I’ve been running for almost nine years and I’d never dropped out of a race until today. As I jogged along, feeling thoroughly miserable, I realized that I actually didn’t know logistically how one is supposed to drop out of a race. I’d found myself in a relatively empty section of the course, having waited until passing the crowded area around the timing mat as my ultimate dread was having hoards of people try to encourage me on (no, I’ve definitely made up my mind and this is the right decision). Finally, around 7.5 miles, I saw a port-a-john and stopped there, figuring that there must be some race officials nearby. There weren’t; so, I turned around – a salmon against the current of numbered racers – and jogged back to the crowd, where I was able to find a warm medical tent and wait for a ride back to the start.
But how did I get to this point after nine years and a few hundred race finishes?
I had slept better than the night before, but I knew as I woke up on Saturday that my body wasn’t 100%. I’d had a brutal chest cold on Monday which had receded briefly – a cruel ploy – before coming come back with a vengeance on Thursday night. As I spent Friday lying in bed, waiting for my chest to clear and my sinuses to drain, I knew that having a good race in less than 24 hours might be a tall order. Still, I tried to ignore it, pretend it wasn’t a factor. I chatted with my roommate (2h11 marathoner Fernando Cabada), read my book (David Foster Wallace’s “Girl with Curious Hair”), relaxed. Just another pre-race/-dawn morning.
Normally, I try to listen to my body, particularly while running, and especially on race day. But today, as I warmed up, I was really trying to ignore the warning signals; I didn’t want my mind to have any excuses.
The warm-up felt fine. Sure, the cold air provoked a few alarmingly deep and chunky coughs, but isn’t that normal on a cold morning? I guess there still was some pressure in my sinuses, some pain behind my eyes, but why would that affect my legs?
Just another race, I told myself. Nothing to see here.
So, as I stood on the line and then the gun fired, I allowed myself to get caught up in the quotidian adrenaline. The first 400m flew by in a burst of jostling energy before the group of lithe ectomorphs settled into a (fairly quick-moving) blob. I immediately tucked into the back and found myself in a chase group with Craig Curley and two other runners.
We passed the first mile in 5’00 (the lead pack about 10 seconds ahead) and our little foursome had already split in two, with another runner and me a few steps back, a giant chasm behind us. I figured 5’00 pace was about as fast as I ought to be running this early in the race, so I was content to tuck behind.
After two miles in 10’10, I was actually feeling surprisingly decent and my buddy and I began to surge a bit, closing the gap between us and the other twosome dangling behind the giant lead pack. I felt fine for about a minute before my body began rejecting the injection of pace. Within a few steps of them, I just couldn’t close the final isthmus and (my previous running-mate having made the jump), I now found myself isolated.
I told myself to stay calm – perhaps the surge was just a bit too sudden; let yourself catch your breath and then you’ll reel them in gradually. And I did that. And I began to reel them in. But as much as I pushed, my body was revolting. Where usually I begin to relax as the race goes on and the pace increases, I could feel my body shutting down, ignoring my request for a quicker turnover, a more open stride. I knew then that this was not a matter of mind; my body was simply not up to the task today.
I passed 5km in 15’49, still a few strides back, and decided to see what would happen in the next 5k. Maybe the threesome in front of me would slow down and then we’d all run together. I was still running at a decent pace, I thought.
But the gap in front of me expanded, my pace retarding. At 8km, I ran a 3’20 and I knew it was over.
At this point began the mental ping-pong match. Do I drop out or do I struggle through the next 17km?
Now, I’m someone who has a soft spot for streaks, and keeping my “never dropped out of a race” streak alive has dragged me through a fair number of miserable late-race implosions. And so, I was surprised by how little internal struggle it took for me to stop running. Part of me is almost embarrassed by this; I feel like I should present this dropping out as a monumental, life-changing decision, on par with whether to buy a house. But, while I can be stubborn and emotional, at the end of the day, I have the logical, pragmatic brain of an engineer. And my engineer’s brain surmised the situation quickly, as follows:
“You have more than 10 miles (70%) left in this race. You are already slowing down. You are well out of the position needed to earn money. You are sick. You have one more race this season and it’s in eight days. If you slog through the remainder of this race, you will likely set back your recovery significantly and could very well still be sick next weekend too. So, is it worth finishing this race for the sole purpose of keeping your streak alive and maintaining some infantile moral high-ground over the parallel-universe version of yourself in which you drop out if it’s at the cost of a potentially good and financially lucrative race next weekend? No. Okay, that port-a-john looks like a good place to pull over.”
As much as I still run for the joy of running and the beauty of self-improvement, I am also trying to make a living here; so I can’t ignore he financial incentives at play. And while I don’t see this opening a floodgate of DNFs in the future, nor do I plan to drop out of any race where I won’t earn money, this was a case where there was a potentially serious financial opportunity cost to gutting it out with very little gain.
And while I’d tried to ignore the warnings, the body is always in charge. You must always work WITH the body, never against it. Today, I tried to do just that: struggle against my body and force it to do something it wasn’t ready for or capable of.
Am I disappointed? Sure. I’m bummed that I had to drop out, but I’m not disappointed in myself. Had I not been sick and just had a bad race, I’m sure I would have finished. Can I be mad at myself for having a chest cold? I don’t think that’s productive. Can I be frustrated that it kept me from finishing a race? I suppose, but it’s not helpful to wallow in self-pity either.
I let myself be upset for exactly enough time as it took to get back to the start line. Just enough time to go from sad to angry to acceptaning to fired up about what’s next. The only thing I can do right now is allow my body to get healthy. My last race of the season is in eight days. I’m not going to change my fitness any more through training. All I can do is rest so I can work with my body next Sunday.
Whatever happens in this next week, Sunday is the end of the road for this season. It’s been a long time coming – close to a year since my last real break. I can’t predict how I’ll feel, but I do know one thing for sure: I’ll have no “next race” excuse when I’m feeling tired at 10 miles. I’ll work with my body and gut it out to the finish.