They say you’re not a real trail runner until you’ve had a DNF (a ‘Did Not Finish’)
in an event. It’s taken me 20 months since I stood on the start line of my first trail
race to finally be faced with those three letters after my name at the end of a race
day, but the 2019 Ring of Fire 2019 in March has given me ample opportunity to
test my personal resilience to failure in a big way.
I was the second runner in a 3-person relay team tackling the 72km around
Mount Ruapehu that day. Our first runner (my husband Mike) got us off to a
great start, smashing through his 24km leg aptly named “The Goat” because of the rocky climbs to be overcome. I then took off on my 25.5km leg, known as
“The Missing Link”, which runs from Ohakune Mountain Road across to Tukino
Ski Field access road. The first 9km was great, and even fast (for me) – I was
running confidently, hiking the climbs hard, enjoying sharing smiles and words
of encouragement with other runners and marshals on course, even stopping for
the odd photo or three, or just to marvel at the amazing terrain we were
fortunate enough to be passing through. But in that kind of situation, it can be easy to lose focus, to start getting over-confident. And I did. I took my eyes off a
very technical piece of track, a tree root grabbed my foot, and as I fell I felt every single muscle and nerve up one side of my back scream in protest. It was not a good moment. Not good at all.
To be honest, if I hadn’t been part of a relay team that day, I might have turned around and limped out the way I had come in. Because ahead of me I knew there was only tougher terrain to come – no trail to speak of in many places, boulder hopping, scree slopes, huge valleys to navigate – and our mate Matt waiting for me at the next transition point to kick off his leg of the relay, who had trained hard and who was of course excited about his chance to run in this epic event. So
I made the decision to keep moving forward. I won’t lie; it was agony, especially on the downhills. As the terrain got harder, I got slower. Every step was calculated and involved a gritting of my teeth. I was gutted that what had been going so well, was now going so very badly. But as I was having trouble pushing off my lead leg, there wasn’t much I could do except keep trying to make the transition to Matt by the cut off – the time beyond which they won’t let runners continue on the course for logistic and safety reasons.
I’d love this to be a happy news story and say I scraped in (even if it was just by seconds) and hit the transition before cut off, but you already know from the start of this story that was not the case. 3km from the end of the Missing Link, where I would have handed over the transponder to Matt, I took another bad fall, this time losing some chunks of my other leg to some sharp scree as well as further wrenching my back. At that point, I looked at my watch, and I knew I was done – there was no way I was going to make cut off when I actually could no longer even get me up off the ground. I’d managed another 14km of incredibly tough terrain, but those last 3 were going to elude me. So I did the sensible thing started changing out of all my sweaty layers into the dry the emergency kit I was carrying with me and hunkered down to wait for help. The runners who were still behind me came past, checked I was safe (one helped me up into a sitting position on a rock) and I made sure each one had my bib number and situation to report into the crew at the next transition.
Eventually, Mike traced me coming in from the end of the leg, and with a huge amount of his help and that of a wonderfully patient Marshal who’d come through from behind, I was able to make it out on foot to the end of the leg – I was in so much pain by that stage that it took not much short of 2 hours to finish those last 3km, but still better than having the ignominy of being choppered out. I even made it (after a long hot shower and lots of pain meds) to the after party eventually – this race ends at the Chateau, where after dark the finish line moves inside to the ballroom and runners come in to be greeted by a party in full swing, so not one to be missed even though celebrations could not have been further from my mind! My running coaches Ali & Kerry are very wise. They encourage us to complete an exercise where we take stock after an event, to accept the defeats and look for the learnings within them, but also to be kind to ourselves and spend time looking for and acknowledging the good things about what, on face value, can feel like a total disaster. I didn’t think it wise to do that straight away – the rawness of having my first DNF meant I didn’t feel like I could do that exercise justice.
But within the week I found myself sitting down at my laptop to start typing a list – positives to one side, learnings to the other. And there were so many good things to come out of it – everything from having a great first 9km and running strong in that part of the race, to having another experience and tale of ‘you don’t know what’s possible until you try’ to share with our two daughters, and having useful ‘inner voice’ fodder for future events: “Get yourself moving Cate, it can’t be as bad as that time at RoF 2019”. And yes there were learnings – aspects of my training programme where I’d skipped sessions and paid for it on the day…. the need to still work on increasing my solid food intake during a race… the need to practice more with my poles to move quickly through rough terrain. By that stage though, those learnings were filling me with excitement about the opportunity to improve, rather than causing me to keep beating myself up to about things I could have/should have done better.
So resilience to me means facing a setback and having some strategies to cope with it rather than letting it overwhelm you or deflect you from your fundamental goals. On the day resilience looked like focusing on moving forward after injury for as long as, and as quickly as, I could. After the event resilience looked like still celebrating an amazing weekend with friends in an incredible part of the country that many people don’t get the opportunity to see, and giving myself some ‘breathing space’ to reflect on what went wrong, what went right, and what I could learn from it to take forward to future training and events. And right now, resilience means letting my body recover from those injuries (this is still a work in progress, with huge help from my physio Ruth, who is a total
rockstar) and being patient and diligent with the things I need to do so I can keep
training towards my ‘A race’ of Tarawera 102km in February 2020. And if that
means spending more time on a spin bike keeping my cardio up and working of leg strength, while I get slowly back into running, then that’s all part of the process. But hey, at least with my first DNF, I can now call myself a proper trail runner!