Dropping

I run for a living. I train and compete in long-distance mountain races. In many ways, it’s the dream job. The things required by this job are most often the things that I love to do most. I can support myself by running on trails, climbing mountains, traveling the world. It’s the job I have always dreamed of and the job I hope to maintain for a long time to come. And while I am certainly proud of what I have done to get this job, I am infinitely grateful for the people and opportunities that created the path to where I am today. I feel like the luckiest guy in the world.

But being a ‘professional’ runner is by no means easy. Though I don’t work a nine-to-five office job, I am still required to do certain things. There are things like photo shoots and event appearances that are usually pretty fun, though they require lots of time and effort. Those sorts of things are usually quite flexible, such that if I can’t make it to one of them, I’ll just plan on going to the next one. Simple.

Basically the one thing that my sponsors ask of me is to do well at races. That’s not an unreasonable thing to ask, since they are paying me to endorse their products with the assumption that I have proven myself in the racing scene well enough to be known on a somewhat large scale. They don’t force me to do certain races, or even require that I do a certain number of races. My sponsors know well enough that I will do best at the events I choose for my own reasons, and they trust that I will represent them well while doing so. On most days, this dynamic is perfect. With very little pressure to do any one thing, I can literally think up the craziest adventures imaginable and put them into practice. That’s why I spent nearly three months racing in Europe last year. That’s why I spent one month climbing in Alaska this spring. The things that inspire me stoke the inner fire that breeds commitment. Success comes from commitment, but commitment doesn’t come free.

The downside to this relationship is that the events that I choose to do have a large amount of pressure on them. This isn’t outside pressure; it is entirely internal. My sponsors support me through thick and thin and I want desperately to make that support worth their while. I want to show my gratitude by making their investment worth it. In my mind, they ask one thing of me: to do well at races. This builds races up in my mind to sometimes a bigger deal than they are. The pressure is one of the many variables that can affect a race’s outcome.

I am writing this from a place called Mori Town, within Tokyo Prefecture in Japan, on October 13. At 1:00 p.m. today, I started the Hasetsune Cup, a 71.5k race in the mountains west of Tokyo. At 5:15, I dropped out. As I sit here in my hotel room trying to process what happened, a lot of things are running through my mind. More intense are the emotions running through my heart. I just don’t know what to do. I feel pretty bad, to be honest.

I feel bad for dropping out. Aside from all the pressure I feel from outside sources (Most of which, to be clear, I place entirely on myself. Nobody forces me to do anything.), I feel bad that I didn’t finish what I started. I value people who push through the low points and get to the finish no matter what. I am inspired by fast runners who, when having a bad day, slow down and finish in the middle of the pack. I hate to think that I may have quit because the going got hard. At the end of the day, I want to be the kind of person who finishes what he starts because the challenge is about more than winning. It’s about experiencing all the different variables that a mountain race can present. I fear that, as I grow older, those values will be usurped by superficial ones like winning and fame. Dropping out of a race throws my mentality into question. I question myself.

I feel bad for letting down my sponsors and my friends and family. Actually, mainly my sponsors. I told my friends and family I was coming back to Japan and they were like, “Oh? For what?” That’s not because they don’t support me. It’s because this is a totally obscure race to Americans and last year when they tried to follow along they found that a) the damn race started at like 10:00 p.m. their time, pretty much precluding any attempt at watching live updates, and b) all the live updates they did receive were in Japanese. And Google Translate sucks, so they couldn’t figure out what was going on anywhere. So I don’t blame them for their halfhearted encouragement.

My sponsors, however, pay me to do one thing well: race. And this race, though less important on an international scale, is actually a huge deal for Montrail. The company does really well in Japan–they’re the best-selling trail shoe in the country–and they are the title sponsor of this race which has almost 3,000 people. So even though you have never heard of the Hasetsune Cup, Montrail has a lot riding on it. That’s why they were willing to fly me out to Japan two years in a row, by no means a small investment. They are willing to devote the resources to increase the chance of success. Last year I won, but today I dropped out. Fifty percent is an F.

What makes me feel even worse than that, however, is letting down all the Japanese runners. Since I won last year, everybody had their hopes riding high on me. Nobody was hiding the fact that I was expected to win and set a new course record. Before the race, I spent over an hour taking photos with people who were genuinely inspired by my race last year; people who want nothing more than to see me do even better this year because watching the fast guys push the limits is exciting to them. Their expectations were without selfishness or agendas. They were borne of goodwill. I wanted to win and set that course record because I wanted to live up to what all these wonderful people believed in. I wanted to pay them back for their idolatry the only way I could, by living up to their hopes. But I dropped. I wasn’t good enough even to finish, let alone set that course record. What kind of an example does that set?

At first, I thought the race was going very well. We started out running very fast, but within a few miles, I was running with about five guys and we were maintaining a totally reasonable pace. Hike the ups, run the downs. My effort level felt well within my limits and I resolved to maintain this pace for a long time and then maybe speed up at the end. Even through the first checkpoint at 22k, I felt strong and fluid, keeping a consistent pace just half a minute back from first place. From there, the course climbed in a zigzag motion up to the high point of the course, Mito-san. I headed up the peak engrossed in my thoughts.

The climb did me in. At some point, I started to get dizzy, and then a little lightheaded. I felt that my eyes were seeing ahead of me but my brain was slow to respond in what I was seeing. I started walking more and ate some Shot Bloks (yes, I’m attempting to regain some goodwill here) to rein my run back in. Soon enough, my back started hurting. Having recently read Seven Years in Tibet, in part of which Heinrich Harrer recounts months of agonizing sciatica, I started worrying about nerve damage in my lower back. But the real reason became clear very soon.

I stopped to pee. And I peed blood. I had heard stories of people peeing blood, and always thought something like, “Damn. Gross. Ouch.” But it had never happened to me before. Now all those stories came back and my lack of empathy seemed appalling. Peeing blood is horrifying. It’s one of those signs where your body is clearing saying, “HEY! WAKE THE HELL UP!” Ultrarunners are wont to ignore body signals, which is likely why we train and race too much. But this was not something I could just ignore. It had to be addressed.

I drank lots of water. Ate some food. I didn’t have any salt, but I hoped that maybe the Bloks had some. I kept jogging along and found that my legs were much too sore for only being 20 miles into a race. Running down the insanely steep descents on the course, I started slowing down because of unusual soreness in my quads.

At this point, a million things went through my head. Dehydration. Renal failure. Erik Skaggs and Diana Finkel. My recent run at UROC. My desire to win Hasetsune again. My reputation (I think) with Roch Horton and Catherine Mataisz that I am tough and can suffer. My last humiliating drop at UTMB. Lying in a hammock with Reese Ruland on a fall day. My dad. I kept moving. Running flats and downs, hiking ups. But the symptoms I was feeling only got worse. I was surprised by how quickly they affected me. In slightly more than an hour, I went from running under course-record pace and feeling good to being a complete train wreck having trouble just seeing straight.

Things really fell apart when I went off course. I saw a sign with an arrow and followed a trail maybe a mile downhill before realizing I was off course. When I turned around I peed blood again, and then simply hiked easy back up to the course. From there, I walked the last five or so kilometers to the one aid station on the course. And dropped. Quit. Gave up. Donezo.

I know I’m young and have plenty of years left ahead of me to do well. That doesn’t change the fact that I wanted to and should have been able to do well at Hasetsune today. One thing I could say is, “Well, peeing blood is pretty black and white. You kind of have to drop, especially in a race where water is very limited. The disappointment of dropping is small beans compared to the nightmare of renal failure.” But I can’t just exonerate myself from this situation. Certainly, yes, the risk of renal failure was too great to continue. But that risk was there because I didn’t prepare properly. More than half of racing is in the preparation, and I made stupid mistakes in my preparation for Hasetsune that culminated in my kidneys being unable to properly function during the race. That is a pretty huge mistake.

This has never happened to me before. I don’t know exactly why this happened. Possibly the dehydration of a steep and hot 45-mile race that provides no water for the first (four-and-a-half-hour) marathon played a part. Likely my desperate, all-out effort at UROC two weeks ago contributed. Maybe I ate poorly. Maybe I didn’t drink enough leading up to the race. Probably a combination of many factors decided the outcome. I simply don’t know at this point. Over the next few weeks, I will try to figure out what happened and how to fix it for the future. Having dropped already, the only thing I can really do now is try to prevent this from ever happening again.

Ultimately, racing is just a game. This isn’t changing the world. But it’s what I do and most of the time I can do it pretty well. We all choose to dedicate our time and effort to activities that we care about, and for better or worse, I have chosen mountain running. It’s something I love and hope to do for my entire life. I am incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity right now to do it on a semi-professional level, and I want to make sure that I honor myself and the people who believe in me by being the best that I can be. When I drop out of a race, the way forward is unclear. Certainly none of my sponsors would drop me for having the occasional bad race, but I have the responsibility to understand what happened and to fix it. This often comes with some hard truths. I need to be brutally honest with what happened. And this is what happened: I grew complacent, I made mistakes, and these mistakes caused me to drop out of a race. The fault lies entirely with me.

That said, this isn’t the end of the world. This is just one race of many more to come. The best learning experiences come from failures, so I’m looking forward to some serious wisdom coming my way in the next few weeks. Lucky for you, I write on this website every two weeks, so stay tuned and I’ll pass said wisdom on as soon as it shows up in a small box under my pillow. Thanks for reading about my failure!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Almost every trail, ultra, and mountain runner will drop from a race at some point in their career. If you have, how did you emotionally process that difficult experience?

There are 75 comments

  1. Michael

    Thanks for sharing…very interesting to hear the pressures from a pro's POV. You did the right thing. We are in sport for challenge, and achievement, but the underlying reason is health. It wasn't your day. Stay healthy!

  2. Jeff

    You made the right decision. About a decade ago I ran Hasetsune as a kind of goodbye to Japan after having lived there for a couple of years (figured it would be my one and only ultra) and because of the lack of aid I would say it's one of those places you need to be 100% responsible for your own safety. Don't beat yourself up too much — almost everyone has a couple of drops on their resume . . . There are times when you have just got to suck it up and finish no matter how slow (teaches patience, respect for the course, and how to suffer in a quieter way) but there are other times when you have to simply admit TEMPORARY defeat. And pissing blood is a pretty good sign that racing and finishing are no longer important . . . of course these thoughts come from a back of the pack runner with a pretty good head for rationalizing away both slowness and a couple of DNFs . . .

  3. Evan

    Don't beat yourself up too much over it! Sponsors understand that you can't win them all, and you were still a great spokesperson regardless of your performance by showing up, smiling, interviewing, and starting that race. Huge for publicity, and serving as a positive face for the companies. Never fun to drop, but shit happens, eh? Racing hard 2 weeks after a really hard race effort was probably a bit much- if you look at elite marathoners, they're not doing "goal" races with less than a month between them. Need time to recover!

  4. Mike

    I'm usually pretty skeptical of reasons given for a dnf, but not in the case of someone peeing blood. Same goes for seizures and compound fractures. Great insight into the mind of a top runner…as a slug, I just worry about my wife laughing at me if I dnf.

  5. GMack

    Kilian apparently blew out his left knee at UROC, ("The Asphalt is annoying … and dangerous!"), but went down to Reunion Island anyway to run the Diagonale des Fous. He cruised it in over 30 hours to a 22nd place finish. Not sure if he was peeing blood ;-)

    The Diagonale des Fous is one of the biggest events in ultrarunning, but hardly anyone in the US knows about it. Not even a mention on IRF, though the race, in its 22nd year, is at least as big a deal as UTMB. I ran it and was the only American.

    http://www.kilianjornet.cat/es/blog/diagonale-des

    1. Bryon Powell

      Hey GMack,
      Congrats on completing an incredible summer with UTMF, Hardrock, UTMB, and GRR. We were certainly following along with what was happening at Diagonale de Fous (and tweeted about the winners). You've been following iRunFar long enough to know that we only report on events when we can add insight/information. As we weren't on Reunion (would love to attend the race sometime) nor did we have on-the-ground sources there, we forewent writing a story simply to make noise. :-)

      Rest up,
      Bryon

      1. GMack

        Thanks. My fault for not checking Tweets while over here on the other side of the world. Diagonale des Fous is a real spectacle and I hope you and your crew can make it over some time in the future.

  6. Josh

    Dropping was the only thing to do given the situation. Peeing blood isn't a cool bar story. Renal failure is not something that provides you with extra "hardcore runner" points. Take a good look at what you did beforehand that brought the condition on and maybe schedule a visit with a nephrologist for their medical opinion. I lost a kidney to cancer in 2010 and have to be super careful with the only one I've got left. My kidney doc has made certain recommendations for good kidney health in the light of my running and this advice is really helpful. One thing she did not say was stop running ultras. Don't beat yourself up. Chalk it up as a learning experience and be glad there was an aid station to drop at before something worse happened.

  7. CT

    Nothing to be ashamed of! You're a world class runner and a quality person…from what I hear! I'm sure that your sponsors are proud of you overall but also pleased that you showed common sense so that you can 'live to fight another day'! Good luck man…many of us follow your results with interest!

  8. Byron

    Dakota,

    We're super proud of you and glad you don't push yourself to injury on our accord. Your voice in the community, passion and vision are what inspire us. We're glad to work with you!

    -Montrail

  9. Erik

    Hi GMAck,

    Congrats ! Over here in Europe most trailers are aware of Diagonale des Fous reputation ! After a very positive experience at UTMB this summer, I wonder how this would compare to Diagonale des Fous. I've met people who say DDF is much harder, so welcome your- or other runners who finished both races view ?

    Thanks

    Erik

    1. GMack

      Hi Erik,

      Diagonale des Fous was harder than both UTMB and Hardrock, even with the perfect conditions (dry) we had this year. The total climb is about the same as the other two races, but it's the extreme technicality of DdF that makes it harder.

      D'Haene's winning time of 22:58 is truly amazing, especially considering that only 14 runners out of the 1,361 who finished were under 30 hours.

  10. Nick J

    Things get pretty serious when you start blood pissing. Serious respect to you DJ, you dropped the SECOND time you peed blood. I'd have passed flat out on the first

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