Monday, October 19, 2009

Confronting Race-Day Demons and Their Long Shadows

We all have a race-day demon. Some of us are quicker to admit it than others, but for each of us, by the time we toe the line at an ultra-distance event, the specter of some past failure or some past breakdown haunts our psyches. For many runners, these demons float away as soon as the gun goes off. For others, they rear their heads post race. And for some, like me, they travel with us many miles and many hours along the trail.

My big demon? It's mile 39. It was at that point of the Grand Teton 50 in 2008 where things started to descend quickly into a nutritional DNF a few miles later on. And even though I've had some decent finishes at a number of harder and longer events since then, I still feel some level of relief every time I get past mile 39 in good shape.

And that's the thing about these demons. They can have long shadows that can cast across race after race, even training run after training run. We simply have to learn how to deal with them until they eventually fade away.

Training was my proving ground - The lab where I was able to build up a new calorie, fluid, and electrolyte plan that helped me toe the line at my first 100k with enough confidence that the demon of the Tetons, while not silenced, was somewhat muted. Race after race since then, the demon has been increasingly small and quiet, until at the 2009 Wasatch Front 100, mile 39 came and went without much notice (editors note, Wasatch was not without issues).

Of course, it's still something I occasionally think about, and rightfully so. The Teton DNF was a pivotal moment in my would-be ultra life, and one that could have easily been the death knell of the distance for me. But defeat (especially born of inaction) casts a longer and more indelible shadow than any sort of race-day demon that toes the line with us. By taking it head on, race after race, we weaken it until it dissolves completely.

I hadn't thought much about this topic until I read a piece in the most recent UltraRUNNING by Stan Beutler (UR; Oct 2009; pg 41) who chronicled his successful return to this year's Bighorn 100 seven years after a harrowing, near-death experience with hyponatremia in the 2002 race.

With great heart, he writes:
"When I crossed the finish line in this year's 100-mile race, I felt gratitude, more than triumph, relief, or any other emotion. I was grateful for the chance to make it all the way back."

That's what tackling our demons does. It brings us back, full circle. Yet, we return not as the same person who began the trip, but one who has grown mentally, physically, and maybe even spiritually in the process. Of course, most of our demons pale in comparison to Mr. Beutler's but what they all offer us is the chance for growth and the ability to look ahead knowing the future is ours to make.

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