DNF. The 3 worst letters in ultrarunning. Did Not Finish. Depending on which end of the spectrum I am feeling at the moment I see it as: Did Not have the Fortitude or Did Nothing Foolish. Either way, this race report does not recount an epic journey nor overcoming odds. I am forcing myself to capture it so I don't forget the mistakes made.
I was extremely fortunate that at the 11th hour, Justin Radley agreed to be my crew and pacer. For a race of 108 miles that includes 31,000 feet of climbing and 31,000 feet of descent, I needed support. I could spend several paragraphs describing how good he is, but suffice it to say, he was everything I could ask for. We had a good ride up to Blue Ridge, GA, and everything was good with our race preparations up until the race briefing. The RD, Willy Syndram noted the Benton Mackaye Trail Association was still not fond of us running on their trail, and close to half this race covers the BMT.
The local forest ranger came in and said that due to the rain forecast, there was a potential they would divert us off the trail and onto dirt and gravel forest roads after the turnaround point so we did not damage the trail while wet and muddy. It was clear as he spoke, the BMTA had used their influence to limit our use of the trail. That meant a 100 mile race instead of 108 miles, and only once through the BMT & Dragon's Spine. Still a great race, just not as epic as originally planned. I decided not to fret it and just focus on running the planned course until told otherwise.
I saw Justin for the first time at mile 25.5 at the Old Dial Road aid station. He was never hard to find, he had my jeep parked with 10 feet of every aid station. He told me the bad news here: the ranger had invoked the rain route, we would not make the full trail return to the start. My reaction was self evident as I scarfed pizza on my way back out.
I was pretty down the next 2 miles. Damn it, it wasn't fair. I wanted the epic 108 mile journey. But I kept talking to myself and decided to make the best of it. It was still a gorgeous race, I'd still cover 100 miles, and still have to pass the test of the Dragon once. And then I made my critical mistake of the race. The way the ranger had described it, the last 44 miles of the race would be on dirt & gravel forest roads. That still meant some ups and downs, but none of the wicked climbs and descents of the trail that followed the ridgeline. I could probably average sub-15 minute miles over the last 44, maybe even approach 12 minute miles. With an easy second half, why hold back until the turn? I approached the Dragon's Spine deciding to let it all hang out.
The Dragon's Spine on the Duncan Ridge Trail is 13+ miles of the best trail running I have seen. The trail largely follows the ridgeline of the mountains. No switchbacks, just straight up followed by straight down, and repeat.
What a mistake. I pressed hard up every climb and flew down every descent. I ran well all the way to White Oak Stomp and mile 48. Justin said I made it as high as 6th place in the race. But I had drained the tank dry. After that, the 700 foot climb over less than a mile to the peak of Coosa Bald left me washed out and I struggled during the long and difficult 2,300 foot descent over the next 3 miles. By the time I got to the turnaround point at Poor Decisions I was not feeling good. I sat in a chair inside for close to 20 minutes, chatting with Justin, determined not to stop. I had to go back out. Here is where I got my just rewards for the earlier bad decision. I was not immediately headed onto the forest roads. No, the next 16 miles would be a return to Fish Gap on the trail including the climb up Coosa Bald and the Dragon's Spine. Then the last 28 miles would be on forest roads. Ooph.
As well as I ran the first 48 miles of the race, I performed that badly on the 8 back to White Oak Stomp. The climb up Coosa Bald was torture. I stopped every 100 yards or so to kiss my knees and get my breath back. I really lost my head in here. I stopped taking salt pills, I stopped taking in sugar. During that 3 hour stretch I took in less than 4 ounces of fluid (compared to 20+ per hour up until then). I took my headphones off, frustrated I couldn't keep my legs moving in cadence with the music. My last mile took me nearly 34 minutes. I staggered into White Oak Stomp and told Justin I needed to rest in the warmth of the jeep. I ate soup. I ate skittles. I ate more soup and then more skittles. But after 90 minutes, I felt no better.
In the weeks approaching the Cruel Jewel I thought multiple times about dropping to the 50 mile (really 56) distance to ensure I didn't push too hard with just 6 weeks left before Western States. I may only get into WS once, I made it on a sponsor's exemption; everything I have done with running this year was geared towards a strong WS performance. I could have death-marched the rest of the Cruel Jewel and finished in 32-35 hours. But I knew the damage had already been done, and everything I did from here would be at the expense of WS. No, this was it, I dropped 65 miles (67 on my watch) in.
I've agonized over the decision for several days since, waffling between "good decision" and "no fortitude". I often tell people, completing a 100 mile race gives me the confidence to push through tough, long days at work, tough days at home. It is very hard to come to grips with what that means when you can't or don't finish the race. But just like work, even if I hate the failure, I can learn from it. I had excellent performances at Pinhoti and then Ancient Oaks because I planned a good race and then stuck with the plan. Changing plans to be more aggressive early in the race was a foolhardy, and rookie mistake. Maybe this will be a good thing for me to have fresh in my head going out to WS next month.
As for the Cruel Jewel? I will be back next year and take a run at it again. Whether we get to run the full course, or the "rain course", it is a wickedly tough test. I've never seen anything on a race course that compares to the Dragon's Spine. Right now I am 1-1-0 against the race, I plan to improve that to a winning record in 2015.