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A DNF Story

I felt a small sense of guilt when I crossed the “Finish line” and again when my husband poured a glass of champagne that evening to celebrate my “accomplishment”.  I felt a fraud and almost felt like I was taking something I hadn’t quite earned when I tucked into the pizza and coca-cola that I engulfed at the “finish”.

Now it’s confession time. I’m sad to announce that I had my first DNF (did not finish) at the 2015 Tamalpa 50km ultra-marathon that takes place at the end of August. Despite being sad, I knew it was the right time, and I knew it was the right decision.  However, that doesn’t remove the emotional aspect of quitting.

DNFs are part of a long-distance runner’s career and most certainly any ultra-runner’s career. It even happens to the elites. It is my first DNF ever. I can’t say it will be my last. No one can. Sometimes it just isn’t your day or your time and, Saturday, 29 August was not my day… At least for not running an ultra.

I’m strong enough and experienced enough to know the difference between a low point and when the body says, “No more”. I have three other Ultramarathons under my belt, including my first 50 miler that I completed in December 2014 at the North Face Endurance Challenge in California. This event was different. It was in August — hotter than the cooler months of other races I had done. However, conditions were perfect at the start.

The morning started perfectly with temperatures in the low 60s and a light misty drizzle to cool us off and soften the ground. I felt strong, but knew to hold back a little and tame the usual adrenaline rush at the beginning or a race. I knew the first half of the course very well which I felt put me at an advantage over someone who hadn’t raced or trained in the Marin Headlands area before. I also knew Mount Tamalpais well, although hadn’t trained as much over there. I wasn’t worried as I’d trained plenty on trails that more than prepared me for what trails lay ahead for me on “Tam”. I knew that beast well!

During my training, I employed a technique I learned for navigating steep declines that got me down faster and with less energy. I’d become much more efficient. I’d learned to use the hills as active recoveries from picking it up on the flats, declines and steady and less brutal climbs like the climb from the Tennessee Valley trail up Wolfridge trail that resembles more of a goat-trail than the usual single-track trail. Even on this beast, I was more surprised to reach the top sooner than expected. I didn’t expect to run in to the poor lad I caught peeing at the side of the trail who was more than apologetic. Among trail runners, there is no shame or modesty — another part of the subculture of trail running that I love. Not that I enjoy watching the relief of others, but I do like others to be comfortable. And comfortable we all were in my small pack, boldly bounding up the ascents and gliding down the descents with relative ease while every now and then exchanging in the usual banter.

I’d also mastered the art of running and eating real food rather than waste valuable time at aid stations, but always giving enough time to express gratitude to the tireless volunteers who service aid stations for the love of running and runners. After 8.3 miles, we approached the first full-aid station where I grabbed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a piece of banana, downed some Coke-a-Cola, and went on my way up Miwok towards my favorite downhill ride, Old Spring Trail where I met the amazing 75 years old Hans right at the top of our Miwok ascent. I was more than impressed at his speed and agility for his age. I think I only kept up with him here because I knew the trail like the back of my hand having done the descent many times.  It was only later that I discovered that Hans had the age record for the 2012 Dipsea at age 72. Here he was still bounding the trails like a gazelle at 75 years old!

Hans excused himself and started to bound up the next climb on Miwok towards Diaz Ridge. It was after holding a steady, but respectable descent on Miwok towards the Deer Park fire road where I met my downfall. Midway up the moderate, albeit challenging ascent of Deer Park fire road, I begun my very rapid decline where I started to feel symptoms of dehydration (low sodium, rapidly declining blood-sugar) which I countered with sports electrolytes drink. The sun burst out from the rain clouds increasing humidity and temperature. Soon after the change in weather, I experienced severe cramping which I knew was a sign of low sodium and other electrolytes. Runners I passed previously passed me including a couple of lovely guys who helped sit me down and offered me food. They each handed me two energy bars. I declined one bar and announced that I’d only need one to get me to the next aid station that was less than a mile away.

Just after the encounter, I met my new friend, a fellow Brit. We chatted telling each other how lousy we felt. I told her I was quitting at the next aid-station. It turned out she was in the same boat and had decided to DNF at the 19.5 mile Cardiac hill aid station too. All of a sudden, I didn’t feel quite so bad about deciding to DNF.

Despite my rapid decline, I still had a good 19.5 mile run in some of the most amazing trails in my area. I was glad I met a new friend who saw me through a low point. After a rest at Cardiac and a bite to eat. We joined each other in a nice relieving 4 mile run down coast view trail towards the finish missing the dreaded Stinson Beach loop. We “finished” with a high-five.

So what went wrong? My training had not been as thorough as for my other races. Nevertheless, I thought I’d wing it. Wrong. Winging it might work for many distances but ultra-running is a different kettle of fish entirely. My DNF has given me a new-found respect for ultra distances. It is just not possible at a relatively advanced running age to mess with distances of 31, 50, 66, or 100 miles and go in not fully prepared physically or nutritionally. Sure, I could have gone the extra 11 miles, but it would have been more than miserable. Malnutrition and dehydration are potentially serious. The medic said I had also signs of heat-exhaustion. When it is humid, there is less evaporation of sweat because the air already contains a high amount of moisture. It is evaporation that has a cooling effect. When there is no cooling effect due to evaporation, the body will sweat just more and more leading to dehydration (loss of electrolytes and fluids).

Ultra-running is a commitment of steady and consistent progress. Nutrition and hydration is a real challenge when runners are on the trails from 6-8 hours of effort in front of them that includes 1-2 mile climbs and descents. The Tamalpa 50km course had 7,000 ft of elevation change. For a 50-miler, a runner is on the trails anywhere from 10-14 hours with much more elevation change. The challenge is greater with each distance. There are many variables to factor in; nutrition, elevation changes, altitude, gear and weather.

I have 3 ultras under my belt including the 50-miler I did in December. I was still greatly inspired by many veterans in the field yesterday. One of those veterans was the delightful Hans who I run with for a bit during the good times. We glided down Old Spring trail together, and then watched him disappear ahead of me like a mountain goat up the single track Miwok trail. I pondered for days afterwards: 75 years old… No. It is definitely not time to hang up the shoes yet. I will be back.



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