On dropping out.

This weekend was a bit of an eye opener for me. I decided to jump into the L.L.Bean US Distance Nationals 50km Classic race at Craftsbury, just to bring this bizarre season to a close. I had done fairly well at longer races in the past, so I wanted to test my stuff against the big guns at a Championship race. My prep for this one was a little different than normal, I haven't done much (read: any) classic skiing since the season ended in February, and my training going into this race was almost non-existent.

When I arrived for the start, it felt like any other race. I was seeded with the guys from the EISA circuit whom I had been racing with all season, and we were having a great time talking about finally having some closure on the season. It was warm, an almost party-like atmosphere, and we were ready to give it our all.

And then the gun went off.
Immediately we knew that this wasn't going to be an easy race. It had warmed up to around 40 degrees at the start of the race, and only got warmer throughout the 15 lap 50km. We were taking feeds at least once per lap, either from our coaches and teammates or the neutral water feed, sometimes both on the same lap. The course conditions were messy, and everything just felt slow.

I was on my own for most of the race, and each time I went through the stadium I saw new faces of people standing on the side of the course after dropping out, my friends included. My goal changed from doing well to finishing, then just to surviving. By lap 7, I had slowed from a 10:29 first 3.4km lap to almost 15 minutes, and by lap 11 I was over 20 minutes per lap. It was as I finished lap 12 (40k, ~3hrs) that I decided to call it quits, to join the other 15 people who had left before me on the sidelines. I had been lapped by the leaders four times by that point, and had bonked harder than I had ever bonked before.
I stopped in the feed zone where Bowdoin and Lynx Racing had set up and snagged an extra Gu from them, just to get some nutrients into my body. Walking back to the lodge, nobody gave anyone grief about dropping out, aside from some ribbing between competitors who expected to see more of each other on course.

It was my second career DNF, the first coming my freshman year during the 20k Classic at the Dartmouth Carnival, also at Craftsbury. That one was a bit different though, as I had been battling illness for the week leading into that race, and my body just wasn't responding well to the effort I wanted. This race was just tough, and not just for us in the back of the pack or on the sidelines. In a sport where even distance races are contested in large packs and come down to seconds between competitors, the podium spread was over three-and-a-half minutes, and twentieth was over twenty minutes back.

It was a learning experience like none other. I have seen exhaustion after races before, but nothing on this level. It takes a special breed to be able to push oneself for so long, even if the end result is failure. And that is why we do it. Endurance sport isn't all about being the first across the line, it's about making it to the line and finding your limits, and this weekend, many of us found that our limits came well before that finish line.


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