Yesterday I ran the 30K portion of the “Just A Short Run-5K, 8.1mi., Half Marathon, or 30K” race. I had no intention of signing up for this event at all, but as everyone in the late stages of marathon training knows; you will have to run longer and longer training runs in preparation for race day anyway-(this week being my scheduled 18 mile long run)-so why not do it at an event with hundreds of other runners to share in the magic and the misery of such an endeavor? Pace groups, free snacks, water, gatorade, beer, energy gels, a pair of shorts, a pair of Balega socks (love!), and a new finisher medal for my wall. Truth be told, I have officially reached the point in my running journey where I no longer even care about such things; with the exception of the pace groups and the thought of hundreds of other people out there pounding the pavement all around me; facing the same miles, the same magic, the same madness, the same hell, the same demons, and yet the same glorious feeling upon crossing that finish line. So I signed up…and, almost immediately, the “race day anxiety” set in. The mental stress of a ticking time clock, pushing you to give your absolute best, and the internet posting of official race results that any runner, obviously, wants to reflect well upon. That being said, Joe immediately agreed to and encouraged me to run this event as my long training run. “Surge on terrain that is favorable to you and finish strong.”, as is always his admonition. However, looking back upon my previous long runs, an “issue” that keeps rearing its ugly head becomes apparent in preparing for this event; FUELING. I can perform well in the shorter runs/races: 6-10mi and, for the most part, half marathons, because these distances require very little, if any, substantial race day fueling. I can just go and run, with a few sips of water and/or electrolyte drink. Once we get into the 15, 18, 20, 26+mi runs/races though, I crash. Not fueling causes the “running through sludge” feeling in my legs, mental fog/fatigue, and cramping in my calves. Yet, fueling at regular intervals induces stomach cramps, nausea, and sometimes vomiting. So Joe and I decided that this race would be used as a training run; cover the distance, don’t focus on or worry about pace, and fuel at regular intervals; planning upon half the normal intake at twice the regular intervals while continually moving forward. (Previous attempts at comsuming a full gel with water at the “recommended” times resulted in me having to walk to get the full intake and then horrible stomach cramps and projectile vomiting.) So we had a plan. Let’s just say though- things don’t always go “as planned”.
Saturday, March 25, 2017: RACE DAY.
My husband dropped me off 40min prior to the start of the race. I immediately found and began talking with a friend who I highly admire and respect. She has conquered and mastered the endurance race in a way that I can only ever hope to. She promised to look out for me throughout the course, as she was there to Coach a charity running group that she is actively involved with. I then continued to scour the crowds of faces, attempting to meet up with my friend, Andy, who was registered to run the 8.1mi race. We were unable to do so though as the races had a split start and different starting points. I placed myself directly behind the 9:00/mi pacer in hopes of reigning in my urge to surge ahead at the start, leaving little energy left at the end. This was difficult but beneficial. Sometimes I was ahead of her, sometimes just behind; but keeping with this helped me from burning myself up in the first half. If only this were my only issue on this day. I quickly realized that I am not a fan of this particular event and will probably never run it again. They gave those of us running the full 30K a 5 minute headstart but started us out upon what I have affectionately named our hometown “Heartbreak Hill”. It was approximately half a mile to the point where the runners in the 5k, 8.1mi, and Half Marathon converge head on upon the route and we all blended together. I was slightly ahead of my pace group at the time and trying to keep near them yet converged upon the other race(s) start with the 11:30’s and immediately jammed up; shoulder to shoulder people. The next 2-tier hill faded some of this out and the surging on the downhill helped, as well, but it was still awkward, frustrating, and at times, hazardous. Once we set out past the 5k finish and into the first of three 5 mile lake loops, all runners had seemed to have found their stride. Although we were running the lake loop in the reverse direction of how I usually run it, which I am not a fan of. I began to meet and speak with the people also running with the 9:00/mi pacer. All was going well until it came time for me to start fueling. I took in half my gel with only enough water to aid its affectiveness. Within one mile my stomach began to cramp and I felt the rise in my throat. I was able to breathe through it and keep pace, but I was struggling. I held the pace as best I could while choking down the urge to vomit. I saw another girl on the sidelines of the race, vomiting over the guardrail. I placed my hand on her back and told her “I know what that feels like. Just breathe, you will be okay.”, as I ran by. I completed the first loop with tears in my eyes, snot running out my nose, and vomit in the back of my own throat. As I started into the 2nd lake loop, I caught site of Andy on the sidelines, cheering me on. He saw my struggle and immediately jumped out on the course. He ran alongside me, begging me not to quit, as I told him how sick these gels make me. He continued out on the course with me, ushering me into my second lap around the lake, encouraging me to do whatever I needed to do just to finish. “You only fail if you quit”, he reminded me, “Do what you gotta do; just finish this.” As we neared mile 9.5, Andy apologized that he could not run the entire distance with me. He gave me his classic thumbs up and smile then set me off alone, as he turned back towards where he had parked his car. At this point, I was at least a minute or two behind the 9:00/mi pace group; I could see them but knew that I could not catch up just yet. I was feeling better though so I rallied within myself to keep moving and try to regain my pace in an effort to stay ahead of the 9:30/mi pace group. It was time for me to take in another half gel though so I gave it a try…with almost immediate regret. The next few miles were a blur of tears, sweat, and vomit. I threw up 4x during this race. At some point in the final 4-5mi I began what I call the “survival shuffle”; a mix of running and walking while trying to regain composure and explain to myself why it is that I do this. Anyone who has ever struggled in a race can relate. This is the place that nightmares are made of; where one questions everything about themselves and their reasons WHY. I envisioned myself posting to my fitness groups: “JASR30K-DID NOT FINISH. #Let’sNotTalkAboutBostonRightNow” or even “#ChasingBostonNoMore”. Just the thought, however, broke my heart. I reasoned with myself that this is just ONE BAD DAY; a singular bad run; a lesson learned in fueling and hydration that, obviously, does not work well for me. It means nothing to my future running and chasing Boston unless I quit. At this point, I told myself that it truely is only a training race and that this is exactly what it is for; to figure out the specifics of what does and does not work for me so that I can get it right on race day. Despite the almost overwhelming urge to borrow someone’s phone in order to call my husband to come pick me up, I told myself over and over again that the only thing that could disappoint me today was for me not to finish this race. So I continued on with my “survival shuffle” for about another mile before having to spend about 4-5 minutes in one of the not so pleasant smelling porta-potties along the course. I, officially, no longer cared about my pace; instead, only what kept me moving forward. In mile 15, I saw the race photographer laying in the grass alongside the road and put on my “happy face”, despite feeling like death.
I stopped briefly in mile 16 to pet a Borzoi (similar to a greyhound) and talk with the owners who were walking her. This lifted my spirits and helped power me slowly through another mile. At mile 17, my misery had, again, returned but with a little over a mile and a half left to go, I caught sight of a man with a young child on the other side of the road, walking towards me. The boy was maybe 2-3yrs old and smiling so big. His dad was hunched over him, hands on the boys thighs and knees, PHYSICALLY stepping the childs legs into a walking motion, as the boy teetered and laughed and tried to hold himself upright. If his dad let go, even in the slightest, the boy fell. My best guess is that some form of muscular dystrophy plagued him. I immediately stopped feeling sorry for myself and immediately felt ashamed that I ever even had. I smiled back at this beautiful young child; I clapped for him and waved, then forced myself to run again and not stop until I crossed that Finish Line. I have no right to feel sorry for myself. My struggles pale in comparison to this little boy’s. I am running and chasing a dream that, in my case, can only be classified as “recreational” while this child is struggling and trying again and again to simply stand up and walk like a functional human being. As I came down the final stretch of road, maybe a quarter mile from the Finish, I saw my husband walking toward me and was so relieved. I waved him towards me and choked up for a moment; just like the sight of him brought me to tears when I ran the PghMarathon2014. He fell in step beside me and encouraged me to keep going; pushing me to finish strong, just as he has been doing in a few of my recent, more difficult, training runs. My stomach hurt so badly at this point that I could not run without pressing firmly into it to keep from getting sick again. I kept switching from one hand to the next, holding the pressure exactly where I needed it so as not to throw up. I crossed the line and finished this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad run.
I said hello to a few friends and was lucky enough to run into some other friends that I have not seen since last year, when we ran the Lt. J.C. Stone UltraMarathon together at this same exact location. They listened to my fueling complications and offered a few suggestions of their own; including the fact that several of them have the same problems and fare better without any solid form of fuel for runs under 18-20mi! They simply conditioned themselves to run through the pain rather than face the illnesses that gels, chews, or tablets produce. I must add that these particular people are not the “average runner” either. Each of them are masters of the endurance race; completing and competing in multiple marathons, ultras, and trail races, as well as, winning such races overall or at least in their age groups. I said my goodbyes and walked away, leaving my frustration and disappointments on the course. For the first time, I refused to bring those negative feelings and emotions home with me. I immediately went into “recovery mode”, doing what I needed to do to make sure that I am able to return to training on Monday. For the first time, I did not even know what my finish time or average overall pace was until my husband showed me;
I could have performed so much better. I am capable of so much more than this. It was a learning experience though and the biggest thing I learned was to never, ever give up; no matter how sick or miserable I feel or how poorly I think that I am performing. Adapt and overcome, but do not ever quit. Progress may be slow at times and working out the details of how to adequately fuel my body while not pissing off my, obviously sensitive, stomach may take awhile…but these things are temporary. Quitting is forever. And while I may be alot of things, a quitter, I am NOT! Maybe I may never get the training, the fueling, the pacing, or the performing “just right”; and maybe Boston will forever remain my unfulfilled fantasy or dream…but it certainly will never be because I quit trying. So long as I am healthy, able, and uninjured I will keep on running, I will keep on trying, and I will never EVER give up. I will continue on with my training and putting forth my best effort with every run. I will find an alternative way to overcome my issues with fueling; and no matter what happens in Pittsburgh, or Steamtown, or wherever else this journey takes me, I will never take for granted the fact that I am ABLE to run. (I don’t HAVE to run…I GET to run!) I will never lose sight of my goal; or the simple fact that progress is still progress no matter how small because, once again, this journey is PERSONAL and the struggle is simply a part of the story.