I DNF’d the Elite Beast Utah 2021 last weekend with 100m to the finish. I was in 6th place with 100m to go. I couldn’t flip the tire a second time. I couldn’t do burpees.
“How could you be that close and not finish?”
Let me preface a bit with my credentials. I’ve done hard things. I was an NCAA D1 4x All-American distance runner, NCAA Champ in the Steeplechase, and then made the 2008 Olympic Team. I’ve run the mile in 4:00.34. Not a good or great miler, but it’s fast. But I know pain. I know how to run through pain. I can run a 20 miler with little or no water and still average 5:42/mi. Mentally I can push through that. My DNF in Utah wasn’t for lack of mental fortitude.
Physically, I had absolutely nothing left. Zero.
One of my favorite books is, “The Power of One.” The motto told to a young boxer by his coach is, “First with the head. Then with the heart.” My game plan going in was to sit back for the first hour. Then move up. I knew it was going to be at least a 2 hour race. Well, I didn’t do that, and I paid for it. I moved into 2nd and 3rd with Veerman by the first mile or so. “The Child,” as they were calling Hawk Call, kept a good distance ahead with his black pirate shorts. The first 2 miles uphill wasn’t all that bad and I anticipated it being some of the steepest. I was wrong. I also thought my New Balance Fuelcell Foam Carbon Fiber shoes would be perfect. I was wrong.
At Olympus, I learned that the forefoot of my shoe did not grip and so I resorted to the hang and knee shimmy across. That sucked. Ryan Atkins overtook me just after that and bombed down the hill. Johnny Luna-Lima caught me on the downhill and we ran together for that 3-mile descent. It was encouraging running with him knowing that he is an incredible downhill runner. I took a pack of Sport Beans from one of my compression socks and shoved the whole of them into my mouth. It was on an uphill, and we were moving slow. I’ve never done well with nutrition while exercising. I’ve never really had to. This mouthful of beans must have lasted 10 minutes since I didn’t really have water to chase it down. It just kind of sat there while my saliva worked at it.
At some point, I left Johnny and managed to be hiking behind Ryan Atkins again. Most of it was just hiking the vertical. I was surprised Atkins wasn’t running more, but I figured I wasn’t going to pass him. He knew what he was doing. And we were maybe even gaining on The Child. At some point though, as painful as it is, you know you’re going to have to start running again. Ryan Atkins would pinch a couple of the Ultra guys’ butts and tell them good job. Keeping it light I guess. Good for him. Have to find some humor at times. And the Ultra folks were super encouraging as we passed them.
That steady climb eventually flattened and Ryan grabbed water at the summit and so did I. Here’s where I should have taken about three cups instead of just one desperate swig. When I popped out of the tunnel, Ryan was probably 50 meters ahead of me and rolling on the downhill. I wasn’t catching him. And I told myself I was just gonna roll on this long downhill at my pace. So I did.
Then the misery hit. Another couple steep climbs through high grass and along a stream. That’s when the other two caught me. And then even more misery as we descended. My feet and legs were screaming at me. Both of my heels were burning, and I already knew the blisters I would have. It wasn’t just the steep grade of the mountain. It was also the rocks. Small rocks giving you trouble in slipping, and larger grapefruit to watermelon-sized ones attempting to twist your ankles. I was in no-man’s land at this point. No one to really catch in front. Didn’t really see anyone behind. So just going. When you hit the final summit, you have 4.2 miles of downhill.
In my mind, I went from shooting for “Top 5″ to “Top 10” to “just finish” in about the span of one miles time. When did that happen? I’m not sure. Somewhere between Mile 10 and 12. But I knew something wasn’t right. I was sinking fast. And I thought I’d be doing burpees on some of the hanging obstacles.
All went okay until the spear throw. I bought a spear about two months ago, and have been practicing. It didn’t help. The spear skimmed off the top. And who was there to guide me to the penalty? The same guy from 2015 when I did my very first Spartan in Utah. That same guy when I missed the spear in 2018 while I was tied with Cody Moat. I don’t like him. Nothing personal but his job just makes it easy to dislike him.
2015 recap – Two wrong turns cost me 7-9 minutes on a poorly marked course. I didn’t know proper Herc Hoist technique so 30 burpees. Missed the spear throw and 30 more burpees. He was the guy there.
2018 recap – Hoping to redeem myself from 2015 and coming off the Boise Sprint win, I did the Spartan Utah (US National Series) in Eden. I had caught Cody Moat for 3rd, was feeling good, and BAM! 30 burpees. Went from 3rd to 9th. And who was there? That same guy.
Fast forward. At that point, I don’t think I could have done burpees. I’m pretty sure I did the whole hand across the neck like, “I’m out.” Well instead of Mr. Burpee telling me I have burpees, he says it’s a run penalty. So now my dislike for him went from 100% to only like 80%. The turnaround flag looked like it was 200m uphill. I staggered to the top. I collapsed in the shade of a bush. I was tired. I was ready to be done. At this point the finish isn’t far and plenty of spectators, including my parents, are all right there. I could hear them yelling at me to keep going. I didn’t want to. My body didn’t want to. But if I could keep moving, and it was now downhill, then maybe I could make it?
I barely made it through the Multi-Rig. I really thought I’d be doing burpees there. After I hit the bell, I didn’t quite land on my feet. I collapsed to my knees. My mom got it on video and you can hear her saddened voice. I was struggling. The effort required to keep moving forward at this point felt like the bucket carry. And that was misery since I felt like I was marching in place.
To the tire flip. Had I used my head, I would have attempted to flip the tire uphill first. The tires were on a bit of an incline. Instead, I flipped it downhill. It was tough. I tried to flip it about three more times. It was so frustrating. I’ve flipped heavier tires after running hard track workouts. I’ve practiced it. This was different. I had nothing to give. I don’t even know if heartbreaking is the right word. I could feel the spectators, my parents, and the volunteers as they were trying to encourage me. It’s like if you really wish your favorite team to score that last-minute buzzer-beater shot. If you believe with everything you have, then it will happen, right? Sorry. My body wasn’t having it. It was done. I laid on the tire for a moment considering options. Maybe I could lie there for 5 or 10 minutes? Maybe 30 minutes? An hour? I could regain some strength. But the sun was out. I had no fluids. My understanding of the race rules is that you can’t take fluids from outside help. My eyes were going in a vertical nystagmus (bouncing up and down) along with tunnel vision. My balance was way off. I sat up. I tried one more feeble attempt and called it quits.
Let me tell you what else is crazy. After I’d been on the side of the course for like five minutes getting doused with cold water and drinking a bunch, I saw Luna-Lima do the tire flip and then go to the Herc Hoist. In my mind I thought, “You should just try the hoist. You can probably do it.” So I wobbled up and leaned against the spectator fence thinking I’ll just stand here for a sec before I try it. I’m not sure how long I was leaning there with my head dangling down on the bar, but the longer I did, the more I realized I was in bad shape. I couldn’t even stand up on my own at this point. But as an athlete, the thought is “Nah. You got this!” Nope. I did not.
I was taken to the med tent. They helped me recover for about 45 minutes. Sure enough, both heels had 2” round blisters. When my dad got my shoes off, the forefoot and midfoot had been torn through and a quarter-sized rock was stuck in that tear. It had worn a hole into the blister of my right heel. My right wrist, which I had broken in a cycling accident about 8 years before, was nice and swollen. An X-ray at 2:00 am Sunday morning confirmed a fractured scaphoid.
But I’ll say this. There were no tears shed or heartbreak on my end. Was I disappointed that I didn’t run smart? Yes. That I didn’t hold back the first hour? Yes. That I didn’t take more water at the aid stations? Yes. But I’ve never been to that point in my athletic endeavors. I’ve seen endurance athletes tipping over as they come to the finish line. Crawling to get another foot. I could have crawled, but I couldn’t do burpees. My body wouldn’t allow it. Maybe subconsciously my head knew my broken wrist wouldn’t take it. It’s sad from a bystander’s view. To make it 14.1 of 14.2 miles and not finish. To make it 99.6% of the way. I’m proud of where I pushed myself. I’m proud of the training I did in preparing, and it was fun. I still love getting on the track for faster intervals. I love running up mountains now. I love working out with my F3 Team here in Boise with cinder blocks and sandbags and pushing picnic tables. It all keeps me young and healthy. It was a beautiful venue. At 41 years young, I know I can still do this, but I have to enjoy every moment.
The Utah Beast was a grueler. No doubt. Congrats to those who did finish and to those who may not have. There are more races out there. Start training once you’re recovered.
My high school track coach, Bruce Lerch, was a two-time cancer survivor. He helped put things into perspective when I’d think about big races or look back on them. He said, “Babies are born. People die. And you’re just running a race.”