100 miles of Istria takes place on a small peninsula in Croatia. The course runs point to point across the whole region linking a dozen small medieval towns still bustling today. We ran over high mountains rising straight from the sea, through lush valleys and into 500 year old castles. It’s unlike any race you could find in the US. The course is hard. With plenty of elevation gain (7100 meters) and significant portions of extremely technical rocky ground. It will challenge even the most seasoned ultra runner.
I arrived in Umag, the small sea side town which is the host of the race, two days before the start. I knew that jet lag would be of major concern going into the race, but I wanted to do it regardless. I put the problems of sleep deprivation out of mind as much as possible. My training had gone very well in preparation for the run and I think that in some ways this gave me a bit more optimism than was helpful.
I know my headlamp is looking real good right now
By mile 25 or so all I could do was think of sleeping. It was about 9pm, but my internal clock was all kinds of messed up. My race was not over competitively as I was still in pretty decent striking distance, but I could tell that the lack of sleep the previous days coupled with the time change were going to be significant problems. The course was quite difficult through the first half and included much of the rocky and technical terrain. I exited the aid station at mile 55 in high spirits with reports that there were quite a few runners close ahead. I thought a podium spot was still possible. The next section from mile 55 to 63 I ran faster than anyone else in the race.
But after the 100k mark things completely fell apart. I was constantly wanting to lie down on the trail to sleep. On top of that I’d found a way to destroy my quads to the point that I could no longer do more than hobble down the many steep descents that remained. Seventy more kilometers in that physical and mental state seemed unfathomable. This is where I re-learned something important. If I had not decided before the race that finishing held just as much importance to me as placing highly I don’t think I would have managed to find the strength to continue. I had put myself into a very rough spot for a whole bunch of reasons, but what I found was the will to continue came from that strong intention set before the pain and suffering of a derailed race. I am so happy that I carried on to the end. The feeling of coming into Umag, crossing the finish line, still in 7th place was more than worth all of the difficult hours out on the course.
Finishing a race with great adversity and winning a race are too completely different worlds. Of course I would always rather be in the later as winning a race is what the training day in and day out are all aimed at. But, I have found that there is great value in finishing a race in spite of the adversity. I would not choose this path before hand, but once I am thrust into it I know deep down that the experience is extremely valuable.
It’s never easy to go into a race with high expectations on yourself and to fail. From a competitive perspective for me the 100 miles of Istria was certainly a failure, no way around it. But, what is so cool about 100-mile races is that the whole thing does not have to be a failure just because the competitive performance was. I have found I can take so much from the battle and the process of finding a way to just finish. These dual goals provide a richness that makes 100-mile races something special.
Thank you to all my supporters, friends, family, and athletes I coach who have all provided me with more encouragement than I deserve. Thanks to my sponsors Hoka One One, Gu energy Labs and Drymax socks for your support of me as a person and athlete. All three of these companies do an amazing job with their products and their support of athletes, races, and the running community. I’d also like to thank the race organizers at 100 Miles of Istria. I cannot recommend this race enough. For anyone who would love to experience an amazing country and be in the best hands possible this race is for you.
And lastly, thank you to my wife who has been at home in Ashland this week taking care of our 7 month old without me. I find the hardest thing about not placing highly at the 100 miles of Istria is that I feel like I’ve let Natalie down. She does so much to help me pursue these big goals, and when I don’t reach them it can feel like all her effort and sacrifice is wasted. I think that is the other thing about finishing the race at nearly any cost that is so important. Even though I did not come close to winning this race I know by doing everything in my power to finish it at least in some small way honors all the support my wife gives me and our son on a daily basis.
When you start your next 100-mile race, whatever your personal performance goals may be, set your intentions on finishing. Tell yourself over and over before you start that you will finish. Even if you make poor pacing decisions or any other maladies befall you, that intention will carry you through and help you cross the finish line, even in difficult circumstances. As both an athlete and coach, I know you’ll be really happy you did.