When I started ultra and trail running, I toed each line with a simple goal: to cross the finish line. While I had a deeply ingrained competitive drive, I was there for adventure, not to win. I got to scratch my competitive itch elsewhere. Through rafting, skiing or my professional life, I was able to satisfy my need to push myself against myself and against others. Finishing at the top of every trail race I entered wasn’t a priority. In fact, I was so focused on every other aspect of my life that training for these races wasn’t a priority. I didn’t have a choice but to run solely for a finish.
My attitude changed when I started working with my coach and realized I could win races. But this month I had a reminder of how it felt when I was starting.
When I raced the Eiger Ultra Trail Race, a 101-kilometer foot race with over 22,000 feet of elevation gain, starting and finishing at the base of the Eiger in the Swiss Alps, my coach and I agreed to approach the challenge with my former race mentality; to merely get to the finish line. I would let go of the instinct to fight for the win and simply treat it like an excessively long training run. In the weeks and days before the race, I was at peace with silencing my craving for competition. It was going to be a 63-mile adventure. My only goal was to take pictures and eat more Swiss chocolate than anyone else on course.
But when the gun went off, my casual approach to racing quickly shattered. I stopped being the disciplined athlete able to stick to a plan. I let the fire rise. I was running with and against some of the best in the sport, and I deserved to be up there running with them.
At the 35 kilometer checkpoint, the highest point of the course, I noticed I was a little calorie deficient. After climbing 10,000 feet, my head was spinning and my legs felt heavy. It was nothing that couldn’t be fixed with some chocolate and cheese, so I locked in on chasing the 3rd place woman, while running away from 4th, 5th and 6th place who were, in my mind, taking their sweet time at the aid station.
Four-hundred meters down from the checkpoint, descending down steep and technical terrain, I realized I had forgotten my trekking poles. I set them down at the checkpoint and in my hasty departure, had neglected to pick them back up. I considered leaving them where they were and continuing the race without poles, but that would mean risking disqualification. According to the official race rules, if you start with poles, you have to finish with poles.
So I sprinted back up the impossibly steep and rocky trail back to the checkpoint to retrieve the trekking poles. Out of breath and aware that I’d fallen from 3rd to 6th in those short few minutes, I hurried through the aid station, pushing and shoving so I could head back down the mountain and regain my positioning. As I bent over to pick them up, I collapsed, completely unconscious for a brief but defining few moments.
When I came to, I found myself surrounded by race officials and a doctor, who gently pushed me back down as I tried to stand up. They ushered me into the medical tent where the doctor, whose name I later learned was Tatiana, directed me to a bed where she would evaluate whether I was fit to continue racing.
“I’m fine” I insisted and honestly, I was. My theory is that the hard, uphill push to get to the checkpoint, along with being slightly behind on my caloric intake resulted in me passing out.
Fainting during competition is far from unheard of, and usually, athletes recover from unconsciousness quickly. But it was at least two hours of remote, technical and mountainous running until I reached the next checkpoint and Tatiana didn’t want to send me back out if there was a risk of it happening again. So she kept me for further monitoring and observation for two hours, and if I felt like I could continue after two hours of resting in the medical tent, then I could. I was given the option to finish the race, but sitting in the medical tent meant my A, B, and C, goals were out the window. It meant two whole hours of women passing me while I just sat there.
When those two hours passed, I had a belly full of hot food and was wrapped in every blanket the race officials could find. I was still fine. Even with 10,000 feet of elevation gain and 21 miles in my legs, I felt fresh. Like I hadn’t even run that day. I had no reason to DNF (a term for pulling out of a race; Did Not Finish), yet I was reluctant to get back out there. I was so far behind the top women, and the already very long race was going to take so much longer than I had planned. I was looking for every excuse to accept the ride back to my hotel room, but in truth, the only thing between me and the finish line was my ego.
Finishing meant not finishing to my potential. Continuing meant to truly be OK with letting go of the podium. Leaving the aid station meant I would finish the race, but it would be the worst race performance (on paper) of my professional running career.
I’m embarrassed to admit that in the moment, I wasn’t sure my delicate ego could handle the blow. I wanted to fight against the talented athletes in the stacked women’s field and throwing in the towel sounded better than poor performance.
I eventually decided to finish the race despite no longer being able to compete. I was able to detach myself from my ever persistent ego and embrace the reason I wanted to run the Eiger Ultra Trail in the first place: the experience. I spent 17 hours exploring the Swiss Alps. I was able to take in the stunning views and appreciate the terrain in a way I would never get to if I was fighting for the top five. I got to run with fellow racers, chit-chatting about our lives away from the sport, which I can’t recall ever doing in a race setting.
As athletes, we have a complicated relationship with ego. Deciding to start and knowing you can finish a 101-kilometer race requires an ego. As a person with ambitions of winning competitive races, I need to have an ego. To compete against the best in the world, I need the confidence to believe I can do so. And to just finish a hundred mile race, an incredible feat alone, we need to believe in our heart of hearts, that to finish is well within our realm of possibility.
But, as important an ego is to achieving our goals, we can’t let our ego define our endeavors. We have to hold on to the reasons we run because if our egos had their way, running wouldn’t mean anything beyond the accompanied glory that comes with winning or even finishing an ultra-marathon.
By finishing, I got to enjoy running for reasons beyond competing. The failure to perform meant the freedom to unchain myself from the ego-driven reasons I race and allowed me really reconnect to the sport.
We can’t compete, or even set goals, without some degree of ego. Eiger Ultra Trail 101k taught me that we can flex ego like a muscle, tapping into it when we need to fight for a fierce finish or when you put your name in for that promotion. But when the experience, personal fulfilment or relationships are at stake, we can relax that muscle and let go of ego for the sake of enjoyment.