Five and a half months ago I delivered a small and very early, but otherwise healthy baby boy to a wonderful couple that deserved to be parents, but needed my help through surrogacy. I had a lot of complications with pre-e, resulting in a minor stroke and leaving me feeling pretty crappy about my broken body. At 8 weeks postpartum I was cleared to run again, so, to get over my bad mood, I decided to focus my energy on training for a marathon. On Sunday that training came to an end as I approached the starting line for the Vermont City Marathon in Burlington VT.
My reasons for the run were basically to help my mind and body heal; to distract myself from postpartum depression. My goals for the race changed over those 16 weeks of training though. At first I just wanted to do something, so I didn’t even care how I ran. But, I realized a few weeks in that I was recovering faster than I had anticipated and began flirting with an actual time goal. A part of me wanted a 3:35, but I felt that was awfully presumptuous. So, I decided to train with 3:35 pacing for speed workouts, but aim for under 3:45 (3:44 was my last time for a marathon and I wanted to break that). However, as race day approached, the weather was not looking favorable. Extreme heat, humidity, and thunderstorms were being predicted and the race director kept sending warning emails about hydration.
Still, I decided that even with the heat, I could probably pull off my plan. It was about 75 degrees at 8am (the start of the race). Maybe if I ran it quickly enough I could beat the heat and it wouldn’t be so bad? My race strategy was to start with the 3:30 group (8:00/mile pace) to get the nerves out. I always start out way too fast, but staying with a pace group that was only a little faster than my intended pace would be okay. I figured I could hang out with them for the first 5 or so miles, then settle into an 8:00-8:15 pace, taking the downhills strong, getting through the two up hills, and possibly walking through the aid stations if necessary. I planned on eating my fruit snacks every 30 minutes and alternating Gatorade and water that would be provided at the aid stations at nearly every mile marker. I could do this!
An air horn went off, signaling the start of the race. Watches beeped in the crowd all around me as 3000+ athletes shuffled through the gate. After almost a minute we were running. The crowd was too thick and I was boxed out from my pace group, struggling to get back to the leaders in the first mile. BEEP! I crossed the first mile marker at 8:40! I gotta pick this up! I gotta get out of this pack! I somehow managed to pick my way through the throngs of runners and position myself right behind the 3:30 pacer. BEEP! 7:39. Huh?! We’re going too fast! I chalked it up to the slight down hill, the excitement, the crowds…BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. 7:38. 7:27. 7:39. Okay, this wasn’t what I had signed up for. The miles were clicking by fast, yet the pace felt easy, comfortable. But I knew better. I’d been through this before. I didn’t know if this was part of the pacer’s strategy or what, but I knew that this pace was not for me, no matter how easy it felt at the moment. I let go of the group before mile 6 and sat back at a comfortable 8:30 pace. I had no desire to rush the hills and I was already beginning to feel the heat of the day. There was little shade and I still had a lot to go.
I got through the first half feeling great. I was confident, but conservative. I might actually pull this off I thought to myself. But then something strange happened. Most of the first half of the race was on the only Beltway. There were two aid stations, but few spectators. When the race returned to the city streets, things began to get congested and loud. Cheering spectators lined both sides of the streets, yelling, ringing cow bells, blasting music. Despite the heat, I was beginning to feel cold and shiver. This freaked me out since I still had half a marathon to run! The noise from the crowds pushed in on me, giving me a different sensation of being boxed in. Then it happened – the trigger! An ambulance was screaming up the street from behind me. I felt the panic build in my chest as the wail of the siren got closer and closer. I was seeing spots & sparkles, swallowing repeatedly to keep from throwing up, and trying to ignore the goose bumps. The ambulance passed on my right and I had a visual of it. The imposing red ambulance, the intense noise grating at my brain, it was too much. Panic exploded in the back of my head. A severe headache took over, pushing tears from my eyes. I couldn’t help but cry. I was having a full-blown anxiety attack in the middle of the street, inside of a huge crowd, with 11 more miles of a marathon to run and no place to hide.
Almost on cue, my friend Marianella stepped from the crowd and took my hand, trying to keep them from flapping. She handed me cold, wet sponges and practically dragged me up the hill, talking to me the whole time. Somehow she got me through the episode and running again. But I had tanked. The anxiety had wiped me out. I am often exhausted after an anxiety attack and have to sit quietly for some time, or even take a short nap. This was the first time it had ever occurred while running. I didn’t even know it was possible. I had no energy left to keep up an 8:15 or even an 8:30 pace. I had no idea where any of the pace groups were at this point. I wanted to join up with 3:45 to try to salvage my race, but couldn’t remember if they had already passed me or not (they hadn’t). My brain was going to mush. My new goal that was adopted at mile 16 was simply to finish.
This was clearly a stupid goal. My whole body was screaming at me to stop. I was dehydrated, alternating between feeling way too hot and shivering. I had an intense headache at the back of my skull and a tight jaw. I was plodding along, barely moving, and walking every five minutes. But I was just so stubborn. I didn’t die from HELLP syndrome. I didn’t die from stroke. I wasn’t going to die from this either. I had trained for FOUR MONTHS just to prove that I was stronger, that I couldn’t be beaten down. I was running this marathon to PROVE what my mind and body could really do. Pulling out of the race, seeking medical attention would be admitting failure, would be accepting broken-ness.
I stupidly plodded on.
I stopped checking splits, but I did feel a deep sense of despair when the 4:00 pacer overtook me around mile 24. I almost gave up at that point. I was blinking slowly, desperately wanting to go to sleep. I was delirious. I was losing track of where I was, how far was left. I started counting between blinks and steps to keep myself straight (and awake). Thankfully my friend plodded along with me on the last mile, up to the 26 mile mark. I found a wee, tiny little bit of umpf left in the tank and poured it all out in the last half mile “sprint”. I entered the shoot. I passed my cheering, smiling family. I kept running. Man, where is the finish line? Doesn’t this end?! I saw the inflatable arch up ahead. The time clock. Where is the mat? Don’t I have to step on a mat for my time to register? Then nothing. Just weightlessness. I thought I hadn’t passed through the finish.
Someone much larger than me was cradling me. I panicked a little once I realized my feet were nowhere near the ground. I was taken into a large white medical tent and set down on a cot where a nurse slapped on a blood pressure cuff and another took my pulse. 104 over 65 with a heart rate of 110. I had finished in 4 hours, 3 minutes, and 52 seconds. I had finished without stroking, without dying, without throwing up. I had finished!! I was far from my goal time, but I had done 26.2 (26.4 according to my Garmin watch) miles!! I was feeling better after a bit of Gatorade and a banana. I was tired, but I could move and there were runners pouring into the medical tent with severe cramping and vomiting. I felt that I was taking up space.
Wrapped tightly in a space blanket, I meandered through the crowd until I met up with my family. That’s when I learned that the race officials had cancelled the race. Due to the extreme temperatures and humidity, they had to call the race for the safety of the runners. Those still on the course were instructed to go to the next aid station and wait for the sweeper bus to pick them up. Police barricaded the bike path that was the last two miles. Official timing ended at 4 hours, 30 minutes. I just made it! Soon after police began clearing the park and telling people that the post-race party was over due to lightning strikes close by. It was all kind of an anti-climactic end. It was all just one big marathon fail.
But I did learn from all of this. And, I suppose that’s more important than PRs.
1. I really need to seek help with my anxiety. If I want to move forward, I can’t let it hold me back and this past weekend was a real wake-up call. I just can’t safely go through it alone anymore.
2. I’m a lot stronger than I give myself credit for. It hurt my feelings to change focus and give up my goals, but I was strong enough to do it. It hurt my body to endure 11 miles post panic attack, to move my body up & down hills in blistering heat, but I was strong enough to do it. I’m not as damaged as I think I am.
3. I truly believe that my training was solid & that I did a great job for the past 16 weeks. I know where I messed up in the race, and I know how to fix it for the next one. I think that had conditions been better (i.e. NOT sub-tropical temperatures!) I probably would have faired a bit better. I think I also learned a thing or two about running in the heat as well.
It’s 18 weeks until the next race. That gives me just enough time to relax and recoup and then start all over again with fresh legs, mindset, and goals!