Wes Ritner is an accomplished ultra runner who won the 2018 Bigfoot 200 and tied for 2nd in the 2018 Moab 240, and he's shared several stories from his 200 mile experiences with Boldly Went. He's also a West Point grad and a veteran, and this Veteran's Day we're excited to highlight some of the cool things vets are doing in the adventure community by sharing this moving story from his experience during the 2019 Moab 240.
On October 14, I completed the Moab 240, a 240-mile running race near Moab, Utah involving 115 runners from 15 different countries. The course was a single loop that took the runners across vast deserts and atop 10,000-foot mountains. This was my eighth 200+ mile race since 2015, and it was arguably my worst performance in any of them.
Initially, I thought I’d write a more thorough, traditional narrative of the race, like I’ve done for some of my other events. But since this race had been different for me, I decided to write a different kind of recap, one that focused solely on what became, for me, the defining moment of the race. Everything else during those countless hours on the trail was either a precursor to that moment or a result of the decision made in that same moment.
The first 20 miles of the race went well. I cruised along somewhere around 9th place at an easy pace, and I chatted with the other runners nearby. The early miles of most ultramarathons are like this. The pack hasn’t completely fragmented into front-runners, mid-packers and back-of-the-packers, so everyone takes advantage of having friendly company around them to take their minds off the long trail ahead.
It was somewhere around mile 25 that I started having difficulty getting calories and fluids in without feeling queasy. The problem might have been caused by the fact that my body hadn’t fully recovered from running another 200-mile race three weeks earlier, in addition to the slowly rising temperatures and the relentless exposure to the sun in the treeless, desert environment. Regardless, the temporary inability to absorb nutrients wasn’t new to me. I’d faced similar problems many times before. In such situations, I typically forced myself to eat more or drink more or to take fewer electrolyte tablets…whatever I needed to do to solve the problem. It was odd that it was hitting me so early in the race, but I figured this would pass in 10 or 20 miles, as it typically had before. When I arrived at the mile-32 aid station I made a point of taking the time to eat something other than the snacks and fruit I’d been consuming on the trail, and to drink plenty of fluids. I left that aid station thinking I would soon be feeling better.
But nothing changed. In fact, it gradually became more difficult to eat, drink, or run without feeling nauseous. I attempted to make adjustments to my diet but, strangely, nothing was working. Soon I realized that there was a good chance I would not turn this around for a long time. A very long time. It was unlikely I would even come close to hitting the most modest of my goals for the race. I would be suffering for another 205 miles to achieve a result that I wouldn’t be proud of.
With my body chemically out of balance—fluids, electrolytes and calories out of synch—the core of my thought processes was impacted. Normally, I consider myself a very driven, positive, goal-oriented person. But my mind had reacted to the imbalance by going in a very different direction. I saw only barriers and roadblocks. I saw no meaningful path through the pain. I could only see that the results I wanted to achieve in this race were impossible, and that the amount of time which I would be suffering to achieve mediocre results was going to be much longer than I’d planned. I could find no reason to continue trying.
The next aid station, positioned at mile 57 of the race, was still another 10 miles away.
I wanted to give up. Why should I continue suffering? This was just a silly race, after all. I wasn’t saving lives here. I wasn’t feeding the homeless or rescuing the helpless. I was running through the desert and having a miserable time of it. There was no reason to keep pushing forward. Such was my mindset as I slowly knocked off the next few miles. Dropping from the race at the next aid station started looking like the only reasonable action to take. Why should I suffer when there was no purpose to the suffering?
But a shred of the person who is the best of me remained engaged in the moment despite the pain. And that shred remained engaged even though I knew how bad 190 more miles of this pain could be. I knew that if I didn’t change the nature of the thoughts going through my mind, I would arrive at the next aid station and announce that I was dropping. I at least wanted to leave the door open to the possibility of a different outcome. And to do that, I needed to somehow step back from what I was going through, and evaluate why I was running this race. I needed to decide what the race really meant to me. I knew I might make the decision to drop anyway, but, if I didn’t try to change something in my mind, then my path was already decided and it was the path to dropping out.
So I did something different. I stopped running. I stepped to the side and I sat down at the edge of the trail. Runners passed by, and they asked if I was okay. I told most of them I was doing fine, of course, which was a lie. I forced myself to nibble on some of the food in my pack, and I forced myself to take small sips of water. I forced myself to take my time and allow the race to continue without me. Once I felt at peace with what I was doing, I tipped over to my side in the rocky soil, and I closed my eyes. Rocks probably jutted into my shoulder, but I didn’t feel them. I lay there silently.
Last year I’d finished this race in a little over 62 hours in a tie for second place. Based upon how it was going, I couldn’t imagine finishing it in less than 90 hours this year. I thought again about the fact that this truly was just another silly race, just like every other race out there. It was artificially constructed adversity. I knew I’d feel great if the misery ended early and abruptly at the next aid station. And I knew that I would feel a tremendous sense of relief at having avoided 190 more miles of needless, voluntary suffering.
But I also knew that such relief would quickly turn to disappointment. Disappointment in my unwillingness to finish something I’d started. Disappointment in taking the easy path of escape instead of facing the demons that I knew were still to come. This race was a task I’d chosen. It was mine to finish. Was I here to feel the fleeting success of being a top finisher at the end of the race? Was I here to hit some arbitrary finishing time goal? Granted, I enjoyed the sense of accomplishment of a strong finishing position. But that wasn’t why I’d started running these races, and it wasn’t why I continued running them. I was here to face a tough mental and physical challenge and to overcome it. To quit merely because the race wasn’t going as well as I wanted it to ran contrary to who I am.
And that was enough.
I pushed myself back into a sitting position. Where I finished in the pack of runners no longer mattered to me. I could be first or I could be last. I might suffer through nausea for the next 190 miles or I might come out of it in 20 miles…either way I was going to conquer this thing. This race would not beat me.
I started moving again, walking first, then transitioning to a slow jog. The finish line was a few steps closer.
My inability to eat and drink without feeling nauseous continued until mile 120, a total of about 90 miles of sickness. During this time, my running was essentially a slow jog, and when I was at aid stations I sat for as many as three hours trying to get food to stay in my belly, vomiting, and then starting the cycle again so I could leave the station with at least some small amount of calories in my stomach. Never in my race experience had these kinds of problems gone on for so long.
I seemed to finally turn a corner standing atop Shay Mountain at the mile 121 aid station. I was able to consume several cups of tomato soup, and it felt amazing to feel those calories flooding my veins. This trend continued when I hit Dry Valley at mile 140: more food and more energy. And from there things only got better. I’d dropped to 50th place when I was going through the worst of it, but after my turnaround at Shay Mountain, I progressed slowly up the field until I was running alongside Ryan Fecteau about twelve miles from the finish.
Some part of the competitive side of me reared its head as I pulled up beside Ryan….the part that wanted me to push harder and improve my meaningless statistics. But the part of me that had made a single decision in a long moment of despair almost 200 miles ago reminded me what this race was about. It was about overcoming adversity. And it was about overcoming that adversity whether it was alone or with others. Today, it would be with others. Ryan and I hiked and ran those last twelve miles, getting to know each other and appreciating each other’s stories.
We stopped just short of the finish line in a gesture of non-competitiveness, playing rock-paper-scissors to see who would cross the finish line first. It took three rounds, but, in the end, Ryan was victorious. His rock crushed my scissors. He raised his arms and crossed the line in 10th place. I followed a few seconds later in 11th. We’d finished in 80 hours and 48 minutes….more than 18 hours later than my 2018 finish. Somehow, that didn’t matter.
Looking back at the race, I attribute my finish to the moment when I realized that the morass of negativity that had drowned my mind was a result of external conditions and was not indicative of who I was. I attribute my finish to that same moment when I decided to just stop, when I decided to do something different, and when I decided to realign my thoughts with the person I knew myself to be. It was at that moment that victory became possible once again. Victory, not over other competitors, but over the obstacles that were preventing me from finishing what I knew I could finish.
Running a 240-mile race was a small price to pay for the opportunity to experience that single moment. I will gladly pay it again.
If you like reading about adventure, or probably more importantly actually going on adventures, we're confident that you'll like our guide to developing the life you want, The Dirtbag's Guide to Life: Eternal Truth for Hiker Trash, Ski Bums, and Vagabonds.
Tim and Angel
The goat in the picture lives in Silverton, CO, and tried to kill us. We survived to bring you this dirtbag wisdom for the ages.