For the better part of this year I’ve been training for, talking about, and eagerly anticipating the Masters of All Terrain UltraMarathon. I had made the decision early on in 2014 that I was going to take on the 50K, and as race day approached, I was confident. I had been training non-stop, I had logged many intense workouts along with several long runs, and I had no doubt that I could handle the mental onslaught which I knew would viciously seek to cripple me as the miles marched on.
The night before the race I felt calm, which surprised me that the typical pre-race nerves weren’t tugging at my subconscious. I enjoyed a stress-free evening with my husband (he would be rucking the half marathon while I ran the 50K), and we were eager to embark upon the rugged trails which had been meticulously charted for us.
Soon I would be an UltraMarathoner. Soon I would slap that 50K sticker proudly on my car, proclaiming my victory over 31 miles. Soon, I would finish my 2014 racing season by completing my greatest distance yet. It was going to be a good day. I just knew it.
Race morning was cool and comfortable, the dark sky shrouding the miles of terrain in mystery. Arriving racers greeted each other warmly, as though attending a family reunion comprised solely of confident athletes prepared to spend a day on the trails. The weather forecast predicted above average temperatures, exchanging the previous day’s mild December climate for mid-80s and brilliant sun. I secretly hoped this forecast was incorrect, knowing that these temperatures would create a whole new level of challenge as the day progressed, but I still carried no shadow of a doubt that the finish line would be crossed victoriously many hours later.
7am arrived and off we went, each person privately strategizing for their own race while falling into a steady pace sure to be sustained for the hours ahead. It took a couple of miles for my legs to adjust to trail running, as my suburban lifestyle lends itself to an expertise in sidewalks, roads, and the treadmill; trails however, are scarce. The scenery was beautiful, the cool breeze felt amazing, my special-made 50K playlist kept me entertained, and I felt good. I envisioned crossing the finish line. This moment that I had dreamed of all year was now within several hours reach. It was going to feel pretty amazing to accomplish such a great feat.
And then the sun rose. Oh that wonderful, yet terrible, Florida sun.
It beat down on us as though it had risen with the sole purpose to break our spirit and deplete our energy. The 50K course consisted of a 15.5 mile loop which was to be traveled twice. Upon finishing my first loop, I jokingly shouted over to Race Director, Nicholas, asking him if he could ask someone to turn the air conditioner on. The heat was bearing down, but I was doing my best to be smart. Carrying a Camel Bak, I was hydrating frequently, as well as taking salt tabs every half an hour and consuming calories in the form of gummies, peanut butter, and gels to maintain energy. I was confident that as long as I made smart nutrition and hydration choices, I’d be just fine.
Around mile 19 things began to unravel. I found myself alone on the course, with no runners in sight in front or behind me. Shade was essentially non-existent, and the temperature continued to rise. Things slowed to a crawl at mile 20, as running became nearly impossible. I began drinking water more frequently, and did my best to walk at a fast clip. The portion of the course which had been my favorite the first time around, with beautiful canal views, an abandoned bridge, and serene panoramas, was quickly becoming a terrible nightmare, one that I prayed would soon end. It seemed like years before mile 21 was reached, and my brain brain began reeling.
“What happens if I pass out? How long will it be before someone finds me? My skin feels hot, is that okay? I’ve lost my appetite, I hope that’s not a bad sign.” I tried to run and instantly became nauseated. “This isn’t good. How far till the next water stop? I just have to get there. I have a 5 year old little boy waiting for me at home. Is it worth being stubborn and pushing onward to earn a sticker for my car at the potential risk of my health?” My brain whirled on and on, and my morale sank lower.
Finally, at 22 miles, a water stop appeared ahead like a mirage. I frantically sought out the shade under the small tent and sat down, fighting back nausea. The concerned volunteer began asking if I was okay, and I desperately sought to take a full breath as my lunges began to squeeze in. At that moment a staff member of the race drove up, he had been making the rounds delivering aid to racers and water stations, as well as picking up ailing participants who were steadily beginning to drop from the race. Still unwilling to give in, I inquired as to the possibility of making it 4 more miles so I could finish a full marathon distance and then at that time be pulled from the course. I had come to the realization that 31 miles was no longer realistic due to the circumstances, but perhaps a marathon would do. But as we spoke it became clear that my race had come to an end. With no nearby racers, and the risk of heat exhaustion, traveling onward in the heat would pose a dangerous threat to my health, and as much as there are times to suck it up and push through, there are also times when an athlete must make the difficult decision to call it quits.
And so I did. After 22 miles, my race was finished.
I rode back to the festival area, frustrated, yet thankful that he had arrived with his vehicle when he did. That final mile I had been nervous, scared almost, knowing that it was not just fatigue that I might soon be grappling with. As I sat in the shade next to the finish line, the one that I had dreamed of crossing, a medal was placed around my neck. Since the race had offered multiple distances that day, I had still earned my medal despite the fact that it was not earned for the mileage I had anticipated.
It’s not easy to swallow a DNF, to deal with the emotions that falling short of a lofty goal can bring. I had been confident coming into this race, I just knew that there was no way I would not finish; yet fate stepped in, turned up the heat, and I find myself looking back at a weekend that I had envisioned so very differently.
Despite this, I still ran 22 miles that day. I am proud of myself for making smart decision with regards to pacing, nutrition, hydration, and ultimately, for pulling out of the race. I wasn’t over eager, I wasn’t overly stubborn, and I didn’t risk my health and wellbeing for the glory of earning bragging rights. For that, I am proud of myself.
I love Masters of All Terrain. It’s a great event, put on by wonderful people, and it never ceases to challenge, impress, surprise, and astound those of us who toe the starting line. I know I’ll be back, and hopefully next time, Florida will play nice and allow my dedication and training pay off to accomplish the finish I was so sure that I’d have already earned.