Monday, August 29, 2011

Crisis of confidence

I enjoyed my weekend despite the fact I wasn't perched on my bike in Washington state, ripping through a cloud of Capitol Forest dust. We took a trip to the city, met up with friends, went for a couple of runs, ate good food. I spent most of Friday glued to updates about the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, which, in case you haven't heard of that race, is generally considered the most competitive ultrarunning race in the world. I was embarrassingly unproductive for most of the day, then stayed awake much too late on Friday night hitting refresh on my Twitter feed. I did feel the 4.6 earthquake that struck south of San Jose at 12:15 Saturday morning, and was still awake at 1:30 a.m. PDT, about the time Geoff and Scott Jurek dropped out of the race. I admit I went to bed feeling bummed. I was really pulling for Geoff — for obvious reasons — as well as all of the other "local" (American) runners in France.

Since Friday there has been a lot of chatter about why so many Americans didn't finish UTMB. Of course I don't know any of the racers' individual reasons, but to me the answer seems obvious. It's an extremely hard mountain race and many of the Americans who made the effort to travel to Europe intended to compete with the top runners. Anyone racing to win has to stick with or nearby the leaders, and racing near the front always comes with enormous risks, even more so when the race is on unknown terrain. It doesn't surprise me that so many U.S. runners flared out in the process. The after-race chatter has bothered me. I'm not usually one to subscribe to nationalism but I admit even I bristled a bit about the  jabs against "lazy Americans."

Since I started to follow ultrarunning more closely, I've been surprised by the strong anti-DNF sentiment that is so prevalent in this sport. Of course finishing a race is always preferable to not finishing, but the "finish at all costs" sentiment doesn't seem nearly as strong in ultra-cycling. Indeed, a fair amount of respect is doled out to bikers who crash and burn during races because "they left it all on the trail." Finishing with gas left in the tank is seen as a negative in competition. And finishing the race with completely wrecked knees just to say you finished is viewed as actually kind of dumb. (Believe me, I know. This was some of the feedback I received after the 2007 Susitna 100, in which I ignored blatant knee pain in a drive to finish that race, and couldn't ride a bicycle again for three months afterward.) But in ultrarunning, DNFs seem to be strong marks of shame. My ever-kind friends are always quick to point out that I "timed out" of the TRT100, which as far as I can tell is preferable to a "quitting" DNF (but in my mind just emphasizes the fact that I'm ultra-slow.) Other friends have described vast horrors in their drive to finish ultras. One has a particularly cringe-inducing story about her Su100 finish, involving a few moments of literal crawling. I certainly have gone through some challenging times in my efforts to finish ultra races, but I don't think there's shame in quitting if you are truly spent. And only the individual can make this judgement call. Agonizing later about a DNF is only human; I still second-guess a lot of decisions I made in the TRT100. But the acronym to "Did Nothing Fatal" still applies.

It's likely that much of the sensitivity I feel about criticisms surrounding American DNFs is attached to my own current insecurities. On Saturday, my friends and I went for a mellow 11-mile run in the Marin Headlands on the Dipsea Trail. Because of my injured arm, I have been running extremely carefully all week long, especially during descents, where I scrutinize every short, deliberate step. But on Saturday, near the steepest part of the descent, I was distracted by a large group of hikers and hooked my left foot on a root. Suddenly, in extreme slow motion, I felt myself going down, and my injured elbow was headed directly for the hard, painful-looking gravel far below. I had an intense surge of adrenaline and somehow threw my right leg out just in time, landing hard and twisting my knee in the process. But it must have been an impressive save, because one of the hikers said "Nice." I felt shattered. My sense of ability drained from tentative to nothing. I hiked down to catch up with my friends and declared that I would never run again, because I "sucked," and from now on would stick to hiking forever and ever.

I know I sounded like a whining child, but the truth is I haven't experienced a crisis of confidence like this since 2007, when chondromalacia patella (decreased knee mobility) dogged me for the better part of three months. It started with the TRT100 DNF, continued through the slump I was experiencing before the crash, onto the crash, and the longer-than-expected recovery. And recovery is going well. There really isn't any complication in my injury that would prevent me from continuing to run, except for I really shouldn't rub any more gravel into my wound if I can avoid it. The problem is, I'm not sure I can avoid it. My crisis of confidence has extended to the point where I question whether I even have control over my movements, or if I'm doomed to perpetual clumsiness, mistakes, and pain.

In some ways, I place too much faith in my irrational insecurities, but I also view them as my own personal challenge — forget that I wasn't "Born to Run," forget my clumsy legs and awkward arm flailing and over-sensitive feet, I'm going to run anyway. Indeed, I went back out today with Beat. We charged hard through the heat up Black Mountain, until my elbow was soaked in so much salty sweat that it burned with distracting intensity. But I continued running anyway. At the top, I turned around and ran down. I was very careful. I did move more slowly than usual. I did think about how amazingly hard it must be to finish a race like UTMB. But I didn't fall. I did finish my run with a smile on my face. Running up and down Black Mountain felt good, except for the burning wound part.

I'll get through this crisis of confidence, I will.