Well, it finally happened. I knew it would — you race long enough (both in frequency and in distance), it’s bound to happen. The dreaded DNF. I went out to the River of No Return 108K knowing that I was undertrained for both the distance and the elevation, but I thought that heart and grit could make up for whatever training I lacked.
Friday morning, Steven and I met up with Jobie, Sherrie, and their awesome crew of Andi, Clint, and Cole, outside of Salt Lake City. As we drove towards Challis, it was clear we weren’t in 400 feet above sea level Nashville any more. This would also be abundantly clear about 2 miles into to the race the next day. Steven and I got to the start line around 4:30 am on Saturday. Kevin and Theresa were pulling up at the same time. It’s always nice to see familiar faces before a race, and as Jobie was sick back at the cabin, it was exceptionally nice to see Kevin. Steven got me all ready for the adventure ahead, and soon I gave him a quick and, admittedly, scared good-bye. I settled in beside Kevin, and we were off. The first two or three miles of the race are on a trail running parallel to the “main” road of Challis. We kept a nice, easy pace. Soon, we headed onto a trail that would snake us around to the top of the first mountain. Kevin and I found ourselves in a nice little pack. We hiked up the next four miles, turning around every so often to watch the sun rise over the mountains behind us. Eventually, we made it through the aid station at mile 9. After a quick fill up, we set off on some nice trails and quickly found ourselves at the mile 12 aid station. I grabbed a quesadilla as we trucked on through.
The next four miles held about 2000 feet of descent to the Bayhorse aid station at mile 16. I came in here feeling awesome. Steven was waiting for me and had all of my stuff ready to go. He told me the average time in and out of the aid station was 2 minutes and to hurry up because I was 4th female. This was his first time crewing, and he was crushing it. I knew the next section was going to be a beast so I wanted as much fuel as I could carry. He loaded me up with Honey Stinger chews, gels, waffles, and Picky bars. I filled up a bottle with coke and one with water, and I was on my way out of there. I had been doing such a great job with my nutrition up to this point. Every 30 minutes, 100 calories in. We started a 2400′ climb, and I excitedly unwrapped half of my Picky bar. However, my stomach had other emotions and revolted against the bar before I was able to even choke it down. Ok, let’s just stick to chews for this climb, I thought. We climbed and climbed and climbed. And my stomach continued its revolt. I puked every half mile or mile.
Finally we reached 8500′ and got some downhill. It helped my tiring glutes and hammies but did nothing for my stomach. However, the downhill wouldn’t last long, and soon we were making our way towards the last couple of climbs that would take us up to 10,000 feet. Now, along with the puking came dizziness and shortness of breath. Every quarter of a mile or so, the guy I was running with and I had to stop and catch our breath and rest. Alexander ran RONR last year, knew how much tougher this year would be, and brought along his poles. Even poles weren’t helping him at this point.
We thought we had made it to the highest point, Ramshorn, when we came upon a dirt bike and water stop. This should mean there was about 4 miles left until the next aid station and that it was all downhill. However, the biker man informed us it was actually at least 6 miles . . . and the 500 ft shale climb that we’d all been warned about was coming up. We trudged a little down hill and started climbing again. We watched those ahead of us climb up and over and up again. We finally reached the dreaded climb. It seemed like it was 500 ft straight up. After stopping to rest on some snow that hadn’t melted, we finally made it up to the top. Ramshorn at last. The beautiful views at the top definitely made up for the shortness of breath, burning legs, and the impossibly steep trail riddled with my vomit that had brought us there. 360 degrees of beauty and snow capped peaks.
It was hard to get going on the downhill. I hadn’t kept anything down for 8 miles, and the lack of oxygen and nutrients to my muscles left me weak and unstable. But at least I was going down! I shuffled along creating some semblance of a run, puking up some bile every now and then. Lots of rocks littered the trail, and after wooziness took over, I tripped over one of the larger rocks. The ankle that had been testing my patience and pain threshold for exactly a year roared in pain. 3-4 miles left to the aid station, all downhill, and all rocky. I hiked on hoping the pain would subside. The pain remained, and since I was hiking/running funny because of it, the heel of my opposite foot flared up in pain as well. My watch had died around mile 26 (poor pre-race planning). If it had been on, I swear it would have been subtracting miles — the aid station seemed to get further and further away.
I usually relish testing my mental toughness, and here was a perfect opportunity to do so! I thought about all of the supportive texts and Facebook posts/messages from friends and family in the days leading up to the race. I thought about Bree’s amazing care package and sweet card. I thought about McNeal’s awesome video he made for me. I thought about all of those hours on the trail that had brought me here, and how it was abundantly clear I should’ve put in many more. I told myself “You wanted to run with the big dogs, and here you are getting bitten. Get it together, girl.” I thought about all of Hunter’s advice including his most recent, “Be the shit, don’t get the shits”. I thought of my ultra idols Jenn and Sally. I thought about Jenn’s badassery and reckless love for the trails and the thrill of the race. I thought about Sally’s heart and ability to dig deep into places many of us have never been. I replayed scenes from her “Western Time” movie over and over again. I thought “WWSD” (What Would Saban Do) and about the Bear. I thought about a billboard I had seen on the way to the race that featured John Wayne and how he didn’t care for quitters. I thought about the RunWILD group. I reminded myself that I was wearing the sweet new NRC race kit and how I was completely failing the team. I thought about Steven who had traveled all of this way with me just for this race. I thought of the best and most frequent advice I get from my dad — “Be brave.” I thought about how this was a big step for me towards that ultimate goal of qualifying for WSER . . . and how if I didn’t finish this race, it’d likely be next year before I could attempt to qualify again.
However, all of the grit and determination and inspiration and motivation that I could come up with on those long miles to the aid station couldn’t drown out the pain resonating in my ankle and beginning to creep up my shin. Along with the pain came with the worry that I was damaging my ankle even further. It was becoming abundantly clear that I wasn’t going to finish the race. Even if I stopped puking my guts out, my ankle and foot were shot. The question that remained was how far would I try to get. When I saw the aid station closing in but could only force a shuffle, I knew. I knew this was my final destination at RONR. I came into the aid station and slumped in a chair as a woman dressed as Little Red Riding Hood covered my head with a wet towel. Looking around, there were 4 other racers who were dropping as well. As bad as it sounds, seeing them made me feel better about myself and my decision. I turned in my chip and crossed my bib number off the list. Just like that, my day was over, and with it came my first DNF.
I had a sense of peace with my decision as soon as I sat in that chair. Since then, I’ve second guessed it every now and then, but I’m confident that it was the right one — both in the long and short term. As much as I hate that I “failed”, it was an amazing trip. By far, it was the most beautiful run I’ve ever been on. I got to experience a race out west, and I got to spend time in the mountains. Was I overly ambitious and bit off more than I could chew? Yep. Would I do it all over again? Absolutely. Will I ever forget my first DNF? Not a chance. It will haunt me, inspire me, motivate me, and push me for the rest of my running days.