Ultramarathon_feetIt was only mile 16, but it felt more like a tired 40.  I had already climbed around 5000 feet, descending about half that, and here I was fighting my way up another climb.

I first started to notice my body screaming while standing at an aid station waiting on a friend just a few minutes earlier.  The cold air rushed through me, locking my knees and rattling my teeth.

“What the hell is happening?  You shouldn’t feel like this now!”

As we climbed up the back side of the mountain in the shade, and the friends I had been running with up until this point started pulling ahead, my mind joined my body in its rapid deterioration.  I was now full-on shivering, fighting the urge to puke, and doing everything I could to hang on and move forward.

I started looking for a way to drop out of the race.  I began telling myself I was going to quit my then 275+ day run streak.  And I had already convinced myself this was going to be my last race of the year.

See, it wasn’t supposed to happen like this.

Last fall I signed up for my “A” race, the Mt. Mitchell Challenge, which I ran in February.  After that, I planned to just have fun.  The training I had logged leaded up to Mt. Mitchell was going to turn me into an ultrarunning beast, more than ready for this Terrapin Mountain 50k three weeks after, and the Bull Run 50 just three weeks after that.

I knew Mt. Mitchell would be difficult, which it proved to be, but when I felt strong crossing the finish line on race day, my confidence was soaring to Superman heights.  Leading in to Terrapin Mountain, which I would be running with five friends, I felt fully ready, big ego and all.

50k? Psht, Might as Well be a 5k

The more we run and race, the more confident we become.  If you’re running your 5th half marathon, I guarantee you’ll be a lot calmer about toeing the line than you were during your first.

We learn a lot from each race, become smarter racers, and begin to have more fun when we used to be anxious.

When I arrived at packet pickup right at closing the night before the race, my mind was treating this race like a local 5k fun run.  I hadn’t even checked out the course profile before arriving that night.

My confidence was so high that it blinded me from a 31 mile reality.

The Broken Ego & Admitting I’m No Superman

So what happens when everything falls apart, and you are sent flying back to Earth with an ego in shambles?

Thankfully during this race, I had a few friends who helped me to the finish.  But the disappointment and questioning that came after the race was really the toughest part.  I just didn’t understand what went wrong or how to move forward.

As the first few days after this race went by, I realized that I couldn’t move forward without admitting a couple of things first:

  1. It happens to everyone.  We have great days, and we have our bad days.
  2. Under-preparing can be blamed on no one but myself.  I made silly mistakes that can be easily fixed and should never happen again.

Once I had admitted those two things, I was able to really think about my next steps and decide how to move forward.

By the next day I had already decided I wasn’t going to quit my run streak.  After all the tired mornings and sore runs I had pushed through for the first 250+ days, I wasn’t going to let being bummed out deter me from that goal.  In fact, I was angry enough at myself to force an extra hard run the next few days.

But the bigger question still remained.  Did I want to run the Bull Run 50, just a few weeks away, potentially putting myself through the same lows I had just recovered from?

When Quitting Feels Like the Best Option

When you fail at something it can either be a big motivator to get out and improve or it can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and makes you want to quit forever.  For the first time since I started running back in 2008, I thought my back was broken.

Before making any big decision, you first need to understand the basics.  So I went back to the basics.

A)  What is it about running ultras that makes me want to do it in the first place?  It certainly isn’t for the cheap thrill.  Running can be very hard, lonely, and painful.  I remembered the hardship, and ultimately triumphantly beating that hardship, is what is so appealing.

B)  What would happen if I did quit for the year, and what would happen if I didn’t?

I played out both scenarios over and over.  I’d like to tell you that never quitting is always the best option, but that isn’t the case.  When something becomes so miserable that there is nothing left to gain, quitting might just be the best option.  Was I that miserable?

As I processed it, reliving the pain and desperation again and again, I decided I’d be too pissed at myself if I gave up after just one bad race.  Quitting would mean me letting myself down, and deciding that one of my favorite things is no longer something I wanted to do.

I couldn’t do that.

To move forward, I had to admit defeat, remove myself from it, and refocus on what was important. 

In less than two weeks I’ll be out on the trails again, this time at Bull Run, logging long, slow miles, and probably feeling pretty miserable.  But I know, even if for a brief second, that there will be no place I’d rather be.

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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One thought on “Moving Forward (Broken Ego and All)

  1. I don’t think that you should beat yourself up, what you’ve accomplished so far is already such an achievement. Anyway, sometimes yo uneed to recognize when your body needs a bit of a break. Throw all the doubt into some packing boxes and shelve them for a while. Get your mind and body prepared and refreshed. Then get right back on the road again. Good Luck!

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