Bromont Ultra 2016 – 80 km – DNF

A month late yet again (actually six by the time I finished finishing to write this), but I figure I have a good excuse this time. Writing up a DNF isn’t the most thrilling undertaking, especially when the race ended at what almost felt like the beginning, before most of the interesting moments were even reached.

I didn’t write anything immediately leading up to this because there wasn’t much to say. After a great 65 km race at UTHC one month prior, I rested for a week, put in one week of training (68 km) with a 42.3 km (950 m ascent) long run and then tapered back down for the last two weeks. The 80 km course in Bromont is approximately the 55 km course (which I’ve run twice) plus another 25 km which I have never seen. My strategy was just to be smart (but efficient) on the familiar course to be ready to face the unknown. Everything past the 55th km would be unknown geographically and everything past the 65th km (and 9th hour on my feet) would be unknown physically and mentally.

The plan was simple and, the way my season was going, I had no doubt I could pull it off. The only “challenge” I could see (apart from facing the unknown late in the race, obviously) was running at night on unfamiliar trails. Although I was slightly worried about that, I was also excited about it and the prospect of running through the sunrise was motivating. I knew I should be around the second major aid station when the sun came up and I figured being there and seeing the sun rise would be really energising and would provide a useful reboot after about 3.5 hours and 30 km.

Things obviously didn’t pan out that way however, so here’s the story of my first DNF.

Start to aid station 2 (first 15 km) – The fun part

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My first attempt at a 50 miler meant my first night start. I only managed to sleep two hours or so the (half) night before, but I wasn’t feeling too bad when I lined up for the start at 3:30 am. At least the dark and the slight grogginess would make it easier to not go overboard with the pace early on.

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The start of an ultra is always special. Despite not knowing most of the runners around you, there’s always this feeling that you’re all in this coming adventure together. This feeling is particularly strong in Bromont where the field isn’t usually very large. All of us heading out into the dark together felt pretty cool and started the day off very well.

I stuck behind two anglos whose banter was slightly entertaining for a while but eventually went ahead as the climbing slowly started. I think I did a decent job with my pacing and found myself with a good group rather early.

Running by headlamp turned out to be no big deal at the beginning because of how close everyone was. There were always others not too far ahead so I could concentrate on my immediate surroundings and just keep track of where they went to figure out when turns were coming up. Plus, as we were told during the briefing, the number of course markers was tripled this year so the course to follow was crystal clear.

The first big climb up mount Brome started at the 4th km. We did a good job of pushing and pulling each other up the mountain and only lost one or two runners who had perhaps started off too fast.

Now, in the past, we would have followed the wide dirt/gravel road zig-zagging down the slope. However, for some obscure reason, the course designers decided this year’s course should follow the barely beat narrow dirt path that essentially cut through the switchbacks of the road. This path was much steeper and, because of the eve’s rain, very slippery. I did not much appreciate this part and (*foreshadowing*) I think my knees might not have liked it much either. At least I managed to stay upright the whole way down.

We eventually reached the first aid station, a table with water coolers. This was bittersweet news because it meant the descent was done and the hardest climb of the race was starting. I made a comment about the coming climb and Cuyler, who also had run the 55 km before, acknowledged that we were in for a hard time.

The 150 m climb over a single kilometre managed to surprise me despite the fact that I had gone up this trail twice before. At 17 minutes for one kilometre, it wasn’t a fun one and I was sure glad when I had it behind me.

At this point we were about 10 km in and had a very fun 5 km ahead of us before coming into the first major aid station. This section was new this year and featured lots ups and downs and switchbacks. I feel like we rarely ever went 20 m without a change of direction or incline. This might have been annoying later in the race, but at this point, in the dark and moving relatively fast, it exaggerated the feeling of speediness by constantly changing our surroundings. It felt like we were zooming through the terrain and the guys around me talking about running shoes and whatnot kept the mood super light. Speed + Ease = Efficiency, perhaps the best feeling in trail running. These had to be the best kilometres of my race.

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I was still glad to start hearing the small crowd as we approached the aid station. This was a race after all and reaching a milestone is always nice. Plus, we were told upon arrival that our positioning was pretty good, at least in the top third. Looking forward to tackling the rest of the course (or at least the next part) with the same group, I readied up as quickly as they did and followed them out.

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Aid station 2 to Bob’s place (15th to 32nd km) – fun=fun_{max}-exp((t-t_{onset})/\tau_{ITBS})

We started off rather easy, but a faster runner (whose name I forget, French dude) caught up to us after a short while. I wasn’t really looking to speed up, and probably wouldn’t have had the new guy not showed up, but the next 7 km were flattish and I was feeling good so I picked up the pace a tiny bit. I stayed a bit behind him, but the rest of the group clearly didn’t intend to follow him so they started falling behind me. Not feeling like running alone just yet, I accelerated a bit more to catch up and stick with the French guy.

My pace was clearly a bit too fast at this point, but definitely not to a destructive extent. The extra effort wouldn’t be too hard to recover from later and would lead to decent time savings.

However…

From the second kilometre after the aid station I had started to feel something weird in my left knee. It was a slight discomfort located pretty much at the center of the joint, underneath the patella. There was no obvious cause. No fall, trauma, overextension or even sudden movements occured before the weird feeling became noticeable.

I had actually been worried about my right knee before the race. After my 42 km training run (my longest of the season) just two weeks earlier, I had started having strange sensations on that side. I kind of felt stupid thinking I might have ruined my big race of the season with that last long outing which, despite it’s length, wasn’t going to change much in the grand scheme of things. My left knee on the other… leg, had been fine for quite a while. I’ve had issues with ITBS and some other nondescript knee ailments in the past (on both sides), but the last one dated back to a year and a half earlier and it might actually not even have been on the left side (should probably have kept track of those…).

But there I was with my right knee right as rain and my left knee failing, and failing fast. The discomfort slowly turned into pain and moved from the center of the knee to the outer and and upper side — IT band territory. Only 5 km after I got the first bad sensations of unknown origin and still on the easy flat trails, I already knew I was dealing with IT band issues and had to slow down. I let the French runner go and even took a walking break to try to curb the onset of inflammation.

I was only a kilometre away from the beginning of the climb in sugar bush land so I had hope that going up and slowing down would decrease the stress on the IT band. Plus, ITBS is typically an overuse injury so, considering I had seen no signs of it in training, I figured it only got aggravated very recently and for a short while. Therefore, I had hope that nursing it for the next hour or two would be sufficient to make up for the light abuse.

Climbing turned out to be just as uncomfortable as walking on flat ground and there was no sign of improvement by the time I reached the summit of the small mountain. The descent was obviously not any better. I couldn’t really run for more than a few hundred metres before having to give my IT band a break.

At this point I had roughly 4 km to go before the next AS and I realised that I would most likely be dropping there. I had lost all hope that this would just go away on its own and I figured that it was highly unlikely that even an extended break would bring the pain down to a level that would be bearable for another 50 km. That’s without even taking into account that things could very easily get worse over the course of the rest of the race.

The last kilometres just confirmed my thoughts. Even though they were flat, everything was painful. Walking was only slightly better than running. Having runners starting to pass me worsened my mood and made me realise that, even if I suffered to the finish, my time and placement would be much worse than what I had hoped for and what I knew my preparation had made me capable of.

Having my old group pass me wasn’t bad. It was good to see them again and they were understanding and supportive. Some other runners though weren’t content with the usual “You ok? Ah, too bad. Good luck then.” and, although well-intentioned, their small talk was just annoying. It was a mix of people excessively worried that I wasn’t going to make it to the aid station 3 km away (despite the fact that I was still moving along and that I told them I was going to be fine) and people telling me having lows in an ultra is normal, as if that would be news to me and this was just a run-of-the-mill low.

I was both glad to see the AS and kind of bummed out by the sense of finality. I was still going to give myself a chance to rest and see what came of it, but I knew my day was likely about to end.

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At least it’s a nice place to drop.

In the end, ten minutes of sitting and some stretching didn’t really help. The pain was present in pretty much any motion of my left knee. The decision to call it quits was rather easy to make. I couldn’t see myself putting up with this for another 50 km or so. Even the idea of trying to get to the next AS wasn’t that appealing. I knew that part of the course so I wouldn’t even be rewarded with any new trails or sights. I would have had to go a further 23 km to get to new lands and, even if I pulled that off, I figured I wouldn’t be in a condition that allowed me to enjoy it when I got there. Another obvious motivator to quit was the fact that I could possibly sideline myself for quite a while if I just kept running through the ITBS. I didn’t really want to imagine what 50 more kilometres would to my knee considering I went from nothing to hurting real bad in the span of 10 to 15 km.

So it was there, at Bob’s place, that I took my first DNF. For several weeks I had pictured myself running out of his backyard as I had done twice before, this time feeling better than ever and on my way to my first 50 miler finish. However, it’s his front yard I visited this year on my way out to the car and there was no more running.

Aftermath

It felt somewhat wrong being back home before 10 am considering I had planned on being out on the trails until the mid afternoon. Not having anything to do, I was constantly thinking of where I should have been, given the time, at this point in the race. What made things worse is that, after soaking in a warm bath, my left knee felt fine walking on flat ground. I was almost relieved that it still hurt going down stairs since that validated my decision to drop. Still, some doubt remained that I had done the right thing.

After a few days of thinking things over, I settled on being happy about my decision. Although my knee was back to 100% in under a week, that didn’t change the fact that it hurt on race day. However minor the injury, the fact was that it had greatly lessened my enjoyment of the race and had made reaching my goals pretty much impossible. It was easy to play down the injury after it had cleared up, but, with the information and feelings I had at the time, the right decision to make had been clear and I had made it. Plus, the reason that it went away so fast was most likely that I stopped as early as I did. The quick recovery should not be taken as a sign that the injury was minor and not worth dropping over, but rather as a sign that dropping paid off.

Still, it probably took me about a month and a half to fully process the DNF and the alternate (and objectively worse) ending to my season. However good the reason for dropping, the fact remained that it had robbed me of a major milestone. I felt like running your first 50 miler was an important enough milestone to deserve being the main goal and culminating point of a season. That was supposed to be 2016’s purpose. With a 50 miler still on my to do list, was 2017 going to have to be a 2016v2? I had hoped to perhaps race further or run a couple of 50 milers in 2017, but, with no 50 miler under my belt going into the year, that felt like overreaching now. Running 80 km and, say, 100 km for the first time each within 6 months or so seemed like a desperate plan that would somehow take away from the enjoyment of both achievements.

It took me a while to realise that, even though hitting milestones is great, the vast majority of the work needed to finish a 50 miler (or any race) isn’t done on race day, it’s done in the months of training leading up to it. Although I hadn’t finished the race, I had put in the required miles and was in the required shape. Sure, the mental difference between “I can most likely do it.” and “I’ve done it.” is huge. There are still lessons left to be learned when actually doing the deed and the confidence you get from reaching your goals can’t be obtained in any other way. However, 2016 was still a hugely productive season even though it didn’t end with a 50 mile finish. I ran the miles and got myself to where I needed to be physically. Whether or not I have a 50 mile finish time to quote is pretty much useless from a practical point of view.

I remained confident that I had been capable of finishing a 50 miler on race day and that I would have done it had the circumstances been different. I realised that when I did end up finishing one, it would be just be checking a box and taking care of a technicality (a big one, but still). Thus, I allowed myself to again set higher goals for 2017 since aiming for something I already know I can get would have been rather unambitious.

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