Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A Break, or a Break Up?

Last weekend I DNFed my fifth 100 miler in thirteen attempts and it felt amazing. Quite frankly, that is the point. It appears my rocky relationship with 100 mile races has come to a much needed halt. I am simply tired of beating up my body, which is a well known requisit of 100 mile races, for the sake of a buckle. In all good conscience I walked away from this past race happy and healthy. Had I been feeling terrible and made the same choice, I would have left uncertain if my decision was influenced by a bad day, or by personal conviction. Thankfully, it was the latter, as I ended my day feeling good and even running with a few friends as they continued their long day and I ended mine.

So let me be clear. I did not drop because I gave up, or lost my mental toughness. That's just naive assumption right there. I absolutely could have kept running, but that is not something I feel the need to prove to myself, and certainly not others right now. I did not drop because I was hurt. In fact, it was probably the best I have ever felt at that point in a 100 mile race. I am not burnt out. Quite the contrary, I will continue running on a regular basis, but without the prolonged recovery and potential damage that is often the aftermath of 100 mile races. Right now my focus is on other sports, other hobbies, and having a social life. Let's be honest, I'm not as conditioned for longer events running 30-40 miles of flat roads every week, compared to when I was living in the Shenandoah Valley running 80+ miles per week in the mountains. At this juncture in life, from a work/social/hobby balance point, I do not want to exert the time, money, and training that is needed to be more successful at 50 to 100 mile races.

I have run 84 ultras and 12 marathons in the ten years I have been a runner. Given that I am still in my early 30's, that is a lot. Also, keep in mind that the total distance of the races I have done is 4,050 miles, which is the equivalent distance to running just over 154 marathons. Seriously, how many 32 year olds, especially ones that didn't start running until after college, do you know that have run that much? My body has covered more miles than many avid distance runners do in their entire lifetimes. I may be 32 and still in good health, but there are times I can tell my body does not appreciate running 50 miles the way it did 5 years ago. This might make me sound like an old fart, but the reality is I want to avoid having my "runner age" catch up to my actual age. While I have no issue doing races to prove to myself I can go faster and be tougher, I'd rather not do them at the potential expense of my long term health. Given that life already deals us a number of unpredictable things that may affect our health, why not be smart about one of the things we do have power over.

All too often, especially on social networks, I see people applauding others for their feats of endurance, but it is a sentiment I feel is misguided. Trust me, I get that the positive intent is derived from encouragement and amazement. However, I read about people dropping due to serious physical stress, or "persevering" through an injury to finish and the first comments are always something like "way to go!", "so badass", "you're so tough", "way to stick it out", etc. While I believe testing one's limits is respectable, it's one of my own reasons for doing sports, pushing those limits to the point of jeopardizing your health is foolish. I know, because I have been that very fool before. Not even the top marathoners in the world will run to the point of injury, or at least not on purpose to prove something, and these are actually people who make money off running. We don't. That being said, I will always support my friends who take on these endeavors, but there are times I wish some of them would step back and see the big picture. I'd rather myself and my friends run for 30-40 more years healthy, rather than another 9 hours injured to get some buckle, medal, or feeling of achievement. Feelings of achievement, while wonderful now, will not regrow your knee ligaments and damaged joints 20 years from now.

This is also not a recent revelation for me. I have debated the future of my relationship with 100 mile races a great deal over the past year. Similar sentiments have echoed in my posts, and most dealing with a lost desire to run 100's, but more so a lost desire to keep inflicting the physical toll that 100 mile races will always have on the human body. Aside from a very small few, running many, or even a moderate amount of 100 milers will inevitably cause some form of overuse injury, and I see no point in going through life with constant nagging aches and pains due to extreme distance events. I've seen too many runners over the years deteriorate from relatively athletic and healthy to basically hobbling through every race they enter. I'd rather not go that route, and not end up like David Horton, who despite his former dominance as a runner, is now resigned to riding a bicycle and walking. Of course, while moderation in any facet of life can lead to longevity, I question whether 100 milers by their very nature can ever be done in moderation. Running 100 miles even once is not a form of healthy moderation, though there are physical outliers like Gary Knipling who can run 100 miles at age 70, his son Keith who has finished all 50 of the 100 milers he has started, and the legendary John DeWalt who completed the Hardrock 100 at age 73. While good health, good training, and wise scheduling is a factor, it is far fetched to assume anyone who trains/lives a similar lifestyle will reap equal results. Karl Meltzer, at age 46, still beats younger faster runners with insane training routines in 100 mile races, and even sometimes when he claims he hasn't been running more than a few hundred miles per month. Sometimes it's just genetics.

I have now DNFed three of my past five 100 mile races, and the two I actually managed to finish were pretty miserable slogs. I also spent a lot of time training for those five crappy races and in hindsight it just feels like lost time, as I question how much the training even helped. If anything, I lost a significant amount of speed, and felt marginally beat up most of the time. Prior to Old Dominion I withdrew my entry to the C&O Canal 100, because deep down I knew I was not interested in running 100 miles. And yet I still showed up to the start of Old Dominion two months later, because I had to know for myself if those feelings would fade in the heat of a 100 mile experience. They did not.

So does this mean I will never attempt another 100 again? Definitely not, but if I do another 100, it will have to be during a period of time I can genuinely dedicate myself to training for one. But again, I'm not sure I will want to do that with my schedule any time soon. There are obviously still 100 mile races I would like to do, but there is no reason to rush into them, and to be honest there are fewer and fewer races I consider bucket list races. If I want to run through beautiful mountains somewhere, I don't need to participate in a race to do it. It's not like I wear any of my buckles anyway.

Lastly, don't think I am discouraging anyone from running 100 miles. Completing my first 100 miler in 2007 in under 24 hours is still one of the highlights of my running life. Running 100 miles will always be a special accomplishment. Injuries, fatigue, and discomfort will always be part of the experience, and overcoming them will be one of the things you remember most. Just be aware of the potential long term trade offs that overcoming those things will have, and whether its something you need to continually prove to yourself, or to do for fulfillment. Afterall, you only get one body to work with, be a good steward of it, and maybe you'll be running for decades to come.