Race abandonment, DNF (Did Not Finish), dropping out. These are different ways of saying the same thing: not completing a race you started. This is is something I knew would happen to me eventually. If you run enough races and put yourself up to challenges, it won’t always work out, no matter how hard you try or how much you plan ahead. But I never gave much thought to how I would feel about walking away from an event – if you don’t believe in your race, why bother starting?
The week leading up to the Ice Age 50 Mile I had a dull ache on the lower right side of my back. I was familiar with this pain – I have struggled with sciatic issues since my first pregnancy. In the past, rest was the solution, so I didn’t run for the 5 days before the race. Usually I would run 2-3 miles a few days the week prior to a competitive race, but opted to let my body try to mend.
This race was the first time my husband, Jesse, and I had ever run in the same race at the same time. We ran the first 9 mile loop together and my body felt great. Between miles 10 and 18 I was flying high. I passed 4 girls and cranked up my pace with very little effort. I knew the race would start to get hard for me around mile 35, so I held back my urge to let myself cover ground too fast. A bit before the mile 20 aid station, my right hip began to ache. The muscles in my groin felt weak and I noticed my quads working really hard. A sinking feeling of dread and doubt hit me like a ton of bricks – this was way to early in the race to feel muscle fatigue. I stopped at the 20 mile station to refill my water. When I started up again, splintering pain in right knee kept me from putting all my weight on that leg. Once I got my momentum going I was able run through it and the pain faded.
This portion of the course was an out and back which means that I came face to face with the leaders of the race and got to see who was in front of me and just behind me. The 1st place man, Zach Bitter, said 3rd place is just up ahead – go get her! Other runners exchanged encouraging words with me, Lookin’ Strong!, Nice Race!, Hey, Great Job! Courses with out and backs are great in my opinion. For strategic purposes, they take the mystery out of who is where in the race. On trails, its really hard to know who is up ahead or behind, so being able to see a line up of your competition is very helpful, or discouraging at times. An out and back is also a fun way to connect with the other people in the race. Oncoming traffic often passes on narrow, single-track trails so interaction is necessary. Everyone is always super nice and these brief encounters takes the monotony out of running for so long.
I carried on with hip and knee pain for 17 miles. I dreaded aid stations because if I slowed to a walk or stopped running, my right knee exploded into shards of glass. It wasn’t the pain that scared me, it was knowing that I shouldn’t be running. The fear of failure was much worse than any physical pain I was feeling.
At the mile 37 aid station I was still the 4th female. I made quick work of filling my water bottles, grabbed a few potato chips, and downed a cup of Mountain Dew. I hobbled toward the trail with my knee and hip screaming in protest. Just 13 miles to go – I run 13 miles all the time. I could make to the finish and possibly even get top 5. My running coach buddy, CJ Lafond (who ran this race as a training run for the Kettle 100 mile!), saw me as I made one last pause before limping onto the trail. Hey Jonnah, you alright? I explained to him that I couldn’t really walk anymore but I couldn’t leave the race. Sometimes you just have to swallow your pride and think about the rest of your racing season. He was right. There was no way to know how badly I was hurting myself and I could be compromising months of running and racing if I was running through that much pain. The energy of a race clouded my judgement and I really needed an experienced runner to help me make a sensible choice. Slightly pissed off at CJ for being right, I lumbered back to the aid station. I found the lady holding the clipboard.
I need to drop out, I said under my breath.
What was that, dear?
I’m DROPPING OUT! I can barely walk! I shouted at her. I wasn’t yelling because I was angry at her, these were words that I could either whisper or scream, I couldn’t speak them. Chunks of emotion swelled in my throat and I swallowed hard as she asked me questions. Do I need medical attention?, am I sure I want to do this?, should I just take a break for a while? I couldn’t talk, so I just shook my head for yes or no.
Jesse was a ways behind me at this point in the race. He is a pretty fast marathon runner and decent at 50k but 50 miles is a tough distance for him. I wanted to talk to him so badly so I waited in the aid station for him to come through. The girls I was ahead of all came by, I got smiles and waves and Are you ok?s. When Jesse came into the station, I pressed my face against his sweaty neck and began sobbing in deep, quiet heaves. He reassured me that I am a good runner (way better than him – he said), that I made the right choice, and how proud he was of me for doing the smart thing. You have 3 more ultras this year plus your other races. You are just getting started in this sport.
At the finishing area my mom was there with my kids, Paavo (3.5 yrs) and Mischa (1.5 yrs). They came to watch me finish and I felt like I let my whole family down. I told them how I hurt my leg and I felt sad – that made sense to them. Over the course of the week, I visited my chiropractor, a sports medicine MD, and an amazing yoga therapist. They all agreed that my symptoms were textbook SI sprain. Additionally, I have a sprained pubis, the cartilage that joins the pubic bone. This is a joint that loosens during pregnancy and childbirth. The fact that I started running shortly after Mischa’s birth may not have been a good thing. Anyhow, I will recover from my injuries and I will be back in the game within a few weeks.
I know that I clearly made the right decision to end my race, but I feel a void where a strong finish was supposed to be. What I have realized is that a race is a culmination of training, so by not finishing, I have no closure or conclusion to the training period. A huge mass of tension builds inside of me in the weeks and months before an event. I use this tension to propel me through the race. When this part of the cycle is cut out, there is no release of that coiled tension.
To manage this unsatisfying outcome, I have decided to put the potential energy into my next races. By abandoning the Ice Age 50, I lost no fitness, in fact, I saved myself from more recovery time. I start running again next week. I will build slowly and pay attention to my body. Longevity is key in ultrarunning so patience, discipline, and commitment will be what brings me success this season and years to come.