After all these months - almost a year of anticipation - I didn’t finish the UT4M. I stopped after 94k (59 miles) and 5,200m (17,100ft) of elevation – just past the half-way mark. Ultimately it was the right choice to allow me to live and fight another day, since it appears I have a stress fracture in my right foot. But since that only registered as another dull pain on my radar about an hour previously and did not bother me at the checkpoint where I debating whether to continue, I cannot claim that as a reason for stopping. The main reason was: faced with a very steep 1700m climb in less than 9km, I just couldn’t continue. I truly felt like I could no longer put one foot in front of the other.
This is partially true, because:
- I was suffering from post-race-like soreness in my quads that indicated a definite lack of specific training.
- I was in a state of general fatigue after 21 hours unlike anything I remember experiencing in the past; attempting a 3-to-4-hour climb seemed ludicrous: it was so steep, I thought I might slumber off and topple over backwards.
- My morale was quite good, so I knew that my thoughts of quitting weren't due to a deep funk: I had no particular leg fatigue apart from the quad soreness, I wasn’t cold, I was psyched to be there for the most part (now that the massively technical 1500-meter in 4km drop over damp rocks and roots was behind me), I wanted to pass the 100km mark and see dawn - and I didn't want to let down the kids of Cansearch and all those who had donated towards the cause. So it had to be physical: I really couldn't continue, I wasn't just wanting to believe it.
- If the next stage had been flatter, I know I would have attempted to go a little further, in other words the really steep climb beat me mentally too: perhaps I should have at least attempted a few steps, taken literally the adage "one step at a time"...
- …particularly since I was sitting at the table in the rest area faced with another competitor in the same shape as me. Perhaps I could have suggested going on with him and we could have slogged through it together?
- If the race ended at 100km, just over the next "hill", I know I would have slugged it out to the end. It was the additional 60k they had me mentally beat (along with that bloody hill, I should add; again).
- Which means I didn’t actually segment my race, specifically into: first part of the climb, which would take me to dawn; and the second part of climb, which would bring me to 100km marker and a full view of the race course at its highest point, and the knowledge that the hardest terrain was behind me… Had I done that, perhaps at that point things might have gotten “easier”.
- I tried to rest, yes, but I somehow thought that the time barriers were catching up with me – they were, but at that point, I still had almost three hours to spare.
- I forgot to visualize the arrival.
I am quite convinced that my children will grow up to the point where they no longer really want me around and I'll have time to train more before I actually get too old to do these races.
So now for the next few years, the aim is to maintain a modicum of form, derive pleasure from smaller challenges (and set the yearly the 'A' race at a 24-30 hour event, anything from 100-miles "flat" to 100km with up to 6,000 meters of elevation (I have a particular race in mind evidently). Or a desert stage race. Definitely a desert stage race in the near future (but not Morocco!!!).
Ah, when all is said and done, I'm feeling good. There's some wisdom and balance that has come with age and acceptance. I can enjoy the sense of adventure that comes with any ultra trail, without beating myself up for not necessarily having taken it past the limit. Is this compulsion to overcome extreme adversity in what is, after all, a fake environment really necessary?
I don't think so. Accepting to stop when it's painful to go on, even though perhaps you could, even though perhaps, many hours down the road, the situation might change and a huge exhilaration may overwhelm you as they do in these types of races if you push through enough barriers - well accepting to stop can be an important step in simply accepting who you are, regardless of what others thing or how you are made to think of yourself by outside circumstances or outside definitions of success. And the ultra community is certainly as guilty of that with regards to finishing or DNFing as other circles are of complacency, material wealth, career promotions, etc.
Mainly, however, back to the basics. My first MDS and the Jordan Desert Cup had been 90% about running and enjoying the unique experience, and 10% about the race (other runners, their experience, how I was measuring up to them, my performance). Over the years, that percentage has almost reversed in many cases. At the UT4M, it was about half and half, and my best moments and the reason I overcame stomach cramps and hip pain was because I was revelling in the moment. But I want it to be more about the running again; about the landscape, the experience, the camaraderie, the uniqueness... I want the purity of those first races. Forget about performance (including finishing at all costs) and just enjoy a) being there and b) finishing in the sense of "experiencing the whole race". If I hadn't finished in Jordan, I wouldn't have the ineffable memory of getting lost in the desert just past the Hedjaz railway of Lawrence of Arabia fame, or particularly stumbling through a candle-lit Petra alone at 2am after 42 hours of racing, hallucinating and seeing scaffolding on the 2,000 year old walls...
I have a few memories to take a way from the UT4M, and that's a start. I'm certainly not going to let a DNF take them away from me. I won't let a DNF compromise the moments of exhilaration that did occur during those 21 hours, particularly sharing moments with Cyril who joined me at three rest stops and followed me through the race (I'm pretty sure I would not have made it as far and in such high spirits without his presence). Though there are lessons to be learnt, I choose not to wallow in self-pity at not finishing and belittle my achievement by comparing myself to others.
I choose to consider the glass half full, draw an imaginary finish line at the checkpoint where I stopped, and feed on the sense of accomplishment at covering 60 miles and 17,000 feet of elevation in 21 hours - my longest race, after all, since the Jordan Desert Cup...