One Dirty Magazine

Lack of Fuel

A tale of a DNF

Claire Walla September 12th, 2018

Lack of Fuel The author, Claire Walla. Photo by James Kao.

By the time I reached the 1,700-foot climb up a ski slope, reality hit. I’d gone out too fast. Coming in ahead of schedule, I had missed my crew. And, while plodding along the two-mile death march up a wall of dirt—legs aching, lungs laboring, light-headed and suddenly tired—I realized I hadn’t eaten much of anything all day. I was at mile 30 of the Tahoe Rim Trail 100-miler, suffering.  With 70 miles to go.

Two years earlier I had signed up for my first 100-mile race, Angeles Crest 100, after volunteering at an aid station. I saw darkness descend upon dozens of slumped bodies—feet dragging, shoulders swaying, eyes half-open, foreheads bleeding, tears streaming—and thought: I want that. Something about witnessing sheer determination through the depths of sorrow and physical annihilation compelled me to prove I could persevere, too.

As usual, I started pondering ways to break my legs, when my toe caught a pebble, my body lurched forward, and the ground rose up … Splat!

I’d managed to drag my haggard body to the finish line of several ultras, including AC 100. I’d experienced my fair share of pain, pessimism and regret. I’d even fantasized (more than once) about breaking my legs, just so I could stop without having to quit. Quitting was never an option.

Until, suddenly, it was.

I sat at each subsequent aid station along the Tahoe Rim Trail, first at mile 35, then at mile 40, blank and bewildered. I knew I needed food. But I convinced myself I was too tired and nauseated to eat. My only option was to keep moving.

The course followed a 50-mile loop, which all 100-mile runners were to complete twice. As I reached mile 43, the highest point of the course at nearly 9,000 feet, it was daunting to think about schlepping six more miles, and impossible to imagine doing the whole damn thing all over again. 

As usual, I started pondering ways to break my legs, when my toe caught a pebble, my body lurched forward, and the ground rose up … Splat!

A fluffy pile of dirt softened the blow as my face sank into the earth.

“Are you O.K.?” a runner bellowed from behind.

I turned to look at him.


“Is it that bad?” I asked.

“Uh, here,” he said without answering my question. He handed me a crinkled tissue before running away.

“Hope I don’t have to shit!” he called out as he disappeared around the bend.

The dirt transformed into mud as I smeared it across my sweaty face.

I trudged on, reminding myself that I had signed up for this.  That people traveled far to support me. And that I wouldn’t be able to quit, anyway, until I made it to the 50-mile mark.

There was one last water station before I hit 50 miles; one last opportunity to sit and stare at the ground in despair.

I could see the start/finish line through the pine trees. I was almost halfway there. Halfway through hell. This was the moment I had been waiting for: sorrow, physical annihilation, determination, resilience. This was what I had wanted from a 100-mile race. And, for the first time, I didn’t think I had what it took to complete it.

As I got up to leave, I noticed a kid in a freshly pressed Cub Scout uniform staring at me from a few feet away.

“My face was once that dirty,” he announced.

He seemed unfazed. Nonchalant. Almost patronizing. As if it was easy to have a face like mine; as if he knew what I’d been through; as if he—a 10-year-old—had ever experienced even a modicum of what I’d gone through.

Do you know what it took to get this face?! I wanted to wail.

In retrospect, I was more of a child than he was.

I quit at Mile 56, right next to a ridgeline with sweeping views of Lake Tahoe. Here, much earlier in the day, I had thought everything was perfect. I’d like to think I could have gutted it out and made a remarkable comeback. But I didn’t.

My first 100-mile DNF has given me more insight into what it takes to run 100 miles than actually finishing.  It’s compelling me, once again, to prove that I can. And it’s helped me develop my first ultra-running motto:

Eat food, and you won’t eat shit.

Claire Walla will toe the line at the TRT 100 in July—with plenty of food and face wipes. 

This article was originally published in the June 2018 issue of Trail Runner.

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Lisa Thompson
Lisa Thompson
2 years ago

Congrats on coming back and kicking TRT100 in the butt this year! Way to go girl!!

Matt D
Matt D
2 years ago

That was excellent writing and a great story. Thank you for sharing.

2 years ago

We often learn more from our failures than our successes. And kudos for the bravery to write about it.

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