Sunday, October 7, 2012

"You're running on guts. On fumes. Your muscles twitch. You throw up. You're delirious. But you keep running because there's no way out of this hell you're in, because there's no way you're not crossing the finish line. It's a misery that non-runners don't understand." -Martine Costello

Spartan Shape-Up, Day 446:

Another check mark in my Bucket List of new, awesome, active things to do... I finished a Half Marathon.

13.1 miles.


A lovely Columbus Day Long weekend brought the Leaf Peepers Half Marathon to my race schedule. It was supposed to be a great race - 70% not on pavement - and right at peak foliage. The weather was brisk and overcast, just the way I like it to run. Low 50's had me comfortable in a long sleeve running top and a fall breeze promised that I wouldn't be too hot.

I would, however, be a snotty mess.

A couple days leading up to the race, I wasn't feeling so hot. Allergies, I tried to assure myself... but then, it became inevitable: I had a cold. As the simple head cold morphed into a monster of a coughing, sneezing mess, I sat on Saturday night before the race in great conflict. I really wanted to do this race - it was a "big" race, I had a lot of people coming to spectate, a lot of support of other people I knew running, the course was good.... but I felt awful. I wanted to cry in frustration. I didn't know what to do, what the smart decision was, and on top of that I was, in no small part, worried about my ability to actually run 13.1 miles.

I've trained for this, I've done longer, more brutal Spartan Races... but that's not a 13.1 mile road race. In a road race, it's you, the road and your body... there's no obstacles to break it up, no varying challenge. The challenge stays constantly between you and your brain and your body. And I'd never tested this particular limit before. I also didn't really want to test it out the first time while sporting a doozy of a head cold. Argh. What to do.

Like many of my generation, I threw my frustration to FaceBook, where my Spartan's answered and gave me the kick in the ass that I needed; so what if I needed to walk, theoretically, I've done much harder things (I finished the grueling VT Spartan Beast, which had a finish rate of like 38%!), and so what if I'd be a snotty, spitting mess. Get it done... "With my shield, or on it." as one reminded me.

So, with a new determination, I ate some handcrafted, goodness filled chicken soup that my CG made me, drank inordinate amounts of tea and honey, continued hydrating and dosed up on some NyQuil for a solid night's sleep.

I woke up feeling... less bad. Took my DayQuil (figured I'd need all the help I could get to keep this cold at bay), ate a good breakfast, drank a small Dunkin' Donuts coffee (om nom nom!), and wriggled into my CW-X (if ever bionic legs were going to be needed...).

The crew from my work,
(l-r), Me, Kim and PJ
Registering for this race was interesting. We got our nice long-sleeve t-shirts and pasta sauce. Yep. Pasta sauce. Now, I've gotten medals from races, energy bars, t-shirts, pint glasses... but never pasta sauce (as it turns out, one of the sponsors was a local Italian restaurant that makes their own).

Then, I began the nervous process. I definitely was not feeling anywhere close to 100%. My muscles felt okay, which was the only thing keeping me at that starting line. I was just praying that my breathing would be cooperative.

In no time, the gun was going off and my race-pace buddy April and I trotted off. The plan was to start easy, as we did have 13+ miles, and then we'd separate as our abilities diverged. I was seriously not sure how this was going to go and I knew that April was strong over this distance, despite this being her first Half.

The first 3-4 miles were no problem at all. Our easy pace allowed my body to warm up, all my sinus' to open (the cold air helped too!), and after a ridiculous amount of spitting out the nastiness (I'm sorry fellow runners! I stayed to the side and spit in the grass!), I was feeling pretty good. 4-5 miles is a comfortable distance for me these days and the dirt road that we had hit was not too bad on the joints. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad.

Leaf Peepers had great organization and wonderfully positive volunteers at each water stop, at every 2 miles. I resolved that would be the way I'd run the race - from water stop to water stop, without thinking too far ahead. April and I reached the halfway (6 mile) water stop in pretty good shape, having not walked for more than 15-20 seconds at each previous water stop just to be able to swallow our water. We allowed ourselves a 30-45 second walk to chew down some energy chews (I'm loving the Clif Blox, Margarita flavor, with extra salt!) and were right back at it. All was looking pretty promising. I was still holding a steady, even pace, despite it not being breakneck, I estimated we were holding a solid 11 min/mi. I would be happy finishing that way.

Here's where I should mention that this course was not flat. It wasn't a Spartan Race by any means and I hadn't been struggling with the frequent short rolling hills, to this point. In fact, they had been strong point for me, often passing people on hills, as I was able to keep a steady pace, while they fell back. There were a few shining moments I was proud of, in that respect. Clydesdale Legs, for the win.

However, at the quick 15-20 second walk break at mile 8, April and I both remarked that it was becoming more of an effort to start back up. I noted I was struggling more than usual and my legs weren't feeling quite as burly as I'm used to... but we were way more than half way. Finish was the option.

Mile 9ish, or 9.5 saw the first time that I really had to admit that I wasn't running at 100%. We were facing a decent hill and I didn't have the breath or oomph in my legs to run it. Telling April I needed to walk, I gave her the green light to go on with out me, as I  didn't want to slow her down. As I walked up the hill, I noticed that my breathing, where it had previously been pretty full and steady, had become more labored and I'd developed a wheeze. Either the cold meds had worn off, or the cold was catching up with me and reminding me that I was, in fact, human.

At the top of the hill, maybe 20-30 seconds later, I picked back up into a trot and pushed on until the mile 11 marker.

Then, my race got ugly. Real Ugly.

The whole time April was with me, I'd had a buddy to chatter on with, and keep my mind off my body. Also, someone to push me on and encourage in the moments when things are sucking (when you're running that distance, things sucking is inevitable). Now I was alone and very aware of my compromised state. My breathing was not doing well at all, and I was starting to feel some stiffness really set in my hips - not a problem I'd run across before. There was a dull ache in my ankles from the concussion of tired footfalls back on the pavement and I was running alone; which meant the war was just me and my brain, now.

Miles 11-13 were some of the longest of my life. I fought. I knew I was at the back of the pack of finishing, but I was determined not to be last. Around mile 12, as I pushed myself into a trot ("just until that sign"), I wanted to cry, at the discomfort that surged through my legs and the amount of argument my body threw back at me.

I trotted just past the sign. I feel back into a brisk walk, hoping to stretch out whatever the hell my hip was doing. I pushed back into a slow, labored trot for another sign, or telephone pole or two, and screamed inside with a feeling of defeat every time my body dragged me back down to a brisk walk. It was quitting on me.

That was something I'd never felt before. I've trekked 14+ miles of black diamond ski trails of over 5000 ft elevation gains and 35+ obstacles that challenged every part of my body, and I've never felt this feeling.

I wondered if my body COULD run to the finish. Apparently, sickness had taken more out of me than I'd allowed myself to feel. I wheezed. I felt my shoulders slump and my head hang a little lower, as my walk "breaks" became more like Walks, with run breaks.

I wanted to be done. I wanted it to be over. I was no longer having fun. But I had passed mile 12, which meant I was ALMOST there, and my head rallied around the fact that DAMNIT, I would earn the right to say I completed the half marathon this day, to the best of my ability.

There was a guy in a light blue shirt in front of me. Coughing and struggling, I hauled my legs into a slow, shuffling trot, that I intended to keep up - no matter how I felt - until I passed him. I got 10 feet by him, and back down to a walk. He was struggling and walking. But I was past him. I felt him creeping up on me. I closed my eyes, winced at the pain in my hip and demanded my muscles trot a little more. Just to the end of the bridge. Back to a walk.

Somewhere around this point, maybe just over a half mile from the end, my Stepmom and step sister came across me walking and wheezing. They gave me some much needed company and distraction from my body, as well as a few sips of cool water, as I power walked a bit more.

I saw the traffic lights that signaled the turn to the quarter mile-ish home stretch. With resolute determination I decided that, no matter what, I'd run from those lights across the finish line - regardless of the pain, or how slow I had to run.

I hit the corner and started trotting. It certainly wasn't pretty. My body was in full rebellion.

With not too much left to go, Light Blue Shirt Guy suddenly comes running out of nowhere, I glance to see him immediately on my left and coming in strong.
Running to the finish,
Chicking the Guy In Blue!

Oh. Hell. No.

I'd worked to beat him - if no one else - and he wasn't going to take it from me in the last 30 seconds.

My body got in gear, shoving the pain and discomfort into some deep dark well in my brain for later, and powered forward. I wouldn't say it was a sprint, but it was the fastest I'd moved for many miles, and it was at least a strong, brisk run.

My legs carried me at that pace across the finish line, allowing me to finish in 2:47.

Rear View of my finish, coming up
on my throng of amazing supporters!
I felt so many things, as I shuffled to a stop after my chip stopped the timer: Immediate relief that I was now "allowed" to just stop. Raging disappointment in my body and the time that it had forced me to settle with. Pride that I'd finished. Grateful for the mass of people that was gathering around me, after cheering me over the line, now passing me bananas and recovery shakes and congratulations.

Post-Race Banana BLISS!
2:47. 13.1 miles. The goal in my head had been under 2:30. I was nowhere NEAR that. But, I'd gotten to the start line, despite being under the weather, and I'd crossed the finish line, despite wanting to cry, rip my legs off, and just quit. Yeah, I'd pondered flagging down the bike medic and letting him take me off course.

My disappointment was pushed aside as I was brought back to reality as my legs screamed at me. I had done exactly what you should not do at the end of something like this - I'd crossed the line, and stopped moving. I'd stood still for a decent amount of time, talking to my friends, chewing down a banana and part of a bagel and generally not moving. My legs were seizing. I was coughing. Now I was getting cold.This was only getting uglier.

It was time to hobble back to the car and I refused to let the CG bring it closer to get me, as I knew - in some rational, sensible part of my brain - that I needed to walk this out a bit. I hobbled a really slow 3/4 of a mile back to the car, in the most searing pain I've ever been in, after or during a run/race. My hips were crying. Every time I tried to bend my knee or lift it over a curb, tiny invisible daggers shot into my leg. Ahh yes, my leg muscles had seized, after the exertion.

Tears welled into my eyes, but I made it back to the car and sat down for the first time in over 3 hours. I can't tell you how much I appreciated the following 20 minute car ride, just then. Just to not have to move of my own power.

Before we went out to a recovery-meal (I look forward to those. Never does food taste quite this good.), I stood in a blazing hot shower for a solid 20 minutes, coughing out all the cold air, breathing in the steam and trying to soothe and stretch my legs.

That hot shower finally allowed me to feel a little more human (and I think the Ibuprofen may have started kicking in), and let me evaluate what had happened, with a clearer thought process.

It hadn't gone well. Particularly the last two miles. However, I truly believe that was not for lack of training, or preparation, or fueling... simply that my body was already stressed fighting a sickness that was more serious than I thought.... and to run 13.1 miles, you're pushing your body to your limits (at least I am).

My time was horrid. But I did finish. I fought the urge to quit, I still ran over the finish line, and I didn't give up - even when I had every good reason to.

I need to pay more attention at the end of these hard races - don't. stop. moving. I know better than that. I was in raging pain, partially because I'd over taxed a body that was not at 100%, and partially because I'd stopped moving and dismissed warming down my muscles, in favor of what felt good at the moment: stopping.

I declared at the end of this Half Marathon that I hated it and didn't think I ever needed to do this again, now that I'd crossed it off my bucket list.

That assessment may have been a little severe and colored by the pain I was in at the time.

Granted, I am very sure, particularly after this race, that I am not in love with road races. Nor am I particularly in love with distance running. My strength is short bursts - 5-10K runs, sprints, lifting heavy weights... but not sustained endurance runs like this. That does not, however, mean I'm not going to do them. In fact, that may be why I continue to put them on my schedule - at least once a year. One must always push to improve their weaknesses.

This, too, was probably not the best way to evaluate my feeling about half marathons, because I'm thinking that being sick made this one a lot more grueling than it might have been under other circumstances. I know my body can usually handle much, much more than that.

Therefore, in about a month, I'll be keeping my registration to run the All Women and One Lucky Guy half marathon in Newburyport, MA, with two of my favorites - Peyton and Stacey. Peyton's a veteran, but it will be Stacey's first half, and I'd like to think, my first real solid effort at a half - I don't want this Leaf Peeper finish to count.

After that, I'll make a better evaluation about distance running. As of right now, I'm a firm believer that every distance over 5K should have a big mud puddle, something heavy to move and something to climb.

With that, BlogLand, I'll leave you to ponder this quote which encompasses the feelings I'm trying to solidify about my performance in this race:

"You also need to look back, not just at the people who are running behind you but especially at those who don't run and never will... those who run but don't race...those who started training for a race but didn't carry through...those who got to the starting line but didn't in the finish line...those who once raced better than you but no longer run at all. You're still here. Take pride in wherever you finish. Look at all the people you've outlasted."


  1. The post race banana and shower were definitely the best things EVER. I also did the stop moving after crossing the finish line mistake. So. Much. Pain. I may have mentioned this already, but you are so insanely impressive/inspirational trooping through this with a head cold!!

  2. WOW- what a day you had- but you finished! I just started training for my first half not that my OCR season is wrapped up. I haven't yet run over 4.5 miles straight- but I have time thank goodness. Good Job at crossing the line & now I know to keep moving at the end of mine no matter what.