For those non-runners reading here, DNF in runnerspeak means "did not finish." Although my friend Arland's definition seems a better fit, considering the way I was feeling before I threw in towel. He defined the acronym as "did nothing fatal." It certainly felt something like a near death experience as I dragged myself up that last hill before I decided to call it a night.
Before I go any further, let me be perfectly clear in saying that my failure to finish had nothing to do with the way the race was run. The race director, the volunteers, the aid stations, the food, the other participants, and everything else were all fantastic! It was a really well run event, and this recap is not meant to discourage anyone from giving it a go. With that said, I'll tell the tale of how my night went.
Pre-RaceThe race wasn't going to start until 8 PM on Saturday. So I tried staying up late Friday night with hopes of sleeping in on Saturday. I should have known better, because sleeping late has never been something I could accomplish, regardless what time my head hit the pillow. So I was up around 7:30. I did have a pretty lazy day, trying to conserve all the energy I could for the long night ahead.
There was an option to start an hour early, and I weighed the pros and cons of starting with the 7 o'clock crowd. My goal was to finish in 7 hours, but I really had no way of knowing how realistic that was. This was going to be my first attempt at the 50K distance, and would have been the farthest I've ever run, if I'd have completed it.
I arrived at the race headquarters not long after 6 PM to pick up my race packet, still tossing around the idea of starting at 7. Finally, as the early starters gathered at the line, I made the decision to wait until 8. The catalyst for my choice was the temperature. It was plenty hot still. I'd worked up a good sweat just walking back and forth to the car. An hour wouldn't make a lot of difference, but with the mercury pegged over 900 I decided any drop would be a help.
1st Leg -- Miles 0 to 8By far, the best part of my race. I was still feeling really good throughout this part.
The first 50 yards or so was uphill headed out of the Girl Scout camp that served as the race headquarters. Then we were blessed with a mile or so downhill. But the gravity-assist we had in that first mile, we'd pay for many times over throughout the night. After that, things started getting tougher.
That first blessed downhill mile was immediately followed by an ascent nearly 4 miles long, climbing almost 700 feet. My original strategy for the race was to run 6-1, run-walk routine, running 6 minutes and walking 1, then repeating as long as I could. But before the start, my friend Arland told me I'd better rethink that and be ready to adjust. He warned me of this long uphill and advised me to walk at least most of it. I did walk a lot of it, and the 6-1 run-walk idea was no longer a thought.
The long walk up those early miles did give me several chances to share Amanda's story. The sky was already growing darker when a couple passing us asked me about the sign pinned to my hydration pack. It took several minutes to tell the story of her death and the role teen substance abuse played in the taking of her life. The woman was taken aback when I told her a drunk 19-year-old became angry with my daughter, pulled out a gun, and shot her down at a party. She told me her and the man she was with both had teenage boys and they would tell them what happened. Once they passed, another woman I was passing asked. She had caught bits of the previous conversation, so I was again able to share. Still on that long climb, I was passing a young man who asked about the sign. He was an Eagle Scout and running the 25K. He listened intently as I described what happened the night we lost Amanda and promised to tell others.
Since this is really what I run for, I could have stopped right then and called the night a success. It was getting too dark to see by this time and it wasn't likely anyone else would notice the sign pinned to my back as I went on. We weren't yet 5 miles in and I was still feeling great, like I could go forever. It might have been a little euphoria resulting from so many chances to share our story, but it sure felt good.
Once we topped that climb, we were blessed with a much shorter (about a mile) downhill trot. The next mile would be a seldom broken climb of about 150 feet, then a half mile descent of about the same height. The 25K turnaround and the first fully stocked aid station was a mile ahead, a really tough mile ahead. That mile we had to go to the aid station involved a more than 300 foot climb too. Once again, a lot of walking, but I managed to keep moving, and still felt good as I pulled off my pack to reload with ice and water.
Throughout these first 8 miles, I'd been able to hang with my friend Belinda. But a struggle getting my hydration pouch resealed held me up and it took me several minutes longer than her to get out of the aid station. I told her to go on and I'd try to catch up to her on the downhills. (Keep reading and you'll see how that panned out.) I finally managed to gear back up and headed out toward the 50K turnaround, more than 7 miles away.
2nd Leg -- Miles 9 to ~15.5Remember I told Belinda I'd catch her on the downhills? Well, the first half mile out of the aid station was downhill, but I didn't catch her there. Then began a 1.5 mile ascent of about 300 feet. What followed over the next 5 miles was as bad a beating as I could remember on any run. It was a formidable series of ups and downs, some a little longer than others, but all crazily steep, and all involving about 300 feet of elevation change. There was A LOT more walking on this stretch than I'd planned and I never did catch up to Belinda. In fact, quite a bit of the time I spent on this stretch I couldn't see any other runners and it seemed almost as if I was alone on the course.
The last mile of this stretch was another of those 300 foot climbs that terminated at the turnaround. By now, weary was a good word to describe how I was feeling. I walked pretty much that entire mile and the clock was ticking. The cutoff to make the turnaround was midnight and I often wondered if I was going to make it. Honestly, there were several times when I hoped I wouldn't. A part of me hoped I'd drag in just after 12 and they'd tell me I couldn't go on, that I'd have to stop and catch a ride in. But that wasn't to be.
I made it to the turnaround with my Garmin showing I'd been on the road for 3 hours and 42 minutes, beating the cutoff by 18 minutes. It seemed like the vast majority of the race had been uphill to this point, so a little hope began to sprout in my mind. Maybe, just maybe, going back would be easier since all that uphill on the way would turn to downhill. So again I restocked on ice and water, took a hot dog from the table of treats they offered and headed back, full of hope and foolishly optimistic.
3rd Leg -- Miles 16 to 23.25That optimism lasted until the bottom of the mile long descent leaving the aid station. That's when I had to face the reality there had been about as much downhill as there had uphill on that 2nd leg of the race. Only this time, the uphills that had been downhills seemed far worse than the ones on the way out. Starting up that first hill on the way back, I resolved to walk EVERY incline and do my best at running the downhills.
My walking pace became slower at each new ascent. Early in the race we were averaging a 14 - 15 minute pace walking up the hills. At this point, my walking pace was approaching 25 minute miles. The cutoff for the next aid station was 2 AM, 6 hours into the race, and I came to the conclusion that missing that cutoff was a very real possibility. Still, I pushed on. Well...maybe pushing is a little stronger verb than fits the bill here. Let's just say I kept moving forward, slowly, very slowly.
I was even slowing my pace on the downhills now. The first signs of leg cramps were rearing their ugly heads. Each time I'd start to trot at the beginning of a decline, the little twinge that I've come to recognize as the early warning signs of oncoming cramps would appear. The doubt that I would finish this race was becoming more and more prominent among the thoughts swimming through my head.
Now, remember that downhill coming out of the first aid station I told you about earlier? That half mile descent that was so welcome before? This time, it was the last half mile I had to cover before the aid station. Only this time is was a half mile ASCENT of 200 feet. I have no idea what my pace was walking up it, but I would imagine I could normally walk faster going against the current in a fast moving river. It was slow! As I dragged myself up, all I could think was, "I don't think I can climb another hill like this."
I wasn't praying I would miss the cutoff to reach the aid station, but oh was I hoping it would be after 2 AM when I arrived. I was hoping to get pulled off the course as I barely made my way up this hill, this curse that seemed a blessing hours earlier. But, alas, when I finally reached the top and rounded the curve to come in sight of the aid station, my watch showed I'd been on the road for exactly 6 hours, 2 AM on the dot. I was still hoping they'd tell me I had to stop. But instead, the cheerful volunteers did all they could to encourage me, helping me refill with ice and water, and offering me everything they had to help me through the last 8 miles.
Now I had a decision to make. Should I stay, or should I go?
The EndIt must have been the enthusiasm of the volunteers that made me honestly entertain the idea of going on. I staggered to the ice chest as they scooped ice in my pouch. Then it was on to the water cooler where they topped off my tank. But as I struggled once again to seal the water bladder, the thought of the next hill came to mind. It brought back the very recent memory of climbing that hill to reach this point and all the doubt came rushing back. So, as soon as they wished me good luck with the rest of the race, I told these awesome volunteers that I was through.
My decision was made. I was taking my first ever DNF.
"When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom." ~ Proverbs 11:2
I always hoped this day would never come, that somehow my name would never show in official race results with those three letters, D.N.F., beside it. There was a time when I would have been angry, angry with myself for not being tough enough, not being strong enough, not being good enough. But I was at peace from the moment I decided not to go on.
Now I realize, that anger that would have overtaken me was a result of my own selfish pride, pride spawned by a human need to achieve something in a quest for glory. Anger would have been a sign of disgrace. But instead, Jesus Christ used this brutal course to humble me, to show me that He can accomplish His will through me even if I don't cross the finish line. And I honestly believe that's why I was at peace with the decision to stop, because I was humbled. Pushing on would have been foolish, so I thank the Lord for the humility and wisdom He blessed me with early that Sunday morning when I sat down at mile 23.25 to wait for the sag wagon.
I can honestly say I gave it my all. I did my best. Though I didn't cross the finish line, I'm happy with my effort. And I Did Nothing Fatal, so I'll live to run again.
So thank you Jesus for giving me the good sense to get out when I did, and for the opportunity to make this attempt. And thanks to race director Susy Phillips and all those who did such a great job putting on this event. I'm glad I was there, and glad I attempted it, even if I didn't make it to the finish line.
If you don't know Jesus as your personal savior, if you're missing the faith, hope, and love written about here, if you want the peace that we as Christians have in our lives, please visit our Got Jesus? page for step-by-step instructions on how to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior.