On Not Finishing
by Kristyn Bacon
I’m not going to give my story or my excuses, or place blame or defend myself. I didn’t finish. Those are the only words it needs. I didn’t finish, and I went home crying in the middle of the night, showered crying in the middle of the night and fell asleep crying and cramping in the middle of the night. When I woke up, I told my family and apologized. I was embarrassed and ashamed and exhausted, physically and emotionally. My boyfriend’s mother bought me flowers and I told her she had to bring them back because I didn’t finish. And then I was depressed. For months I was depressed. I had trained for a year, told everyone even remotely involved in my life that I was training, put all of my spare energy into that day and then it was over and I had failed. In huge letters, I had failed.
I know what I did was the best I’ve ever done. I feel now the contentment that I imagine a person feels after finding their life partner or career; I found my life sport.
I was injured and couldn’t run for a year so I cross-trained by cycling. I recovered mentally and physically, and one year later, I started training for my third ultra. It took me the full year to realize that I hadn’t failed. It took me the full year to say – instead of saying that I had trained for a 50-mile race and only ran 40 – that I had run a 40-mile ultra. I found a new perspective on ultramarathons. Those who love the event understand that everything you put in won’t be given back to you. The hours you trained and the splits you timed might not mean anything on the day if the course is harder than you thought, or longer. You’re not always going to finish. You might win by mistake but you can easily DNF in the next race. It’s not like a 100-meter dash that’s over in seconds and repeated hours later. There is plenty of time for huge mistakes to be made and great changes to take place. The mountains are tall; there’s a lot of space for the unexpected. The only way to learn the race is simply to do it. Fail and do it again. Get injured and recover and do it again. This is a race that will take your entire life to perfect. New people will have new ideas for training and equipment and you’ll listen, or you won’t, and the race will be changed for you. Hate it, forget it, find it again. This is a sport for life, not for a season or for a college career.
After accepting ultras as my wife, I decided to be more experimental with my training, and I encourage others to do the same. The things that you have known to be true and have practiced in your athletic life should be tested as you progress. The things that didn’t work in your ultramarathon should be indicated and rectified, or removed. As the years move on, you’ll realize what works for you and when. There’s no formula for ultramarathons, just as there is no formula for parenting or practicing religion. If you keep working and adapting, you’ll always get better. No matter how many races you DNF, you’ll always improve. Someday, you’ll get bored with 50- or 100-mile races, just as you became bored by the 13- and 26-mile races. That will be an interesting day, when you can start doing 200- or 300-mile races. In regards to your success, G. K. Chesterton said, “A man must love a thing very much if he practices it without any hope of fame or money, but even practices it without any hope of doing it well.” Yet these things still exist.
What’s more, once you’re injured or burnt out from the ultra you didn’t finish, you can explore other sports, much like you would not do with your wife. Cross-training is incredibly important during and after ultramarathons. I was forced to initially, but now I think after every ultra I will take a few months on the bike. It’s a great way to do an incredible amount of kilometers without injuring yourself. The addicts will really appreciate it. Having a cross sport will save you when your training schedule becomes redundant or too stressful. If you wake up and really want to skip the stupid run, you can do your cross sport instead. Then it’s an exciting day full of change and possibilities! You can even start abusing other sports, such as cross-country skiing, long distance swimming or bodybuilding. You can do activities like yoga and golf. You can fully recover and return to your sport with a new excitement that only time and rest can engender.
Once I learned that ultras were for life, I felt completely at peace with myself. I wasn’t angry anymore that I had quit, and I wasn’t angry anymore at my crew for letting me quit. Even though I didn’t come anywhere near winning, and even though I only came close to the finish line, I know what I did was the best I’ve ever done. I feel now the contentment that I imagine a person feels after finding their life partner or career; I found my life sport. No matter where I live, no matter what job I have or person I date, I know I’ll always be training or resting for an ultramarathon. That quiet knowledge can’t be taken away from me. And when my knees go out and my hips are replaced and my pelvis is completely destroyed, as all of the experts are telling me is my inevitable fate, I know, with the unyielding faith of a believer, that there is always wheelchair racing.