Lets face it, you cant always feel like a winner. This past weekend I participated in the Xterra Warrior Creek Trail Half Marathon put on by the Brushy Mountain Cyclists Club in Boomer, North Carolina. The course was a single 13.1 mile loop that flowed through the woods along the banks of the W. Scott Kerr Reservoir. Morning temps were in the 50’s and on their way up to 70. The morning fog would burn off yielding bright sunny skies. This was a small, grass roots operation perfectly representative of what you can expect at a winter trail running event. Great volunteers, easy parking, an RD with a local accent, easy breezy packet pick-up, a somewhat lame race shirt destined to join the rest of my somewhat lame collection, and basically just a whole bunch of folks that seemed to know each other ready to have a morning in the woods. Seems pretty perfect right? That’s what I thought too.
The race began near the park campground on a short section of asphalt. Gathered around the start line, the racers tucked in behind a pick-up truck and listened to the RD’s final directions which surprisingly to me, but to apparently no one else, included a relatively innocuous prayer and a hearty amen. With the sound of an air horn we were off, chasing the truck up the short paved hill to a hard left onto the single-track. I appreciate the effort to space out the runners before hitting the dirt, but inevitably the whole line of runners lost quite a few steps as we acted like an accordion on the trail.
Prior to the race I had decided that I wanted to start out aggressively in order to push myself and see what I had in me. I thought about my coach’s words and asserted myself on the downhill, picking off more than one runner by being anything but cautious. I used my adventure racing skills and confidence moving off trail to pass along side folks by crashing through the woods. Yep, I was feeling pretty tough and rugged.
And all that glory last exactly 5 minutes.
That’s right. Less than a mile into a 13 mile ordeal, my legs blew up. Lactic acid in droves, my right foot went numb, and my glutes let their presence be known. In my short lived assertiveness I twisted my already slightly injured ankle three times. The trail system we were on was definitely designed for mountain bikes with numerous short descents followed by very steep quick climbs. Silly runner, mountain bike trails are for bikes! As if not wanting to be left out of all that joy, my GI system pretty much went hay-wire and a super shitty case of heartburn and what I call gurgle belly ensued. What is gurgle belly? You know, that feeling when you can’t tell if its your camelback bladder sloshing around or the small swimming pool that now exists somewhere in your gut. It’s pretty much the most amazing thing to happen when you’re running.
So, at this point, my legs and feet already feel done-zo and I’m debating between throwing up or taking a giant poo. I look at my Garmin, and my heart sinks when I see I’ve covered less than two miles. My immediate thought: “What. The. Fuck.”
My next thought: “Oh this is bad.” And then the chain reaction of shitty thoughts continued:“I’m going to have a terrible race.”
“Holy shit, if I can’t even have a good half, what’s going to happen in my 50k next month?”
“You’re not as strong as you think you are.”
“I might have to quit.”
This negative self talk continued for another couple of miles where my pace fluctuated between a constant run and a bit of a shuffle. I was passed by many of the folks I had crashed by earlier and only hoped that they didn’t remember me.
My stomach was really starting to bother me so that’s when the bargaining began.
“I have to stop eating so much crap.”
“I feel like this because I haven’t paid enough attention to my diet.”
“If this stomach ache will just go away, I’ll never eat bread again.”
As I felt my thoughts getting away from me (if only I could run as fast as my thoughts were moving) I knew I had to get a grip. I mean I am a Travis Macy disciple and just this week I had shared his philosophy on the need to “think about your thinking.” I had to get control and start thinking about why I was out there.
This was a training race. I’m spending this winter focusing on the ultra distance and being prepared for a serious challenge later in the season. Earlier this week I completed a 20-mile training run and my coach and I had agreed that there was no need or time to taper for Warrior Creek. That meant, that I would be coming into the race on tired rather than fresh legs. This race was really meant to keep me honest and as just a second long workout of the week. It’s hard to remember that when you have a number strapped on and a timing clock running. Honing in on the why, my thoughts turned to:
“Your are supposed to feel this way.”
“This is just a training run.”
“Get control. This is gritty. This is why you are here.”
I’d like to say that once I made that mindset shift, everything got easier and I floated my way to the finish. But that’s not always how it works and it certainly didn’t work that way then. For the entire remainder of the race, I had to remain completely focused on my thoughts. As soon as something negative would creep in, I would beat it back with weapons from my mindset arsenal. The constant warring going on was exhausting, but it is in these exact moments that I can feel my grit developing. Grit is the byproduct of the struggle.
It is only by deliberately putting myself in these challenging scenarios that its possible to reach a place where grit can grow.
Unfortunately, just because you know something is going to be hard ahead of time, it doesn’t necessarily make it easier in the moment.
I stayed in the race and continued my run/shuffle/walk pace for the duration. I only stopped once at an aid station to jam my hand in a bowl full of jelly beans which I casually tossed back for the next half of a mile. Winter running is in and of itself kind of depressing. Everything was brown and the woods had about as much life in them as my legs. I did, however, get to see a group of 8 or so deer run across the trail in front of me, down an embankment and straight into the reservoir where they swam to the adjacent shore. It proved a good temporary distraction as I considered the inefficiency of hooves pushing through water.
Somewhere after ten miles, and somewhere between “this sucks” and “you knew it was going to suck,” I realized my Garmin was dropping significant mileage and I was way out of sink with the mile markers. It felt like the stretch between miles 11 and 12 went on forever, which it did because there was no mile marker at 12 (I really freaking hate that.) Suddenly, I heard cheering, climbed up a short hill and popped right out onto the finish line. The battle in my brain instantly entered a cease-fire and I was just happy to do be done so that I could relax my thoughts. My running buddy was waiting for me at the finish, which was admirable because I was way off my predicted finish time. I’m pretty confident the first words out of my mouth were, “yeah, so that was terrible.”
With even just a short bit of time and distance between now and the race it’s easy to look back and glean the lessons learned.
- I really do need to figure out what is up with my diet, because the GI thing aint new.
- The thing about deliberately pursuing stuff that’s hard, well, its gonna be hard. And if its not hard, then you’re doing it wrong.
- I didn’t quit, which means, I grew from the experience. Knowing that you can survive a race when you feel terrible is invaluable experience.
- I took control of my thoughts; or I tried to anyway. While I wasn’t able to completely overcome my negative thinking, instead of giving into it, I had the fortitude to fight it. This is growth. My mindset training is a work in progress and with this I can emphasize progress.