For over 2 hours my brain had been in an epic struggle of whether to DNF or not. What I had feared for almost 3 weeks came to fruition almost immediately at mile 3 of the Highland Sky Trail 40. I rolled my foot over once we hit the single track.
Backtrack to 3 weeks ago. I was smiling and feeling good as I descended the last hill in route to a nice long run PR on one of my favorite routes. I thought to myself I’m ready, I’m fit, I’ve trained my ass off…….whoops where did that root come from….man my foot hurts! How things change rapidly in the world of running. I’d been keeping the injury bug at bay for a few years now, fortunate for some nice wins and course records here and there along the way, no stopping me now. Right?
I wanted to race the Highland Sky 40 mile for many reasons but mostly because it is an awesome, beautiful course. An awesome, extremely technical course especially the first half. I had been staying off any type of technical terrain in the days prior to help keep my foot from further injury. I felt somewhat healed up but still I was optimistically cautious. I had been taping my foot and wearing a brace on some runs prior to the race. As I prepared the morning of the race I decided I would wear neither. My brain was already playing games and gambling with the race.
After I rolled my foot the first time I tried to stay positive but still I thought over and over why did I not tape my foot?? I locked in line with my competition and plugged my way up the first big climb. As I gained in elevation so did my confidence but climbing would not be an issue, it was descending, as I would soon find out. I came through 10 miles with the split I wanted but as soon as we started to drop down a very steep, very rocky, and very long mountain my foot would not cooperate. I rolled my foot over several more times, each time it progressively hurt so bad it took the breath out of me and also my confidence. I eventually had to step off the trail to gather myself and let my competition run off into the distance. At this point I knew I was in trouble. I had 6 more miles to go until I saw my wife (crew) at the half way point. I thought at this point it was not a matter of pulling the plug on this race but would I even make it that far?
A few minutes later I was able to gather myself and start chugging up the 2nd major climb of the race. Again my emotions were all over the place. I went back to thinking maybe I could finish this race after all and maybe reel in some of the guys who had blown by me over the last 2 miles. The climb kept my foot at bay but it also lulled me back into a racing mode mentality. However I struggled back and forth with what I should inevitably do many more times. I was totally becoming absorbed in the thought of a DNF and no sense of race focus as my splits were rapidly slipping away.
Should I even bother taking another gel, another salt tablet, and continue hydrating? What is the point? Ultras are as much about keeping your head in the race as much as being physically prepared. I had only half of what I needed working for me this day. One can train 100+ mile weeks, do all the recommended course specific long runs and speed work all you want but with out the mental component, it makes for a tough long day.
After the 2nd big climb an aid station volunteer told me I was 5 minutes back of the leader. I thought I was much further back so this teaser of info put my head back into race mode once more. The next 3.7 miles up until the midway point is mostly flat but most of it is also very rocky. I thought if I make it to the 7 mile gravel road section of the course I could get back into this race. Right? Wrong! There went my foot once again, and again and again. Back to the DNF mind set.
As I made my way onto the gravel road and the 1 mile stretch to where I would eventually drop out, I thought how disappointing this journey was going to be. My mind was still struggling with stopping. I had only had one DNF prior in an ultra and the thought of all the hard work (440 miles in a 4 week training block) and my string of good races being over was seemingly very tough to swallow. Was I quitting because of an injury or because I may not win or place high? I knew the answer was my foot but the fight within can be overwhelming. Do I race more because of my ego or my soul? This question is perhaps best answered through another post.
However, just before seeing that final aid station and having to tell my wife my day was over. I thought positively to myself that I have had several years of running well, staying healthy and I should be grateful for all that, not feeling sorry for myself. I’ve been fortunate and lucky to be able to run at the level I have wanted and there will be more good races to come, just not today. I settled on the positive. I was finally able to turn my brain off and be at peace. The mind games for now were over.