On the Importance of Starting Endurance Races with a Full Emotional Fuel Tank: My Black Canyon 100K Postmortem

During my flight from Oakland to Phoenix last Friday, a mantra for the following day’s Black Canyon 100K trail run came to me: Stay positive. I realized instantly that it was the perfect choice for the occasion because it made me feel more relaxed about the looming challenge. 

I don’t really get anxious before big races anymore. In the two weeks leading up to both the 2017 Chicago Marathon, where I broke a nine-year-old PR, and last year’s Ironman Santa Rosa, where I blew away my one previous Ironman performance, I felt only excitement and eagerness to get out there and get after it. But this one was different somehow. At the time, I attributed my unwonted anxiety to the fact that Black Canyon played into a number of my weaknesses—namely, running extreme distances, downhill running, and running on technical terrain. Only later would I discover that I was apprehensive not because the race was different from others but because I was different.

From my current perspective, I see clearly that all of the ingredients necessary for a successful race were in place—except for one. From the first few steps I felt terrific physically—light, speedy, and indefatigable. When my friend Bob Tusso (who stepped in heroically at the last minute to crew for me) refilled my hand flask with Roctane at the Bumble Bee Ranch aid station at 19.4 miles, my legs felt the same as they had in those first few strides—not a hint of soreness or fatigue in them. On the long climb that came immediately after the checkpoint I passed a half dozen runners, all of them breathing audibly; I wasn’t.

I had a good race plan and was executing it to a T. Ninety percent of runners start too fast in any given ultra, but at Black Canyon this almost universal error is exacerbated by the relative friendliness of the early miles, which are mostly downhill. Determined not to make this mistake, I started conservatively and let the clowns gallop ahead, knowing I would see most of them again in due time. I moved up from 65th place at Bumble Bee to 41st at Soap Creek (31.2 miles) to 34th place at 37 miles. My fueling plan was also working perfectly. I was taking in 24 ounces of Roctane and one Hammer Gel per hour like clockwork and suffering no GI discomfort beyond the occasional belch.

So, what went wrong? In mile 24, I simultaneously turned my left ankle and jammed my right big toe against a rock, pitched forward, and drove my right kneecap straight into another rock. Some injuries you can run on, others you can’t. I could run on these, so I did, albeit in a good deal of pain. Then, approaching the Black Canyon City checkpoint, at 37 miles, I fell again, spectacularly. This time I didn’t—couldn’t—get up right away. When I did, I noticed that something was wrong with my left shoulder. I felt a stabbing sensation deep inside the joint each time I swung the arm back. I must have hit the same knee again, too, because it hurt even more, and I couldn’t put any pressure on my right big toe.

Fortunately, the checkpoint was only a quarter mile away. When I got there, I told Bob I was done for the day. “Really?” he said. “You look okay to me.” (God bless Bob Tusso. You can read more about him, and our friendship, in Running the Dream.) In reality, I looked like I’d been dragged behind a horse. When I showered at the hotel later, I discovered caked-in dirt on the back of my neck.

I would love to tell you that I quit the Black Canyon 100K because I had no choice, but I would be lying to you if I did. As I write these words 48 hours later, I’m still really sore, but I can tell that none of the injuries I sustained was serious. Even before my second fall, I was losing the battle to stay positive. While power hiking up an absolute killer of a hill around 35 miles, I did some mental math and realized I had more than four and a half hours of suffering ahead of me still, and I realized something else: My heart wasn’t fully into this race the way it had ben with Chicago and Santa Rosa. When I fell again soon afterward, I felt more relief than frustration or disappointment.

In a 1998 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, renowned psychologist Roy Baumeister looked at the effects of emotional exertion on physical stamina. Sixty college students were required to watch a movie featuring disturbing content. A third of the subjects were asked to suppress their natural emotional response to the material, another third was asked to do the opposite, and the remaining third was asked to express their natural response. All of the students completed a test of muscular endurance both before and after watching the movie. Remarkably, the two groups asked to manipulate their natural emotional response to the film showed a drastic decline in physical stamina, whereas the control group did not. The conclusion? Emotional exertion negatively affects endurance performance capacity.

Twenty-five days before the Black Canyon 100K, my mom, who has Alzheimer’s disease, moved into my home so that my wife and I can care for her. As you might imagine, it has been an all-consuming and emotionally intense experience. The last thing I did before leaving the house to catch my flight to Phoenix was spend 20 minutes on the phone arguing with a local elder care manager about the Kafkaesque struggle I’ve had cutting through red tape with insurance companies and caregivers and doctors and whatnot. I was angry, stressed out, overwhelmed, and not thinking about my race.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no regrets about the choice I’ve made. My mother is more important than my hobby. The point I’m trying to make is that attaining peak performance in endurance events requires more than just peak fitness, good pacing, and a dialed-in fueling plan. It also requires that you start the race with full emotional batteries. And if that’s simply not possible, it’s helpful to at least understand that you are compromised no less than you would be if your training had gone poorly. I’m pretty sure I would have stood a better chance of salvaging my race if I’d had this level of awareness about my situation. 

In any case, I’m grateful that, as and endurance coach and writer who enjoys a platform for sharing the lessons I learn in my athletic journey, I am able to pass on the specific lesson I learned this weekend. Make no mistake: I’m going to carry a monkey on my back from this failure that only the next successful race performance can remove. But even if I never have another successful race, I will not look back on what I went through on the Black Canyon Trail as a waste.