Running up, over and through the cogs

DNF’d and Dealing With It

The running gods giveth, and the running gods taketh away.

One thing I easily forget as I tally up personal bests and races of a lifetime is that no one is immune to the possibility of failure.  And that definitely includes me.

Unfortunately, accepting that reality doesn’t make the process any easier on my mind (or body).

I signed up for the Des Plaines River Trail 50 Mile race just a few days prior to the Chicago Marathon.  I did it for several reasons, all of which now, in retrospect, seem foolish.  In fact, I’m a bit embarrassed by admitting as much and I’ve seriously contemplated just skipping over the reporting aspect of this race experience all together, thinking that if I don’t acknowledge my failure then it will just quietly go away.


Life ain’t always champagne and chocolate.  Sometimes it’s Old Style and pork rinds.  And it’s best to just accept as much, learn from it, then move on to the next thing before you’re uncontrollably drunk and smell like pig.

Fear of missing out (FOMO as I’ve heard it called) played a primary role in my signing up for this race.  Focusing on road marathons is sometimes a lonely place for me because most of my friends in the running community are focusing on the longer distances (50 miles, 100 miles, etc).  We go on weekend camping trips to run/pace the big distances.  No one packs the car up and makes an epic trip out of running a road marathon.  And running a 3:03 in a road marathon is great and all, but it’s still only enough for 1,049th place in a mega race, whereas a fast time in an ultra will likely bring a top-10 finish and accolades galore from my peers.

(Of course, as I write this, I realize just how bogus such a mentality is.  WHY ARE YOU RUNNING, JEFF?  Get the hell outta here, dude…)

Having spent the summer witnessing a collection of great performances from my friends (Supergirl’s Hallucination 100 win, my friends’ epic Run Across Illinois, Siamak’s Woodstock 50, Whitney’s Howl at the Moon victory, among many others), I could not help but get wrapped up in what everybody else is doing while easily forgetting my own personal strengths and weaknesses.  One of those weaknesses — recovery time from a road marathon — would end up killing my race.

I don’t know the exact reason, but it takes me a good three weeks to fully recover from a road marathon.  I tend to run road marathons as hard as I can, and even though the residual soreness goes away in a day or two, the lingering effects of fatigue and lowered performance remain.  In the two weeks after the Chicago Marathon, I had a hard time maintaining an 8:30 pace.  Each run labored into a jog — some even a slog — and a dull ache in my lateral right knee developed, most likely from a tight IT band, something I’ve been aware of and trying to fix for some time.

Even with all of this knowledge, I still thought all I needed was a few days of rest to clear everything up, so I took the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday before DPRT off completely.  No running.

But perhaps the worst part of my lead-up to a DNF was the cocky mentality I had going in.  Despite the aforementioned fatigue, the aforementioned achy knee and the aforementioned FOMO, I still had it in my head that I could run a very fast 50 miles.  The Des Plaines River Trail course is flat.  It is fast.  And based on my recent marathon time and a few delusional minutes plugging numbers into the McMillan Pace Calculator, I figured a 7-hour 50 miler was definitely doable.

And sure enough, as I started out on Saturday morning, all systems were go.  The rest had left me feeling fresh.  Holding an 8 minute pace seemed easy.  The trail was perfect and the day was beautiful.  Who knows, I thought, could be something special.

But by mile 5 my right knee was aching.  By mile 10 it was throbbing.  By mile 15 it was hobbling.

Yet, I kept pushing on.  WHY!?!?

I had never DNF’d before.  And I always told myself the only reason I would ever DNF is if I was injured.  Well, there I was, obviously injured, and yet I still couldn’t convince my stupid self to hang it up.  The thought kept coming, but I kept shooing it out, thinking that if I just ignored it (and the knee pain) that it would eventually go away.

It did not.  In fact, by the 20 mile mark, my stride had shortened considerably to compensate, and people started passing me.

At the 24 mile mark, I could barely walk.  My knee wouldn’t bend.  It was stiff as a board, and throbbing.

I walked/hobbled the 2.5 miles to Aid Station number 9, and as I approached, I knew that I was going to have to do the one thing I never wanted to do.  I dropped from the race.

I haven’t had much of a love life in the last five years, but I still couldn’t help but notice the irony that exists in relationships as well as my favorite activity.  Sometimes the thing (or person) you love the most, is the very thing (or person) that will hurt you the most.  Not being able to run is my biggest fear.  But I also know that sometimes, in order to avoid long-lasting, devastating damage that would keep me from running, that taking some time off is the only remedy.

The time spent in the back of the sweeper van allowed me to reflect on this.  And I made it a point to suck it up and not make it an issue as I waited out the rest of the day, cheering on my friends to some fantastic finishes.

In fact, my friends were my saviors on Saturday.  Siamak ran a 7:28 — A SEVEN HOUR TWENTY-EIGHT MINUTE FIFTY MILER!!!! — and Alfredo finished under 10 hours after having fought through his own troubles, both physical and mental.  My friend Tracy WON THE WOMEN’S RACE!  My friends Jen and Patrice both finished their very first 50 milers and a whole host of others had great days in the marathon and half-marathon as well.

Watching the joy and triumph from others was a good reminder of why I do what I do.  And it was also a reminder to not get too wrapped up in the feats of others and feel obligated to replicate them.  Right now my focus is on road marathons and that’s where it should stay until I finally reach all of my goals.  Trying to push my body to do things it’s not exactly trained for, just because everyone else is doing it, is not beneficial to me.

So I am going to take a couple weeks off from running.  I need to let my knee/IT band heal.  I will get body work done.  I will rest and regroup before starting my next training cycle.  It will be pretty hard for me to do, mentally, but I will get through it by supporting my friends’ efforts (I’ll be manning an aid station at the Lakefront 50 all day this coming Saturday) and by acknowledging that everybody needs a break sometime, whether it be to heal an injury or to reboot from a long, long season.

Onwards and upwards!

13 responses

  1. Jonathan Berens

    thanks for posting Jeff. Takes courage to face down a DNF and then write about it! Celebrate your Boston qualifier. Try to remember this is temporary and you will be back at it again soon. I understand the push/pull you feel…wanting to race these road races llike the marathon fast but also wanting to be with friends doing the longer ultra events.

    October 21, 2012 at 22:50

    • Thanks, Jonathan. Definitely gonna think more about the BQ than the ITB 😉

      October 23, 2012 at 10:46

  2. Kirsten Marek

    As usual, very personal and insightful writing that we all can empathize with. Thanks for reminding us that although part of the joy of running is the social aspect, we also need to put ourselves first, and plan our races for the right reasons.

    October 22, 2012 at 00:52

  3. Oh, Jeff. You are such an amazing and strong runner, so I don’t want to ever see you feel defeated. In fact, during this race, I was telling my friends from TNT that don’t know you, “he wins 5ks…like, this guy is fast.” You’ll bounce back! And we should pack up the car for a road marathon sometime. 🙂

    October 22, 2012 at 21:39

  4. Dan

    I read this on my phone as we were driving back from Des Moines on Sunday. It was a bittersweet moment for obvious reasons. Though it did get me thinking. More than once as I read your stories, I do find myself asking how it’s possible that you don’t ever falter. On more than one occasion I’ve wanted to ask how you keep structurally sound.

    Because there are people out there who run super fast but only do it twice a year, and then there are those who run a marathon every weekend but they finish in the 5-6 hour range. Then there’s you, the rare fast AND frequent runner, who seems to ride a constant streak of invincibility. I can only harness that superpower in waves that last one to two months before something inevitably starts to ache and I have to shut it down for a week.

    This in no way is meant to resemble in any way a Nelson-like “haha” moment, especially since this is definitely not a happy time for you, but to see that you too are human has a silver lining to it (for me, anyway). Especially right now, as I’m riding high on a huge PR, stories like yours serve to remind me that a perfect run doesn’t mean my legs aren’t frayed and need attention.

    In short: I agree with Jonathan above that it takes balls to realize you’ve bitten off more than you can chew and even more testicular fortitude to tell the world about it. But there are very important lessons that your readership can learn, and I will do my best this week to apply that wisdom to my training. Bounce back soon, bro!

    October 23, 2012 at 10:33

    • Thanks, Dan, for your wise words! Totally keeping things in perspective right now and just giving my body a chance to recover. Doing all the right things. I’ll be back at it in a couple weeks (hopefully). I’m lucky that I have had more positive running experiences than negative ones, and also that I have so many friends whom I can live through while I wait to get back at it. Reading your recent report was a real pleasure. So happy for you!

      October 23, 2012 at 10:50

  5. Raul Cervantes Jr.

    I’m super proud of you my friend.

    October 23, 2012 at 16:38

  6. Everyone falls short from time to time, and through failure is how we learn. The fact that you swallowed your pride and shared the experience just proves that much more to everyone that you are cut from a different cloth. Most would of kept their mouths shut and acted like it never happened. Rest well and recovery properly my friend. This is just an isolated incident, nothing more than a small bump in the road to your greatness.

    October 25, 2012 at 14:20

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