Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Letting Go

On Thursday, as I packed for the race, I felt a nagging, tight feeling in my belly. I told Ruth it was nerves or stress, not realising I was telling her a lie. Because, a few months earlier, I had told Coops the truth—that feeling means I am doing something that’s wrong for me. That feeling is my body saying, “Hey, Tam, let’s not do this. There lies no joy down this path.” 
I felt that same feeling on Friday as I brought Ruth up to speed on my race plan. I felt it on Saturday as I nibbled on toast and sipped at hot black coffee and completed my entire getting-ready process in half the time it used to take. I pretended it was nature calling, and convinced myself I felt better after a toilet stop.
The nagging persisted as I tried to psyche myself up with a pre-race song. I tried my best to ignore it and seemed to succeed for the first 10 km, as I pushed up towards Spion Kopje. Though I wasn’t feeling great by the time I approached Warby Corner, I was still ahead of schedule and should have been feeling comfortable.

Stunning sunrise from Spion Kopje Fire Track

But then I couldn’t ignore it any more. As I stumbled and tripped and floundered and fell down Timms Spur, as I struggled and staggered and stumbled and strove to climb up Quartz Ridge, that nagging grew more insistent. I decided it must be nerves, or another nature call—I needed a reason that would make it okay to keep pushing.

Looking into the valley from Big River Fire Track, Timms Spur

I kept eating. I kept drinking. I kept moving. I was behind schedule, but not so much as to really concern me. But it’s the way I was moving that bothered me. My hips and knees were aching. My diaphragm and intercostals were aching and I was breathing too quickly. My nose was still running, even though we were into the warm part of the day. My throat felt raw and, when I coughed, my head pounded in sync with it. But I kept moving, drinking, eating.
I snuck through the Mt Bogong checkpoint with just under ten minutes to spare. Two minutes down the track (and still in sight of the checkpoint helpers, if they were looking), I crashed, banging my knee. It seemed like I was seeing what I needed to step over, and like my body knew how to clear it, but that the two parts of me were disconnected. I knew I needed to focus, so I picked up a leaf to bring my awareness back to the present. I even tried some affirmations: “I am moving down Staircase Spur. I am running down Staircase Spur. I am running freely down Staircase Spur. I am running beautifully…I am dancing…playing…floating…

The view from the top—Quartz Ridge, Mt Bogong

In my mind, these words infused me with a lightness that sped me down the technical descent. In reality, I was moving slowly with sloppy form, hindered further by tears and blurred vision. 
And that was when the truth hit me: I wanted it too much.
After being beaten by these mountains two years in a row, I really wanted it. I trained harder than I’ve ever trained before. I prepared for all conditions—hot, cold, wet, dry. Especially cold—I trained myself to withstand it better than I’ve ever done before. I ran up more hills than ever before, carrying a heavier pack than ever before. I ate healthier than ever before. I even managed to recover from the cold I caught ten days out from race day. I did everything right and I thoroughly deserved to have a great race.
That’s why I started.
I was going to run the Alpine Challenge 100 Mile. There was no way I could have done otherwise—no way I could stay in bed, or watch others run off without me, or drop down to the shorter course.
But I wasn’t going to finish it. Whether I stopped at the bottom of this climb or continued on for another ten, fifteen hours, I wouldn’t finish this race. I couldn’t finish it, because I was still sick. Despite my wishful thinking, I had not recovered from the cold.
And as this realisation flooded me, it washed away that nagging feeling in my stomach—I had finally accepted what my body was telling me, and it could rest. Finally, I was doing the right thing for me.
There’s a commonly held belief that dropping out is the easy option, but I don’t see much evidence of it. At least, not amongst well-trained runners who have poured a year of energy into training for a specific event. Maybe I’m hanging out with the wrong folks, but I tend to see more runners who are injured or not well pushing themselves to an unsatisfying finish than I see runners happy to drop out. I see runners who invest so much in their running that they have trouble letting go.
It only takes a moment to record a DNF. It might be a moment of bad luck or momentary lapse in concentration that brings my body—and my race goals—crashing to the ground. It might be an error of navigation or an error of judgement when collecting gear at a checkpoint. It might be a moment of self doubt that hits when there is no one there to urge me on.
It might be a moment when a party guest coughs without covering her mouth and infects me with a virus.
I am still torn inside—Should I quickly go and race while I’m fit? Should I give up on ultras for a while, until I get over my disappointment? Should I instead pour my energy into mountain biking for a while?
Yet this indecision is purely forward-focused. Looking back, and accepting the complete truth of why I chose to withdraw, I am left with no doubt that I made the right decision.