The Voice of Doubt

I suck at running. It is one of the few things in my life that I have chosen to fully embrace despite having a mediocre skillset. My lack of running prowess is the primary reason that I run long distance races: There would be little point for me to work and work at becoming competitive at any distance, because the time spent on it would bear no fruit. As a person who loves to conquer difficult challenges, my journey as a runner led to ever longer distances, finally reaching the ridiculous distance of 100 miles, and all of the pain and suffering that running such a distance entails. Photo of my Zion 100 finisher buckle that I took at the finish. A belt buckle is the typical reward for a 100 mile race.

In summation, my progression through various distances was as follows:

  • April 2010 - Seal Beach 10K - Finished
  • March 2011 - Los Angeles Marathon - Finished
  • August 2011 - Bulldog 50K - Finished
  • February 2012 - Ray Miller 50 mile - Finished
  • April 2013 - Zion 100 mile - Finished

Along the way, there were other races. Most of the races less than 100 miles in length were races I have finished, including some very difficult courses. Most of my DNFs (Did Not Finish) were because of injury, usually because of a problematic IT Band. The point, however, is that I successfully completed my first attempt at each new distance.

So, given my admission that "I suck at running", some may ask why I choose to do it all. I am not really certain what the answer to that is. Given my tendency to put on gratuitous pounds when I don't exercise, I have always done something for exercise outside of hiking and the physical part of being a biologist. I have run, sometimes with considerable volume, off and on since college. Until I got seriously into running ultras, I had been pretty serious about lifting weights. Today, running distances on trails, and especially through the mountains, gives me the opportunity to maintain a fairly high fitness level, spend days doing an activity that reduces my stress level, and allows me to get a long ways back into remote places that most people don't see unless they are backpacking. The camaraderie and friendships developed within the fairly close ultra community are also part of the appeal.

With my lovely wife on the summit of San Jacinto Peak on our tenth anniversary.

When I completed the Zion 100, the experience seemed to me as one akin to finding religion. The difficulty of covering that distance in mountainous terrain in 32 hours or less transforms you. It is all of the highs and lows of your entire life, compressed into a little over day. It is a voyage of self discovery. Completing that race made me feel entirely different about myself and what I was capable of. I was certain that I had found my distance.

Fast forward to today, and I have had three subsequent 100 mile race starts, all of which have ended with the dreaded DNF:

  • Angeles Crest 100 (August 2013) - I discovered that doing the exact same thing you did successfully in one race does not mean success in a different race. I began throwing up about 25 miles in. All attempts to rectify the problem failed. By Three Points (42.72 miles), I had almost lost the will to live and didn't care whatsoever to finish what I started. I just wanted the suffering to end. My crew, which consisted of my wife and one of my friends, did their job and refused to allow me to drop there. I continued on, angry that they wouldn't let me drop, and after throwing up all attempts at consuming water over the ensuing miles, I dropped at Mt. Hillyer (49.08 miles), where my crew wasn't present and couldn't stop me.

    My arrival at Inspiration Point (mile 9.3), when I still had a smile on my face, during the 2013 AC 100. Photo by Emily Molstad.

  • Angeles Crest 100 (August 2014) - I worked hard for this race, and I came into it with 100 percent certainty that I was going to succeed. I managed to structure my fieldwork as a biologist during the height of training so that I was spending a significant amount of time in the high country for elevation acclimation.  I camped at Blue Ridge and Guffy Campgrounds at about 8,000 feet for more acclimation. I pulled off my first ever 100 mile training weeks, two of them in fact, about 5 weeks out from the race. I had also successfully tested, in shorter races, a different nutrition strategy, relying mostly on "real" food, and eating whatever looked good to me at aid stations. All of this seemed to pay off. On race day, I had about as perfect a day as a runner could have. Everything went exactly to plan. I had no real low points, my stomach stayed completely functional, and I was running comfortably, picking up pace, and passing people beyond 50 miles. I arrived at Shortcut Saddle Aid Station (mile 59.3) feeling on top of the world, absolutely giddy about how my day was going. I spoke to some friends, grabbed a cheeseburger, and headed down the long descent on the Edison Road. About two thirds of the way down the road was when I first felt that familiar twinge behind my knee. I stopped. I rubbed it. I positioned a strap I was carrying with me to try to relieve tension in that spot. It got worse as I descended, and varying the position of the strap and my running form on the downhill did nothing to help things. By the bottom of the canyon, I had trouble even walking. Another runner suggested I grab a construction stake from the Edison work and use it as a hiking pole. I did that, and hobbled slowly and painfully, mostly alone and in the dark, to Chantry Flats Aid Station (mile 74.55), where I somehow arrived before the time cutoff. Regardless, trying to continue on was pointless, as every step was excruciating.

    AC100 2014

  • Mohican 100 (June 2015) - Rain, rain, and more rain, and tons of mud, as we got pounded by the remnants of a tropical storm. I felt great, but decided to end things at mile 58 as the trails on this multi-loop course had deteriorated into muck and I felt the battle was too much if I wanted to retain my chances at an Angeles Crest 100 finish this year. Recap here.

    Getting my sore knee worked on at the Mohican 100 by a bystander who happened to be a physical therapist. Photo by my mom.

The failures of my efforts in the above three races create this screaming voice of doubt in my head. This voice of doubt is not something I am accustomed to, and I am not certain how I will respond should my efforts at the Angeles Crest 100 in 2015 end similarly. To be sure, last year's race has given me some confidence that I have what it takes to complete the Angeles Crest 100. But what if, regardless of my training and other race preparedness, my body fails me again? What if, no matter how hard I try, the injury bug rears its ugly head in a fashion that no amount of ibuprofen and determination will allow me to cross that finish line I dream about? Do I enter again in 2016? Do I perennially take a coveted spot that should go to somebody "more deserving"? I struggle with these things. I think these thoughts more and more as the 2015 edition of the Angeles Crest 100 approaches. I want, more than anything in the world, to cross that finish line and put these doubts to rest.