“Awakenings are always terrifying, as they force you to realize that your past has been lived in confinement. The most disturbing part is when you recognize that the shackles holding you down are largely ones you have placed upon yourself.” - Dean Karnazes
Running an ultramarathon can be a bumpy ride emotionally. Somewhere along the way from start to finish, your brain concludes that you’re putting yourself in danger and starts trying to make you stop. One of the things your brain will do is mess with your emotions. The resulting wild emotional swings are not pleasant.
Fail to finish a race, either because of missed cutoffs or because you gave up, and I can pretty much guarantee you’ll feel pretty miserable about it for a long time. It’s been more than 2 years since I pulled the plug at mile 50 at Tunnel Hill, and it still stings.
There are always the lingering doubts. Could I have gone on if I hadn’t been such a wuss? Probably. Did stopping when I did avoid more damage to my ankle? Probably. The decision to stop often lies in the grey zone where later reflection doesn’t yield clear answers. That’s not really surprising.
What’s surprised me, though, is the emotional impact of a successful finish. You would think that realizing that you really are the sort of person that can run that far would be a big boost emotionally. And yes, indeed, if you finish an ultra, you get a healthy dose of elation.
And then, after a little while, as you have a little more time to process it all, you start to realize that you’ve been the sort of person who can do really difficult things all along. You’ve been that all along, from birth to now, and you just never acted on it. All those years, you slid by, not being as good as you could be. For years and years, you had this potential, and you squandered it. All that time, you had this nagging feeling that something was holding you back from being the best version of yourself.
And then you realize the thing holding you back was you. It’s not a particularly pleasant revalation.
You’d think the sting of this realization would only happen with your first epic ultramarathon finish, and not with the ones you finish after that.
But my experience is that I feel it every time - more for races or challenges that were PRs, but still a little bit even for repeats. Maybe the regret never really goes away.
It can be hard to forgive yourself for holding back and not working toward being the best you can be. As always, forgiveness means giving up hope for a perfect past.
A related lesson: it’s not about maintaining maximum speed. It’s about maintaining forward progress. There’s still time to get there before the final cutoff.