I saw a bumper sticker today on the drive to my parents' house that read: "Never quit... surrender." There is no message that could have better spoken to me today than that one. Except maybe, "Want a free massage?" or "Here's a million dollars!" But I digress.
Yesterday I surrendered. I surrendered to my very first race day DNF (did not finish). I surrendered to my beat up, trashed legs, my incredibly weak mental strength and my whole damn well-being. I surrendered myself to the Ice Age Trail.
I was prepared, I thought, for this 50-miler. I felt good, I felt ready and I felt confident. After my last great 50-mile adventure, how could I not be excited? I had some of my best friends along for the ride, and it was going to be our day. Turned out my day ended at mile 40.3, while I sat defeated, but overwhelmingly relieved, eating aid station cookies and potato chips while they snipped the timing chip off my shoe, removing me from the race.
I hit rock bottom before the halfway point, and halfway is a long way when you still have 25 miles to run. Dehydration set in, the sweat stopped pouring, my legs were screaming from the rocks and ruts and tree roots and hills that all required strength and focus and one hell of a good balancing act. It wasn't just a physically exhausting course, it was a mentally exhausting course, as well.
The brief moments at the aid stations with my friends and family brought a rejuvenation to me, and at one point I had my hydration under control. I felt great. We had 19 miles to go, and dammit, we were on track. It was happening. There's an odd sense of calm that comes over you in the moment you know you're going to finish a race. You know you have it in you. But the next 10 miles devolved. Quickly, and painfully.
When you're busy climbing and balancing and dodging obstacles and pounding your feet on the rocky trail, things get exceptionally tougher when you add crying to the mix. But I think I spent a good third of those 10 miles in tears. Silently. I hurt. Every step took effort. I could count in my mind the number of hours and miles I had left, and it physically made me ill to think about. I remember climbing up a hill trying to get my breath under control between the effort and the crying and thinking, "I can't do this. I am done. This is me, finished." I wanted to stop there. Lay down. Let someone come rescue me another day. That is the opposite moment of when you know you're going to finish a race.
But I ran.
I took the course aid station by aid station, making sure to have my meltdowns in between so my parents wouldn't see me cry. I knew if my mom saw me cry out there she would've dragged me off that course herself. I didn't want that. I didn't want to worry her. Tears fell and took the dried salt off my face with them. I tried to wipe them as we came across other runners, but mostly I just didn't waste the effort. I only had so much effort left to waste wiping tears of pain and exhaustion off my face.
As we were nearing the aid station at mile 40.3 I made the decision. I couldn't go on. Not another step. I was so incredibly OK and satisfied with that conclusion that I shocked myself. Suddenly the aches melted into relief. I didn't cry. I didn't think twice. I didn't regret. My body was done, and I was letting it be. We had 9.7 miles to go, and could I have made it? Could I have hammered it out within the 12-hour limit? Maybe. But I just couldn't. I couldn't fathom the torture of the next 10 miles. Instead, I surrendered. I sat down in the grass, I let the volunteer cut off my timing chip, and I ate some fucking cookies.
I was done and I was happy. That was coming full circle: relief, knowing I was done with the race.
I spent some time with the ifs, ands and buts. If I didn't already have an amazing 50-mile experience under my belt, would I have so easily let this one go? But what if I could have finished?
But here's the thing: it doesn't matter. I didn't easily let this one go. I fought to the core. If I've learned anything in my years of running, it's that my body knows what it wants out there, and yesterday it wanted to be done. I ran 40.3 miles yesterday. FORTY. That doesn't happen every day, and I'm proud of every little step and stumble I took on those trails. I learned my weaknesses, I learned my strengths, I learned my abilities and I learned my limits. I am happy, and looking forward to what's next (and that will not be a 50-miler, I assure you).
We can't tell running what to do, running tells us what to do. It holds all the cards and deals them at will. I have grown to respect that.
My friend left me with one nugget of wisdom as we sat on the grass eating cookies once we were relieved of all racing duties. He said, "This is not a failure. It's an 80 percent success."
You're damn right.