My coach says not to run through pain. Everyone says that. The hard part is deciding when a minor annoyance, a slight twinge, a tug, an irritation…ok, this damn uncomfortable feeling in my right heel, Achilles’ tendon and ankle becomes pain. A week before the marathon? I refuse to entertain the thought. But the internal argument begins.
I run because I love it. I love the smooth glide of my gait when I’m at my best – relaxed but running hard. I love the park at odd hours – misty evenings when few people are on the road and I have the sensation that I’m a wild animal just trotting through my habitat. A fox, a wolf. Just checking things out, sniffing the air, listening for the slightest rustle of prey.
Then come the races. Type A behavior kicks in and I’m the same woman who used to practice classical guitar 8 hours a day, who wanted to play faster and louder and pressured myself to the point that I would invariably vomit before a big performance.
So much of the battle is in one’s head. And for me, running seems to hit me at that gap between my untamed animal and my neuroses. Yesterday, my neuroses won. I DNFed in the New York Marathon. Today’s recuperation is my analysis of what happened; tomorrow’s recuperation will be an animal-like trot around the park.
5 am: Woke up after a good night’s sleep. Stomach not perfect but possibly just pre-race jitters. A little worried about my digestive tract. Did everything I planned to do. Oatmeal, coffee and a bagel with almond butter. The bagel was the one switch. Before most long runs I had a particular wheat-free sunflower seed bread with almond butter but I thought I might be better off with less fiber.
6:15: Car service picks me up and we pick up my pal Robin, then head down to Battery Park to get the Staten Island Ferry. We picked a time that was between our assigned ferries. Ended up on the 6:45 boat. Robin had been assigned to 6:15 (even though she was starting 25 minutes later than I was). I was supposed to take the 7:30. All fine. We got to the start village and went to our separate color coded areas. Went to the loo twice in the 2.5 hours I had to wait there before we lined up. But when we got to the corrals, I suddenly knew I was going to have to go again. Oops, too late, they moved us to the start. Now I was starting with the sure knowledge that I would have to stop within a few miles.
Green corrals start off to the side and run the lower level of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. Very, very windy. I hadn’t done any warm up at all and had been sitting all that time. Legs feel stiff. My watch says I’m running at an 11:46 pace despite what feels like a mammoth effort to keep going forward. Head games start: I tell myself no, something’s wrong, I can’t do it. I fight back, reassure myself that I can; it’s just the first mile. I relax and soon we’re heading downhill. I look at my watch again and see that I was going much faster, an 8:20 pace. Too fast. I try to calm down and get into my groove while watching for port-a-potties. Wind was making my mouth very dry. No water until mile 3. That’s where I find the loos, so I skip the water and hit the loo. I lose about 90 seconds but get back on pace very fast.
I take a much-needed unofficial cup of water from a little girl on the sidelines and then duck behind a big man to draft for a while. He’s going at the perfect pace. Maybe slightly faster than I had intended (9:30 versus my goal pace of 9:43). But I figure I’m saving energy and I feel great. The mile markers seem to be flying by. Brief internal discussion about the fact that one always feels great in the first part of a marathon. I stay calm, stay on pace, checking my watch to make sure. I’m grabbing water at each stop, taking salt packets, a GU, and ducking back in behind whatever big man I can find who is running somewhere in the vicinity of my pace.
Worry starts to hit. Water is sloshing around a bit in my stomach. Don’t usually take water more often than every 3 miles. Usually every 5 miles. Take some more salt, thinking it might balance out the water. Gut starts to bother me again; I’m sure I’m going to have to make another pit stop. Mile 12 or so I duck into another port-a potty. This time my gut feels a little worse. I just have to relax and hope that I’m expelling everything.
Back on course again. Realize I’ve lost some time – another couple of minutes. Try not to rush to make up the pace. Have to find another guy to duck behind. We pass the half marathon clock and I’m still in the race. But as I begin to feel a bit less sure of myself the inner dialogue starts back and forth:
“I can’t do this.”
“Of course you can – only 13 miles to go.”
“Ok, ok, I’m just going to relax for a mile, ease down to 10:00 pace.”
Mile marker for 14 passes by. Only 12.2 miles and that’s an easy Sunday run. But I’m losing a little steam. Stomach still not right. A little dizzy. I stop. Walk for a second and start up again. That’s it. Seems like a disaster to walk so soon – even for a second.
Mile 15. I’m pretty sure I can’t do it. I stop at the side and tell a cop I want to pull out. He brings me onto the sidewalk. Someone comes with water and a banana. I sit there for a while, take another salt packet. They ask if I want an ambulance. I’m still arguing with myself. No, I say. I’m going to try to continue.
I head back onto the road. Surprised to find that I’m already at the bridge. I hate that bridge. Just don’t have it in me. Now all I want to do is get to Manhattan so I can sneak out and go home. Another argument ensues:
“But what about the medal, arriving in Central Park. You know these last 10 miles like the back of your hand.”
“But if I keep going I know what’s going to happen. I’m going to have to walk. I’m going to get worse and worse stomach cramps, I’m going to be really pissed at myself. And — most important — I’m not going to PR. And that might be the worst part. I wanted to PR. I trained to PR.”
“But the medal…but the PR…” The tug of war didn’t last that long. I was done. Stepped over to the water table and told a volunteer I was sick. She and I dashed across First Avenue where an ambulance was waiting. I said all I needed was a bathroom. The EMT walked me into a restaurant. Used the loo but just cramping. EMT texted my friend who was tracking me to tell her I was dropping out.
Walked up First Avenue a few blocks thinking maybe I could duck through Sloane Kettering, which probably had some underground passageway that would take me to the other side of the avenue. Taking off my race number, embarrassed to have dropped out. No luck at the hospital; I had to duck back in, holding my unpinned race number to my chest, so I could jog back across the avenue. A cop let me out on the other side, and I walked to Madison, someplace in the 70s. Saw an empty cab and asked if he would take me home even though I would have to run inside to get money to pay him because I didn’t have a dime on me. He was just lovely – an older man from Trinidad who had lived in New York for 41 years. Such a lovely, cheerful man, about my age. He let me use his cell phone to call my neighbor. She was out buying dog food, so she waited for my cab at 85th and Amsterdam, and paid for me.
We walked home. I was still arguing with myself, vacillating between happiness that I hadn’t forced myself to keep slogging through the last 10 miles and total frustration with myself for wimping out.