June 9, 2014
This last Saturday I failed to finish my second attempt at a 100 mile race.
As I winded through the repeated switchbacks on the TARC 100 from mile twenty five to thirty I became increasingly aware that I was more and more disoriented. After three years of ultra running I had manage the first 85 degree day of the year as well as any central Maine resident could. Because of the heat I started cramping at ten miles, and I troubleshooted it with extra water, electrolyte pills and more calories than I could stand in the heat. I was strong physically but every time I ran I would heat up and cramp, but after I hit the marathon mark I started getting disoriented. Heat cramps were rapidly turning into heat exhaustion, but if I could only make it to the night I might have a chance...
My Ranger brain was on point, I was outside myself worrying about my weakening cognition. My limbic system in was kicking ass despite my cortex being massacred by the heat. I was both dizzy, less aware of my location on a map, as well as outside of myself and increasingly aware that failing to make it to the next aid station might be dangerous. In other situations I might have tried to take a more direct course towards support, but I knew that I was not reliable enough to do my own navigation. I was paradoxically disoriented and present at the same time. In my miserable state I had enough composure to know that I could no longer trust myself to do anything but keep moving on the course. Despite being delirious at thirty miles they were able to drop my core temp, by spraying me with a hose, and after sitting for five minutes drinking all I could and being offered ice (which was only available for medical issues). I ran some more.
I had trained hard, and instantly picked up my pace passing several runners that transitioned better in the aid station. However, I drank my water bottles so fast that I was out of water more than a mile away from the next aid station. I kept saying to myself "when are the fifty miler runners going to pass me" but everyone was crippled by the same heat. This mile and a quarter took thirty minutes, and the dizziness returned. Dehydrated I tried to rally again, but I couldn't seem to cool down. When a medic cooled me down I nearly went into hypothermia, and was advised to call it a day. I obliged without regrets.
In the days that have followed I have not been disappointed because, when you give your best effort and fail, there is nothing to be unsatisfied about. My Fitbit sensor recorded 4690 ft of elevation gain and 35 miles of running. My worst day was ten hours of running, and was still something to be proud of. Subsequently looking at the stats also made it apparent that I ran precisely according to my plans, based on my steps per minute. Typically I would have covered 42-5 miles and would have arrived at aids stations more rapidly.
I am not a fan of PTSD as an excuse, but taking diarrhetic medications for PTSD and mTBI has make heat especially hard for me to regulate my temperature in the summer. I also have a history of heat injuries of high dosages of antibiotics in Ranger School for cellulitis, and the high heat of swamp patrol, made me pass out with heat exhaustion during a long movement in Florida. On my second ultra I had similar issues only to spend three days in the hospital with rhabdo. PTSD is also linked to inflammation that compounds heat regulation. This is not an excuse, it is something that makes me proud to have fought so hard for the thirty five miles I managed to complete rather than disappointed about the sixty five miles that never could have been on a day like that. This year it did not heat up until my rest period so there was no way to employ my more typical stadium run for heat management, though in the winter I trained inside with maximum gear to train for the June race. I hiked easy for ten miles in Acadia last Saturday and walked Darby during the hottest part of the day (there were streams and rivers for him) all week, but my acclimatization did not help at all.
Still to have the maturity to listen to my body, recognize a bad day and make a stronger attempt in the fall, or winter when it is more healthy. Being confident and aware of my limitations is as important never accepting those limitations as permanent immovable burdens. Letting my lesson be that I need to try in the winter and start with smaller distances in the summer is not giving up finishing a race on my worst days, rather for me it is learning my limits and moving forward.
Most importantly when I was on the edge of passing out with heat exhaustion my overly capable limbic system reminded me the ways that all the stigmatized "PTSD Symptoms" are so useful in times of real danger. PTSD or as I like to call it the Syndrome of Survival still works when your life is on the line. I wouldn't wish those moments on anyone so please learn my lesson, and let my miserable failed attempted at 100 miles remind you that PTSD ultimately kept us alive when we needed it too. All of that of our baggage comes from strengths and is still a resource during an actual crisis. You don't have to be as crazy as I am by running ultra distances to learn how to yield the fruits of trauma as well as the sorrow.