'cause it's not enough just to stand outside the fire!"
Driving 1800 miles round trip to attend a race gives a guy a lot of time to think about the race ahead - and the race behind. This post is a long one, so settle in with a cold one.
The drive down to Nashville was pleasant w/ light traffic, though I sampled enough local culture to make me glad I live in New York and a little sad that I now seem to react badly enough to rural ways so as to approximate anaphalactic shock. I like some country music here and there, but the preponderance on the radio of rainy days, cheatin' wives, and broken down trucks was overwhelming. And if it wasn't country, it was the same oldies from station to station or - worse yet - conservative/religious talkshows which covered a range of topics but from a side I am unfamiliar with. I hit bottom when the clerk at the hotel I stayed at in Atkins, VA simply would not shut up, wouldn't let me go so I could get my bags out of my car, and who laughingly admitted that the stereotype about Virginia and meth addicts is true - there was a sticker on the entryway announcing the hotel as a MethWatch zone. Great.
As I passed into Nashville city limits, I was losing the station I was listening to, and scanned to the next. A few seconds of silence and then the beat of familiar guitar chords thumped through the car speakers, then "We call them cool...." I have one song I begin every run with - cheesy as it is - and that's Garth Brooks' "Standing Outside The Fire". This one never fails to rev me up, mostly with the idea that challenge has to be an integral part of a well-lived life. "Life is not tried, it is merely survived, if you're standing outside the fire." And that's what greeted me as I entered the home of country music, intending to run my longest distance since last October. A good omen, right?
The expo was well-organized, smoothly-run, pleasant enough. The half marathon shirts were better looking, I think, than the full marathon shirts. I wasn't sure of the route, and inquired as to how I run the half with my marathon number, afraid I'd get in trouble (remember, I signed up for the full marathon months ago). I was assured it wouldn't be a problem. After the expo, the family, including two temporary sisters, went to eat. Our party consisted of my mother, my sister Rachel, her friends Kim and Abby, and myself. Mom was along as moral support and bought us all dinner. She broke her foot a couple weeks ago so was in a walking brace. Rachel and Abby had run Chicago year before last, so this was to be their second marathon; it was to be Kim's first. I felt excited for them, proud of them - and a bit jealous of them. (I considered saying to hell with it and following the marathon route, but realized that if things should go bad late in the course and I got injured, it might blow my chances at a good run in NY.)
Nashville hosted the Country Music Marathon and Half-Marathon on Saturday April 29th. The weather turned out to be beautiful for a run, if a bit warm for most of us. I believe it got up to 75 degrees or so; much too warm for a pack of runners who had spent most of spring training in much cooler temps. Salt deprivation was to be a rampant problem over the course of the day. In fact, I saw no less than four runners collapsed at the side of the half-marathon course towards the end - all of them being tended to by medics, thankfully. (Speaking of med - I ran into a familiar face at the expo: Dr. Maharam, my sports doc! He is also the medical director of the CMM.)
Anyway, I will short circuit a long race description by saying this: my prep was bad, the course was uber-hilly, and my race was terribly difficult. A lot of things went wrong, none big in and of themselves, but the cummulative effect was enough to really hurt. I shouldn't have eaten the food at the restaurant; I should have opted to go for a Subway sandwich later. I shouldn't have tried Hammer nutrition bars for the first time as race day fuel. I shouldn't have forgotten my running shoes' insoles (used my regular shoes' - seemed fine, actually). I shouldn't have worn a cotton shirt. I should have brought a salt packet or Enduralytes. I shouldn't have started a different kind of multi-vitamin three days before the race. (Premium Insurance caps - pretty good in general, but it makes my piss bright flourescent yellow.)
I DID do some things right: my steady training with my Hammer nutrition hydration (HEED) and fuel (gel) ensured that though other things went wrong, I did not run out of fluid or energy (though I didn't have it in me for a finishing kick). I stuffed extra, dry clothing in my gear bag, along with Recoverite, nutrition bars, etc and that all paid off at the end of the race. I bought a gel flask carrier and a light, disposable jacket at the expo, both of which were worth it race morning.
This course was all hills and that became immediately apparent after the first mile. There was, in the half-marathon, only two significant flat stretches, of less than half-mile each. The rest was up, down, up down. I can only imagine how bad it got for the full marathoners. This would have been fine, I think, had I not found myself in serious gastrointestinal distress. I ended up using course port-a-johns four times before the end and every time I stopped, my muscles would tighten up further. I'd stretch them and get going again, but after awhile I could no longer run every hill (oddly, the uphills got easier and the downhills got painful). The muscles stiffening wasn't confined to my legs, it was happening all the way up to my shoulders & neck. And my stomach was getting worse and worse. I had flashbacks to Steve Runner's Phedipidations of the Boston Marathon. Like him, I had a choice to make: throw up in an attempt to feel better and risk serious dehydration (my t-shirt was soaked from sweat), or keep it down and feel like hell. I chose the latter. And I didn't collapse. And I kept running.
I had worn a t-shirt I got printed up publicizing the Cystic Fibrosis Athletics Organization, with "I'm running for my life" printed on the back in addition to the logo. In the last few miles, several people noticed the shirt and gave me encouragement, especially when I had to walk. "You can do it!" I felt like a fraud. I can do it? Fuck that. I can do a whole goddamn marathon when I put my mind to it and here I am struggling in a half-marathon that should have been "just" another long run in a larger training program. Still, I appreciated the encouragement.
In the last couple of miles, debillitating cramps hit my legs, especially the calves; felt a lot like the cramps I'd have at night as a teenager - the charley horses - only these would go away a lot quicker. I reckon I walked about a mile to a mile-and-a-half total. By the time I got to the finish line - running - I was in such pain that slowing down was...well, it was worse than running. I got some Tylenol at a med tent and spent fifteen minutes trying to stretch and move enough to get moving towards the family reunion area. I was in tremendous pain all over my legs, with my stomach, sides, and back muscles joining in. I remember thinking it was actually worse than how I felt at the end of the Cincinnati marathon, when I could at least walk to my sister's SUV. At that moment in Nashville, I couldn't even walk to the nearest john. After some time, during which I discovered the crowd had overwhelmed Nashville's cell system, I was able to get moving and hobbled to the reunion area, where I collapsed on the grass and used my spare shirt from my gear bag to help me stretch. I spent a half-hour or so stretching various muscle groups, trying to get them to ease up. I was convinced my pain was the direct result of not enough training, too many pre-race changes to routine, or whatever. It didn't dawn on me 'til later that it could just be the hills were more than I trained for (TYPE, more than QUANTITY of training, was wrong) and that the cramping was probably related to salt-deprivation.
Once Mom found me, we went over to the other side of the finish area, where the marathon finish was set up (different finish lines - no wonder there was no problem with accounting for marathoners finishing a half-marathon route.) For the next two and a half hours, I yelled and shouted and prodded and encourage and exhorted the runners coming in to the final turn that they had this one in the bag; the finish line was right ahead and to finish strong! Easier to say than do, I know, but a lot of people would hear me, look left, see the balloons way down at the end of, say, a long city block, and actually pick up the pace. Mom and I witnessed a young man who had clearly been running strong, coming in at about four hours, be suddenly seized with massive cramping in the final turn, within site of the finish line balloons. He went sprawling and couldn't get up. They were going to haul him off the course, but he wouldn't allow that and after about fifteen minutes of forceful stretching and massaging of his legs, he was able to get up and start walking toward the finish. I never heard the crowd cheer louder than when he got to his feet. Nobody wants to see a race end that close to the finish - and it is a particular nightmare of my own.
I was immensely happy to see my sister appear at 4:45, though she was by now alone. (We four runners had started the day together, but had gotten split up before the race - I assumed the girls stuck together for some time.) Kim came in about fifteen minutes later and Abby fifteen after that. I was truly thrilled and genuinely happy to see these girls do what I could not - conquer marathon distance - and a very hilly one at that! No matter the distress I was in, I know that they suffered equally - and longer - and they came through smiling.
My final time was 2:30:21. This wasn't my worst time (would be hard to do that!), nor even second worst. Strangely enough, it landed smack in the middle. I have five half-marathons under my belt, now, and three of them are within 50 seconds of each other. Huh. I have some things to talk about that will come in later posts, but that came up during this experience, so look for upcoming soapbox notes on those who do v. those who do not and the topic of success v. failure and how those things are defined. But for now: more pictures!
The conquering heros:
The heros after a shower and dinner:
Driving home after: