Sunday, October 14, 2012

Failure tastes like

Yesterday, I failed to complete the Oil Creek 100 ultramarathon. It was an emotionally devastating experience for me. I had gotten used to a feeling of invincibility since I completed an Ironman triathlon this August. The woods and hills of oil creek state park grabbed a handful of my ego, flung it left and right, stomped on it and shattered it to a million little pieces. I was humbled. The rest of this post has details of this disaster. So if schadenfreude turns you on, it might be worth 5 minutes of your time.

An ultramarathon or ultra is any distance over a marathon distance (26.2 miles/42 km). Any ultra worth its salt is typically more than 100 km/62miles and is almost always run on trails. It usually features woods, hills and night time running. Ultras had always fascinated me and I wanted to run one of them eventually. The Oil creek ultra offers distances of 50K,100K and 100 miles. I signed up for the 100K, thinking that it would be a stepping stone to a 100 mile race someday.  Unfortunately, I was completely naive to the challenges of running an ultra.

The oil creek course has a loop format with each loop being 50K/31miles long. It means that you leave the start point, run in the cold and rain for 50K, make it back to the start point. Then do it again. Leaving the aid station to get back on the loop can be a huge mental battle. The night before the race was spent packing and arranging my gear. Races as long as these don't just involve t-shirt and shoes. A great deal of planning with respect to hydration, warmth and night time running needs to be taken into account.

A map of the Oil creek state park course

The race started promptly at 6AM and would last for 32 hours. It was completely dark and the temperature was below freezing(28F). The first aid station was 7 miles away. I tried to keep up with a runner in a blue jacket. I named him the Zen runner. He didn't speak a word, didn't look back and just kept running at a steady pace. I slipped and fell a few times, but he managed to nimbly avoid the roots and the slick sections. Years of experience, no doubt. I got into the zone after a while. Nothing but me, and my headlamp, hot on the heels of Zen runner.

The first aid station arrived and so did sunrise. Sunrise is so beautiful as it makes it way up the hills and sneaks through the trees. I was feeling great at this point. I stopped for a drink but Zen runner just took off. It felt like a train leaving and my heart sunk. Determined not to fall behind, I sprinted to catch up with Zen runner. He still didn't say a word, but I enjoyed the silent companionship of a great runner. It was on a downhill, that Zen runner did something strange. He pointed down on the trail and said "Pipe". Yes, there was a pipe crossing the trail and I would have tripped on it had he not mentioned it. So he did speak and he did know that someone was behind him. We crossed the Oil derricks around mile 12. Pennsylvania used to have a number of oil fields back in the day. Now, it gets it from Saudi Arabia.
Oil derricks at the Oil creek state park

My muscles were beginning to feel tight when we reached Aid station #2 at mile 14. I decided to stop and fill up my hydration pack. Zen runner was already gone and this time I didn't follow him. The grass around the aid station was white and covered with frost. There was steam coming off my body which must have been quite a sight. I was already cold by the time I left the aid station. It was a lonely stretch with more uphills and technical slippery running.

My hydration system with water bladder

I had hardly gone a few miles when it hit. My hamstrings cramped and so did my spirit. It was really upsetting. I had barely completed a quarter of the distance and I was already reduced to a walk. I took another electrolyte pill and reached for my hydration tube for a sip of water. I sucked hard on the tube but nothing came out. The water in the tube was frozen. By now, I was nearly gagging on the pill lodged in the middle of my throat. I desperately opened the main lid of the hydration system and gulped down a bunch, spilling water all over my hand. My nerves were rattled and my hand was freezing.

The cramping eventually got better, but I completely lost my initial running form. It was now a painful slow shuffle back to race HQ for 15 miles. Every uphill seemed like Mt Everest and I was getting passed by other runners left, right and center. My spirit was sinking faster than the Titanic and I really wanted to get back to the start point. All those salt pills were making me nauseated and I even dry heaved once. I was ready to throw in the towel and quit, if only I could make it back out of the woods. Everything hurt from neck down. Somehow, I trudged along, taking liberal walking breaks.

I was sure I was almost back, when this additional 1 mile section appeared from nowhere.  What's one more mile after completing 30 miles ? I can tell you, it completely devastated me. I was on my knees, face in my hands ready to break down into tears. I couldn't do it anymore. The ultra owned me and I was its bitch. There was constant loud metallic clanging in the background coming from an old oil pump. That horrid sound..! Clang ! Clang ! It was mocking my pathetic state. I looked into myself and all I saw was utter complete defeat. All I could think of was my lack of proper training. Waves of pain coursed all over my body. That mile was truly nightmarish. Eventually, I willed myself to make it back to the start line.

At race HQ, there were other runners. Some stopped briefly and took off for the next loop. Some had finished their 50K and were now jubilant and resting. Some had quit and then there were some like me. Dazed and emotionally wrecked but had still not quit. One of the race volunteers, a really nice gentleman, did all he could to get me back on my feet. He got me steaming ramen noodles, tomato soup and pretty much anything I wanted. He motivated me to take it one mile at a time and focus only on getting to the next aid station. Time wise, I had plenty. I had 24 hours to complete another 50K. Even if I walked, took tea breaks and went fishing I could complete it. Problem is, I didn't want to. The comfort and warmth of the aid station was too much to get back on the unforgiving and gnarly trail.

I rested a bit, stretched, and even rolled my muscles. I needed more motivation to get out there. I called my parents and told them of my plight. I expected a motivational speech from my dad and all I got was "Don't go. We are proud of you anyway. You should be focusing on your college work." That didn't help one bit. In fact, I found it quite funny. Here I was battling my personal demons, and my own parents were actually telling me to take the easy way out. That lifted my mood. I strapped on my shoes and out I went on the second loop.

Everything hurt and my muscles were super tight. But I was determined to get going. In fact, I even started running at a 9 min mile pace. It felt good, and I was running at a steady clip for around 4 miles. Unfortunately, the pain started getting worse and my hip joint felt terribly sore. I took a walking break and then my mind started drifting. I started thinking. Thinking is the runners worst enemy. It will take a determined individual and ruin them with craftily constructed logic and temptation. I started running the numbers with my pace, hours of sunshine, weather forecasts etc. I even realized I had not seen a single runner on the trail for the last 4 miles. By now, I was deep inside the woods.  We were warned of bears on the trail. I began hearing things. Every noise got magnified. An eerie sense of loneliness and fear came over me.

I knew the next aid station was 3 miles away. I tried running, but got a sharp searing pain in my hip as a response. I had injured something for sure. Clouds had moved over and it accentuated the gloom. I couldn't imagine being out alone in the woods at night with the cold and rain looming. I was ready to quit. A conversation with self ensued.

Me: "It's hurting a lot. Stop. You'll do permanent damage"
I : "Pain is just a feeling. It is temporary."
Me : " You should have trained more. This is the result of inadequate preparation."
I : "True. But whatever it maybe, I am not a quitter."
Me : "What are you trying to prove ? That you can complete anything despite proper preparation? That you are superman ?"
I : "No. But umm. Quitting is bad. I think"
Me : "Applying will power without preparation is bull headedness. Will power with preparation is admirable."
I : "Yeah. That kind of makes sense.But..umm.."

The result was pre concluded. I reached the next aid station limping and quit. Back at race HQ, I was quite disappointed. I tried not to think about it and put myself to use. I ended up crewing for my friends Jason, Sam and Brian. Jason managed to finish the full 100 miles despite having severe back pain. It made me a feel a lot better, that I had a small role to play in his success.
Jason's well deserved belt buckle

Ultramarathons aren't about you or me. The race is much bigger than any of us. Our notions of self-importance, fade into insignificance when faced with an enormous challenge such as an ultra. It is much more of a mental challenge than a physical one. I can tell you, when you are back at race HQ, every fibre of your body hurts and it's cold and dark outside, it takes a mountain of will to head back out. It can break even the toughest individuals.

In all fairness to myself, I didn't do so bad. 60km/37 miles is the longest I've ever run. It's a new personal record. Also, there's a large drop out rate for ultras.  These races demands a huge deal of both mental and physical training. I was flying high after my previous achievements but Oil Creek humbled me into submission. Will I do it again ? Right now, I don't want to think about it. Failure tastes really bitter. It's the medicine I need right now.



Haha! Great read, man. Very nice.

so said...

That was a great read. Congratulations on the 37 miles and it amazes me to realize that it qualifies as a failure for you :)
On a lighter note,some of the medals were pretty entertaining :
PS: It seems almost cruel that the loop design takes you to the race HQ when you are halfway down !

Michael Jehn said...

Hey Deep, thanks for sharing your story. For what it's worth, having never run a race longer than a half-marathon and having never hiked/jogged/limped more than 35 miles in one day (Rachel Carson Trail Challenge seven years in a row...), I want you to know that I really admire your efforts, and I believe that you should be proud of yourself for simply having had the courage to attempt this event. I truly mean that. At my age and in my current life circumstances, the danger of injury with serious, potentially permanent consequences is always in the back of my mind, especially after having dealt with some troubling knee issues caused by overexertion (and possibly inadequate training) during the RCTC in the past. Ample preparation or not, you had the guts to attempt this and you pushed hard. As far as I'm concerned, you may not have finished, but you certainly did not fail. I partly wish that I'd been there to suffer along with you! By the way, you're a very talented and captivating writer, and you have inspired me to get off of my 'degree-in-creative-writing' ass and update my blog. Cheers!