free photos (check out his mRuns podcast as well). While my performance at the race wasn’t what I hoped for, it did provide a very clear set of “do not’s” for next time.
And there will be a next time. Because now, I’m hungry.