December 7, 2009

The Strangest Marathon

I was moving along at an easy pace. The guy in front of me had just taken a downhill section of the trail very gingerly and nearly tip-toed across a creek crossing. I passed him on the uphill section on the other side of the creek and began to pull away. Then, out of nowhere, I hit the wall. Well, not exactly. I'm not talking about the glycogen depletion "wall" where my fuel reserves have run dry. This was something entirely different and unfamiliar to me. This small incline got my heart beating so fast I was gasping for air only to find I was physically unable to maintain my modest pace. My worst fears had come true. I stopped to walk up the hill. By the time I reached the top I was seriously contemplating dropping out of the marathon.

This was at mile four.

One week prior I was in great spirits, having wrapped up my long training runs and raced fairly well at the FOLEPI River Trail Classic. I showed up at work on Monday feeling as good as possible and left work that evening with a sore throat. My throat got worse through the night and was a full blown illness by Tuesday morning. I went to work (even though I clearly shouldn't have) only to discover my coworkers were already sick.

By Wednesday my throat started to get better, but the snot and sinus pain got worse. By Thursday evening I was finally starting to feel like I was getting over the sickness. I still wanted to race. I trained really hard for Tecumseh and I wasn't going to let the sniffles take that away from me.

Friday I travelled to the Nashville, IN area with fellow Buffalo Ken, Brian, and Jen. We stayed at the same paintball/cabin place as last year (though with far fewer people this time). Despite feeling back to normal that morning, by Friday night I felt terrible again. Ugh.

I awoke Saturday morning before the race feeling as fresh as a daisy. Whatever I had seemed to finally work its way out of my system. I thought. We drove to the race finish area, picked up our packets, and loaded up onto the buses to the starting line miles and miles away.

Tecumseh course map

Last year I started way faster than I wanted to, but it was kind of necessary because of the congestion on the single track trail that started 2-3 miles into the race. I vowed to start off slower this year. I ran nice and easy the first mile only to look down when my GPS beeped to read 7:20. The exact same time as last year (and faster than my first mile at the Rockford Marathon where I ran my PR in May). That was the bad news. The good news was that I felt spectacular. Even though that pace felt super easy I made a conscious effort to slow down anyway. For the trail was not nearly as congested as it had been the previous year at this point. Despite the superior weather conditions (sunny rather than snow storm) everyone else was moving slower.

I hit the second mile at 7:29. So much for slowing down. It still felt really easy. I was barely exerting any effort. Still, I decided (once again) to consciously slow down. I hit the third mile in 7:23. Oh, come on. This was too easy. That would be the best I felt all day. We entered the single track trail through the woods, ran down a hill, over a creek, and started back up the other side when my world began to fall apart. This was not going to be my day.

After the first miserable uphill I walked I tried to shake it off and continue on like nothing had happened. I got back up to a comfortable pace on the flat sections of the course, but on the next uphill I found myself gasping for air and walking once again. If after four miles I wanted to quit, then after six miles I really wanted to quit. At this point I decided to stop racing. At the current rate I couldn't possibly have finished. Instead I slowed down (a lot) in the hope of just dragging myself to the finish line, regardless of time or place. Tecumseh was now a training run. Or so I told myself.

Rob at Tecumseh Marathon

I ran super slow the next four miles, frequently stepping aside to let people pass me on the trail. At the 10.6 mile aid station Ken passed me. Prior to the race I was voted by the others the mostly likely to finish the fastest of our group, and as such I was entrusted with the only key to Ken's car. Here, 16 miles from the finish and still slowing down, I quickly whipped out the key from my back pocket and handed it to Ken, who kept it for the remainder of the race.

I ate a banana at this aid station and it actually started to bring me back to life. For the first time in many miles I didn't feel like I was about to die. Ken pulled quite some distance ahead as I walked up the next few hills. Once I got to the flat and downhill sections I just ran a comfortable pace and I actually caught back up with his pack. The thought entered my mind that I might actually be able to keep up with him until the end. Of course, the next uphill section would put that thought out of my mind and I fell behind again. But what goes up must come down and before I knew it we were together again (briefly) at the 15.8 mile aid station. We were running different races, but by not keeping up with him I had just kept up with him for five miles. We ascended once more, and once more I was alone.

Prior to this point I just felt bad for much of the race, but around miles 16-17 I actually started to get tired. I wasn't picking my feet up, and as a result I stumbled a few times. I almost went down around mile 17, though I was able (with great determination) to stay upright. But this came at the cost of both calves, both hamstrings, and my right hip cramping at the same time while I tried to catch myself. Shaken, I walked for a bit with my head hung low. After a couple minutes I heard someone yell at me from behind, "Hey, you missed the turn."

You have to pay attention.

I got back on the trail and started running, fighting cramping muscles. There was a big hill at mile 19, a moderate hill at mile 21, then it was mostly downhill to the finish. I got another banana in me and, again, it brought me partly back to life. I was able to pick up the pace a little and before I knew it I had caught up with and passed Ken... just in time to trip and go down. I remained on the ground long enough to work out the cramp in my calf. Then I was back up and moving quickly again.

I had to concentrate really hard through a short, beautiful section of pine forest where the tree roots stuck up really far from the trail. As much as I had been dragging my feet I thought for sure I was going to hit the deck again. I didn't.

My pace continued to increase. I wasn't running for a faster time. I was running to get to the finish faster so I could stop running sooner. People often joke about doing exactly this, but I'm completely serious here. I took a short break to walk up the final hill with less than a mile remaining then ran all the way through the finish. Heading into the chute I caught up with a young woman who heard me cough right behind her and took off that last few meters. I congratulated her on the fast finish after the race at which point she informed me she thought my cough sounded like a woman and she really wanted to keep her top 10 finishing place. Ha!

Another 26.2

I finished in 4:20, my slowest marathon yet (by a mere two minutes). Last year, on the same course, in the snow storm, I ran 3:54. That was a really great race for me. I knew I didn't have the fitness for the same performance again this year, but (given the better conditions) I thought for sure I would be able to equal that time. No dice.

This was a very strange race for many reasons, perhaps the strangest I've ever run. I felt great, then crappy, then okay, the crappy, then just fine (and so on). I ran fast, then slow, then moderate, then slow, then fast (etc). I was freezing, then comfortable, then hot, then cold, then hot, then cold. I actually ran about 8 miles wearing a single glove because my left hand was cold but my right hand was not.

The really strange thing, though, is that none of these dichotomies coincided with each other. I ran fast while feeling good. I ran fast while feeling bad. I ran slow while feeling good. I ran slow while feeling bad. I was hot while running slow. I was cold while running fast. And every other permutation of the aforementioned states.

Anyway, I wasn't thrilled with the outcome of this race, but I did finish and I did learn some valuable lessons. Namely, you can't run as fast when you're sick as you can when you're healthy, AND trying to do so will make for a fairly unpleasant experience.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am so glad I didn't know about all this until days after the race. Congrats on your finish! I think you are pretty darn amazing considering your week leading up to the race. What a story!