“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I think I am.”
“You want to?”
“Yeah, let’s sign up.”
And so we did. The above conversation took place between me and my husband, Tim, around February of 2011. The discussion related to signing up for the 2011 Chicago marathon.
The question was not whether we’d run a fall marathon. That much was certain. But should we run Chicago? Everyone knows that weather has been a major issue in Chicago in the last three out of four years. But, more than that, any hesitancy about Chicago that Tim expected out of me stemmed from the 2009 race—the one year when the temperature at the race was actually ideal.
I didn’t run Chicago in 2009. Tim did, but I didn’t. And that was the problem. I had trained for it, and it was to be my first marathon. Five weeks before the race, I sustained a severe groin injury which prevented me from running the race. I was extremely fit, and I was completely devastated. That devastation was compounded by the fact that I went to spectate the race. While I was happy to watch my husband break 3:00 for the first time and to see my brother run his first marathon, it was a really heart-wrenching experience for me.
After spectating Chicago in 2009, I used to always grumble that I hated the Chicago marathon. I was half-joking, but the truth is I held a lot of disdain for that race—a race that let me train myself into the ground only to prevent me from experiencing the fruits of my labor. While I intellectually understood that the race itself was in no way responsible for my misfortune, I was still bitter.
Hence Tim’s questioning of me when I told him I thought we should run Chicago. But I was over all my Chicago angst. I had finally run my first marathon (Eugene in May of ’11) and had a wonderful first marathon experience. The marathon no longer eluded me. I had run a strong first marathon on very moderate training. And, while it was difficult, it wasn’t as hard as I thought it could have been. So I signed us up for Chicago assuming that my second marathon would outshine even my nearly-perfect Eugene experience. Especially since I ran Eugene with a TENS unit attached to me and only got up to 60 miles per week one time. I’ll spare you the suspense: I was wrong.
I ran the Eugene Marathon relatively undertrained and when, in June, Chicago training was to begin, I was dead set on making sure that my fitness was at a level it had never been come October 9th. I wanted to race my guts out knowing that I had trained as hard as I could. I overcame a couple of early obstacles (two abdominal surgeries in May and July), but I did manage to train very hard this summer. To summarize, I ran most of my weeks around 70 miles, and three of those weeks were 75+ miles. I also ran 10 20+ mile long runs, most of which were back-to-back long runs (a 16 on Saturday followed by a 22 on Sunday, for example). 90% of my runs were in heat and extreme humidity, and a lot of them were at 5:00 a.m. I eschewed speed work in favor of lots of miles, as I know that I have some natural speed. I knew this plan would not make me fast, but figured it should make me strong. And strength is a must in the marathon.
I did all of this running on only four days per week. I chose this schedule not out of convenience, but because it was what I used in Eugene. And it had worked. But it is VERY different to run 75 miles in four days than to only run 55 in the same time period. In my peak training for Chicago, I was running nearly 20 miles a day during those four days of running. This called for lots of doubles. I never ran fewer than 14-15 miles at once in my first run of the day. I expected my legs to feel tired, and they did, but around mid-August I started questioning if they felt too tired.
The problem was my quads. They would feel fine the first few miles of a run, but after that it felt as though they lacked all shock absorption. I had complained of this problem to my husband and my other running friends—told them that it wasn’t injury type pain, but that my legs were just completely trashed. Every. Single. Run. They told me to just make it to taper and that it would get better.
I made it to taper, and it got worse. I wasn’t running as much, but when I did run my legs felt wasted. I remembered my legs feeling flat during taper for Eugene, but this was different. My quads ached, even during very slow runs. I was concerned about it, but I figured that this was just a different kind of taper due to all of the miles and all of the long runs. I also had taken about a month’s worth of oral prednisone, and was suffering from side effects of it. My face began to swell a little and I gained a few pounds due to the fluid retention. Still, I kept the faith that my legs would be fresh and strong on race day, just like they had been in Eugene.
Tim and I headed up to Chicago on Friday. I was still not feeling very confident, but again assumed that it would all come together when I hit the start line. And I began to worry about the weather. It looked to be a bit too warm on race day. But I’ve run in so much heat. I suppose I was more worried about the weather given how my legs were feeling. I drove Tim insane with questions like “Am I really ready for this?” I know he thought I was just nervous, but something just felt a little off. Not like Eugene did. I shrugged it off since it WAS different than Eugene—I had run one before and knew what to be afraid of.
We went to the expo. I’m sorry, but I hate expos. I can’t stand being around all those people. We got our bags, a new pair of shoes for Tim, and got out of there. We met friends for dinner, then headed to Emily’s parents’ house, where we were graciously allowed to stay for the whole weekend.
The next morning, I went with Wes (my brother), Tim, and Scott (my friend) to do one final shake out run. I only went two miles. While I didn’t feel great, I didn’t feel awful. I turned around before they did, and did about a half mile at marathon pace (7:14). It didn’t feel too bad, but I was slightly aware of my quads during it. I didn’t obsess over it because there wasn’t a thing I could do at that point.
I drank a TON of fluid on Saturday and also began taking salt tabs. My slightly swollen face which had resulted from the prednisone quickly became noticeably swollen. It didn’t really look like me. I was not swollen anywhere else—just my face. It became the joke that I looked like I had just had my wisdom teeth removed. It has made for some interesting pictures. Anyway—physically I was not “normal,” and I didn’t feel normal. Saturday night I felt exhausted. After we ate pasta, all I could think about was sleeping. Again, I didn’t remember feeling this way for Eugene. But I figured it was just how it was supposed to be.
My dad (who was also staying with us and was going to race) woke me up at 4:45 a.m. I thought he was just waking me up, but he told me he had changed his mind about racing and was just going to head home. I was shocked by this, but on some level I also understood. I was incredibly nervous myself.
I got up and had some cream of wheat…and noticed that my face was even MORE swollen at this point. I looked like a chipmunk. Before I knew it, we were parking the van. Emily and her roommate, Katie, were going to run together. Tim would be running his own race, attempting to break 2:50. And Wes and Scott would be running with me. The plan was to start out with the 3:10 pace group and try to do a slight negative split to sneak in under 3:10.
It was warm out. 66 degrees at the start. It was strange to see runners at the start line shirtless and in sports bras. People are usually wrapped up in trash bags and long-sleeved shirts. There was just no need for it.
I was also struck by the sheer number of people in our corral. We were in B corral, which is very near the front, and it was absolutely packed. I’ve never run a race with this many people—around 45,000 in all. Remember how I didn’t like the expo given all the people? Well, now all these people were surrounding me to get ready to run. I instantly disliked that aspect of the race, but hoped it would fade as soon as we took off.
I got the chance to talk to the 3:10 pacer, and I asked his strategy. He joked around for a second, saying we’d take off at 6 minute miles. But he quickly realized that I was not in a joking mood. We’d start out around 8 minute pace for the first mile, he said, and then we’d make up that time by the half. I didn’t like the idea of starting so far off of goal pace, but was told that there was no way we could go any faster given the crowd. We were so packed in that corral and there were still 10 minutes til the start. I had brought a Starbucks cup with me in which to pee (under a trash bag) and did this twice during that 10 minute period. Men often pee in Gatorade bottles, but clearly that’s not very practical for women. Venti Starbucks cups work splendidly…just don’t forget the lid! Wes borrowed my cup for his own uses, and before I knew it we were off.
But not really. We went forward a little, then stopped. People slammed into the back of me. Then we went further a bit more. Then boom, stop. I didn’t like this, and I kept panicking that I’d lose Wes and Scott. Once we crossed the line, we were finally able to run, but not very fast. That was fine, as I didn’t feel the rush of adrenaline I had expected and that I had experienced in Eugene. I figured this was because I was made very uncomfortable by the mass of people around me.
When I say that they were around us, I actually mean they were on top of us. Shoulders were touching, and all I could do was focus on not falling. One guy did fall during the first mile, and I looked back long enough to see him get thoroughly stepped upon. We just kept going.
Wes told me to just relax—he knew I was concerned about the slow pace. My Garmin was useless at this point, as it does not work accurately in the city due to all the tall buildings. I just kept focusing on the pace group sign, but by about a half mile in it seemed to be gapping us. We couldn’t catch up with them simply because of the crowd. Strangely, I was okay with this. We hit mile 1 at 7:28. That was actually pretty perfect. Not as slow as I had anticipated, but not quite goal pace either. It did not feel hot at this point—it was breezy and quite pleasant, really. And the buildings offered a ton of shade. I began to think that this might be a good day.
We hit the second mile in 7:26, and again I was not surprised by this given the mass of people around us. It was around this mile that all the people really started to get to me. I hung in the middle of the road for the third mile, which we hit at 7:22, and at that point I could no longer take running around all those people. I made my way to the right side of the street and got as close as I could to the spectators.
This made me feel better, though I remember crossing the 5K mark thinking that it didn’t feel easy yet. In retrospect, that was a very ominous sign. The first few miles of a marathon should feel like pure jogging. While I was absolutely fine cardiovascularly—I could breathe, talk, etc., and I wasn’t in any pain, it just simply wasn’t easy. At that point, I told myself I’d re-evaluate at the 10K mark. Again, another bad sign—coming up with re-evaluation points that early in the race means something is off. I can be fully honest with myself now and admit that, three miles in, I was concerned. I wasn’t sure about what—it didn’t feel hot—I just knew it didn’t feel right.
By the 10K mark we were on pace, clicking off miles anywhere from 7:12 to 7:17 pace. We had a little time to make up from the first few slow miles, but honestly I was not even concerned about that. I just wanted to stay on goal pace.
Scott and Wes were right with me. My nutrition was going well, and Scott was hand-delivering my water every aid station so I didn’t even have to break stride to hydrate. I was being totally spoiled.
The only time I ever really felt like I was in a groove during the whole race was during miles 6-9. I remember consciously saying to myself “Okay. I CAN do this.” Again, this convincing nonsense was happening far too early, but it was during these three miles that I thought I might actually have a chance of pulling it off. Our splits were consistent, and I felt fine so long as I stayed on the outer portion of the road. The second I was surrounded by people my effort level seemed to sky rocket. It was just beginning to get warm, and being near all those bodies made it worse. On the outer portion of the road I could at least feel the breeze. I could also try to focus on the spectators, who were amazing and provided a good distraction.
And then I hit mile 10. As though a switch had been hit, I could suddenly feel my quads. And, within a half mile, my hamstrings joined in. It was no kind of injury pain, it was fatigue. Fatigue that I recognized immediately. I had experienced it in Eugene, but during that race it was right around mile 17—a whopping seven miles later. I mentioned to Scott that I was feeling this, and he said something like “That’s okay, just keep running.” He later admitted to me (after the race) that he was concerned that I complained of that feeling so early. By the middle of the 10th mile, I knew that it was going to be a rough day, but I also held onto my goal. I was dealing with the fatigue. For now.
These miles were characterized by rough patches which gave way to better patches. Let me explain. For a quarter mile or so, my legs would begin to feel a lot worse. My quads would burn. But then something would happen—I’d get a drink or we’d get into the shade—and I’d suddenly feel better. My head was all over the place during miles 10-13, as I kept telling myself I should slow down but also that I should hang on. I did slow down a bit, and I felt even worse, so I sped back up. We hit the half in 1:35:41—just 42 seconds off my goal.
That’s a great place to be at the half, unless you are questioning your ability to make it to 20 at that pace. But that was the goal I gave myself—just make it to 20. By 15, my goal had changed to “just make it to 18.” My quads felt, at 15, like they did at mile 23 in Eugene. And I began to notice that I was having trouble standing up straight while running—I was ever so slightly drawing to the right. By about 15.25, my goal rapidly changed to “Make it to the next mile marker.” These are all very common and very helpful mental tricks used by distance runners. The only problem is that I was using them about 6-7 miles too early. Scott continued to be my water/Gatorade servant, and Wes told me to just stop thinking and run. It was also getting very, very sunny at this point and, for the first time, I noticed how warm I felt.
We continued to click off 7:13-7:15 paced miles, but the effort was ever-increasing for me. I would catch myself thinking that I still had more than 10 miles to go, and that thought was daunting. It was around mile 17 that I knew my goal was pretty much not going to happen. My vision got blurry. And, from there, I got tunnel vision. Wes and Scott were pointing things out to me on the course, but I honestly couldn’t see them. It was like I could only see a small sliver in front of each eye. At this point, Scott kept giving me more and more Gatorade and water, and I started taking some of Wes’ salt tabs. I also doubled up on gels hoping that it would help. I kept praying for strength and telling myself to focus, but it soon felt like I was running in someone else’s body.
I hung on with some semblance of the runner that I am until mile 19, where I experienced a fantastic blow up. I couldn’t see, and was now majorly drawn to the right. I was bent over, and I have no idea why. I was aware of it, but at the same time couldn’t do anything about it. I remember thinking, at mile 19, that I would be happy with a 3:12. I looked at my pace tattoo to try and figure up what splits I would need to run to get it, but I was way too mentally foggy to figure that out. And it was futile anyway—I was redlining it effort-wise and my pace had slipped into the 8:XXs. I knew I was going to slow down from there. The only question was how much.
Mile 20 seemed to last forever, and this is where my memory of things gets fuzzy. I don’t remember hitting mile 20, but I remember that all the sudden ice was coming from out of nowhere. Scott would show up with ice in his hands. I’d open my top and he’d dump it in. Then I’d feel it on my back. Then water over my head. He was so good to me and his kindness is what I will remember most about this race. And Wes, too. He kept encouraging me. He gave me permission to stop looking at my watch. “Don’t pay attention to that thing!” he yelled. I couldn’t read the numbers anyway, but I was so concerned that I was failing. I knew I physically could not meet my goal, but I kept obsessing over how far behind it I was. Wes got it through to me—though I’m not sure how given my mental state—that it honestly did not matter. I was racing now. I was gutting it out. Time be damned.
I was not given the luxury of rough patches after mile 20. It was all one big rough patch. I remember that I began to feel physically sleepy during mile 21. Not just tired from effort, but like I needed to seriously get on the ground and go to sleep. Wes told me that if I got to 22 I could finish. But first I had to get to mile 22.
I don’t know why, but him saying that made me realize what was happening. I was surviving. Racing my heart out, and for what? Not for a 3:10. Not even for a PR at that point. I didn’t know what my splits were, but I could tell I was slowing, despite the fact that I was running with more effort than I ever had. I said to him, “It’s not about the time. It’s not about the time.” I don’t know if Wes knew what I meant, but what I was trying to express was my acceptance of the fact that my goals were gone, but that I still had a race to run, and that there was still fighting left to do.
When we arrived at the 21 mile marker (or when they told me I did—I couldn’t see it, of course), I felt worse physically than I ever have while running. Nay, in my entire life. I felt worse than I did during natural child birth. The need to stop was overwhelming, though I never even considered it. “One foot in front of the other,” said Scott in between asking spectators for ice out of their coolers so he could stick it in my top. And that became my mantra: just move. Both Wes and Scott were wonderful during those last five miles. They gave me little goals. Make it to China Town (which I don’t really remember seeing), make it to that bridge, etc. I could think no further than about a quarter mile in front of me. To speak in miles would have been totally overwhelming.
And that’s when Scott said “Don’t think about distance. Think about time. You have way less than an hour left. Rowan could go down for a nap and you’d be finished before he woke up.” That put it in a context that my feeble brain could grasp. So I actually tried to imagine putting Rowan down for his afternoon nap, and I tried to imagine that I was running on my home course.
Right after China Town, I began to feel really, really cold. I knew this was not good and that I didn’t have much longer. I thought I only had two miles left, but Wes told me I was confused and actually had four. I still, though, kept thinking I only had two miles left. Probably a good thing.
I was soon covered in goose bumps, and became frustrated that I couldn’t think of the words “goose bumps” when trying to explain to Scott that I was cold. I think I managed to say “tingly things.” At that point, too, I realized that my legs felt almost numb. And I began to stumble a bit. The last four miles are a blur, but I do remember spectators looking at me like “What the…?” and cheering me on as hard as they could. Wes and Scott whooped them up and told them how hard I was working. They told me I could do it, that I almost had it. And I found myself repeating what they said.
I stumbled into Scott several times, but I never stopped running. I know I looked like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, but I was still running. “I love running!” I said to Scott. I didn’t mean that I was loving the running I was doing, but that, despite this torture, I absolutely, unabashedly love the sport of running. A small part of me was even loving the fact that I was experiencing something I’d never been through while running. I had heard stories of people running like I was, but I’d never been there. Now I could check that off my list. I love that a sport could make me continue to put myself through that much effort, knowing that a PR was not in the cards. I loved that my brother and Scott cared enough about me to work so hard to make sure that I finished (they had to shoo away about a dozen medical people during those last few miles).
“We’re on Michigan now,” said Scott. I knew what that meant. That this was almost over. I tried to speed up for no other reason than to just get it over with, but my surges lasted only about five seconds. I remember Wes telling me we had 800 meters left. “Run 400 for Rowan, and 400 for Amelia.” So that became my mission. When we made the turn onto Roosevelt, I remember the ringing in my ears, and the crowds cheering for us seemed to be doing so in slow motion. I closed my eyes and ran, and again had that overwhelming sleepy feeling. Then, I couldn’t exactly remember how close I was to the finish. “Is it almost over?!” “Yes!” shouted Wes.
We made a left turn and I saw the red Finish Line banner. I couldn’t read it. It was a blur, but I certainly knew what it signified. I remember it getting closer, and the next thing I remember is a voice I didn’t recognize saying “You have to stay awake, Wendy. You have to stay awake.”
Yep. I was in the medical tent. I finished the race in 3:23:45—13+ minutes off my goal and almost 5 minutes off my PR—and have absolutely no memory of crossing the finishing line. I think my last actual memory was about 150 meters from the line, when Scott told me to try and out kick another woman. Apparently I did that, and then passed out cold after crossing the line. I’m glad I don’t remember it.
My official diagnosis was “Altered Mental Status.” Meaning that I was just out of it. All I remember from the finish line to the medical tent is that I was FREEZING. I kept thinking I was in an ice bath, but I wasn’t. Apparently I was really confused and, at one point, combative. My labs revealed hyponatremia—low sodium—which can cause confusion. My potassium was also low. The prednisone that I took causes potassium wasting and fluid retention, and so it seems that that may have set me up for this. They wouldn’t let Wes or Scott in the medical tent, and I assumed they had gone to find Tim…which they had.
I was in there a couple of hours, and I can’t tell you how many times they asked me if I knew where I was and who I was. My core temperature was 102, and they were talking about putting me in an ice bath. “No, no, no!” I protested. I was freezing cold and was not going to stand for an ice bath. The next thing I remember, there was a podiatrist lancing open the blisters on my right foot. They were so impressive that the nurses were taking pictures of them (with my permission).
Then they wanted to know who they should call. I explained that everyone they should call had run the race and did not have a phone on them. They would not release me until I made contact with someone…so I called my mom using their phone. She was at home in Indiana, so this only served to freak her out. But, at least, they would let me leave at this point.
A Red Cross worker was going to walk me to the family reunite tent, when I realized I didn’t have a medal. I wanted one, as I had earned it…so we walked all the way back to the finish and got one. Finally, I found Wes. And then Tim. Tim ran a 2:54:57…an amazing time given the conditions. And the day was done.
I was initially very disappointed in my performance, but now (with the help of soreness the likes of which I have never experienced) realize how proud I should be of my effort. It was a million times more difficult than Eugene. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And yet…I still want to run more of them!
So, what happened? After thinking about it and talking to Conor, my new coach (who has not actually coached me yet—so he is not responsible for any of this mess), here’s what I think:
-Overtrained. Which actually means under-recovered. Running 75 miles a week on four days of running is actually more stressful than doing so in 6 to 7 days a week. I truly believe, in retrospect, that this was the main problem. I also did all this during the most academically stressful time of my life, which certainly stole from my recovery and adaptation.
-Prednisone/cortisone. Too much of a good thing. Led to water retention/sodium and potassium depletion.
-Weather. While not horrific, it wasn’t ideal.
-Crowded. This probably had nothing to do with my blow up, but I just wanted to note that I think I far, far more enjoy smaller races.
So, as much as I’d like to blame Chicago for my experience, I can’t. I still haven’t figured out the magic recipe of training. But that’s okay, because from this point on I am no longer in control. Conor is!