Bottom line: I had to drop at the Braeburn/Mile 94 checkpoint.
This DNF/” Did Not Finish” really hurt. Not only was I perfectly trained and as physically and mentally strong as I could be, but I was having one of the best races of my life. Don’t get me wrong, due to the extreme cold and the distance between checkpoints, the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra is really hard. But the conditions this year couldn’t have been better. Perfect temperatures of around -20 F with a nice hardpacked and icy trail made for quite easy going.
When not powerwalking at a brisk pace, I was able to actually run large sections at a time. As a result, I was hours ahead of schedule, while exerting less effort than previous years.
Prior to the Braeburn checkpoint, I completed the last 14 miles with John Nakel, with whom I did a large chunk of the race last year. We planned on sleeping four hours at Braeburn then attacking together the roughly 60-mile section to the next checkpoint. However, as soon as I laid down in the sleeping cabin out back, I noted my heart racing at almost 150 bpm. Despite relaxation techniques, breathing exercises, and even massaging my carotid sinus receptor and doing the Valsalva bearing down exercise, (the latter two being vagal maneuvers) to try to slow my rate, I was unsuccessful. I became worried that if left unabated, I would likely eventually get into major trouble if I continued on. Additionally, the heart pounding prevented me from sleeping. Over the last 36 hours, I had slept a total of only two hours. Essential for optimal performance let alone normal baseline functioning, what I needed most, sleep, was eluding me yet again. I was in a bad way.
The painful moment of truth came when I realized that if I was the doctor for the race, and an athlete came to me with these issues, I would pull him or her. I could not logically talk myself into continuing on.
Without an EKG, I had no way of knowing if my heart was beating regularly but fast or possibly dangerously irregularly and fast, the latter possibly being extremely serious. If I needed a rescue down the trail in extremely remote, frigid conditions, I would not only jeopardize the safety of John but also the race crew who would have to evacuate me. The totality of all my negative emotions including indescribable disappointment did not outweigh acting responsibly and logically.
The suddenness of how all this transpired magnified my anguish. I could barely process how, just a few hours ago, things couldn’t have been better and now the situation had changed full circle. I rapidly processed the four stages of grieving – denial, anger, bargaining then acceptance.
To make matters worse, in a cruel twist of fate, I tweaked my neck as a result of repeated ten second episodes of coughing attacks while trying to rest. Any movement of my head caused a knife-like piercing pain unless I supported it with my right hand. I stretched and massaged the area without improvement. This freak injury alone would have made continuing on impossible.
John knocked on my door at 7 AM with my wake-up call. I told him my predicament, feeling as if I was letting him down, knowing we worked together ideally. Though not essential but extremely helpful, carrying on with someone else makes the race experience much more pleasurable.
Innumerable times in the six hours while waiting for the bus back to Whitehorse, I foolishly thought about reentering the race as of course my heart rate slowed but still remained above 100.
Now several days after the race finish, I continue to second-guess my decision to drop. But as a rational doctor, I must admit I made the right decision at the time.
(I think my fast heart rate was simply as a result of too much caffeine, not enough sleep combined with dehydration/not enough fluids.)
Though I wish God didn’t give me yet another reminder, my saga serves as a perfect example of how the pursuit of Extreme Greatness is fraught with disappointment, setback, frustration, and unfairness. Yet, we must rely upon the four pillars of Patience, Persistence, Dedication and Discipline.
We must remain steadfast in these virtues. Though unwanted and painful, setbacks provide an opportunity for growth which then makes us stronger and more resilient, leading to a higher likelihood of achieving Extreme Greatness.
(For the last two years or so, I’ve experienced repeated and very inconsistent episodes of a slow, irregular heart rhythm when my heart rate reaches above 140 or so. I’ve been evaluated by several cardiologists who have of course been able to diagnose my Type II Second-degree Atrioventricular block, but they have not been able to identify the cause. I have my theory but will not reveal it here. Anyway, it has proven so far not to be dangerous but just incredibly annoying and disruptive to my lifestyle. I have accepted my new limitations. Of note, if my situation at Yukon this year is not due to the factors I mentioned above, this would be the first time I have had a tachydysrhythmia (fast rhythm.))
The Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra has reached almost mythical status in terms of its difficulty. And it is truly justified. Even if one prepares perfectly, really terrible things can happen and suddenly. One cannot ever let his/her guard down. The demands of the course, in such relentless conditions, look for a crack in one’s armor and then attacks. There is zero margin for error. In my previous DNF’s at this race, (I now have four!), I failed mentally. This year it was physically.
But…I keep coming back. Will I again?