“So… Right now it’s 76 degrees, and 97% humidity. Anyone notice the humidity?”
Someone had given the race director a microphone, and he talked on into the slowly brightening, hot morning. Did we notice the humidity? The air was definitely thick with humidity. It was hard to breathe. Air quality was the least of my worries race morning as I puttered around the open field near the shelter that represented race HQ.
Starting somewhere around Thursday the week before, my back was a little tight. By Saturday it was painfully achy. By Sunday, even after a visit to the chiropractor Saturday afternoon, I couldn’t move – the pain from my back catching me with every attempted twist or twinge. Sneezing felt like being shot. Occasionally, I would get a lightning bold of pain throughout my entire upper body as something went taut over a nerve in the back. My Chiropractor set a grim expression on his face while he set my back again and again through the week, with little improvement – trying to loosen the sudden and unexplained spasiming muscles in my lower back. His expression was a response to my comment that I needed this “fixed” by Saturday… I had a race, after all.
Thursday evening, two days to race day, I was moving fine, no pain, and I opted to try a few easy miles to feel out my back. It did not go well. It hurt, a lot, and every now and then there would be like a ‘hitch’ from my back that would shoot electric pain through my whole upper body, causing me to gasp out loud. Friday after was baaaad. I couldn’t sit. I could barely walk. And I had to drive to Indianapolis for the race. I wasn’t feeling too certain about the race actually happening.
I drove into town through a major downpour, yet somehow still having to squint right into the setting sun. A rainbow marked my arrival.
My evening was spent rolling my butt, back, hamstrings, hips, IT bands…everything got a lot of attention on the tennis ball I brought along. Then I strapped two icy-hot bandages across my lower back and climbed into bed.
“I set two alarms, so maybe I won’t be waking up all night thinking I slept through them.” I told my husband on the phone.
“Want me to call you in the morning too?”
“No. Honestly, how bad would it be if I slept through the alarms for a race I probably shouldn’t be running?”
See? Even I can recognize when something is too bad of an idea. Running 3 miles practically blew my back up. Running 26.2? I wasn’t going to be able to get out of the hotel bed the next day. I had a plan though. If I woke up and things were still awful, I’d grab my race packet and shirt, and then offer to volunteer for the day. I mean, what else was I going to do? I had a hotel in Indianapolis for a weekend trip, and no weekend trip.
I actually slept really well, and woke without issue at the alarm. Moving around, my back was a little stiff, but nothing like it had been all week. I geared up, snagged coffee and a bagel from the hotel breakfast bar, and went to check in at race registration.
“Has anyone ever seen a stinging nettle plant? Well, you’re in luck. You’re gonna want to get those socks pushed down real low to get the full experience of them. They only sting for about 90 minutes.”
The race director was cracking me up as I took the abundance of time I had pre-race (Thanks to finding that one ‘super secret’ porta-potty that had no line) to roll the tender spots even more.
“Good news! If you haven’t checked in yet, you no longer have to worry about it! Registration is closed and shirt exchange is open. So, uh, if you try to sneak your check in and they let you, because, we’re nice here, uh, and there are no shirts left in your size, this is why.”
I was stretching, and thinking that I was feeling really good. I decided I could run. At least give it a shot. If I made it past mile 4, then I’d get to the half way point (finish loop 1) and if it wasn’t going well, I figured I’d drop at the half. No big deal.
I didn’t like the idea of dropping, not when I was 7 months (Or 8 marathon or more distances) into my 2016 goal. I’ve been struggling with feeling like a complete failure this week, and it’s been…hard. Dropping this whole idea of a marathon a month wasn’t sitting well. But. I needed to be able to keep running reliably. Not run one race and be out for months because I blew myself up over some pointless goal that no one cares but me cares about.
“It’s 15 minutes to race start. The course checker is here, he says he cleared the cobwebs for you all. On this side of the trails. Trails look good. No mud, despite the rain last night. That’s lucky!…. SnoCones! We have them. You’ll get them after you finish. I’m going to snag one after you all leave though. Runners are animals after a hot run.”
When the race director called for the marathon runners to line up, and warned the half marathon runners that they were ‘on deck”, I shuffled myself to the rear of the pack, expecting that my back would keep me super slow. I glanced around, but didn’t spot any barefoot runners or obvious vegans among the crowd…but I know they were there.
“Now, the distance is twenty-six point two.” The race director’s comment was met with laughter. “Ish.” He added. “Follow the green arrows and the orange flags. Green arrow. Orange flag. If you’re running and you don’t see either of those for a while, you’ve gone the wrong way. Look at this. We’re actually starting on time today! That never happens.”
To be honest, I’m still pretty tired, and I cannot remember if they shouted “go”, or if they hard a starter pistol…but after one more warning about stinging nettles, we were off.
The race director didn’t lie, despite the downpour I drove into town through, the trails were super dry. I chatted with a woman for about two miles, before she said she was going to slide into her run-walk plan. In those first two miles I realized two things:
One, these trails were easy. Which caused me, on one hill, to remark, “You guys know you can run this, right? It’s a race.” Everyone pretty much just stopped and let me pass. I apologized profusely for sounding like a jackass with that comment as I ran up the hill.
Two, aside from the stepping over or slipping under downed trees, my back was taking this trail really well.
For the next several miles, I just ran. There were a few spots where the trails dumped us out onto gravel roads, or asphalt, and man, if you want to tick a trail runner off, make them run part of their race on a road. Gawd, the complaining. For such a short amount of distance. Though, one such portion did make for the hottest part of the run, as we cut across a bridge to hook into the trails that would bring us along some sort of gravel path through the lake. These open roadways and gravel paths had me flying, and I was easily getting 8:30 min/mile pace during those stretches. Some miles, my Garmin beeped, were around 9 even, and others were lucky to be around 11. The effort felt the same to me. The hills throughout the course were…runable!
Look. Normally, the trails around my home, when you hit a hill, it hits back. Most of the trail runners I know and run with use the strategy of walking up those hills. Whole races, where everyone pretty much walks the hills. And then I get to this race, and everyone ahead of me starts walking up this hill, and I’m like, “This is nothing.” And then I started passing people. I passed a lot of people. And the majority of people who passed me were from the half marathon.
I tried not to get my hopes up, but somewhere among running up hills, feeling strong and good during the majority of miles, and the turn around to go back to the start/finish area, I started thinking that I could do really well at this race.
And then, mile 11 happened.
I struggled a little bit, with the increasing heat, around mile 10 or 11. As I flitted across the finish line and started around to go back into the woods for my second loop, I slowed down to eat a cliff shot (with some caffeine) and took stock. I was feeling hot. Tired. My hips, hamstrings, glutes and some of the lower back were feeling really tight. But otherwise? I didn’t feel like I was broken. I made the choice and started back out on the second 13 mile loop.
I had 5 hours to go 13 miles. And as my energy and mental game started to fail me, this was what I remembered: The only way out is through.
I wasn’t the only one struggling. I was passed a couple of times by a couple other full marathon runners, but in the grand scheme? I passed more people on this loop. It was getting toasty enough and I was inside my head far enough that I had myself terrified (In no small part because of The Saturday Incident) that my heart may just explode if I wasn’t careful. And then I started really worrying about the heat causing me issues. I took more walk breaks. Longer and longer walk breaks. I didn’t want to walk, but I felt like pushing through when I felt like I was combusting from within, or when I was out in the sun without a break, would be bad for my health.
It was slower going than I liked, but not all that much slower than anyone else out there. I made the loop through the lake area, the sun baring down. Fellow runners would give encouragement, just as I would back, but it didn’t seem enough to really pull us all through the heat. I shared what little I had left of my water (I was downing it pretty hard by now, and running into the water stations with an empty bottle for refill) with one runner. He thanked me for saving his life and swore a life debt to me…. wait.. No. He just thanked me. I made up the story about life debt to entertain myself as I ran on alone.
Physically, I was feeling good – if a bit tired. I figured I must have missed one of my cliff shots when I was filling my running pouch with them, and so it was at this point, mile 20, that I felt the sluggishness of needing something more than water and salt. My hips and hamstrings were also feeling pretty tight, and although my back was a wreck going into this, it still wasn’t bothering me all that badly.
Mentally. I was at that point where, had someone been around, I might have sang to them. Dramatic renditions of show tunes and the only three lines of “She’s a Brick House” that I know. It would have been loud. And funny. And, realistically, slightly terrifying for whomever I might have randomly chosen as victim for that entertainment. Instead. I entertained myself in the heat by singing about running down a hill. And about the various things I had to pass in the coming miles to reach the finish.
Random questions kept my mind off exactly how tight my hips were becoming. How thirsty I continued to be despite the amount of water I took in…
“How many salt tablets does one pack to run on the sun anyway?” – The sun, she is chasing me.
“Who knew hell could be this pretty.” – I ran along the roadway in the open, blazing sun.
“Does chlorine kill ticks?” – I contemplated a nice soak in the pool at the hotel.
“I thought there was a bird place…I think I ran past a bird place on the first loop… I don’t remember it this second time. Did I miss a turn? Did I cut the course? Holy. Shit. Did I hallucinate a whole bird place thingy during this run?” – I honestly don’t remember running past the place a second time. But it was real. A bird sanctuary, where hawks perched in their cages and watched us run past with zero fucks given.
“Does Indianapolis even know that ice exists?” – It was so hot that the water at the aid stations got warm very quickly.
I whipped into the aid station with 3 miles left to go and happily took their s-tabs and begged for food. Luckily there was one twizzler left. I munched the hell outta that thing as I walked into the woods, willing my body to end this race more quickly than it had managed the last 10 miles.
For the last three, I ran in silence. Taking in the scenery and stopping at all those threes over the trail to use climbing over them as an excuse to stretch my back and hamstrings. I thought that at any moment someone would pass me, but no one did. I hit the final aid station, refilled on water, and with the well-wishes from the wonderful volunteers, I was diving back into the woodline for the last mile-long slog. The next time I emerged from the trees, I was walking, too tired and too far lacking in carbs or sugars to really get my legs to do much else. I felt heavy. I felt so, so heavy. Like gravity was pissed with me for some reason (I’ll bet it was my leaping over the downed logs during the first loop…. or maybe the ease I ran up the hills on that first one. Stupid gravity). I could hear the music of the finish line – some strange collection of knock-off bands doing covers of songs in such a way that you thought you were going to rock out to ACDC, for example, but then someone would sing and you’d think, “no. No. This isn’t right at all.” Determined to at least look like I was finishing strong, I willed my body into a stiff jog and finally came into the open field where cones made a curving path up to the finish line. Some cheering greeted me (Bless those tireless volunteers) and after I crossed the finish, I was handed a metal and a little box.
Then I headed straight for the snocones. I was beyond feeling like I wanted anything, or, at least knowing what I wanted beyond some sleep and something substantial to eat, but a snocone felt like a good place to start.
“Congratulations.” A guy who had clearly also just finished the race commented to me as I walked past.
“Oh. Thanks. Good job to you too! It was a hard one to finish, huh?” I answered back, dumping my arm load of stuff onto the table he rested at.
“I mean the award. Congratulations.”
“The what?” I said looking over my pile of crap. I was so tired.
“That.” He noded toward the box. “They only give those to people who placed. Great job.”
“Oh? Oh! I placed?! Well, hell.”
Sure enough, a check of the standings showed that I took first place in my age group. That was completely unexpected. This was a long marathon for me. Even my two marathons back to back didn’t take as long as this one did. Also. Considering how my back had hobbled me for the whole week leading up to this race, I didn’t expect to even finish. But to place? Unbelievable.
And really. As I reflected on this race back at the hotel room, I realized that there were many unexpected, and pleasant, outcomes from this run.
Namely, how much I enjoyed myself. I was out there, alone, and in silence. Usually a bad place for me, because my headspace is not my friend.
I was in the heat, and dragging, and yet, I never felt discouraged. I never felt like I needed to quit. I just kept watching for someone to run with and managed to pull joy out of the feel of this trail.
And the trail. Folks. If you want a good “first trail” to race on, this one is it. It’s so easy to run on. Nothing like my first trail race (Stone steps) where I was nearly destroyed by a rock garden and fell so hard that the opposite side of my body bruised. No. This trail was so damn doable: Few trip hazards, lots to see, easy hills, and often wide enough to accommodate people passing.
I was on a weekend out of town, alone…our plans to have a weekend away dashed by events outside of our control. And I wasn’t bummed out the whole time. Instead, I was just, relaxed. And that ‘s a nice change too.
And lastly, my back did not get worse after the run. Sure, I was stiff and sore, and moved a little slower the next day… but I was able to move a lot more than I could before this race. My chiropractor was pleasantly surprised with the increased movement that I showed up with at our Monday appointment (pre-set in full expectation of serious pain).
Thanks for reading!