The Catharsis of Ultra

1. How Far Are You Willing To Go?

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It was on the 17th of July last year that Otter and I had the following chat conversation, which has been abridged for clarity and fluidity:

me: i got Marla super hooked on doing the north country run next August
……so … yeah, keep that on your radar
Otter: north country run?
me: yeah, it’s a trail run out in Manistee, MI
Otter: oh is that the one with the MASSIVE medals?
        and by the way
        how fucking dare you get someone else hooked on a race before me
        which….which distance would you run?
me: 1/2
Otter: when are you going to bite the bullet and do an ultra?
         god damn this race looks awesome
me: i’m not yet ready to tackle an ultra
……flat marathons kill me already as it is
Otter: it’s weirdly intriguing to me
        would give me a full year to train
        but I have no idea how I would crew it
me: oh shit, it’s a 50 miler
Otter: not a 50K
me: haha, are we talking about our first 50-miler now?
……is this the beginning of the planning stages for a 50-mile run?

Thirteen months later, we are those people, lined up under the cover of trees in Michigan’s Manistee State Forest.  A small group of about 200 of us are about to start the 2013 North Country Run 50-Miler, the marathoners having started thirty minutes earlier and the half-marathoners waiting on the sidelines.  We all exchange nervous looks, wondering if this is actually happening.  No doubt some of us have dreamt of this day, but here we are, at another potential milestone, nervously shuffling our legs in anticipation of the trials ahead.

(left to right): Marla, me, Otter, Chris, Jay

(left to right): Marla, me, Otter, Chris, Jay

I hadn’t slept the night before.  I tossed and turned, my stomach crackling with electricity.  Despite that, I was eager to start and see how I would fare over the next eleven hours.

The previous year’s racers roasted in mid-90s temperatures.  But high mercury levels didn’t deter us from signing up almost a year ago.  Suddenly the twelve months that followed seemed to revolve around completing this one singular race.  I had to factor it into every single other race I contemplated and it was what led us to run our first 50k in May.  It felt like preparing for my first marathon four years ago, but on a much grander scale.  It always felt so far away, like the event that would never come.  But lo and behold, suddenly it was just a few months away, then a week.  Even as I write this, I can’t quite comprehend how quickly the last year flew by.

At 7:30 in the morning, the race director sends us on our way.  As I feel those first soft steps on the grass, I wave to my wife Steph and our friend Marla who was running the half marathon.

I’m not sure how my legs are going to react to running on trails again for many reasons.

2. How Hard Are You Willing to Train?

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We must be going super fast to achieve that motion blur

We must be going super fast to achieve that motion blur

During the winter and spring, I bought special trail shoes, went out of my way to run trails, and tested my stomach with different foods.  For one reason or another I did none of that over the summer, opting instead for running long, longer and super long.  It was not uncommon for me to run 30-50 miles per weekend and July was my biggest month ever at 223 miles.  I wasn’t getting any faster but I certainly felt like I was slowly reaching Peak Endurance.  Long runs felt effortless and my legs were surprisingly fresh the next day.  The so-called “food tuning” process I thought I would master did not happen.  I just ran.  I ran far, I ran until I was exhausted and then I continued running.  I even went for a long run at 5 in the morning in San Francisco after landing three hours earlier, napping for thirty minutes and spending the entire day in vineyards with friends.

And then I knocked out a 3-hour run the next morning.

As I run that first short loop through the forest, I try to stay focused on how I feel.  Every step reaches out, hugs the ground, and pushes forward.  Short, repetitive, delicate.  My arms stay close to my body, my focus on the ground ahead, looking out for roots and furtive rocks.  Everything feels fine so far.  The woods are cool, the sun nowhere in sight and the summer heat replaced by friendly zephyrs.  Otter and his friend Chris are a little bit ahead of me and Jay, who attempted the Leadville 100 last year and came to the Midwest to run with us, is already out of sight.  Nine minutes into the race, I stop to walk.  This was how I had learned to run seemingly forever.  Run nine minutes, walk one.  Lots of runners sidestep their away past, and part of me feels a little silly, but I know I will thank myself later if I reel in the exuberance.

0824_northcountryrun 19Three miles in we face our first climb, where I end up catching Otter and Chris.  We stick together for the next three miles or so, alternating slow uphills with fast descents.  We are cruising, cracking jokes with an insouciance that belies how much race we have ahead of us.

I went into training for the North Country Run with an aggressive combination of focus and recklessness.  On the one hand, I kicked up my mileage considerably, found time wherever I was to run, be it Florida, New Jersey or California.  I hit my numbers, but it wasn’t without a bit of bullheaded risk.  After the Ice Age 50k, I took a full ten days off to recover and then jumped back into training.  Conventional wisdom says to never increase your maximum weekly mileage by more than 10%, but if I was serious about running fifty miles, I had to kick that up considerably.  A ten mile run became commonplace, twenty miles lost their status as a rite of passage – they happened quite often and with little fanfare.  All was going well.

Until twelve days before race day.

Otter & Chris running the flats

Otter & Chris running the flats

Midway through a 13-miler I developed the dreaded runner’s knee, or patellofemoral pain syndrome.  Two days later, I ran two miles because that’s as far as I could tolerate.  My first ever 50-miler was around the corner and I was facing the possibility of not even starting.  I was already feeling shaky from not running on trails all summer … and now this?

The knee pain and my first potential DNS (Did Not Start) forced me to evaluate what racing and running means to me.  Training had been intense, but also very enjoyable.  I got to run in Miami with my mom chasing me on a bike, on the boardwalks of Ocean City with my uncle-in-law and over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.  At home, I enjoyed every single mile of Chicago’s lake front path, from Loyola all the way to the South Shore Cultural Center and every sun-soaked park in between.  But without the race, was it worth it?  If you trained your ass off to hear a tree fall in the woods but you weren’t there to hear it because you were saddled with a knee injury, did it ever make a sound?

Aid Station #2, Watermelon City

Aid Station #2, Pineapple City

We cruise past the first aid station around 4.5 miles in.  My knee is behaving admirably, almost perfectly.  On occasion I feel a tiny echo of pain but it never lasts more than a few strides.  I feel great and run with a smile.  At the top of a long uphill, I behold the side-winding slide to the bottom.

“Are you gentlemen ready to fly?” I say before leaning forward and taking the hill.  Otter gives me his blessing and that is the last I will see of them for many, many hours.

The trail changes shape several times over the next ten miles.  Grass beds become sandpits, branches lean into the trail and create a lush canopy only to recede a few steps later.  Large mounds of straw and dirt suddenly erupt in greenery.  The sun, largely kept obscured by heavy tree cover, manages to pierce the verdant ceiling and cover the path in light here and then.  The perfect silence only makes it easier to get lost in the scenic beauty.  The only time where I snap out of this trance is when a course volunteer detours us from the trail to avoid an angry nest of hornets.

In other words, the run is going very well.  Until it isn’t.

3. How Much Are You Willing To Fight?

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I reach the fourth aid station and find my drop bag.  I toss my shirt in a plastic bag, refill my water bottle, stuff my pockets with snacks and take off after thanking the volunteers.  I immediately face a steep climb before the path flattens out, wild flowers growing on both sides of the single track.  It would have been the perfect time for another reverie were it not for a few dreaded twinges coming from my left knee.

Marla sprinting toward the finish of her first trail half marathon

Marla sprinting toward the finish of her first trail half marathon

I had almost forgotten that I could hurt again.  This wasn’t the first race that I run with a ghostly doubt in the back of my mind.  But in the last three years, my body has always managed to rally on race day, to exorcise all pain from every joint for the duration of the race.  Even if it comes back at the finish line, it knows game time and steels itself.  But today that is not happening.  I must be losing a few shades of color from my face as I realize what’s happening and with this realization come many bad thoughts.  I try to force them out, try to will my knee into cooperating with me.  It is thus far a losing battle.

I try walking a little more and that seems to help.  But the remaining twelve miles to the start area have the majority of the elevation change.  My knee recovers enough on the slow uphill to tolerate the fast downhill, so with this strategy I drag myself from one aid station to the next.  Though my progress is encouraging, I still wrestle with what to do.  The knee isn’t getting worse but it isn’t improving either.  The organizers give ultrarunners the choice to finish after one loop and run “just a marathon,” an opportunity I am seriously considering.

But I came here to run 50 miles.  I had talked about this race to anyone who would listen – friends, family, co-workers, strangers in elevators.  I had spent many an ascetic weekend sticking to my training routine.  What kind of message would I send to myself and others if I came back from this trip having done only half of my committed goal?

Just moments earlier, I had made the decision to start the second loop.

Just moments earlier, I had made the decision to start the second loop.

I push on, as if hypnotized.  After the last aid station, I hear distant cheers and know the finish line is close.  The last ten rolling miles had felt like an eternity, but I am determined to continue.  With one foot in front of the other, I climb the last hill of the course on a sandy trail divided by yellow tape.  I reach the top of a ridge that overlooks the Manistee State Forest, calm waves of green stretching into the horizon, a wooden bench the only sign of humanity.  I stop to take it all in before stomping down the trail, the beautiful vista having invigorated me and sedated my knee pain.  I catch up to two ladies who had been pacing me for much of the last five miles.  My alternating strategy of running and walking has us trading leads many times, and in a race of this length, that makes us very close friends.

“You still have a loop to do, don’t you?” one of them asks.

At this moment, I know the answer.  Of course I have another loop to do.

We explode out of the trees and back to the start area, 25 miles done.  I see Steph and Marla and I immediately want to talk about how I’m doing.  But Steph is much more focused than I am.

“Tell me what you need,” she says, my drop bag and our cooler within reach.
“My knee has been bugging me since mile 14.”
“Do you need food?  Water?  What should I get?”
“I’m feeling good though-”
“Do you need GU or Stingers?”
“How’d your race go?” I ask Marla.
“Fourth in my age group!”
“Do you want stuff now or after the marathon loop?” Steph asks, bringing me back to reality.
“I’ll … I’ll just do the loop now.”
“Ok, go!”

That’s the mark of a good crew – focusing on what you need and not letting the runner’s desultory mind take over.  After the 1.2-mile loop, I’m at the marathon mark in just a little over five hours, feeling fresh, powerful, like I can do anything.  I load up on GUs, Stinger Waffles, refill my water bottle, dip my buff in ice water and kiss Steph.  She came all the way up here with us to stand around for far too many hours with a subpar DJ blaring the same tired tunes in the background.  That kind of dedication and care is (one of the many, many reasons) why I married her.

“I didn’t come all the way here to run a marathon,” I say and take off, cheers of “Go Ultra!” chiming in from all sides as I enter the woods for the second loop.

Jay figuring out his business 26.2 miles down

Jay figuring out his business 26.2 miles down

The next two miles are a walk in the clouds.  I am running light on my feet, breathing easily and completely cool.  I even touch my chest to find that I am barely sweating.  I walk every ten minutes, zip the downhills and feel energized with every step.  Negative thoughts have taken a positive tone and a smile returns to my lips.

I’m doing this.  I’m actually doing this.  This is what I came out to do.  This stupid, painful, impossibly hard thing, but with one foot in front of the other, I will make it happen.  

The first long climb seems to take forever to scale and it sucks all the wind out of the air.  I reach the top and continue running but soon my stomach starts to fail me.  None of the food that I’m carrying on me sounds appetizing.  At the sight of an aid station, I pick up my pace and dig into the watermelon tray, shoving five slices of heaven down my throat.  I don’t even like watermelons but I’m eating it like it’s been a lifelong favorite.  Once again, I’m a new man and it’s time to soldier on.  I pass 31.1 miles and do a little dance to celebrate passing the farthest distance I’ve ever run.  I have a delectably flat section ahead of me so I manage to hammer out several miles with little complaint.

My knee isn’t improving, but it’s not worsening … too quickly.  I hurt more now than I did at the start of the second loop, but so far the pain is still manageable.  I reach the next aid station and my heart breaks when I see that they don’t have any watermelon.  But this one has something better: pineapples.  I stuff six to seven wedges into my system, fully aware that I never eat fruits on the run.  But my body saw something it wanted to eat so I gave in.  I might be hallucinating and eating a dry sponge but they are the best sponges I have ever eaten.  I can taste the sweetness all the way in the back of my head and the rush of flavor is almost dizzying.  After this much-needed jolt, I continue.

But soon things get worse.  Downhills start to send sharp stabs of pain into my knee and the uphill walks are no longer keeping the agony at bay.  I learn that I can only move pain-free if I walk the flat parts, which are reserved for running to keep a decent pace.  I also can’t recognize the trail anymore.  Red flags pop out every now and then from the dirt to reassure me that I’m on the right path, but none of it looks familiar.  The more lost I feel, the worse the pain in my knee.  The pain gets so bad that I can’t run for more than four minutes without a walking break.  Ultra runners are starting to pass me with more frequency.  Many of them stop to ask how I’m feeling.  Rather than let my negative thoughts become contagious, I respond with typical, gung-ho affirmations like “Keeping it going” or “One step at a time.”

Tiny inclines that I barely noticed the first time around are killing me during the second loop

Tiny inclines that I barely noticed the first time around are killing me during the second loop

Although I am keeping it going, one step at a time, it’s at a snail’s pace.  Negative thoughts once again invade my mantra and I allow myself one loud curse into the unfeeling woods.  One quick, angry curse for the pain concentrated in one tiny, damned spot.  My quads are tired but otherwise fine.  My calves could use a break but they are working overtime without complaint; hamstrings are in fighting shape and ready for more.  I haven’t cramped at all nor have I become nauseous or short of air.  At this point, I face the sad truth.  I have to make a decision, soon.  Am I going to do something stupid or live to run another day?

I think of professional ultrarunner Scott Jurek, having read his book Eat and Run two weeks ago.  While he managed to endure far longer and harsher races, there were several times in his autobiography where injury prevented him from finishing a race.  I keep reminding myself that overcoming muscle pains, blisters, spasms and cramps is completely different from running through a potentially serious injury.  I know what I have, and it is definitely the latter.

But the decision is never that easy.  There’s no shortage of motivation to get you through difficulties like this.  They say pain is temporary, that glory is forever.  They say that ultrarunning is a mental game. They say that you have to dig deep, to find a source of mental strength to carry you over the hot coals.  But those aphorisms are meant to treat black toenails, sore legs, and upset stomachs.  They don’t apply to potential stress fractures, torn ligaments or bruised tendons.  At least I don’t think they should.

So really, how badly do I want this?

4. How Much Are You Able To Learn From It?

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I reach the next aid station, 36 miles into the race.  I see the watermelon tray and forget all my woes.  As I stand there with the fruit’s refreshing sweetness dissolving in my mouth, I see Chris approaching from the trail, fatigue written all over his face.

“No shit!” I yell and he looks up with a surprised look, almost as if he doesn’t recognize me.  I wouldn’t have expected to see me here either.  “Dude, you’re looking strong!”
“Yeah, we’ll see,” he says.  “My hamstrings are going to seize up any minute.  This isn’t going to end well.”
“How’s Otter?”
“I left him at the last aid station.  He was overheating.”
“What’s his name?” a volunteer says, alarmed.  “Tell us his name and we’ll check on him when he gets here.”
“He’ll be fine,” Chris replies after giving them his name.  “He’s not going to do anything stupid.”

Jay on his way to the finish line

Jay on his way to the finish line

I eat a few more slices of watermelon and leave, letting Chris evaluate his caloric needs.  Almost immediately after the aid station I face a very steep, unforgiving hill.  An earthquake must have taken place between loops because I can’t remember this mountain.  Every step feels like misery and I can’t fathom the thought of running another hundred feet, let alone another half marathon.  But for now, I have no choice.  I stubbornly move forward, muttering imprecations at the tiny spot on my knee that is solely responsible for my grimace.

Eventually Chris catches up.  He asks how I’m doing and I decide to be honest.  I tell him about my knee and how my stomach is also starting to do a few flips.

……“Did you throw up?” he asks.
……“You sound like you have.”

So I guess the misery is coming through in my voice.  I tell him I don’t want to hold him back but he’s enjoying the walk break.  Not long after, he takes off, looking strong.  I hope Otter’s okay.  Given my current status though, I keep looking behind me to see if he’s caught me.  I continue walking for what feels like an eternity.  On occasion, I pick up the pace and run.  But mostly I walk alone with my thoughts, interrupted every ten minutes as I dodge to the side to let someone pass.  Downhills are a series of icy stabs, uphills are dull grinds.  I can feel the damage I’m doing, one wince at a time, and the last ten miles are nothing but hills.

Chris just seconds away from finishing his first 50-mile race

Chris just seconds away from finishing his first 50-mile race

After dragging myself over three miles of thick forest with a slight limp, I finally hear the next aid station.  Volunteers can see runners through the woods and begin clapping and whooping.  My walk becomes a run as I enter the clearing.  Under the tent two volunteers are tirelessly filling pitchers with Gatorade and keeping bees off the fruit.  Family members are sitting on the dirt, waiting for their runners and their smiles somehow brighten this cloudless day.

“Looking great, runner!” one of the volunteers says to me.  “What can we do for you?  We have broth, pineapples, sandwiches.  We can fill you up with Gatorade or water.  What’ll it be?”

“Thank you guys so much for the support,” I say after a deep breath.  I look at the three volunteers individually, allowing myself a fleeting moment of shame before doing what I have to do.  “But I’m afraid I have to drop out here.”

Without missing a beat, the volunteers change gears.  Chris had passed by earlier and mentioned to them that I was running with a bum knee, so they had set up a few chairs with an ice pack.  I sit down for the first time in almost nine hours and sink into the earth with the weight of almost forty miles.  Though I’ve stopped moving forward, my mind is still racing.

Am I doing the right thing?  Could I keep going?  What’s a little pain in the face of such a huge feat?  Ok, scratch that, what’s a LOT of pain plus the potential to seriously damage your knee when you’re talking about the glory of finishing a fifty-miler?  Why am I even doing this in the first place?

I catch myself wondering what people will think.

Does it matter?

Otter doing the Bernie at the finish line

Otter doing the Bernie at the finish line

I ask for a cell phone and text Steph to let her know my day is done and that I’ll be back at the starting line eventually.  Fifteen minutes pass and Otter shows up to the station, looking like he’s having fun.  He is happily absorbing the energy from the volunteers that I couldn’t reciprocate.  He sees me and doesn’t quite register what has happened until he spies the ice pack.  His look of dismay is genuine.  He knows more than anyone else how much I want to finish this.  But each person runs their own race and after I reassure him that I’m fine, he gets back to the aid station.  He has somehow become reborn since mile 32, joking with volunteers, bouncing back and forth between his drop bag and the aid tent as if tethered between them.

Meanwhile, I am slumped by the wayside, Stinger Waffles crushed to bits underneath me, the ice pack now a bag of cold water slowly sliding off my leg.  I feel pathetic and wish I could leave and go straight to the finish, but the volunteer in charge of that isn’t in the area yet.  Instead I watch as more people enter the aid station in varying stages of fatigue.  Some are heaving but set on finishing, others look like they just left home and skimming through a mental list of brunch places to visit afterward.  It would be uplifting in better circumstances.

Part of me was definitely happy to not look like this

Part of me was definitely happy to not look like this

I keep reminding myself of my overall goal: to run the fifty states.  This foray into the ultra community was a fun experiment, a side trip into a higher level of difficulty and determination.  But the stars didn’t line up for this race and there was no sense in taunting the cosmos.  Part of me still doesn’t want this to be the end.  A few minutes after Otter leaves, I stand up and run in place, briefly considering a superhuman last-minute ditch to the finish line.  But those last ten miles would have turned a nagging injury into a potentially serious threat to my long-term running career, hobbling me for more than just a few weeks.

With every passing minute, I come closer to terms with my decision.  Nobody’s invincible.  Greater and more disciplined athletes than I have been through this experience.  Today was my turn.  But it’d be disingenuous of me to say I’m completely at peace with it.  I really wanted to finish.  I never wanted the harsh blemish of a DNF on my racing history and it’s never fun to tell people that I had to drop out, especially when I made it a point to tell so many that I was running in the first place.  Plus, I chose this race for its enormous and beautiful medal, which I would have earned had I dropped at the marathon distance.  You get nothing for running 39.3 miles.

Huge Medal.

Huge Medal.

But I keep reminding myself that I can walk.  My legs are sore but I’m otherwise fine.  Had I continued, I would be writing with a different tone, likely describing the race more as a Pyrrhic victory than a meaningful personal accomplishment.  If this story sounds glum overall, it’s because I’m using it as an outlet for all the negative feelings I had during and since the race.  Overall it was a very fun weekend with good friends, heavy food and a grueling athletic endeavor.  Though I was more than envious of my friends as I watched them cross the finish line, I couldn’t help but revel in their success.  I know that Otter will be returning to the ultra distance, probably sooner than he suspects.  Chris may have conquered the distance but I’m not so sure he’ll be making a habit out of these absurd distances.  Marla has already said she’ll be back for more trail races, even saying she’d be happy to try a marathon.  And as for Jay, this was a walk in the park for him, a fun stepping stone on the way to truly insane runs.

I can’t say I’ll sign up for another 50-miler soon, but I’m glad I went for it.  So much of long distance running success depends on the simple act of committing that I couldn’t have come home without trying.  That medal I will see in my friends’ collections, hanging from the back of a closet hook or in a stylized shadowbox, and it will always remind me of the time when the race proved too much for my legs but not my drive.

There will be other races.

About Dan
Running a marathon in all 50 states because there's no better way to explore the world around you than on your own two feet, for as long as you can, until you hate yourself and everything around you. Then you stop, get a medal, and start over.

43 Responses to The Catharsis of Ultra

  1. Pingback: Race Schedule & Results | Dan's Marathon

  2. Marla Brizel says:

    You remarked later on in the day that you expected to have a character defining epiphany out in the woods and that the choice to stop was much more subdued in reality. However, I would argue that your choice is still profound, in that you managed to be smart and acknowledge the bigger picture, something that runners quite often fail to do. I know the weekend didn’t quite turn out the way you envisioned but I’ve been nothing but impressed by your dedication and approach to running – not just now, but over all of the years we’ve been friends. It’s inspiring, to say the least, and we would all be wise to learn something from your experiences. I hope you are still proud of what you accomplished at NCR (and believe me, you accomplished a lot) and hopefully we’ll be making some return trips to Palos this fall.

    • Dan says:

      Thanks for the kind words MB and congratulations on your first trail half! While yes, the weekend wasn’t completely successful for me, I ran much farther than I would have optimistically guessed. I’m just glad everyone else made it through all (mostly) smiles. I do look forward to some more trail runs, just as long as the Palos trail system gets its act together and doesn’t end up a messy bog like last time.

      Thanks for reading!

  3. MedalSlut says:

    Sometimes I think it takes more strength to make the sensible decision to stop even though every fibre of your being hates the decision. Like you said, there will be other races, and other chances to have a crack at this one if you really wanted, but making sure you’re fit to participate in races in the future is important. Still, despite what you might consider to be a sucky race, 40 miles is no mean feat, so I tip my hat to you for getting so far. Get some rest, and heal up!

    • MedalSlut says:

      Wanted to add: The finishers’ photo in front of the Chevy is hilarious.

    • Dan says:

      Resting and healing is what I’m (hopefully) doing at the moment, enjoying not having to hit any weekly mileage. Thanks for the kind thoughts — I do need to put things in perspective because 40 doesn’t sound like much when compared to 50. Jay (who ran this race) attempted a 100-miler last summer but missed the cutoff at mile 60. But shit, SIXTY MILES, right? I guess comparison is the enemy of success, so we’d all be better off just being proud of what actually happens, right? I’m sure there’s a much more succinct and poetic quote out there, but this’ll have to do.

      Thanks, as always, for reading. Best of luck with the last month leading up to Loch Ness!

  4. Jay Zeschin says:

    Running 39 straight miles on hilly trails is one hell of a thing no matter the circumstances, and you should definitely take pride in that accomplishment.

    Ultra distances are pretty unforgiving in that there are so many things that can go wrong when you’re out there that long, and while there’s a lot of preparing/mitigating you can do, it’s never possible to know on a given day if the stars will align to give you a good race or if the train will decide to go totally off the rails. It took me a bit of time to fully come to terms with my Leadville DNF last year – I knew the direct causes, but the underlying bitterness and sense of disappointment was tougher to work through. At the end of it though, there’s no sense getting hung up on it. You examine, analyze, learn from your mistakes (without beating yourself up too much about them), then pick another run/race to apply what you’ve learned. Rinse and repeat. I don’t believe for a second that this will be the end of your forays into the ultra realm.

    All that aside, it was a really fun weekend with the whole gang, and I’m glad I finally got the chance to run a race with you! Funny that it took this long for it to happen.

    • Dan says:

      When I talked about greater athletes having DNF’d, I was referring to you among others. Your exploits dwarf mine in intensity and dedication, so if anything, I felt like I was in pretty good company. Granted, your early end at Leadville was because you had gotten hit by a friggin’ CAR leading up to the race itself, but still, I’m very sure that the overall feeling afterward was similar.

      Thanks for the supportive words, Jay. I agree that we should have shared a race much earlier, but I’m glad the first one was a beast worthy of record. Hope to join you on the trail circuit soon.

  5. Thanks for sharing this story. I have nothing great to say — I haven’t even run a whole marathon yet myself, and live in a state of low-grade fear over the pain that’s waiting for me on Nov. 3. It definitely seems like you did the right thing: this way you can get out there and try another 50-miler, instead of dealing with who knows what repercussions in your knee that might have resulted from continuing.

    • Dan says:

      My thoughts exactly. As for your first marathon, embrace the jitters and the nervous excitement. I felt the exact same way before Chicago 2009 (my first marathon) and it was one of the most magical experiences I’ve yet to endure. Not just the race itself — that was just the big payoff. The month and week leading up to it were so full of life, every single moment elevated as if I were suddenly hyper aware of my surroundings and emotions.

      That might sound hyperbolic, but it really isn’t. Just remember that you’re doing this for fun and try to enjoy every step of New York. I ran it in 2011 and it was a race to remember. Best of luck, and thanks for the kind words.

  6. glenn says:

    To be honest, I sometimes find myself questioning the judgment of those who would subject themselves to these insane endeavors – the 50-milers, the Leadvilles, the IRONMAN triathlons. But I’ll admit there are equal parts admiration and jealousy that accompany this scrutiny.

    I think you made a wise decision, and I’m glad to see smarts and good sense won out in the end. No point in being penny wise and pound foolish, my friend. It may sting somewhat now, but it seems like you’ve already learned some lessons from your experience – and that’s the mark of growth.

    Keep on keepin’ on, Dan. 39.3 miles is a heckuva lot farther than I’ve ever run.

    • Dan says:

      I know it was in another post, but I have to give you snaps for “Dan of Green Gables” — truly inspired. More importantly, thanks for your kind thoughts Glenpire State. I think the idea of unsound judgment is relative and subjective. To the average person who doesn’t run, a marathon is completely nuts. To the marathoner, a 50-miler is psychotic. To someone who has run 50 miles, a 100-miler or Badwater is the measure of the unhinged.

      Like that scene in Star Wars, there’s always a bigger fish.

      Hope the last month leading up to Chicago goes well. Look forward to seeing you at miles 4, 10 and the finish!

  7. These types of races offer many a challenge, and one of those is to know when to call it before doing something stupid. I admire your courage and you willingness to learn from it, as well as opening up to your readers about what was going on. I commend you on all of the above and look forward to reading about the next challenge. Keep your head high!

    • Dan says:

      I definitely channeled you as I fought with conflicting emotions during those last grueling miles. Not only did I tell myself that you, an ultra runner with much more experience, went through a similar ordeal, but that nobody’s invincible — not even Jeff. You seem to take a much more holistic approach to training both physically and mentally, and yet it still doesn’t completely safeguard you against everything.

      While that might not sound like a high compliment, I mean it as one. Because if you can bounce back from injury to kill marathons, Ice Age, PR at the half and run a 50-miler, then there’s hope for me as well.

      Thanks for chiming in, Jeff. Always appreciated.

  8. Life is full of difficult decisions: Keep it healthy and just have Greek yogurt with fruit for dessert, or go all “Joey Chestnut” on the gelato and chocolate cake? Throw on a hat and run to the grocery store in sweats and slippers, or take an hour to squeeze into those skinny jeans and meticulously sculpt your neo-quaff? DNF due to blisters, bee stings, projectile vomiting and/or diarrhea, and broken bone protruding through skin, or soldier on to the finish and get that giant medal…even if it means you will never walk again? Full disclosure, in all of the above situations, I always choose the latter option. But maybe that’s why I people think I’m such d**k.

    In all seriousness, sounds like you made the right call. Hopefully you’ve already signed up again for next year and are willing give it another shot? Sorry that you weren’t able to bring home the giant medal. I’ve fashioned a nice Panini griddle out of my two medals from last year and this year. My apple-bacon-brie sandwiches taste so much better with the North Country Run logo emblazoned on them. Yum.

    Best of luck in your next race!


    P.S. Last year I made the decision to press on to the finish even though I was dehydrated, cramping, nauseous, and dizzy. I got the medal, finished 3rd overall and won my age group. But I also spent a couple of days in the hospital peeing blood with Rhabdo and kidney/liver failure. It took me several months to fully recover. This year things went better and I finished 2nd and stayed out of the hospital. In all honestly, last year’s performance made for a better story 🙂

    Here’s my race report for this year:

    • Dan says:

      I had read your recap from 2012 before going into this race so I knew what to expect. However, I was looking for the typical everyman blogpost and not the tale of the 3rd overall finisher. You are clearly an outlier, a particular breed of runner that juts out from the pack and through a mix of insane courage and meticulous training, kills it. Thanks for reading my story, even if it seems to fit on the polar opposite end of your account. Best of luck with your fall races!

  9. Awesome story. As a runner training for my first marathon, I will remember this great lesson and the difference between doing something crazy and doing something stupid.

    • Dan says:

      Finely put, Mr. Lawrence. Thank you for reading and best of luck in Hartford! That’s one race that I’ve been wanting to do for a while. Since I’ve already run Connecticut, it might be a while before I get the chance.

  10. Amy says:

    First off, CONGRATULATIONS on 39.5 miles! I know that it isn’t what you wanted, but that is such an insane accomplishment, especially because it sounds like you really had to push yourself mentally to make it that far. You have to trust yourself that you made the right decision (and it sounds like you do think that you did). Just based on what I know about you from the blog, I think you would have regretted finishing at the cost of sitting out from racing for months or even years.

    As always, wonderfully written. I feel completely worn out just reading about the anguish of running that long…and I may be craving some watermelon.

    • Dan says:

      It’s pretty remarkable how running that far (and long) can change your brain chemistry. Even right now, I don’t really want a watermelon, nor would I particularly enjoy one if I were starving. I shudder to wonder what happens to people when they attempt 100-milers. Does pickle juice actually sound appetizing to anyone ever? Sheesh …

      Anyway, thanks for reading and the support. You’re right that I’d rather call it a day and live to run my long list of fall races than grind my legs to dust and bail out of 3-4 races that I’ve already paid for. It might not be the sexiest reason, but hey, no one ever said this sport was glamorous.

  11. Mike says:

    As soon as I saw the title of your post, my heart sank… I’d been hoping to see the familiar race name signifying the successful completion of another medal-gathering excursion. And admittedly I was reluctant to read on, knowing that something less than 50 miles lay at the end of the page, and that with your penchant for descriptive narration I’d be right there alongside you, re-living step after painful step.

    But a funny thing happened on the way to that mile 39 aid station. As awesome as completing 50 miles and snagging that medal would have been, your story as written is ultra-inspirational. I don’t come away with any sense of surrender, or of failure, or of dreams dashed on the many loose rocks of the Manistee State Forest. I come away with an enormous amount of respect for the dedication you showed, the battle you fought, the discomfort you endured, the level-headedness you displayed, and the selflessness you demonstrated in being able to acknowledge and appreciate everyone else’s victory in the shadow of your own disappointment. Running may be an inherently selfish endeavor, but the sport is at its best in the hands (and feet) of selfless individuals. And this post is running at its best… even without your brilliant postrace picture of Otter and Chris, which is worth far more than a thousand words.

    Who knows what would have happened if you’d chosen to get up off that chair and tackle those last 10.7 miles. Maybe your knee miraculously heals. Or maybe you end up unable to walk without crutches for a month. Who knows? Cormac McCarthy may have said it best: “You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from.” Thems words to live by.

    All I know is that this is one of the few blog posts I’ll be reading again… and probably more than once.

    Congrats and great job all around, Dan. Recover well, heal fast, and I’ll look forward to seeing you in Portland.

    • Dan says:

      You do pay attention to detail — I specifically wrote the title of the post that way to differentiate between a successful race and … well, whatever this was. I also didn’t want to write something like “The Pains of DNF” or “Embracing the DNF” because that would mean instant spoiler. I like some sense of excitement when I’m reading a race story. But of course, regular readers like yourself would have spotted that one immediately. Thanks for sticking with me though.

      It’s funny to read comments here talking about the virtues of DNF’ing, when really it just felt like the smart thing to do. While I did vacillate between grinding on and dropping, when it came time to make a decision, pragmatism won out. I told Marla that I didn’t feel like I had an epiphany mid-race, I just did what felt right. Maybe I’ll think differently about it in a few years, but six days removed from the race, part of me still wishes I had bitten my lip and just limped for another three hours.

      That is, until I read supportive comments like yours. Then it becomes clear that the part of me who would have soldiered on was a fool and would not have made it to the starting line at Portland. Fingers crossed!

  12. crazycatruns says:

    Absolutely incredible race report. I seriously commend you for making the smart choice – we runners are notoriously dumb when it comes to goals. What an incredible accomplishment! I couldn’t even wrap my head around the trail marathon, let alone the ultra. You rock!

    • Dan says:

      Thanks for reading and congratulations for locking down that trail half marathon. The latter part of the loop, which was mostly the half marathon trail, was not easy at all — way to get through it 🙂

  13. Jen says:

    I don’t know what to else to add to what’s already been stated so well above. Great recap, and I can only imagine how difficult that DNF decision was. I’m positive that you’ll get your 50-mile goal one day. Keep on truckin’!

    • Dan says:

      Thanks for reading and chiming in Jen. While the decision itself was tough to accept and debate, actually MAKING it was easy. The pain was significant and I mean that in two ways — there was a lot of it and it was also the kind that should be treated and not ignored. So when it came down to the moment, I did what I had to. It was the hours leading up to it and afterward that were the most challenging.

  14. john says:

    Dan, I’m sorry this run didn’t go the way I think we all expected. Your recap was, as usual excellent. Lots of words of wisdom enrobed in some wonderful narrative. Thanks for sharing

    • Dan says:

      Thanks for reading and the kind words, John. It’s all part of the big journey — the highs and the lows — so I couldn’t have glossed it over. Onwards to new challenges, right?

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  16. Great post! I think you did great. Sometimes it takes an even smarter runner to be able to say that you know where your stopping point it. What if you had gone on and gotten an actual severe injury? You might be not able to complete your 50 states goal.

    I’m glad you took the time to reflect your goals. I’ve been at an on going battle in my head about my goals. I recently had a falling out with a friend and for some reason, in my head, I want to still “compete” with her running…it doesn’t makes sense. But I keep debating if I want to attempt an ultra vs just keep going on with my 50 states goal. The later is the obviously what I decide on.

    On a side note, have you done the Sedona Marathon?? I’m going to do that one next year, 1st or 2nd of february!

    • Dan says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Whitney. I definitely did a lot of ruminating during those last five or six miles and ultimately I decided that the 50-states goal was far more important than finishing that race. The power of many outweighed this singular event, so that’s why I stopped.

      And as for Sedona, it’s a race that I’ve had on my calendar under “Someday” but it’s not next year, as I’m already signed up for the Miami Marathon on February 2. Enjoy it though!

  17. So, I always try and comment on your blog and it inevitably rejects my comments (like it did a week ago when I first read this), but I’m going to try again because I REALLY DO read your blogs and I’m also totally capable of figuring out how to post a comment.

    1. I’m really proud of you for knowing when to quit. It is well documented that I do NOT know how to quit, so I completely understand how hard it is to make that choice. You’re a better, stronger, smarter person than I am.

    2. Have you considered that your personality might be better suited to marathons and shorter races than ultras? Just reading your posts about this and the 50k, it seems like the patience and more relaxed attitude that benefits an ultra runner isn’t really your cup of tea. I don’t mean that in a bad way at all, so I apologize if it sounds that way. It just seems like you love speed so much that ultras might not be the best way to meet that need without getting injured.

    3. That was a great recap. That is all.

    • Dan says:

      You are perspicacious beyond your 65 million years. I didn’t write about it in the post but as I sat near the finish line with my friends in a state of both relief and dejection, I uttered to Steph that perhaps the ultra wasn’t for me. The DNF notwithstanding, I think I’m not cut out for neverending trails. There’s something about cityscapes that I enjoy, namely that they change dramatically from one neighborhood to the next, while trails seem to taunt you with how constant they are.

      I do get the allure though because every time I go out there, I feel like I was made to run in the woods … for an hour, two tops. After that, I start to wonder how much more of this I have to do. And then you’re out there for eight and a half hours. This seems to have had the opposite effect on Otter, which is cool to see.

      Anyway, thanks for the kind thoughts — I always appreciate your insight. Fortunately, it’s back to road marathons … maybe a little too soon for comfort. Onwards!

  18. Laszlo says:

    Thank you for sharing another great post! The photo capturing the post race faces is priceless. Perfect example when a picture is worth a thousand words…
    I believe for a runner it is always challenging to think clearly when we are not in the best mental and physical condition to think clearly. It seems that You are using this experience to fuel greater running success in the future and that is definitely the right thing to do.
    As others already complimented: running 39 miles is not an everyday thing. Especially a 39.3 miles long TRAIL run. That in itself is an amazing accomplishment. The other amazing accomplishment you can be proud of is not to jeopardize your long term running success for a short term gain. This is a very tough decision. I think for a runner it is probably the toughest of all as we all train for the glorious few seconds of crossing the Finish Line.
    I strongly believe that all the hard training you put into this event will pay great dividends through your future Marathons or Half Marathons. So just keep up the positive thinking and I look forward to read your next recap. 🙂

    • Dan says:

      Thank you for reading and for your optimism, Laszlo. In a way, I’m very glad that I had already run Michigan as part of my 50-states goal, because if I hadn’t, then the decision to stop running would have been much, MUCH tougher. In fact, I might have tried to gun through the injury and hurt myself seriously. So while I was acting level-headed when I made the decision, luck was also a bit part of it …

      Anyway, I also hope that I’ll be writing a positive recap soon. Hope I don’t disappoint you!

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