Quitting. Quit. Two severely negative words…but the words “I quit,” if possible, are even worse. When I was thinking about this entry for the past week, I brainstormed for days about another word besides “quit” I could use, a word that did not hold all of the negative connotation. Unfortunately, I couldn’t come up with one. We hear it all the time: winners don’t quit, quitting isn’t an option, and the tough succeed, they don’t quit. These phrases are programmed into us and programmed into me. Clear headed, I never entertain the idea of quitting. In fact, even when some friends of mine told me, “Sam, you’re going to have to go into this next run being open to the fact that you may not finish,” I didn’t accept it. I never go into anything thinking that quitting is an option…even when the cards may be stacked against me. I have fought my entire life. I fought for the right of a good education, even while living on the poverty threshold, I have fought to keep scholarships while working fulltime through undergrad, I have fought the temptation of addiction even through significant trauma, but mostly, I have fought to create my own path in life, and to be a survivor, even when I had a good excuse to give up. Most times that I have thought about quitting, it was survival instinct and complete white knuckling it, that got me through. All to say, I, like so many others, am not okay with quitting.
This latest run, the Antelope Canyon 100 (held in Page, AZ), was only 4 weeks past my last 100-miler, and my knee had been bothering me all month. Even though I was going to physical therapy consistently and I was working out, I hadn’t run for the sake of my knee in weeks. I was nervous, to say the least, that my knee would not hold up. The idea kept me up at night, as I would replay every possible scenario in my head, but I was determined to finish—I would not let the idea of quitting enter my mind. In all other areas of weakness, I had a plan. Nausea had become a consistent problem for me, so I prepared all of my own food for this run…I was determined not to eat anything at the aid stations and to make sure I was hydrated with good protein. Besides my knee, I felt prepared. On the eve of the race, Shannon set her alarm, and being mindful about the time change, we woke up promptly when the alarm went off. However, to our complete dismay we realized Shannon’s phone did not automatically account for the time change, and after the alarm went off, this little bit of information did not compute so we all laid there in silence. Then, suddenly, we screamed at the same time (this was our “Home Alone” moment) and frantically got dressed and packed up. I’m still not sure how we made it to the start in time, but we did, and we were amped. Once the adrenaline from the morning wore down, we were already running, thankful that the stress of the morning took the place of pre-race anxiety. But, about 30 minutes into the run, my knee reminded me that I had a potential problem, which I was hell-bent on ignoring.
The first 40 miles of the run was the most beautiful place I had ever had the privilege running through. The canyons and the water offered every color of the rainbow. BUT the terrain was all sand…super soft, sinking sand. It took its toll, but, surprisingly, my knee became almost numb mile after mile, a little miracle that I was quietly grateful for. Yet, as one little miracle happened, another problem surfaced—THE NAUSEA. I have now started referring to my nausea as “The nausea” much like Buster referred to Lucile’s nausea as “Our Nausea” (I’m pretty sure Arrested Development has a scene for every moment in my life). Anyway, unlike my last race, this time I couldn’t just choke it back. My stomach hurt, the thought of food hit my gag reflex, and so I knew I was in trouble. It was mile 45 that I honestly let the quitting thoughts circle in. I had already thrown up and was having a hard time keeping anything in (I tell the story much more graphically in person, but thought I would spare the readers…you’re welcome in advance). I thought about what the night would bring: rain, snow, loneliness, sickness, desperation. This was going to be the first time I would be doing a 100-miler without a night pacer, and honestly, with my sickness, the thought of this scared me. I couldn’t fathom it.
Antelope Canyon. Page, AZ.
I was with Kelly at this point (she was completing the 50-miler), and I finally shared with her some of my thoughts. Kelly was actually the perfect person to have with me because she had paced me through both of my 100-milers, so she knew the cycle of quitting well. She told me what she had told me many times before that: “Sam, if you can go on, go. Don’t stop until you can’t move. You’ll get through the night, even alone, and if you need to stop, then stop, but right now just keep going.” Her words worked. I was re-motivated and the sickness took a backseat for awhile. I was determined I was going to do this, sick, tired, and cold. I wasn’t a quitter. I was going to finish my 5th ultra-marathon. But as unexpectedly as the motivation came, it left just as quickly when the sickness resurfaced. I was battling, and I knew I was battling because I had been there before, but this time there were too many odds stacked against me.
At about mile 49, I made the excruciating decision to finish the 50-miler instead of the 100. I thought for a moment, that maybe the growth I would gain from the quit would have more of an impact for me than the struggle of the finish. One would think that once the decision was made, relief would set in, but it didn’t. After 14 hours, I crossed the 50-mile finish line, hand- in-hand with Kelly, and as Kelly celebrated her first ultra-marathon victory, I mourned over my first DNF (did not finish). I am not really good at showing emotion, especially emotion that is often times linked to weakness, but at this moment I couldn’t hold it in so I cried. I was devastated, and I was still sick and couldn’t eat. There was no joy in running the 50 miles…only regret and only defeat. It was hard to believe that a year earlier, to the day, was the first time I crossed the finish of a 50-miler, a time that I previously described as, “The moment of my life.” And yet there I was–one year later, four more ultras including two 100-milers under my belt, and I was so disappointed in myself. How could that happen? I asked myself this repeatedly. I still finished 50 miles, but why didn’t it matter?
That night was miserable. I couldn’t sleep, in part because of the dry heaving, and in part because of the pain of the quit. The moment of this race was not seeing the Colorado River, in all its beauty, or running alongside four amazing women. The moment for me was a hotel toilet at 2 a.m., where I laid in the bathroom and, in between throwing up, I wept. Like really cried. I wasn’t who I thought I was, and I missed out on something amazing. I was miserable because my weaknesses beat me and I was completely aware of my limitations. Even though I knew beforehand that the nighttime hours are always the worst, I expected them out there in the cold, not inside a comfortable bathroom. A few hours later, the rain started to really come down. I went back out to pace my friend Maia who was still running. After some miles with her, she also made the difficult decision to turn it in. She realized she would not be able to move fast enough to make the cut-off times. So there we were, cold and in the rain, waiting for Shannon to come get us and drive Maia to the finish. Maia and I looked at each other, both well aware that as we experienced the joy of crossing our first ultra together, we now experienced the pain of the first DNF together, and we cried just the same.
A few hours later, at about 10 am, when the snow was coming down, we went back to the finish to pick up our bags. No one was there. It was an isolated, empty, cold finish line. We sat in the truck as we saw a man cross. He was covered in snow. He almost looked frozen. He was moving, but a very slow walk. He barely looked up at us as we congratulated him. He crossed alone, tired, with no outward celebration. I remember feeling bones of jealously looking at him. At the end of the day, the motivation to push the limits of the mind and the body can’t be attributed to glory or people telling you how amazing you are. In fact, I have realized, the more I do hard things, the less I care what anyone thinks. I do them for the struggle, and the blood of jealously running through me at that moment was because he experienced the struggle, he powered through his weaknesses, he survived, and he finished. He is that much better for it. I would have given anything to trade places with him. You surprise yourself the most when you do something unexpected, and for me, the quit was just that. I told myself earlier in the night that the quit will offer more growth than the finish…but looking at him, at his struggle, all I thought at that moment was, “I hope I was right.”