That is the question.
When you are struggling with an injury or in my case a pain that might get more serious, what do you do when race day closes in? I like to think that after years of training and listening to my body I know what I can get away with and what I can’t. The rule for me has always been sharp pain, no running. If it’s a moderate pain I can normally run through it and it will clear up. It’s a fine line but if all else fails then I just rest more. The body naturally heals itself. It is doing this constantly, every day, replacing old cells with new ones. Our bodies are amazingly created to the point where bones heal themselves, lungs recover from years of abuse, and blood naturally coagulates to prevent us from inevitable death, I trust my body to do this.
I took a risk running a 24 hour race three weeks before Pinhoti. It was calculated and I knew if I could come out of it unscathed that I would be stronger physically and mentally, I would be more than prepared. My running had been improving and my paces were consistent with some of my best times despite taking more days off and allowing for recovery, which my previous streak often prevented. I was confident that I could run this race in preparation and recover in time. My goal was to run hard for about 18 hours, hopefully hit 100, then rest or sleep.
The race went well, I did exactly what I went there to do, ran 100 in 19 hours, got a course record, learned how I could improve my nutrition, experienced the pain and ache that non-stop long distance creates, and other tidbits, then went to sleep, it was great. The rub (literally) was that during the race I had clipped my ankle with the opposing shoe. Now once I probably would have been okay, but this happened multiple times in the exact same spot, there was a bloody mark on my ankle but otherwise no pain above the normal that comes along with running 103 miles. I brushed it off. It was just a bruise and would go away on its own like bruises always do, no big deal.
Because my training was pretty much locked now, I recovered easily in a few days and started getting a few easy runs but the ankle was nagging so I rested. Oddly the pain seemed to increase in my ankle the more rest I gave it. I had a few decent runs but turns were especially noticeable with a twinge of pain. I continued resting and now began icing. I ran only a handful of times over the next few weeks and things had only slightly improved. This was contrary to normal as these pains usually fade rather quickly, especially something as nominal as a bruise. I should have seen the writing on the wall, but instead I went out for a run Monday before the race and was kind of shocked that all the rest had done nothing, the pain seemed to be even higher than the previous weeks. I was perplexed. Could a bruise or physical impact injury somehow actually have caused tendon damage similar to a sprain?
That somehow is exactly what happened, and so I rested another two days with race day closing fast. This time things actually improved the pain had reduced significantly and I thought, finally! Things were looking up and I could see the possibility actually racing strong instead of conservatively, but overall I was mad. I was mad that I had ran that 24 hour race and not come out unscathed, or more to the point that my body could handle it but an outside trauma had taken me out. It wasn’t because I trained stupidly, ran too hard or too far or neglected my nutrition and drove myself into the ground, but it was that my shoe had bumped into my ankle a few times and now here I am. It was aggravating. I had been thinking about this race for months, been eyeing the climbs and imagining conquering them as I doubled the elevation in my training runs, and now I’m going into it with an issue. Regardless, I knew that I could run, but would I be able to race?
I made the long drive down to Alabama through various torrential downpours, getting there behind a ton of runners who were already at the pre-race meeting, and being hungry while I listened to the notes not wanting to grab food and miss something important. It had been raining constantly, more was scheduled, and the race had been rerouted differently from the original plan at the start and finish. I tried to catch everything so I wouldn’t get lost. I was excited to run, the ankle was improved after all and barely any pain when rotating the foot inward. I’ve ran through worse I thought, I’ll be good. I ate the questionable pasta happily and tried to get some sleep early. That didn’t happen due to trains every 30 minutes. They must have been required to blow their horns 10-15 times at every road crossing because that’s all I remember hearing, that and rain and thunder…all night. I woke up at 4 to get ready for the buses. Despite the sleep or lack thereof I was in good spirits and tried to make sure I had everything before we set off. The bus was cold. I layed down and tried to sleep for the hour drive to the start. It didn’t happen but at least I was warm, the temps were actually perfect despite the sogginess.
The start was interesting in that it started raining right before the gun. I was now cold as I had shed my extra layers but we only had a few minutes to the start. Conservative I thought. Just be conservative and ease into this. And so it was. We almost immediately took a wrong turn. The course had been marked for the opposite direction, but due to the change the flags looked as if we should go left, when indeed we should not, the trail was across the road. This was a minor mistake, and only a few seconds was lost fortunately someone in the back of our train caught it, but I went from second to tenth in a heartbeat. Now positioning myself in the middle of a pack of ten we were strolling along at a perfectly reasonable pace. It was a little too perfect actually because I wanted to be going a bit faster and each time I would be stuck behind someone on the single track and have to brake. The braking already sent a few signals up to the brain…then that turn didn’t feel so hot…uh oh I can’t bomb this downhill like everyone else, take it easy on that creek crossing. Slowly but surely I realized that my ankle wasn’t very happy. I decided I would just run through the pain, it was sporadic and not bad anyway.
At ten miles in we were on the out and back section passing runners in the opposite direction. I noticed one runner really hauling – he must have taken the wrong turn I thought. This is when my ankle gave me a second warning on a right turn, those were the worst. Again I ignored and continued on. Around this time I got ancy. I was tired of braking behind the leaders and wanted to run, the pace was slowing anyway. I finally got my chance on some downhill sections and before I knew it I was in the lead. It was freeing, but also disappointing. The more miles I ran the more the ankle complained. After some miles went by at the next aid station the pain was significant. I let two runners go ahead and I began to walk climbs not out of tiredness but just my body wouldn’t allow me run properly.
I found myself running on a service road. I saw a flag and continued on down it, made it down a hill, climbed through a huge downed tree full of splayed out limbs I had to crawl over and under, ran another quarter mile and got that sinking feeling in my stomach. Uh oh I hadn’t seen any flags or blazes in a while and that tree was huge, but we had to climb through a similar one earlier in the race due to the storms so maybe it just fell. I sighed, that damned flag was back there so I turned around and made my way back through the tree and up the hill. There was that flag and there was another flag off the side of the road a ways back into the singletrack. Well there goes third. I was sure fourth had passed me during this time as it was at least a mile total and I wasn’t moving quickly due to the ankle. Pushing off was now painful. I made it a little further and starting running up a hill and immediately starting wincing. That was when I knew I wasn’t going to finish this race. I was favoring my right leg, and compensating with the left significantly. Each little climb I was basically jumping up with one leg. I wasn’t hobbling, but I could tell things were clearly not moving like they should.
Over the next miles I began arguing with myself. It’s okay to stop, then, No I will never drop from an ultra! It was mental anguish as the next two aid stations were unmanned. This meant I would have to continue on through 10 miles up to Bald Rock, the highest point in the race. I had been looking forward to this climb for months, now here I was, walking it and making sure not to hurt anything further and letting more runners go by. This was definitely not what I had envisioned. I sulked my way up, trying to squeeze out any amount of enjoyment I could get from the climb, but there was little to be had. I looked at my feet as I slightly limped my way to the aid station. Sat down in a chair and gave them my bib. My race was over.
Now here is where I could have hitched a ride back to the start, got in my car and drove home. I didn’t do that. Instead I found some other couples from Knoxville and offered my help crewing. This worked out great because now they could pace earlier than anticipated, and I could drive the car for them, awesome! I helped at the aid station, cleaning up trash, handing out whatever and refilling bottles for the runners coming in. It was raining constantly and heavy now. The runners were cold and demoralized. I felt for them, but at the same time I tried to think of encouraging words to say to keep them moving, but mostly I just did whatever they asked, haha.
One of my training buddies had dropped, so I nabbed him into duties as well and headed off to the next aid station. We were working this one as well and I learned the most from this. Watching the leaders come in was disappointing, I could be there, I could be right on that pace. Oh well, just refill the coke cups, water bottles, and find the drop bags. I kept busy, cooking some bacon and other goodies, handing out whatever, whenever. It was inspiring to watch all the runners coming in, and interesting to see how they were handling broken or non-existent headlamps, wet feet, gear malfunctions. I changed a lot of batteries and filled a ton of bottles and tried to give positive vibes. It was actually a really good time.
We had one more aid station to go. This was well run so I had nothing to do now but wait. We waited for our runners to come through, geared them up. One had taken a wrong turn and added on a few miles, I felt that – “You got this, you can do this” I said. That’s really all you can or should say I think. Runners are in their own little world and it’s hard to crack into that with big words, just keep it simple. I watched our last runner take off and it was time to end the day about one in the morning. I made the drive back and really wanted a shower. They weren’t open yet though. I walked into the stadium at the finish line. Just as I came out to look over the track, the first finisher was 20 meters from the line. I watched him cross and fall to his knees. It was eery how this day had went, like everything was destined to happen and i was watching from outside. I felt disappointed but I know I learned a lot from this. So the question, To race or not to race? It’s been a few days and my ankle was sore but is already about where it was before the race again. I probably shouldn’t have attempted it and definitely won’t be that risky in the future. I gave it a shot, knew my limits, and stepped out when I had to which is great, but in hindsight dealing with the disappointment attached is something I don’t want to risk again if I don’t have to.