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?

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