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Fast Guy Problems: When to Hold and When to Fold

For a highly competitive personality, dropping out of a race is a tough call to make, even in the face of an injury negatively affecting performance. Feeling the race number pinned to my shirt and knowing there is a clock ticking creates a fierce drive to push my body to its limits in the face of adversity and the environment, regardless of my position in the lead or trying to catch the leaders. Even races that are personally acknowledged as tempo workouts or fun runs have me champing at the bit to get into the comfortable ground eating stride that ends up being a battle between my body and the distance yet to travel.

This past weekend I was in a local 10K trail race, and had just taken a week off from running due to a foot issue. The plan was to run comfortably, and finish without limping or any lingering issues. Two hundred meters in, I was already in the lead and having an issue with the long down hills as each footfall on the left created an aching feeling. Even though I could maintain a decent pace, by mile 3 the gait that compensated for the pain had started to create issues in my right thigh. I’ve injured my calf a few times, and while it is not fun I could not imagine how much of a hassle it would be to rehabilitate the much larger thigh muscle. I decided the fun of trail running and potential win would not be worth another extended break from training and stepped off the trail to drop out. I personally felt terrible about the decision, both in regards to myself and others. I want to attend races, toe the line, and do the best I can, every time.

As I headed back to the car, I knew I made the right decision, as much as I didn’t like it. I started to think back over my career, races over the last 23 years and realized I could count the DNF incidents on one hand. Those were times when I decided that the stakes involved were not worth the reward of finishing the event. There is only one that I see as the wrong decision to fold.

The first occurred in middle school or possibly my freshman year. I know it was a bigger race, some sort of cross country invitational in the Portland area. At that point I was very inexperienced, and had not starting training year round yet. It was very breezy and cool, and I made the decision to race in my warm up pants. I remember being very uncomfortable, warm and frustrated, dropping out before finishing. In hindsight, the better call would have been to either just deal with the agitation and complete the course, or step to the side to remove the pants quickly and rejoin the race. As they say though, hindsight is 20/20.

Two of the DNF incidents involved pulling my left calf. The first one was during a time trial for cross country, and it let go about half way through, right about the time I thought I had secured a varsity spot for the first time ever. The second was at the Y2K race in Forest Grove, a great winter run. I can’t recall if I was in the 10K or the 20K distance, but I do remember starting easy due to my leg being tight even after stretching. Right about the the time I finally caught up to the leader after a few miles of calculated running, it snapped. If you have not experienced this sort of injury before, I will just say that it is very difficult to push off the toes, making running nearly impossible. In those instances it was definitely a time to fold.

In comparison to those humbling moments, some races are a test of willpower, with a gamble on fitness as perceived limits are broken. Those moments where it seems so tough but it is possible to achieve something incredible.

One of my favorite moments to share was my first time breaking 1:15 in the half. I was currently training for my first ‘fast’ marathon and had entered an 8K at Champoeg Park. Yes, those two sentences are referring to the same incident. I had hoped to break my weak 8K pr that day, running an aggressive pace behind the lead cyclist. Knowing the layout, I got concerned when it seemed we had traveled too far on a trail. I asked the cyclist where the turn around was and he confirmed my worry that it had not been marked. He encouraged me to turn around at that point. Knowing the time was going to be worthless in my mind, I decided to continue on the half. I adjusted my stride a little and held on. After the turn around I could see second place with what looked like a faster pace. My stubborn side kicked in and I found a higher gear, holding the lead and breaking 1:15 by about 30 seconds.

Later that fall, I was at the Columbia Gorge Half, hands down my favorite race at that distance. With a course that starts with a 3 mile climb, I usually enjoy a solid lead  due to my extensive hill training. This year, an injured coworker was out on the course on his bike. He joined me at the top and we chatted through most of the out and back course. I didn’t really employ the use of a watch while racing then, and every once in a while he would share my splits with me. I felt great and know I was pushing my limit, but tried to relax. After he notified me of my 15K split, which was a PR, I told him I couldn’t know anymore. At this point, I was outrunning my perceived fitness level and didn’t want to back off due to caution. He left me in the last 3 miles, as we knew this was something I had to do alone. I pushed it and crossed the line in 1:12:33, which is a performance I had never even thought possible.

When the culmination of this training cycle was done, I had run my first ‘fast’ marathon in 2:47, good for a place in the top 30 in Eugene. I primarily was a 5K and 10K racer, running halfs as long training runs and one or two 20 or 25Ks a year. To race a marathon was a completely new experience. As I started slowly and spent two thirds of the race working my way up, slowly passing people and breaking up a large pack around the elite women after mile 16. I remember passing an aid station and seeing the elite table still had a few water bottles and supplies on it, while the previous ones had been cleared out by the time I got there. That gave me a lot of doubt in myself, as I wasn’t sure if I had been a little overzealous in my pacing. I was already so far into it I didn’t want to back off then. I did hit the wall with 5 miles to go along with a few competitors and we cajoled each other into finishing strong and not giving up. That was the right call as I was completed wiped out at the finish but I had trained to reach that level.

This next story is not a tale of holding due to physical capability, but refusing to fold due to heart. In 2016, I was able to visit the running Mecca, qualifying for the Boston Marathon. This was planned to be a running experience, not a race, hoping to match my sub 3 hour performance in Eugene. Due to many factors, in accordance with traveling across the country for a 26.2 mile run, it was not the pleasurable experience I was hoping for. Right around mile 20, I was pulled off train tracks due to an oncoming trolley by a police officer and escorted to a med tent. After a check, they suggested I fold and get on the bus to the finish area. I knew I was not in good shape, but wasn’t going to take all the love and effort it took to get me to Boston and put it to shame. I grabbed water and energy gel and got back on the course. I was hot and my legs were tight, but I was going to shamble across that famed line in respect to those that helped me in this in endeavor and as a tribute to the years of training that began when I was 13. My time was over 3:32 but it still remains one of my proudest moments.

No matter the competition level, running has its highs and lows. The tricky part sometimes is being able to make a risk assessment on the fly. From a competitive mindset, the toughest hurdle is realizing there are other races. Very few finishes are worth getting injured over. The important part is to be able to toe the line for the next race. That can be a tough lesson to take to heart but will pay off over time.

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