failure and success

Once upon a time there was a dude that wanted to lose weight. He was out of shape and honest enough to know it. So on a cold January day in 2006 he embarked on a one mile run. It was slow and painful, he wanted to quit after the first 100 yards but he kept going. After a mere quarter of a mile he was huffing and puffing. At the halfway point he was gasping for air and mumbling to himself. By three quarters of a mile his side was hurting and he could see the light, hear the angels singing and knew that this was the biggest mistake of his life. Oddly enough, our hero did not die on that deserted county road. As he sat hunched over gasping for air, begging for water and wiping the sweat out of his eyes he suddenly felt a burst of pride and accomplishment knowing that he had just pushed himself past the point of comfortable and into another zone reserved for those that want to finish what they start despite the overwhelming desire and temptation to stop. He understood that if he quit that day he would never reach his goals.
This sounds like a dude that I can admire and want to emulate. His passion, dedication and competitive spirit are exactly the characteristics that I have often strived for. That never die, never quit, focus and finish what you start attitude has always been something that I have believed in. That day, January 16th, 2006 changed my life in many ways. I took the first painful steps in my “running journey” but it was also the first phase of my evolution into a different outlook on many things in life. As a runner, and a person, I have taken many different approaches and looked upon situations with new perspectives. I’m less judgmental as a person now but I’m also more demanding and expect more from people. Probably the person I expect the most from, at all times, is myself. It’s part of the game, I guess, to be your own harshest critic and question your effort and motivation at every aspect of life. Confidence in ability has a lot to do with it but most of it boils down to feelings of personal insecurity that can only be overcome by a strong resolve to work hard and do your best at every goal set.
I never dreamed that my biggest failure in running would translate into my biggest success. Sounds insane when I say it. Looks insane as I write it. It probably is insane but I have never felt more refreshed, free and focused as I do in the aftermath of dropping from the Leadville 100 miler. It was the easiest decision I have ever made when it comes to running. I have had some decent success in running events and days when the moon and stars aligned just right to make it a “perfect” day. I’ve also been on some real death marches where each mile seemed to stretch on forever and injuries, poor nutrition, inadequate hydration and lows that made me question everything have completely destroyed my ego. Opposite ends of the spectrum but the one commonality is that I ALWAYS finished what I started. Marathons with pneumonia, 50 milers with a knee the size of a football, 100 milers in the rain, ice and humidity so thick it was like running through Jello. Nothing had ever clouded my focus and desire to finish with the best time the day and course would offer.
The Leadville 100 miler is an old and legendary race. This was the 32nd year of the historic event and I had a bib, running shoes and a headlamp. I had everything I needed to knock out an easy 100, grab a buckle and go drink some beer at the finish line. Almost everything. Ultras, 100 milers specifically, are a mental game that requires focus, dedication and that old “Eye on the Prize” attitude. Without those tools there is no way to be successful. You have to want it, really want it- not just say you want it, or nothing good will happen. The day will be long and miserable, the night, if you are lucky enough to last that long, will destroy your will to continue and drag your ego into a deep dark place that is difficult to recover from. Physically it’s just another 100 miler and it will beat up your body, like they all do, but mentally it will destroy you.
My Leadville adventure started in January. I signed up on the first day to ensure a slot at the urging of my friend Jim Lane. This was his dream race and it was to be his first 100 miler. I wasn’t too excited, mainly because my focus was on the upcoming Rocky Raccoon 100, but signed up anyway. Rocky turned out differently than I had hoped, coming in 3 hours slower than I had anticipated, and I found myself in a bit of post race funk. In March I suffered an injury at a 30 hour endurance run in Enid, Oklahoma which left me sidelined for a couple of months. My funk was prolonged and my focus on Leadville became non-existent. It was tough to get back into the grind of training and the typical 80-100 plus mile weeks just didn’t happen. It became very easy to look for an excuse to skip a run or strength workout where in the past I always found a reason to get it done.
I told myself over and over that I still wanted to run Leadville but, looking back, it’s easy to see that my focus wasn’t there. The early morning runs became less frequent and the weekend “binges” of long miles became a thing of the past. Coach Jeff laid out a great training plan but I chose to ignore it and use every excuse I could grasp to justify. So many times I would laugh and think, “I still have time, my base is great and it’s only 100 miles. I can fake it if needed.” Well…. time ran out and some things are hard to fake.
I was prepared for the altitude. I mean, I was prepared to expect it to be a little more difficult to breathe and honestly, that wasn’t much of a problem. What surprised me was the dry air that seemed to suck every drop of water from my body and just how HOT the sun would feel at higher elevations. Of course, any genius with access to a computer could have googled some of this information but I am far from genius on any IQ scale. I ran out of water early in the race, didn’t properly prepare by having a hat or sunglasses and didn’t bother with electrolyte pills and skipped the aid station food because it didn’t appeal to me at the time. All of these are rookie mistakes that a seasoned ultra-runner doesn’t make. Unless they are arrogant and foolish. I am not a rookie but I do qualify for the latter.
The trails were beautiful and completely runnable. The inclines were easily walked and enjoyable but then again… I never made it to Hope Pass. The weather was perfect, it was hot but only because I was overdressed and didn’t have a good understanding of the local climate. My cardio was good but my courage was not. By mile 20 I knew that I was done. Any chance of a decent finish time was long gone and while I wasn’t “dehydrated” I was very much behind. Nothing that couldn’t be overcome physically but mentally I was done. I started walking more frequently and thought about dropping at the mile 23 aid station but decided to continue on and see what the day would bring. Around mile 25, Jim passed me and I told him that I had a decision to make. In retrospect, it’s easy to see that the decision was made long before I lined up at the starting line.
As I walked and shuffled through the next 15 miles, I tried to find a reason to continue and finish the race. It just wasn’t happening. I kept coming back to the same thoughts, “I don’t want to be out here for 28-30 hours. I don’t want to be beat up for two weeks. I don’t want a buckle that I will always look at and feel like I didn’t earn.” These thoughts solidified my resolve to quit. I was going to violate the Idiots Running Club Oath – the oath that I wrote – and just quit. I was going to “earn” my first DNF and I was okay with that. Once I came to terms and accepted the facts for what they were a peace came over me and it was like the weight of the world was lifted. I was going to quit. And it was going to be okay. The world would not explode, children would still have christmas and life would continue on.
I took a minute to call my wife and let her know. That was more difficult. Telling somebody you love, the one person that always has your back and supports all this nonsense, that it’s time to pull the plug makes it real. I cried like a baby, not because I was sad but because I was trying to explain to her something that I really didn’t understand. Naturally she assumed I was hurt and not telling her. Yes, that is something that I would do and have done. But not this time. I remember her asking, “So… you’re NOT hurt but you are quitting? I don’t understand……” It was tough because I didn’t really understand either but I knew in my heart that it was the right thing for me to do.
As I came in to the Twin Lakes aid station, Chris Oles was waiting on the trail. Chris had drove up from Texas the day before to pace/crew for me. It was a big deal to me that he would do this. His friendship is something I value and the respect I have for him as a person and ultra runner is very high. Immediately I felt that I had let him down, wasted his time and selfishly screwed up his weekend. He didn’t care about all that. He just hugged me, smiled and told me that he was glad I was okay. My time had slipped to a point where the cutoff was approaching and he had assumed that I was injured or mauled by a bear. That is something I will take with me as I continue my journey – the character and friendship that he showed in that moment is something that I will strive for.
I hit the aid station at exactly 10 hours, which is the cutoff time to continue, and the race officials gave me the option of continuing. I was done. I looked at Coach Jeff and before I could reply he simply said, “Murph- let’s go drink some beer.” Was he reading my mind? Sometimes I wonder about him. I turned in my bib and timing chip and then went to “face the music” of all the crew members and supporters that had showed up. We had several IRC and PRS teammates running and the support was unbelievable. Runners from all over had come to cheer us on and help out. I was expecting looks of disappointment but all I received were pats on the backs, hugs and fist bumps. Ellen Losew had made the trip from Kansas to pace me during the late miles but my decision put an end to that plan. Once again, I was humbled by character and friendship. Runners are weird but very cool and compassionate.
So with my day over, I decided to go check on Jim who was making his way over Hope Pass. Jeff and I went to the Winfield aid station and waited. And waited. And waited. Finally we were notified that Jim had missed the cut off on top of Hope Pass and was turned back down the mountain to Twin Lakes. This made my heart sink because I knew how bad he wanted this race. Unlike me, Jim had worked his ass off in training and truly had focus. I would have given anything to see him get that buckle but I know he will be back to earn one. No doubt in my mind.
While we were at Winfield, Justin McCune came through and was looking like a man on a mission. I tried to help him as much as I could without getting in the way of his crew. He didn’t waste much time and quickly headed to the difficult climb back over Hope Pass. I seen Justin one more time back at Twin Lakes. He was still looking strong and picked up a new pacer, Kerri,  to lead him through the night. It was getting cold and since I had a bag full of warm clothes and was obviously not going to be needing them I begged him to at least take a warm shirt and some extra gloves that I had. Runners are stubborn but he finally agreed and was off. I got the report later that he had dropped around mile 72. Another heart breaker for me because he was also a guy that was focused through training and had been dreaming of the buckle. Again, no doubt that he will be return with success.
Chris and I spent the rest of the night tracking Jeff Jones, a phenomenal ultra runner and friend, along with his pacer Derek Glos. We managed to talk to them at mile 76 and they were tired, cold and basically beat up. But one look at Jeff and it was obvious that he was still in control and very much on top of the mental games that come with the late miles of a 100. I have been fortunate enough to pace him for the final 25 miles of a 100 and knew, without a doubt, that his resolve to finish would not fade. He is a tough dude that truly keeps his “Eye on the Prize”. He crossed the finish line in just over 27 hours and made us all proud.
I look back and see so many good things that happened that day. Jim and Justin both pushed themselves to the limit, leaving nothing on the course and able to walk away with their heads held high. Jeff’s perseverance and desire to conquer the mountains left me in awe. I have nothing but respect for the effort all three of these individuals put forth in Leadville. It is an honor and a privilege to include them and everybody that came out to support as my friends.
As far as my own personal feelings. I am good. I am free. The monkey is off my back. I don’t know how many people were tracking online during the race but I’m sure there were at least 2 or 3. Back when that dude ran one mile in 2006, there was no way that he could have handled to “humiliation” of failure on such a big stage. That is one characteristic that I am happy not to own in 2014. I have learned that it’s okay to have a bad day, a bad training cycle, to admit when enough is enough and to let people know that I’m not really from planet Krypton. I’m human and I can find success in the midst of failure. It’s a humbling realization to know that coming up short isn’t the end – it’s just another step in journey. I’ll go back to Leadville one day but it won’t happen without proper preparation and focus. For now…. I’m just going to run, smile, drink water and not die for a while.

David Murphy

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