Tag Archives: dnf

Unfinished (Glass City Marathon Race Report)

I have always found that writing endings is one of the hardest things. How do you wrap it all up? How do you tie up the loose ends without putting too perfect a bow on it? How do you craft that finish that leaves just the right taste and leaves the mind thinking on it for the the next hours, or days?

Races have the ending down pat. Because there is a clear finish line – a clear line of demarcation – yet there is always a desire, a taste for more. There is satisfaction in completion, and the thought of the next goal, the next challenge.

But here I sit, wondering how even to begin to talk about a race that didn’t have a finish? Sure, it had an ending. I can recall laying on the ground, words coming out in wheezing monosyllables, and I at last reached over to hit STOP on my watch. Stop. Done. Over. End. But no finish.

Over the last three-and-a-half years since my first DNF, I have been almost fascinated by how that race report remains one of my most read blog posts – by far. It isn’t really surprising, though, because we have all been there. And if we haven’t, we will be eventually. If you run long enough, you will – almost inevitably – experience a disastrous race. You will stumble into an obstacle so enormous that even the most stubborn runner must pull the plug and call it quits. Sometimes we don’t get to make this decision for ourselves. And even when we do, the tears inevitably come, because that’s the thing with marathons – you train for months on end for one day, one chance. And so many stars must align for you to arrive at that start line healthy and fit, and to get to the finish in one piece. One misalignment can lead to disaster, and while we can strive to control many of the possible elements, there are some X factors we cannot control, sometimes cannot even foresee.

So, what happened at the Glass City Marathon? Something I have never in my life experienced. Vertigo. But let’s back up. Back to the beginning. Back to race week, the final days of the taper.

Pre-race

This spring has been a doozy. Work stress. Family stress. Too much travel. Too many things on my plate. And the exhaustion of marathon training makes all of this that much harder to deal with. So it isn’t surprising that I got sick. I frequently get sick during training, though I noticed since working with my coach, I hadn’t been getting sick so much in the thick of training – before then, I almost always got a head cold either when I was peaking, my body and immune system crushed by miles, or early on in the taper, the sudden decrease of mileage and demand and allowing my body to rest also seemingly allowing it to succumb to one viral plague or another.

The Wednesday before Glass City, I woke up to go to my last physical therapy session for my foot before going to work. It was a rest day, and all I did was a few minutes warmup on the bike and went through my exercises and stretches. Nothing at all strenuous. Just making sure all systems were go. As my PT and I discussed, my foot had been steadily improving. I noticed it less and less on runs, and some runs I had no issues whatsoever. I knew I’d need some full rest post-race to kick out the last bit of inflammation, but I was good to go.

I noticed that morning, though, that I was feeling a little congested. I’m often congested in the mornings first thing after waking, and of course pollen counts are still soaring this time of year, so I tried to write it off to that. Even so, I began pounding more fluids – also a good plan for marathon week – and planned to get to bed early (ditto). Thursday I felt about the same. That hint of congestion that raised a little yellow flag in the back of my mind, but I was determined to hope for the best. If it was a cold, maybe I could kill it early with hydration and sleep.

Friday, I woke up sick. Not horribly, but it was definitely viral cold nasal congestion. I conferred with my coach, who reassured me that I would probably be fine as long as symptoms remained above the neck. I just needed to keep up with rest and fluids. I did my best to focus at work – a mix of last-minute stress of getting ready for a big work event that would take place the Tuesday following the race, hydrating plenty and running to the bathroom frequently, and race week distraction (how many times can I check the forecast in a single day?) plagued me, but I got through. I left work at 3:30, and by about 4 pm we were on the road to the airport in earnest, Google taking us on a strange backwoods route (though it was pretty and cut through many picturesque farms) to get to the interstate and to the airport. I bought some travel tissue packs and Nyquil at the airport, and we arrived in Cleveland without incident (though I noted that my left ear was just EXPLODING during the descent into the Cleveland airport – it didn’t pop until we landed), my dad and stepmom picking us up and driving us to my mom’s house.

We got to bed very late, but I took Nyquil, pounded more fluids, and didn’t set an alarm. I woke up at about 8 the next morning, then rolled over and dozed more, finally getting up at about 9 am on Saturday. I felt pretty stuffed, but I took a very hot shower and steamed out, and I seemed to be draining for the most part, my energy level decent.

After a trip to Panera for lunch (a day-before tradition of mine – a soup and salad at Panera seem to treat me well as last lunch before a race), we got on the road to Toledo. My left ear still seemed to be partially plugged, and I didn’t get it unplugged until halfway through the drive (and even then I wasn’t certain I had fully opened that sinus). I was draining and draining but was feeling like it was productive and I was definitely on the mend and over the worst of the cold. I posited that if I still felt congested in the morning I could steam in a very hot shower to clear my head before the race, if necessary. I kept drinking water, some with Nuun to try to keep my electrolytes balanced.

First stop upon arriving in Toledo: the expo. I felt nervous, detached. I just wanted to get my bib and get on with it. But of course I also needed a quick photo with my bib, and my supportive husband (though I’m dismayed and embarrassed to say I never got a photo with my mom the entire weekend. That is just not okay).

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It was late afternoon by this point, and I had been texting with twitter/Instagram pal Sarah (whom I’d convinced to run that race earlier in the year when she’d been debating possible spring marathons – she lives in Ann Arbor so it was a nice drive in for her) and we planned on meeting for dinner, which gave me just enough time to get settled at the hotel, try to make a race spectating game plan looking at the maps and parking options, and relax for a little bit. I laid out my gear, plugged in various devices to charge, kept hydrating.

Just after 6 pm, we met Sarah, her sweetie, and their darling toddler daughter for dinner at IHOP (another pre-race tradition of mine). We had a lovely time, eating pancakes and talking about running and life in general. It’s always a cool novelty to meet someone in person who you’ve been communicating with online for so long. And Sarah’s little one charmed all three of us to the extreme. I told Sarah my basic race plan and she said she’d be happy to run with me for as long as she could – she’s a much faster marathoner, but her training had been derailed that winter/spring due to the weather, life, and multiple bouts of sickness. We planned to text and find each other before the race – and before each of us gave up our phones to our families when we got in the corrals.

Maybe around 8 pm or a little before, we parted ways to try to get some sleep. I double-checked my gear and decided that I was probably going to be racing in the full singlet the next morning, rather than the crop top. It was predicted to be 39 or 40* at the start. It would get warm decently fast the last hour or two of the race, since the forecast was also calling for it to be very sunny (rain had been predicted earlier in the week but that forecast changed by Thursday). I had throwaway arm warmers (Shannon’s old socks) and a pair of throwaway gloves donated to the cause by my friend Krystina. I flipped through my training log to remind myself of tough workouts conquered, read over a few messages from friends and family, got a few more encouraging wishes from my coach (who was literally on the other side of the world for work), and tucked into some Harry Potter reading before shutting off the light, sleeping fairly well for the night before a race.

Race day

As always, I woke up with my first alarm and shut off the backups. I moved around quietly as Shannon kept snoozing. I made my oatmeal in the hotel microwave (though I noticed hours later as we packed to leave that I never did put nut butter in it. Oops). I made coffee. I sipped on water. I scrolled through various social media feeds, rolled out my hips and glutes and hamstrings. I looked at the weather. It was COLD. A few degrees colder than predicted. I stuck with my plan: singlet, throwaway arm warmers and gloves, bum wrap skirt, calf sleeves. I had nothing for my ears. I had brought a throwaway shirt, but instead wore my aero jacket, and carried sweats in my spike bag to be carried by my crew. It’s always nice to have a crew to carry your spares and backups and layers. I pulled Shannon out of bed for good around 5 am. The coffee and food did their job and got things moving – I had minimal GI disturbance for the race, which was a huge change from my issues at Erie.

At 5:30, we headed down to the lobby to meet my mom. I was so grateful to have her there – and she got up so early on her day off just to watch me run. As we rode the elevator down, I felt adrenaline shooting through my body. I felt as if I were in full-on fight-or-flight mode, a bundle of nerves, waves of nausea roiling in my gut. I hummed to myself to try to settle my gut and distract my mind. I told Shannon I was scared, and he told me it would be okay. I told him this felt like my last chance. He reassured me it wasn’t.

We stepped out into the parking lot and it was freezing. Maybe mid-30s. The car was coated in frost, but as we sat in the car, seat warmer on, waiting for things to thaw and defog so we could go, the shivering I was doing seemed to burn off some of my excess nerves. I felt ever-so-slightly calmer. We drove about 15 minutes to the race site, and took a chance on parking: we bypassed the main lots to try to find parking on a side street to make it easier for Shannon and my mom to drive around the interior of the course to cheer me on in the later miles. It paid off, and we found a parking spot maybe a half-mile from the starting line.

The area around the start was quiet. We passed the elite tent, and saw a couple of port-o-potties sort of sitting by themselves. After a little hesitation (were these just for the elites? Where was everyone?) I went in one since I had the opportunity. I texted Sarah, but she hadn’t left her hotel just yet. Soon enough, the crowd started to gather, though I think a lot of people stayed indoors as long as they could. The air didn’t have a bite to it, but it was quite cold. I wasn’t complaining though – it was pretty much ideal race weather. It was about the same starting temperature as when I ran Chickamauga in November 2015.

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As we stood around and chatted, some movement in the crowd caught my eye. In particular, I saw a tall young woman who looked familiar, but my brain was determined not to believe what I saw: it had to be my friend Caitlin’s exact doppelganger, right?

It wasn’t. It was her. And as I realized this, I also saw Kim and Lori with her. Crying in disbelief, I made my way over to my friends – who had gotten up at 2:30 that morning to drive in from Pittsburgh – and pulled each of them into a grateful hug. Each woman was wearing a different year’s Boston finisher’s jacket.

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Girlfriends are the best.

I bumbled through introducing my friends to my mom, texted with Sarah as we tried to figure out how to find one another in the thickening crowd, and visited the porto one more time. About 6:45, I stripped off my extra layers (so cold!), gave last hugs, and Shannon walked me to my corral. I gave him one last kiss and pushed my way through, lining up around the 3:35 pacer (I couldn’t seem to find the 3:30 pacer to place myself in-between). I chatted with a couple girls around me who were also Oiselle runners, and I strained to see around me to try to find Sarah. I couldn’t find her. I resigned myself to the fact that I would be doing this on my own, which I knew I was prepared to do, but running with a friend is always more fun. I said a few prayers, whispering the Sh’ma to myself, took some deep breaths, tried to loosen up my shoulders and upper body. After the national anthem, after the wheeled start, after a couple extra speeches and pauses, the gun sounded. We were off.

The Race

I was assigned corral B, and while it wasn’t a huge race, it wasn’t miniscule either, and I knew I was in for a bit of a crowded first mile. I was behind the 3:35 grew by a few seconds, but I had figured going into this that I would let the first mile go a bit slowly. I spotted my cheer squad right after the start, and looked to settle into a comfortable rhythm. My toes were frozen and numb. The streets were beaten up and potholed in many places. I was breathing easily and evenly, finding the comfy zone for the early miles.

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In the middle with the white hat and white arm warmer. The woman in the foreground has her hand raised right in front of my shoulder.

I pulled the 3:35 group toward me without really making an outright effort to do so, and soon enough they were in my rearview. Around this time, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked, and it was Sarah! We grinned at each other, happy to find one another. We settled in for the long miles ahead of us.

8:04, 7:59, 7:59

I’m not sure how I’ve managed it in the past, but even my coach has commented on it: my last few marathon race reports have been a little freakish in the level of detail I seem to recall, even in the pain of racing. Maybe it helps that 2 of those 3 in particular were double-loop courses, easily broken into piecemeal, easier to recall particular sections and moments because I traversed them twice. This time, I don’t know what was different (other than being a single loop – but so was Albany 2016), but I don’t recall as many particulars, as many mile-by-mile moments. The only explanation I can come up with is this: focus. I have never been so keyed into a race I think in my life. I could feel fleeting, floating thoughts of doubt and fear trickle in, but I seemed to sweep them away almost as quickly as they emerged. I recalled the Albany Half this year, and how I had left doubt and fear behind me at mile 8 to race hard. I was more ready now than ever. I ignored the doubt of having only run one 20-miler. I ignored the fear around my foot: it felt fine. I shoved aside the doubt of impostor syndrome: I had done this before, and I could do it again. I could do it better.

My crew found me within the first few miles – twice. Sarah commented on the second time that they were professional cheerers. I smiled huge for them both times. It was such an incredible boost to see all of them, screaming and taking pictures. I felt strong and relaxed.

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Sarah, in purple beside me, was a metronome. Also note that we have not only twin shoes, but are perfectly stride-for-stride here.

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7:57, 7:56, 8:03

In talking race plan pre-race with my coach, we decided I could reuse the pacing plan from Erie: I had paces for 3:30, 3:32:30, and 3:35 listed on it, so I could float in those zones and feel good about it, basically striving to run even. This time, I wasn’t afraid to push more towards flat 8:00s, and not fear those splits when they came. 8:06 would be in the 3:32:30 zone. I would be very comfortable with a BQ of that finish time as well, but a 5:00 buffer would be ideal. I locked right in, finding myself flirting with 7:5X quite often, as I had in many of my marathon pace runs. I also tried a more aggressive fueling strategy (borrowed from my friend Krystina): I was racing hard, and I needed to fuel my body. I also have a highly tolerant stomach when it comes to GU. At roughly certain mileage points, I checked my overall time quickly (not dwelling so I wouldn’t panic at how fast I was going, just checking in) and I took a GU at 30 minute intervals , regardless of proximity to a water stop. Sometimes I would be stuck with a sticky-feeling mouth for a mile or so, but the water stops were more frequent than I had expected, and I never went very long without one.

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After the second time I saw my family, I was predicting being able to see them around mile 10, but as we turned onto what was clearer a bike and pedestrian path, I realized that what I had read as a good point to see them (possibly twice) would not be accessible to them. I let this go, and resigned myself to the fact that I would be seeing them sometime after mile 20. Then, I would really need a boost. At one point I saw my watch was reading a 7:45 pace shortly after seeing them, and I forced myself to pull back (though that mile still went a little fast). I checked my overall time when we passed the 10K flag and my watch read about 50:05 or so. Perfect.

7:55, 7:57, 7:53, 8:04

As much of a blur as this race was overall, I do recall that the course was quite beautiful in many places. We wound through some gorgeous neighborhoods with stately homes. Families were out in their yards and on their porches cheering. When the full and half courses split, the full course crossed into a park and we wound through trees and across a field, and I thought of Chickamauga, and the magic of that day – magic I was hoping I was recreating right then. Sarah and I periodically checked in on each other. I wavered a few times, but I reminded myself that this was a long race: if I felt bad, I would feel good again. And I did.

I think my gloves came off around mile 8 or so, and by about mile 11, I worked on pulling off my arm warmers, easily tugging the right one over my Road ID/pace band, and carefully removing my Garmin and holding it while I pulled off the left one (I was afraid to tug it off over my watch for fear I’d hit a button by mistake). Thinking back on how I had almost gone back to the hotel room to get regular arm warmers, I was grateful I had thought better of it. The sun was warming things up quickly. We entered a long stretch of wide road and open sun, though it remained cool. I stayed hyperfocused on the task at hand and not the endless concrete ahead of me. We crossed over the 13.1 point, marked with a flag, and I again checked my overall time on my watch: about 1:45:25ish. Still perfect. Excitement simmered. But I knew things were going to be getting tougher.

8:04, 8:05, 8:00, 8:04

Since I was mostly keeping my watch on my current lap split for easier pacing, I found myself struggling to remember what mile I was on fairly often. Inevitably, I was always one mile sooner than I was thinking. The grind was creeping up on me, but I knew I still had much more to give. We came to a narrow path, and I upped my cadence to cruise down a short, steepish hill, trying to get a little charge to go up the other side. My quads burned on the downhill. We curved around a loop past a big house, and the tiniest bump of a hill slowed me considerably, but I caught back up quickly enough.

Just before the mile 17 mark, I got a nice surprise. We had come around a lake, which I knew was at the upper end of the course, and the last place I expected to see anyone at all, but as we came back down and headed back to the road, approaching another water stop, I saw them. All those Boston jackets that signaled to me that my entire cheer crew was there. Apparently they had CLIMBED A FENCE to get to me at that point. I blew them all a kiss, then focused back on dialing into the correct effort, almost overcorrecting as we came past the water stop and having to adjust as we started a new mile a tiny bit slow.

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Blowing a kiss to my amazing crew

8:00, 8:06, 8:03

I recalled how at Erie, I was struggling mightily and slipping out of the 8:0Xs and into the 8:1Xs and flirting with 8:20 before I had even reached mile 20. I was still strong. We kept rolling. My watch was already way off the markers, but I knew I had some cushion. I was in a much better position than I had been at Erie. I just needed to hang on. I know I checked my watch at the mile 20 flag, and that I was looking for it to read about 2:40-2:41 and change. I don’t remember what it said, but I know it was in that zone.

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As we came around the arcing driveway past the huge house again (this time it was also a relay exchange), Sarah told me to go ahead, that I had this. At mile 21, she let me go, and I pressed on alone.

8:08, 7:58, 8:16, 8:03

Past mile 21 we came past an aid station giving out orange slices. On instinct, I grabbed one and shoved it in my mouth, taking a slurping swallow. I spit out most of it since I knew I didn’t have it in me to chew on anything, but it was still worth it.

My family found me at a turn as I was deep in the pain cave, somehow getting onto that pedestrian path. Everything around me and in my own head was cacophonous, but evidently Shannon screamed “LIZARD MOOOOOOOODE!” at that point.

8:16

A couple miles later, as I begged my pace to stay below 8:30, better than 8:23 (my slowest miles at Erie), Shannon, Kim, Caitlin, and Lori caught me again and ran along side me. It was at this point, Caitlin was able to observe, I was starting to weave. This didn’t strike me as strange at first. I was in so much pain and trying to push without overdoing it – I had to leave some for the last mile. I just had to keep hanging on. I thought perhaps I was cramping, or it was my scoliosis contributing to an awkward right side lean.

8:22

My cheerleaders let me go to race to catch me at the finish, and I kept pressing on, backing off pace a tiny bit to try to preserve myself. I had cushion. Not a ton, but I had some. If I could survive miles 23 and 24, I could come in hard for 25, and harder yet for 26 (point 2). The sun was baking me at this point, and I wondered if I should have worn my crop top instead of full singlet after all. But it still wasn’t hot, per se, and I knew I had to push through worse. I had to fight now.

8:28

But something was not right. I kept tilting and tilting and tilting right. I couldn’t keep a straight line, kept veering off the side. I knew I was tired. I knew I was cramping and that my muscles were reaching their breaking point. But this was a particular feeling I had never experienced. Nothing I did helped me to readjust course and keep straight and upright. I really couldn’t tell you how long I tried to keep up like this, swaying right, but at some point, I sensed the situation was unsafe, I slowed to a walk to try to regain my balance, and I tripped over the side of the bath and collapsed to the ground. According to my watch data, I had run about 24.5 miles before my pace dropped off completely in this moment.

So much of what happened next is a blur. I know that, very quickly, a couple of runners stopped to help me up. One of them, a man named Chris, walked with me for at least a quarter of a mile, possibly a half mile or so. I was staggering and completely unable to stand and walk alone. I held his hand tightly and wrapped my arm around his waist when even that wasn’t enough. A race official on a bike came to check on me, and I repeatedly asked if I was going to get DQ’d for relying on someone to help me walk to get to the finish. Even hobbling along, I was determined to cross the finish line, knowing my BQ was slipping through my fingers like fine sand. Knowing it was over. I apologized to Chris for wrecking his race, told him that I didn’t want to hold him back.

Runners offered me their fuel, water, salt. A woman on the sideline offered me pretzels, which she then fed to me because I needed to hold on with both hands. Sarah caught up with me, and told Chris that she had me, insisting to me that she would stay with me and get me to the finish if I wanted to get there, no matter how long it took. I kept trying to walk, but still, I could not hold myself up. It wasn’t late stage marathon cramping and dehydration (at least, it wasn’t completely that). At one point – I don’t remember when – a young woman asked to squeak past us to finish her race. I remember seeing she was dressed modestly in black and white, limbs covered, wearing a hijab. If I had had the wherewithal, I would have called out, “you go, girl.” I had nothing. When the race official asked if I had any health conditions, it started to dawn on me that this could be related to the head cold. I said aloud that I had been sick, that I had sinus congestion I thought I was basically over, but it may have screwed up my equilibrium.

At last, after what Strava reads as a half-mile of slow, gruesome walking, I stopped. The race official had me sit down along the side, and called for the sag wagon and medical assistance. They had me lay down so that my feet were slightly uphill, toward the course/path. Sarah stayed with me. I slowly reached my hand across my body to hit STOP on my watch.

I cried. My breathing was slow and shaking. I kept wondering about my heart rate and blood pressure. We waited for the sag wagon. Sarah repeatedly helped me lift my head and take sips from a water bottle. I held her hand and cried. I thanked her for staying with me, for being an incredible friend to someone who, in reality, she hardly knew. “We’re sisters in sport,” I remember her saying. I asked if someone had a phone, if someone could call my husband. I never lost consciousness, and I wasn’t delirious, but syllables came slowly, one or two at a time. I told Sarah to check my Road ID, thinking I couldn’t get his phone number out any faster than she could read it off my ID. She had to pull back the pace band I had taped over it, but I was grateful I was wearing it at all. I heard her talking on someone’s phone, reassuring him that I was going to be okay and that I would be taken to a med tent. I murmured to myself and tried to focus on breathing. For a few moments, I wondered if it would be scarier or more of a relief just to pass out right then.

A little while later, the sag wagon had come. They helped me slowly sit up, and once I had my bearings a little in the seated position, they helped me stand. A very large man (I recall thinking of him as Hagrid) had me wrap my arms around him so he could help me into a wheelchair and he pushed me to the van. He and another young woman transported me toward the finish area in the van, still in the wheelchair. I examined my legs, my right leg awkwardly cramped inward, and noted several small cuts on my legs and right arm from the fall I had taken. For a few minutes I thought I might not be able to keep down fluids, and the girl handed me a bag just in case. Thankfully I didn’t end up needing it. I also asked her to call my husband again, and she fully ripped off my pace band (though she gave it back to me) to access the information on my Road ID. They would be waiting for me by the med tent.

By the finish area, they moved me from the van to the back of a golf cart, and I hung on as best I could, with a man holding my arm tightly to keep me on and balanced. The driver of the cart kept shouting at the crowd to move aside so we could get through. I almost wanted to yell at them myself, but couldn’t muster the strength.

We rounded through the football stadium, and as we approached the med tent, I saw my cheering section gathered near it. I sobbed in my mother’s arms. I sobbed in my husband’s arms. He scooped me up and carried me into the med tent and lowered me onto a cot. They took my heart rate and blood pressure – both were normal. I was fine. I laid there for a little while longer while they made sure I was okay (and I made sure I was okay), before helping me to stand and walk somewhat on my own.

Wrapped in a space blanket, I hobbled toward Kim, Caitlin, and Lori. These women. These women who drove all the way out to Toledo long before dawn to watch me race. These women who crammed in a car with my mom and husband to chase me around the course and scream and cheer. These women who stood in front of me with tears in their eyes to match mine. I hugged each one, hard, crying into their shoulders, thanking them for being there, for being amazing friends.

We gathered ourselves up for our journey back to the car, and along the way, bumped into Sarah and her family. I gave her a huge hug, asked her if it was weird if I told her that I loved her. We’re connected now – connected forever. Running a marathon with another person is a powerful, intimate experience. And having someone pick you up and carry you, help you move forward, help you find assistance when you need it, hold your hand and give you water when you are literally on the ground, unable to move? We’re sisters now.

I swallowed my tears to say bye-bye to her little girl, who was already well on her way to claiming her momma’s medal. Before we split up, I managed to have the wherewithal to request a picture of all my runner girls.

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Badass women with hearts of gold.

Once we got back to the car, agreeing to meet back at the hotel, where I would get cleaned up before going to lunch with the Pittsburgh ladies, I dug my phone out of my bag to see an explosion of messages. Good luck wishes, cheers along the way, frantic race tracking, texts, tweets, GroupMe messages, RaceJoy app cheers, Facebook posts… Tears rolled down my cheeks once more. The friends who were tracking me lived and died with every update, and when they heard the bad news, they were right there with me.

We managed to get a little extra late checkout time when we told the front desk I had been in the med tent, but we still had to hustle a bit. I was astounded to discover I had hardly chafed at all, but getting around was still difficult. The shower is still the best place to cry. Shannon helped me to dress, including putting compression on, and we threw our things into bags and got out the door, Shannon doing most of the heavy lifting. Deciding on Applebee’s as a simple lunch option, we girl talked through lunch and I picked at my food. I had ordered chicken tenders and fries because it sounded good, but as usual I didn’t want to eat much once it was in front of me. Shannon actually did a little bit of parent-bargaining-with-a-toddler with me, asking me to eat just one more piece of chicken, and couldn’t I eat that one last bite?

We parted ways by early mid-afternoon, with the girls hitting the road for Pittsburgh, looking sleepy, and Shannon, my mom, and I making our way to Cleveland. I took a few minutes to write a Facebook post to explain what had happened. I cried reading every single comment left by friends and loved ones.

I took over driving the second half as I knew my mom was exhausted, and I was shockingly alert. My brother called along the way, as did my dad, and I filled them in (I had talked to my dad briefly walking back to the car post-race as well; he called again on the drive to check in). Once we arrived home, my step-dad had purchased ice cream I had requested. He had suggested pizza, which initially sounded good, but then didn’t. I knew ice cream would sit well, and was calorie-dense, which I needed.

Before long, we were headed to the airport. Final hugs, a quick security line, a short flight, and a 90 minute drive stood between us and home. When we arrived there at long last, so very late and so tired after a 20-hour day, I saw two huge vases of flowers – one from my in-laws, one from my Athens friends – with cards and treats and so, so much love and support.

Analysis

There’s nothing I could have done to prepare for this. Maybe if I had hydrated even better? Maybe if I had gone ahead and taken that pre-race shower to clear my sinuses more? Maybe if I had taken Sudafed (yeah, probably not a great plan)? My ears were exploding again on the flight home Sunday night post-race, and my sinuses drained for a few more days, even though I felt fine, not sick in the least. There really is no telling what can happen in a marathon, especially when you line up not at 100% health.

The truth is, there is nothing I could have done short of being clairvoyant. All visible signs pointed to giving the race my very best shot. I gave everything I had until I literally could not give anymore. I ran a perfect race for 24 miles. I was suffering, but already imagining digging in at mile 25 and finding those last, deep reserves – the ones that are always there, the ones I have found within myself in the last year more than ever before. I had visualized that finish line so many times. It was just a clock, really, in my imaginings. Now, I can’t see it. The finish never comes.

So how do you finish? You keep going. You thank and love on your supporters and feel completely unworthy of all of their belief and hope and kindness. You remember the feeling of being picked up off the ground by total strangers who were not going to just leave you there. You think of how the woman who ran 21 miles with you and took care of you at mile 25, dedicated her last mile to you.

Marathons are about so much more than finish lines. Each time we go out there, we learn something: about ourselves – our bodies, our minds, our spirits; about our support system; about other runners around us. We’re all in this together. We are never alone out there, even when we feel most alone.

I am not finished. I am resting now – recovering in body, mind, and spirit – but I will return. Running and I are in this for the long-term. I have many, many miles left in these legs and in my soul. And my friends are waiting for me.

all smiles

Highs and Lows of Lucky ’13

Taking a tip from my nerdy fiance, who took it from @TheCranberryKid, instead of a full-on, way-too-detailed-to-be-interesting-to-anyone-but-me Year in Review, here are my highs and lows for the year. And I have to say, this really puts things into perspective – this was a great year for my running life.

Let’s get the low out of the way:

I can summarize my low of this year in three letters: DNF. Aye, there’s the rub. It burns. It stings. It rankles. It’s the monkey on my back. If I hadn’t rolled my ankle two days out… if I hadn’t decided to wear that ankle brace that seemed to cramp up my foot so badly (or bruise it, or whatever that agonizing feeling was with every step beginning around mile 16)… what would I have accomplished? Would I have gotten that sub-4? Or at least a PR by a few minutes? Would I have blown up, but at least have finished my second 26.2? Would I have surpassed all my wildest expectations?

Ice and bourbon were my only friends (okay, not true at all)

There’s no way of knowing. Like there’s know way knowing if not wearing the brace would have changed the outcome. But it’s hard not to dwell. Instead, I”m choosing to let it fuel my fire for next year. A strong marathon is my priority. I’ll still be working on my speed for the half, but with a heavy focus on building mileage and strength smartly.

First run back from MCM DNF/ankle sprain was 2 miles on the treadmill (with long walking warm-up). And I was ecstatic.

I know I have it in me, especially from my list of highs:

Air Force half

PRs: I lowered my 5K PR twice (distance corrected about 22:20, but I have since bettered that in a 10K so I can do it faster next time). I lowered my 10K PR three times (now 44:02). I lowered my half-marathon PR three times (now 1:43:56)

I raced new distances. The 26.2K Run for Gold was a beautiful course, I made a new friend, and stunned myself by how well I could keep my goal marathon pace (or faster) for 16+ miles, even early on in training. The 3K Sweet Sprint the previous month showed me that yes, there was something more painful than a 5K. It also got the ball rolling with new running friends…

26.2k
3K

I ran a lot with new friends. NF and I met Mark finally in person at the Sweet Sprint, and I connected with Danielle, whom I had encountered at the Burgh 10K in April, getting caught up in a race with a pack of girls, including her. We didn’t introduce ourselves then, but by November, we began a regular weekly run together.  Mark and Kelly joined NF and I on my birthday run, and I have since gone on a few trail runs with Kelly and our friend Kim. Snow? Fabulous. Mud? Bring it. Tons of deer and wild turkeys – okay!

Muddy trail feet! Kelly’s photo (also featuring Kim’s feet – we need a picture of our faces at some point!)
We’ll never actually run “with” Mark. Just near him. Using a broad definition of “near.”
Actually chatting with Danielle for the first time! Beginning of a great running friendship

Running with old friends – I had a couple of opportunities to run with Keeley, as well as our former Ragnar teammate, Rose. I paced a lot of the Pittsburgh and Air Force half-marathons with Danimal, and NF and I continued to run together regularly. We realized just how great it is to not just be in a relationship with a running buddy, but to live with that person. Don’t want to get up? Tough. The other person is dragging you out of bed. Here, take this foam roller. Need a foot rub? I gotcha. I also traveled to Seattle and ran with my bet friend from college, Abby. Abby is in many ways responsible for my reignited passion for running during the last couple yeas of college, senior year in particular. We got each other out the door and I learned the joy of exploring the city and telling endless stories over miles, an aspect of running I had been missing for the first several years.

Higher mileage – I hit 50 miles in a seven-day period at least twice this year, and it’s something I”d like to manage more often. First: it felt GREAT. Second, the speed gains from high mileage are amazing. Sure, I know I got faster in the last year-plus period because I’ve been diligent about my speedwork and tempo runs, but both marathon training cycles (fall 2012 and this fall) led to explosive speed gains.

The run streak. I kind of love it. I know I”m sort of an obsessive and self-competitive person, so it remains to be seen how long I keep it up (without being dumb, of course), but I love how the easy 1- or 2-mile runs on “rest” days have led to fewer aches. Running those short guys on the ‘mill made it easy to cross-train more, since I was already at the gym and warmed up, as a result. It also got my mileage back up, gradually, post-marathon season, and I hit over 30 miles last week! And over 100 in the month of December. That is UNHEARD OF for me, especially in the cold, busy, travel-laden final month of the year.

A DNF, especially one related to a stupid injury so soon before a goal race, can overshadow a great deal, but looking at my year in the rearview like this, all I can hope is to keep it up. The fire is there – I re-fell in love with running this year – more than once. I have a lot more running buddies who make me laugh, make me push, make me so excited to lace up, even in the roughest conditions, even in the darkest of moods.

There will be more bumps on my running road, to be sure, but for now, to 2014 I say: bring. it. on.

MCM: Anatomy of a DNF

DNF – runner-speak for Did Not Finish.  It’s a hard pill to swallow, but at one point or another, every runner experiences it, at least once. Ever since my ankle twist on Friday, I knew it was a possibility – it was also possible I would DNS (did not start). But I was walking fine, had good strength and mobility, and wanted to give it a shot.

I don’t think I have it in me to write too much about all the excitement and build-up, because usually i do that to emphasize how great the race was – especially this year, which until this weekend was an absolutely stellar one (and still is, really, this race being the only blemish). But I want to be as frank as possible because if even one other injured runner who had to pull out of a race reads this, I want him/her to know that he/she isn’t alone – it’s a hard decision, and no one else can make it but you. Only you know what’s going on in your own body and mind. So here are my most raw and honest thoughts.

The expo and weekend

This was our biggest race expo ever. The packet pick-up was in a separate tent, run by super-friendly Marines who had me grinning from ear-to-ear (they were all awesome, and so, so inspiring).

And the expo itself? Doesn’t even fit in an instagram photo

I got myself a couple bondi bands, which I’d been meaning to buy as an in-between to keep my ears covered when I don’t need a full, super-warm earband.

We had an awesome sushi dinner out with our lovely hosts, Emmarie and Chris. They took awesome care of us, especially considering they had had a crazy week as well as a busy weekend. Emmarie, for the record, makes a FANTASTIC bourbon Manhattan (pictured in my previous post). Between that and continuing to RICE my ankle, I figured I could be in good shape in no time (despite that by that evening when I removed the ace bandage, I saw how swollen and black-and-blue the ankle was. Eek. But still walking fine!)

Saturday we spent a little time touring around after attended the charity luncheon I was invited to as a runner on the ZERO Cancer team. We spent a bit too much time on our feet for being the day before a marathon, but my ankle still felt fine, and was less swollen that day.

Oh hey, the White House!
Basically a photobomb.

That night, we made our usual pre-race grub: granola and cinnamon pancakes, with tons of syrup, eaten in front of an episode of Stargate SG-1.

Baby pancake!

We got to bed late, and I was pretty wired, and slept like absolute garbage, pure usual pre-race. But the pre-race nerves in my chest were not the usual: Will I make my goal? Will I hit the wall? Will I quit or will I push? Will I have an amazing, magical, stars-falling-into-line kind of day?

The knot in my stomach told me one thing: I wasn’t even sure my left foot would allow me to finish the race. The bruising and swelling was way down, sure. I had done ankle exercises with a resistance band to check mobility and loosen it a bit, and done some careful calf raises, and everything felt pretty good (I couldn’t quite get my left foot to the very top of the calf raise, but that was no biggie, and it mostly just felt tight). I set aside my soft brace with the rest of my race morning gear in case I decided to wear it – I knew I would for sure be wearing compression socks.

Race day

The alarm blared at 4:30 a.m. and I’m pretty sure I was already wide awake. I snuck out of bed to get the oatmeal going and discover that I wasn’t quite as adequately hydrated as I would have liked (ahem) so I chugged 16 ounces of water (trust me, this matter later. Hydration strategy fail). I got the perfect consistency for both bowls, so hoped that this was a good omen for both of us. After much waffling in the days prior, I settled on a long-sleeve tech tee, charity singlet layered over, Oiselle bum wrap, purple ProCompression socks, gloves, bondi band, and of course of my trusty Brooks Launch.

Our LOVELY WONDERFUL KIND SWEET AMAZING HOSTS got up at like 5:20 to drive us to one of the parking shuttle pick-up points, since the bus we would have needed wasn’t running that early, even on race morning. We said our goodbyes, knowing we wouldn’t see Emmarie again and not expecting to see Chris, and jumped to the back of the line, which was HUGE but pretty fast moving, before climbing onto the super-swank charter buses with the super-cheesy but motivational information video playing as we drove to the starting area.

HUGE BUS
HUGE (GOOFY) SMILE

We immediately headed for the porto-potties before squatting in one of the tents to get all our gear arranged – we were running without water, so had to jam all our gels in our spibelts, plus our cell phones which we decided to run with (I’m glad I did – I could notify people ASAP who were tracking me that, no, I wasn’t dead).

Cutie 🙂

Before long, it was time to walk over to the self-sorting corrals, marked by estimated finish time (seriously, run-walkers – I adore all of you, you seriously rock, but please, for the love of all things holy, line up where you should), listen to the National Anthem as sung by a fabulous a cappella group, watch at least half a dozen parachuters float down, some carrying huge American flags, and wait for the howitzer to fire.

The Race

This was our biggest race ever, so even the previous crowded starts weren’t really a match for this. It was truly a sea of humanity. The start is on a split highway with a median strip, and we happened to be on the left, which within the first mile went a totally different way than the right side for like a tenth of a mile and completely flipped me out. I mean, it was fine – they merged back up again and I’m guessing there is zero (or minimal) distance difference, but man was that weird. Our first few splits were slow – very slow – especially the second mile which probably has the only hill of consequence in the entire race, and it really wasn’t a joke. I had kind of written it off, but it was already hard to find a solid pace in the thick of so many runners, let alone when clawing through going uphill. Won’t underestimate it again should I run this race in the future (hopefully).

It stayed pretty crowded through mile five, but we were able to lock in by mile 4 and hovered between 8:3x’s and 9:0x’s. I kept my watch to overall time for a while, though I eventually switched to lap estimate, but generally tried to ignore it and soak things up. It’s a really beautiful course. At one point we were on rolling hills bordered by a thick grove of trees, then we were running along the Potomac. It was spectacular. We saw WAY more public urination than ever before (we’d been warned of this) and saw at least one runner totally bite it on the ground (yeeowch! Like I said – crowded), but most of the sights were very positive.

I had had that “nervous pee” feeling at the start line, but as the miles ticked off toward 10K, I realized it wasn’t going away. It wasn’t just nerves – I had to go. I passed up a porto opportunity and begged the feeling to subside, but my gut was very uncomfortable, and during mile 9, I apologized to my guy and told him I needed a potty break, and that I’d see him at the finish. We exchanged “I love you’s” and “good luck” wishes and parted ways. I lost probably 60 to 90 seconds to the stop, but it was totally worth it. That was a first for me – must figure out how not to let that happen again (like not chugging 16 ounces of water when I woke up, without allowing for a secondary pre-race potty stop?).

After that, I was locking into 8:30s and 8:40s and feeling pretty darn good. I got a great boost a couple miles later when I saw Bart Yasso and yelled out “Bart!” (because we’re friends, obviously) and got a high five. I saw him again a few miles later and got similarly amped.

Around the halfway point, I saw I was coming in around 2:01.30ish – slower than I had wanted, but it was basically all the bathroom break, and I was still clocking sub-9s, so I knew I could make up the time and could still nab a sub-4:00, or close to it. I ran astride with another woman holding a similar pace for a while, and I think we kind of silently paced off each other.

Then there was the blue mile. Oh, the blue mile. It’s silent, and lined with photographs and flags – photos of fallen Marines, each one with his name, his age, and when they were killed in action. I tried to force myself to look – to dwell on the memory of these brave men and women, to feel the way I know that mile is supposed to make you feel: humble, grateful, saddened, yet filled with patriotic hope. But I had to spend a lot of time looking away and focusing on my pace and my rhythm, or else I’d have been struggling all the more to breathe as I choked back the tears that continually threatened.

Past the halfway point, I felt myself getting into my own head, but my pace was still right on. I had known for a while that my distance was pretty thrown off – when I was still with NF, we ran under a long overpass, and satellites went haywire, clocking us at 10:00+ min/mile pace, when we weren’t slowing down at all. The pace corrected, but we lost a good quarter mile, so I knew I’d have a little more time to make up, and of course the mile markers came in very strangely compared to the course.

Mile 16 was my decision point. I had decided, somewhat last minute, to go ahead and wear the soft ankle brace. I had brought it with, attached it to my fuel belt, and slipped it on over my compression sock as we were getting situated pre-race. Now it was noticeably digging into my foot and getting uncomfortable. I took a minute to pull off to the side and remove it, and then jogged off, sliding it onto my fuel belt so it would be secure and out of the way.

But the damage was done. I’ll never know if it was just the brace pinching/bruising/cramping my foot, if it was the ankle, if my gait was ever so slightly altered those first 16 miles, but I was very suddenly in a lot of pain. The outside of my left foot felt like it was being stabbed. I tried to walk it out, tried to figure out if it was just a cramp, but nothing seemed to be working. I broke it a jog, and almost immediately had to stop again.

So many people saw the agony on my face, the limp in my walk. Onlookers tried to encourage me to keep going, telling me I could do it. Runners who passed me tried to buck me up, one even patting me on the shoulder and trying to press me onwards. But I could barely walk, let alone run.

I stupidly passed up a med station just before my absolute breaking point, and as I searched for another one – or for a Marine, or a volunteer, or anyone who could help, I saw a PIttsburgh legend – the shirtless guy (yes, he has a name, but so many of us know him as the shirtless guy). He is at EVERY Pittsburgh race, and he’s always – yes, running shirtless – kicking ass, and when he finishes, high-fiving everyone coming in. I said hello and told him I recognized him from the local race scene. We asked each other how our races were going, and I admitted I was injured and about to drop out. He said he wanted to just make it to mile 18 and consider it a good training run (he was walking, too). We parted ways after a water stop, and soon after I saw a couple Marines and stepped to the side.

“I need to drop out,” I said, tears choking my words as I finally was saying it out loud. I hit stop on my watch. “Where’s the next med tent?” I stepped to the side as a woman tried to hand me a bottle of water, and fell to a crouch and burst into tears. It was over. Sixteen weeks of preparation – of blood, sweat, and tears. Of long tempos and endless mile repeats and shattered PRs at the half-marathon and 10K and early mornings and sacrifices to my social life and sleep and sometimes even almost my sanity. It was over, and had probably been over the moment I took that misstep Friday morning and rolled my ankle during an easy three-miler.

The Marine directed me across the grass to the next med tent, around mile 19. My watch read 18.13 when I quit but it was closer to 17.75 on the course because of GPS screw-ups. I hobbled over, starting to get cold, and had to jog across to the other side when there was the slightest break in runners.

The Marines in the med tent were amazing. They sat me down and examined my foot, had me fill out an intake form, and then took me inside, helping me ice my foot and wrapping me in wool blankets. I spent the next ninety-minutes contacting family and friends who were tracking me, and chatting with another injured runner – a 43-time marathoner who had to drop out around the same time as me with a gnarly IT band injury. She comforted me when I cried once more and we bitched about our frustrations and we heard each other’s war stories.

After a lot of waiting, the sweeper bus came by a little before 1:30, and I was stuck on it (despite it being full) for the next two hours. I’ve never been on a sweeper before, so I don’t know the usual system, but there were runners who were on there for three hours. There must be a better way. Everyone was pretty nice, though, and there was lots of clapping for those who didn’t quite “beat the bridge” and got pulled for not making it to mile 20 by 1:30 p.m. for road re-openings. And the ladies sitting around me were very sweet as they saw me limp on (not to mention the Marine I had to send back to the med tent when I left my phone on the cot like a dumbass. Thank you, sir!).

It was about 3:45 when I finally reunited with my guy, and at that point I wasn’t teary-eyed, just relieved to see him (you can read his race report here).  We hobbled through the Metro and made our way back to the apartment, where Chris was there to greet us (since it took so friggin’ long to get back). We had zero time to relax – it was shower, pack, hit the road immediately, though we took a leisurely dinner stop at Buffalo Wild Wings (which we haven’t had since JUNE), before making the rest of the drive, getting home after 11 p.m.

My handsome guy with his medal 🙂

So… what now?

Well, now it’s time for me to heal. At this point, my ankle is still a little swollen but fine to walk on (though I’ll continue to drive to work until the swelling is totally gone, so I don’t overtax it). I’ve been finding a heating pad feels better on the foot and ankle than ice at this point. I’m taking a week off from running, bare minimum, but possibly two depending on how this injury heals.

And my psyche? Well, it took a hit. As you can see from my data, I was totally fine… until I wasn’t (first three miles were the crowds, mile 9 was the potty break). Part of me wants redemption, right-friggin’-now. But another part of me wants a big ol’ break, which I’ve been looking forward to for a while. I had just hoped it would feel like a great reward to cap off a very successful season.

But here’s the thing – it still was a very successful season. I lowered my half-marathon PR three times this year: as of the very beginning of this year, my PR had been 1:59:03. It is now 1:43:56. I’ve also lowered my 10K best three times, and my 5K PR twice. If that’s not an incredibly successful year, I don’t know what is.

Yes, I’m probably going to cry some more over this DNF. Yes, I’ve cursed and I’ve yelled and I’ve gotten irrationally angry. But I made the right choice. I didn’t quit – I stopped when I knew it was wise to do so. When I knew I would be doing more damage, setting myself back more than just pushing past a little marathon pain.

And now, I have a score to settle. Next year, it’ll be mine. Next year, I’ll get that sub-4 hour marathon… and who knows what else?