when a race becomes a reality check
Good things come to those who wait. Scratch that. Good things come to those who work their asses off and never give up. ~unknown
Last week, I had what was easily the worst marathon experience of any of the forty-something I’ve run. Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t freezing, raining, or hailing – all of which we’ve had on race day in OKC before – and the crowd support was, by far, the best its ever been, and I still loved every minute of it. Except I hated it, too. My legs and my mind were in the mood to really go, but the rest of me? It was screaming “fuck you” with every step. Wendy ran with me, and we started at a good pace, given that both of us have had some health issues and some I’m-not-into-proper-training issues. It certainly wasn’t BQ pacing or anything, but we could’ve pulled out a 4:10-4:15 race. In other words, not our best, but decent. Somewhere between the first step and mile 9, I started to fall apart. Mentally, I was fine, and I knew I’d cross the finish line. That's never an issue. Physically, though, holy hell on avocado toast, I can’t remember feeling this badly! Ever. Despite the gallon of water (yes, quite literally a gallon) I drank on the drive home from Colorado the evening before, and the fact that I didn’t miss one water stop, official or unofficial, on the course, my hydration level was a that of which a raisin would be jealous. My plantar decided to join the pain party, turning the run into a 26.2 mile run-walk-hop jig. It was peppy, really… like I was racing to the beat of a jaunty little country song. Whatever that move was, I kept it going.
Somewhere between mile 9 and the halfway point, I stopped looking at my watch. Wendy and I chattered the entire time, our conversations journeying from mundane work talks to kids to sex to training to energies of life to relationships. They would twist and turn, circle back around and then wind back through, always bringing to light new thoughts, new revelations, new insights. We passed the time with words, and it wasn’t until mile 19 that I realized just how long this was taking. That was the moment I glanced up and saw 4:00:02 on the clock and thought to myself, “Sweet Jesus! This time last year, I was coming down the finishers chute, and I still have 7.2 miles to go.” The nausea was worsening, my heart rate was quickening, dizziness was starting to set in, and I hadn’t peed since before the race started. (Side note: I can easily pull off twice in a 4 mile loop around Bluff?! Second side note: As it turned out, I didn’t have to until 8pm?!) I kept all this to myself because I knew that mentally, I’d overcome it and I didn’t want to worry Wendy. She’s that great friend that if you’re suffering, all her energy will be channeled into fixing the problem, and really there was no remedying it. So, Wendy, if you’re reading this, a) thanks for being that awesome friend, and 2) don’t be mad that I didn’t tell you. Also, you really do rock, sister.
At 12:22pm, we finally crossed the finish line. My legs felt like they’d done nothing, which is good, since I spent the five days after making a plan to kick their asses. In a loving way of course… Seriously, though, you can’t have the worst race of your life and not learn some lessons – not make a plan to come out of it stronger for the next one. It’s called maturity or growth or something adult-like. In any case, I’m doing something about it, and that’s what has led me to write this. I can’t be the only one who has had “the worst race of her life,” and if that happens to be you and you happen to also be looking for how to let that one actually remain the worst race of your life, then stay with me because this little compilation of tips I’ve found (and am now using because, you know, I’m mature now) may be of use to you.
1) Check your training. A couple of months ago, I sat down with a friend and plugged all my runs through Never Summer 100K (the big race I’m focusing on at the moment) into my calendar. At any given moment, I could see what I was supposed to run. My problem was, though, that I had fallen off of the plan and was doing what I wanted. Or not doing what I didn’t want to do, depending on the day. Some days I wanted to go to two yoga classes, other days I wanted to drink coffee with friends, neither of which will get me to the finish line in a reasonable amount of time, as it turns out. So, while it was a lovely relaxing, caffeine and laughter filled commercial break, I’m now back to my regularly scheduled program of running.
2) Actually take your rest days. Listen, I know it’s hard to rest when you feel good. It’s just as hard as running when you don’t, but you have to. I have to. I am, now. I’ve got the rest days written into my calendar and will take them, kicking and screaming. Actually, no kicking and screaming…. that’s effort, not rest.
3) If you have health glitches, for the love of all Pete (whoever he is), take care of them. Mostly, I’m talking to myself here, but I know that there are others out there who also think they’re immune to the body’s retaliation against proper function. If this is you, don’t ignore it. Do the shit you need to do to keep those systems in check, and while you’re at it get them checked periodically. Again, I’m talking to myself, here, but you know if you need to listen.
4) Check in with your fuel. Fortunately, I happen to be one of those annoying people who enjoy things that taste like grass. My problem is that I have a wonky endocrine system (see above), and if I don’t keep it in check, my appetite goes away. With no appetite, I don’t think to eat regularly, and when I don’t eat regularly, my energy drains, I still try to keep running anyway, which throws my endocrine system off even more, which decreases my appetite even more, which lowers my energy even more…. You get the idea. Anyway, I know this cycle and I know how to get past it. I am committed to keep doing the thing to get past it.
5) Strengthen your body in other ways. I really let cross training go. I mean really, realllllyyyy let it go, and the thing is, I know that I’m stronger if I lift weights and get on a bike regularly. I was working under the idea that with increasing running miles, I didn’t have time. Bullshit. I had time. I just didn’t have the motivation to do those other things, and really I don’t need motivation. I just need discipline to stop off the trail and work other muscles. I’ve since stepped off the trail more to work other muscles, and I already feel stronger.
6) So this one isn’t for me because it’s the one area in which I’ve not struggled, and that is to do more yoga. Or start doing yoga… whichever applies to you. I know, I know… yoga is slow and boring and easy and all these other things that make it unbearable. Except that it’s none of those things. There are days I walk out of a 60 minute class more drained that I would be on a fifteen mile run. And in those 60 minutes, I’ve strengthened my core, improved my balance, loosened my hamstrings, deepened my breath, and sweat my ass off. Seriously. Do yoga. It’s the good shit.
7) And this one is most definitely for me. Sleep. Good god, I am the worst sleeper in the history of all bad sleepers. I rarely do it, and when I do, it’s short and chaotic and I spend most of the time rolling either my body over or my pillow over to get to the cool side (side note: Isn’t the cold side of the pillow the absolute best thing about going to bed??). Anyway, from what I understand, sleep makes you feel better inside and out. It encourages your body to heal itself from all the shit you do to it. It rests your brain. It makes you nicer. It helps you poop rainbows. That last one isn’t true, but all the others make it worth it. Wouldn’t it be cool if it were, though?
8) Hey, how’s your recovery process? It sucks? Yeah, mine, too. Some of the biggest things I’ve added to my almost daily routine are myofascial release using tennis balls or these guys, stretching those areas we forget about (toes, bottoms of the feet, hands, neck), and soaking in Epsom salts. You may not notice a difference immediately, but keep at it. You will, and in the meantime, it all feels like a treat. So, think of these things as ice cream cones (vegan, if that’s what suits you) for your muscles.
As I’m redirecting my focus back to the mechanics of smart training, I hope to find that balance of kindness and strength toward myself that was once natural. I hope you can do the same.