Tuesday, May 3, 2011

When Marathons Go Wrong

I happily arose Sunday morning at 4:30 a.m. after only about four hours of sleep, but that's pretty normal for the night before a marathon.  I got up, rubbed my eyes, looked into the bathroom mirror, and said to myself, "Let's do this." 

Everything was going perfectly.  Jenn's husband, Shane, was able to maneuver through Covington and avoid the downtown Cincinnati race traffic, and he dropped Jenn, Hansel and I off mere feet from the start line.  The predicted rain hadn't begun to fall yet, but we all had our ponchos ready just in case.  We headed inside Paul Brown Stadium, and I took my third bathroom break of the morning.  I chalked up my frequent urination to nerves and the fact that I had gulped down a whole Gatorade already and then refilled the bottle with water and continued to sip on it while we waited for the race to start.

The rain began to fall, and now adorned in our lovely blue ponchos, Jenn and I headed to Start Corral D.  I took my fourth and final bathroom break, shed my poncho and crossed the start line, ready to attack 26.2 miles.

The first few miles felt good, and I was running a decent, steady pace.  I skipped the first two water stops, since in training I usually only stop once every 3-4 miles.  As I crossed the river back into Ohio, I took my first pack of Gu and guzzled it down with some water.  I made my way through downtown, and I started to feel a little funny.  Maybe the Gu was upsetting my stomach?  I reached the on-ramp from Seventh Street which begins the slow climb up Gilbert Avenue into Eden Park.  I felt a little weak, but knew that I could make it, since I've absolutely slayed this hill every time I've run it during training.  I own Gilbert.

Halfway up the hill, I completely ran out of energy.  My legs felt like they weighed two tons each and my stomach felt like it does after I've made the poor choice to eat at a Taco Bell.  I just couldn't physically keep running.  I was mad and confused.  I slowed to a walk and my stomach calmed down a little.

Angry, but not willing to give up, I came up with a new plan.  I would walk the hills and run everything else.  "I can still do this," I told myself.  I tried the run-walk method until I reached the Eden Park Overlook, and realized I was feeling worse over time.  I now couldn't even run the flat parts anymore.  My head was pounding and I was beginning to feel dizzy and disoriented.

I neared the end of Woodburn Avenue at mile nine, and I had to make a choice.  I could turn right and continue on the full marathon course, or I could turn left and attempt to finish a half marathon.  I turned left and began to hyperventilate.  I'm still not sure whether the hyperventilating was a physical ailment or emotional reaction to my split-second decision. 

I saw a medical tent and headed toward it.  After several minutes of hyperventilating, crying and drinking Gatorade, I calmed down, had my blood pressure checked and was cleared by the medical staff to finish the last four miles of the half marathon on foot.  I walked the next three miles--mostly in tears--but made myself run the final mile to the finish. My legs were burning the whole way, but I wouldn't let myself give up.  Despite this, I never felt less proud when I crossed the finish line.  I tucked my finisher's medal into a pocket -- I didn't feel like I earned it.  As racers happily greeted their families and fellow runners in the recovery area, I sat alone on a curb and sobbed.


My friend Tracey recently commented that the beauty of distance running is that no matter how hard and how smart you may train, you never know what the race day will deliver.  An accomplished marathoner, Tracey blacked out from dehydration during a race last Saturday at around mile 20, and was hospitalized, never to finish.  He is okay now, but we both learned some valuable lessons this weekend.

I was lucky to have recognized the signs of dehydration before I ended up like Tracey (or worse).  I didn't know it at the time, but all those bathroom trips on race day were the beginning signs of a flu, which I am still suffering from two days later. There is a very thin gray line that exists between pushing your body past pain in order to accomplish something great and pushing yourself to the point of risking your health.  That line is often very difficult to see, especially when you're in the moment, and most athletes flirt with it on a regular basis. 

Bailing out and doing the half marathon may have felt liking a crushing blow to my ego at the time, but I can see now how it very well could have saved my life.  I will proudly display my finisher's medal with the others, because after all, I did the training and earned the right to call myself a three-time marathoner, even if I didn't complete the distance on race day. 

One of the reasons that I love running so much is because it teaches us things about ourselves that nothing else can.  Where it usually teaches me about pride, strength and fortitude, this time I learned about humility, anger, failure, and seeing how all of those emotions can actually help you. 

As soon as I get over this flu, you better believe I'll be lacing up my shoes and pounding the pavement again.  After all, I still have so much more to learn.


Anonymous said...

What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

Jamie said...

You truly never know what race day will bring. I'm sorry you didn't have the race you hoped and trained for. The silver lining is you listened to your body and didn't do any serious damage. You'll be back and race revenge is oh so sweet!

E. Jane said...

I admire you very much for your perseverance. I have never run a marathon, and at my age, I never will. but I have friends who do it, so I have great respect for all of you. There will be better marathon experiences ahead for you--I'm sure of it. But take care of yourself. As rewarding as it is, running a marathon is not without risks.