In my personal race history of1000's of races (xc ski, running, ultra trail runs, Triathlons, skimo, etc.) I’ve only dropped out of 3 races. The first one was an XC running event in high school. I wimped out. I felt so ashamed I vowed to never repeat the dishonourable act. #3 occurred this week in the Pierra Menta skimo race. An event I’ve dreamed of, trained for, schemed, watched countless Youtube Vids for years, etc.. As I write this I’m still very emotionally raw from the DNF. What makes this so much more difficult is that this race is a partner race, and when I quit, my partner quits. Every bit of money, time, planning, etc. I’ve invested...he’s invested. And when I absolutely (I believe) had to pull the plug and see all that go down the drain, he had to watch his efforts and resources also pour down the drain. That’s what makes it smart the most. It isn’t just me.
The reason for the forced DNF was 3 totally sleepless nights. The race provides housing (part of the package) and the “bed” I was forced to use was basically a cot with a 40 year old foamy over a thin plywood sheet. Easy to see why the first night, combined with race nerves and intercontinental travel, conspired to block any sleep. For the first day’s demanding leg, I felt I bravely soldiered on despite the fatigue. I certainly would have been much faster, as measured by some other skiers I knew in the race, but got through it and was looking forward to the next stage. Now, realize that these stages are 4-5 hours long and an absolute full out effort the entire way. So you obviously need to be at your physical peak. Night number 2, probably because of the fatigue from the first day, was a repeat of night #1.....no sleep. None. I lined up for the days race feeling about the same fatigue that I’d usually feel at the END of the race...not the starting line. It was a tough day. I got towed a lot. But I actually picked it up a bit at the end and was pumped and proud to be half way through the 4 day stage race, albeit on absolutely NO sleep. However I was desperate now.
So in this desperation entered help from my friend that brought along his sleep aid and absolutely swore to it’s effectiveness. With very specific instructions I took the little pill. It worked... for an hour. Then my roommate came in and woke me up. Bam. Back to yet another night of sleeplessness. I couldn’t believe it. I did fall asleep for maybe 1.5 hours just before wake up time. The even more unfortunate part was the massive hangover from the pill. I was weak, shaking and couldn’t think straight. There was no way I could even drive to the start. I had to get my race partner to do it for me. I lined up fearing what the day would bring with how I felt. The start actually went ok. I went conservative on the up, passed many on the down then settled into a pace, yet had to be towed again. What a bummer for my partner. He must have been thinking what a loser I was. The first climb was really long and after awhile just didn’t have the brain power and function to push my body. When we got into the alpine, my weakness wasn’t enough to keep my body warm and we were in a very remote place. I was getting nervous.
My poor race partner went ahead, but my pace slowed to an incredible turtle crawl. In all my marathons, Ironmans, various ski races, I’d never died to such a pace before. We were hopelessly behind any respectable racers. I felt such despair, “How could this be happening” I wondered.
With the remaining last bit of the 3rd climb and the 4th one still to come. We made the obvious decision to pull the plug. The course Marshall commented on how white and milky my face looked. I was incredibly exhausted. More than any race I’ve ever done (of the 1000's previously mentioned).
As I reflected the next day, I wondered if perhaps I could have sat down, ate and drank some calories and try to at least finish so we could take part in the best stage of all, the final one with it’s massive party at the top of the mountain. But I know that in the condition I was in, it was probably impossible to do that. I think I’m a pretty tough guy, a history that goes back to when I was all of about 110 lbs in grade 7 on a bike trip where a bunch of us got food poisoning. I got it the worst, but kept soldiering on with 100 mile plus days despite continual puking and dysentery. From that experience I always believed I could tough out the worst of situations.I had at least one friend (who was in the race) that commented they couldn’t believe I got as far as I did. I don’t know. But this I do know...I felt so gutted emotionally that I just wanted to crawl into a hole and never come out. Never race again. Never face any friends and family again who were witnesses to this failure and especially my race partner for whom I just want to die and never have to face the embarrassment of letting him down.
As for my race partner, we just met for this race. Didn’t prepare together, didn’t have a previous friendship or emotional bond, etc. He has been incredibly gracious. I can tell on the inside he’s seething though and I would be too. He’s a really cool guy and I feel so blessed to have gotten to know him in the days leading up to the race, yet now I can only think he wants nothing to do with this loser that totally screwed up this incredible opportunity. He’s young. He’ll be back to France and race with a fast partner and he’ll do well. Even take this broken effort’s lessons and experiences to the next race. As for me I probably was looking at my only kick at the can in this event that in some ways would have completed my skimo race career experience. Never say never, as you never know.
I had an interesting talk with one of our roommates, Rory, a very fast Cat 1 bike racer from CO. He related how there were times when he was completing a bike race disaster where he was mulling over in his mind during the final miles how he’d sell all his bike stuff and never race again. But of course, here he was, racing, hammering and still putting it on the line. For myself, I too was planning on never, ever racing skimo again. How could I face the skimo race community? I feel such failure and embarrassment that I didn’t want to weather the shame. But it turns out that it’s been this community that has really given me the most encouragement and affirmation. Especially my friends Stano and Michelle. The latter commented on how she couldn’t believe I got as far as I did, given the sleeplessness and intensity of this 4 day multi stage event. I don’t know, but the next day I made a decision. There was this super cool Karpos race suit in one of the ski shops. I began to contemplate buying it as it would give me just a glimmer of hope and desire, maybe even a reason to race again. Our sport is so gear intensive and it’s the gear part that enhances the fun.
So yeah, I pulled the trigger, got the suit and I’m thinking about our final skimo race of the year in Lake Louise. But I need some healing time. I plan on going to the mountains a lot when I’m home. Find the joy in skiing and being in the backcountry. Another consideration is my daughter. She just returned from the World Jr Biathlon champs where she had the most unbelievably bad shooting. Only a couple gals in the field shot worse. So I ponder, what kind of example will I be to her. She’s obviously watching me and I don’t want to mess up. She actually has bounced back already, medaling at Canadian Nat’ls just this week while I’m away. She’s mentally strong, and sometimes it seems she handles these storms better than her father. I want to make sure I’m leading by my example here and showing her how to have hope, learn the lessons that are supposed to be learned and bounce back with a positive attitude.
So then, what exactly are the lessons I’m learning? The first one is to meet with my doc as soon as I’m home and dial in an effective sleep aid. One that I’ve used, know well and have a track record in using it. Even just having this back up plan will probably contribute to my sleeping better. I’ve raced in Europe a lot. XC marathons, AIA sports tours, skimo major events, etc. and I’ve always been able to dial my sleep in usually within 5 days. I’ve got several personal tricks I use, none of which helped me this time. So I need to have a back up “sleep aid plan”. I’ve also learned that skimo is really about only a couple core things. One of them is the skiing. It’s all about the skiing.....finding the joy on the boards, learning to go faster and be bolder. Skimo is also about the people. Though I’ve commented on how letting people down has made this experience far harder, it’s also the people around me that have helped and encouraged me unbelievably. One glance at the many messages on my FaceBook page when I shared what happened totally makes me realize that I’m one of the richest men on the planet. That is if you measure riches by the number and quality of your friends.
I suppose that eventually the pain will subside and be replaced by other goals, but for now just thinking about this disaster produces such an intense emotional cringe. It’s painful. Also embarrassing. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to fully forgive myself for what I did to my ski partner, and that’s what probably hurts the most.