I thought I might finish 1st Girl,

And then I thought I might Hurl.

For if you drink Heed,

You cannot Succeed,

For your stomach acids will Swirl.

                                                               -Inspired by Aaron Schwartbard

~                                           ~                                            ~                                          ~

Somewhere along the stretch of road that runs between miles ~20-27 of the Highland Sky 40 mile race in Davis, WV, I turned off onto the grass, placed my hands on my knees, and gagged.  The strawberry cliff shot blok, which had been so deliciously energizing for the first 15 miles of the race, now lay chewed up and spat out at my feet, a gooey red blob.  I tried to breath slowly and relax to gather myself.  This would pass, the convulsing in my stomach would cease.  I took the tiniest sip of water and my stomach contracted again.  I wanted to vomit, I felt so ill.  My head spun.  Shit, this was not good.

Everything had been going grand.  The course was beautiful, the flowers in bloom, the weather was cool and pleasant, and I’d survived all the tough climbing with Eva just ahead of me, positioned perfectly going into the road and faster sections.  We had even had an escape pony climb with us for about half a mile!  (My favorite quote of the run was my question to the guy ahead of me, ‘Is that your pony?’)   But something had gone terribly wrong around mile 15 when my stomach had tied up in a knot and began rejecting all food and liquid.  Before that, between miles 10-15, I had fallen on my water bottle and most of the water/cytomax mixture had squirted out, so I took those miles easy, let Eva pass me up the long climb (when she passed she asked me what WUS was!), and planned to retool at the 3rd aid station.  I was quite thirsty and dehydrated by the time I got to AS#3, so I was a bit hazy when I requested ‘1/3 Gatorade, 2/3 water’.  When the volunteer said they didn’t have Gatorade but had something called ‘Heed’ I just nodded and agreed – anything to quench the thirst from that long climb.

But as thirsty as I was, I could only get a small sip down.  Whatever was in my bottle was foul.  I tried to take many short sips but my body was not taking well to it.  Shortly thereafter my stomach seized up.  Nausea ensued.  It was a lovely stretch of course, with fun little boardwalks to prance across, but even still I could feel myself slipping into stomach pain and dizziness.  Eating seemed to make the stomach situation worse, so I decided to impose a short moratorium on feeding until my stomach health was restored.

But the situation only deteriorated further and the nausea intensified.  I wanted desperately to vomit but all I could muster was a gag or a mini regurgitation of acid into my mouth.  I developed a plan: when I got to the mile 20 aid station at the start of the road section I would take a longer break, get my drop bag, replace whatever foul mixture was in my water bottle with the cytomax mixture that was in my bag, gather myself and retool.  But I waited and waited at AS#4 and no one could find my drop bag so eventually I pushed on, dehydrated, low blood sugar, under-nourished, dizzy, and now intensely wanting to vomit.

A severe desire to vomit during a race is not entirely unfamiliar to me.  When I finished Uwharrie in February, I felt so ill that I asked if the lovely ceramic pot they awarded the winner as I crossed the line was something I was supposed to hurl into.  I am fully aware that I have some real problems with balancing sugars and electrolytes and hydration.  Hell, I have problems even when I’m not running.  But the nausea always set in late in the race, with generally <3 miles to go, sometimes as many as 10, and I was always able to push through.  Never had the downward spiral begun with 25 miles still left to go.

I pattered back onto the road.  A guy in yellow shorts suggested that if I ran up the hills I could gain a lot of ground on the other runners.  I shot him a look like I wished death upon him.  I recalled how the WUSsies had told me how much I would love this stretch of road, how I would fly on it and catch Eva — ha!  The nausea came in distinct waves of intensity, and as soon as one subsided I tried to shove down a little bit of raspberry gu to mitigate the dizziness, but to no avail.  It occurred to me that if I vomited I might feel better.  So I pulled over into the grass, placed one hand on a knee and with the other tried to shove my index finger down my throat.  I elicited a healthy gag, but there was absolutely nothing left in my stomach to vomit and I could achieve no release of the nausea.  Up to this point I had been fighting hard to keep the darkness at bay, keeping myself in relatively positive, hopeful spirits for a good 10 miles of misery, but at that point the dam broke and all the negative thoughts flooded in.  This simply wasn’t what running was about, I had no stake in proving that I could endure needless suffering.  For the first time I seriously entertained the notion of dropping out of the race at the next aid station.  I began to plead, not to God, not to anything in particular, just to my immediate surroundings to please help me, take pity on me, restore me, or just let me rest.  I hadn’t yet identified the Heed as a primary cause of my nausea (this required a full epidemiological investigation and Q&A with fellow runners/bikers — Ragan says her friend calls Heed ‘Heave’) and was instead attributing my illness to general exhaustion from how much I had been through in the past weeks — organizing the conference, entertaining all the visitors, keeping up with the Italians, New York….perhaps this was my body’s way of crying out for a respite.  Or maybe it was just the (really not even close to acceptable for my gentle organs) greasy spaghetti and meat sauce pre-race dinner.

Just at the moment of deepest darkness, when I was really beginning to question whether I could muster a fight to the finish, there appeared in the grass a lone four-leaf clover, perky and assertive, which I interpreted as a clear offering from the land that indeed my toils were over.  I would not be made to death slog to the finish.  I could drop in peace!  I plucked the plant, marveling over its timely appearance in a harsh environment with long grasses that is entirely ill conducive to clover growth.  I toted it with me to the next aid station, my prized ticket out of this misery, where I handed it to a little girl, plopped in a chair and announced that I was done, explaining my dire circumstances and asserting like a madwoman that The Clover Hath Spoken.

They handed me a blanket and told me to chill there a bit.  I gazed over the idyllic mountain scene, trying with marginal success to gnaw on some pretzels.  The volunteers dumped the Heed out of my bottle and refilled it with water, although I could still detect a faint trace of the poison.  For 20-30 minutes I watched the runners come and go – fellow WUSsie Ragan Petrie, looking strong and inviting me to come catch her when I was revived (if only….), as well as the girl with all the tattoos that we found great use for when Aaron and I tried to explain to Ragan what a ‘tool’ was – something a bit hard to define without concrete examples to draw upon.

I would have dropped there for sure, but a volunteer who sat next to me the whole time had a certain calming air about him that had a profound effect on me.  He reminded me in look, voice, and way of speaking of Peter Fonda (think ‘Easy Rider’), including even the small circular glasses.  He spoke of the beauty of the land, of his experience last year and how happy he was to arrive at this very aid station just 6 minutes before the cut off so that he could run the next Dolly Sods section, which was his only goal for the race (although he also made the next cut-off as well and ultimately finished).  At his bequest that I at least experience the most beautiful Dolly Sods section, I flung off the blanket, heaved myself out of the chair, stashed a couple more pretzels and took off…at a slow walk.  I tried to run several times, particularly when other runners approached from behind me, but it only set me back further to the point where I had to curl up and rest by the side of the trail — I have bites all over me from when I was too depleted to even brush the flies and bugs off.  This whole section of the course is very foggy to me – apparently there was a confusing section where course markings were missing but that was the least of my problems (but the lack of markings greatly distressed the guy behind me who kept muttering ‘Reality!’).  A couple times I was able to pick up my head and try to appreciate the beauty of the area.  A couple times I even trotted down a hill or two.  But I was broke down to the bone and barely made it to the next aid station at mile 32.  Some very honest hiker said to me (rather cheerfully at that), ‘Looks like you’ve seen better days!’  I thought of Brittany at Uwharrie and how much she hated the encouragement offered to her when she was hating life and thought that she would particularly appreciate this comment.  When I finally got to the aid station a volunteer looked at me and admitted, ‘It’s my job to try to make you keep going, but it looks like you’re pretty done.’  Indeed.  I at least had the wherewithal to have them radio to the finish line to Ragan to come pick me up – Ragan had just finished so they offered up Aaron, who had won the race hours ago.  A volunteer led me away to the road like a lame horse going off to slaughter but I was just happy to be off the trail and headed home.  When Aaron arrived I announced, ‘So this is how it is: I feel like ultimate shit but I’m not in a bad mood.’  I wanted him to be aware that the glazed look in my eye was of pain and fatigue but not despondency and that I was utterly appreciative that he had come to rescue me and certainly wasn’t going to act sullen about my first official Trail Race Loss — man, when I go down, I go down!

Sometimes it takes a miserable experience to prompt you into making necessary and fundamental changes.  I have long known that I have serious nutritional and nausea problems while racing, but I have always been able to plow through and as long as I’m winning not really address them.  Highland Sky provided a serious wake-up call that if I am going to run farther and longer, I can no longer coast on my laurels.  I must figure out my nutrition, methodically.  Mission for the summer!


4 Responses to Highland Sky 40 (martha’s version)

  1. aaron says:

    To be clear, the girl with tattoos was not the “tool” exemplar because of the tattoos. Rather, it was the steely look in her eyes as she performed her plyometric warm-up routine before the race that revealed her inner tool-ness.

  2. TCal says:

    Min, you write a fabulous race report. I can almost feel your pain – emphasis on the almost. I’m sure you’ll get “back on the horse”, which you’ve done countless times, and all will be well. In the spring of ’09 the EMTs had to carry you from the Boston finish line. In the spring of ’11 you were dancing until midnight after crushing the field at Charlottesville. A few hill repeats in Nepal should get you ready for the next one.

  3. Hey–sometimes these digging deep DNFs are the best experiences. Thanks for mentioning me, I still get angry when I think of Uwharrie runners… did I ever tell you that the guy who said “nice pigtails” read the post and added me as a facebook friend. Small world!

  4. […] my catastrophically bad 2011 DNF at Highland Sky two years ago, the only DNF in my trail and road racing career, we decided to put […]

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