Sunday, November 5, 2017

Four words

I’d been saying four words to myself for a week. Four words, over and over again. It’s just a marathon. And it’s not as though the weeks prior had gone exceptionally well either. I went to NYC and got sick. When I came back, I got an antibiotic that proved unsuccessful. While on that, I had to take some days off (including a day off of work) and I had a glorious bonk in the last four miles of a my last 23 mile long run. Several days later, I was still sick and got another antibiotic. That one really took it out of me. Two pills a day, ten days. Those pills were awful. I had to take the second pill before 5pm if I wanted any hope of falling asleep at a reasonable time or waking up in time to go running. If I had the strength to run at all. But I was going to finish up that medication nine days before the race, so I knew I’d have time to bounce back.

I made the mistake of not doing a workout one day when I couldn’t the next, so it got pushed to that Friday. When I started my warmup, my right hamstring was really tight. I thought nothing of it and went about my run. But after two of my intended eight intervals, it was getting worse, so I stopped the workout. I wish I could have stopped the run, it was hurting that badly. The next two days, the pain did not go away and I was limited to about 30 minutes before it got to be too much. I decided I’d take the next few days off of running and instead get in the pool So Monday - Wednesday, I was at the YMCA—first one in the water at 5am. I swam and I aqua jogged, and told myself those same four words. Wednesday afternoon I had my leg worked on. Thursday, I would run.

23 minutes, after school, at the warmest part of the day, with full tights on. It didn’t feel good. I went slowly, but picked it up at some point to see if running 6:30 pace felt better than running 8:00 pace. It did not. Four words. Same thing on Friday. No better. Four words. I knew I was going to make my final decision about participation as late as possible, so Saturday morning, I got up early and went for the same 5k jog. It hurt less. I was all in. I was going to run this race.

Sunday morning, I left my hotel in a Lyft and got to the Metro Station to ride to the Pentagon. The station opened two hours early for the race and the place was packed already. Being with these other runners who were hoping to finish, ready to tackle the grueling effort, made me realize that the four words I’d been saying all week were relative, and did not apply to these folks. For the first time in years, I felt like I was the least serious runner around me. They had trained, they were ready! They were running with a purpose, to prove something, to honor someone. What was I doing this for? I was very emotional in realizing that this event, today, was about so much more to so many people than I’d ever realized. I'd been really selfish getting here, trivializing the event and not considering how big of a deal it is to so many people. I just haven’t been in this situation before, with these masses of runners, all working to finish. It wasn’t about the clock for them, or if it was, they weren’t’ showing it. It was about the challenge, the course, the commitment. I didn’t know what it was about for me. Those four words were coming back to haunt me. It was a tough pill to swallow.

Early risers
Fast forward to the race. Justin Neibauer was running too, still chasing sub-3. I asked him if it would be OK if I ran with him for at least the first 10K, to keep myself under control and warm up into it slowly. He was happy to have the company. We met up in the athlete’s village, I warmed up for a little bit, stretched, and applied some KT tape to my hamstring. I’d been wearing a hamstring sleeve that I borrowed from Charlie, and in hindsight I should have kept it on. We dropped our gear and made our way up to the starting line—which itself was an incredible experience. Thinking back to the races I’ve run, it’s most similar to Boston. The numbers of people around are incredible—more so than in Hopkinton, because they stagger the start times there. In Chicago, I’ve always been ahead and in the sub-elite Olympic developmental group (or whatever it’s called these days) so I haven’t seen these crowds. But this was incredible. Having the helicopters and jets and stuff fly overhead was cool too. I thought of my kids and hoped that they were getting to see it all. They left the hotel early that morning to make it to the course to spectate.

Computational thinking on my mind?
There was a delay in the race because of something on the course, during which I convinced Justin we needed to move up closer to the start. We weren’t going to finish behind 500 people so we shouldn’t start behind them either. I borrowed a strangers phone (first of three times today—spoiler alert) and texted KC so she wouldn’t think I was dead already when I was 5 minutes behind where she expected me to be.

The gun went off and I was in trouble. My hamstring wasted no time in reminding me that it wasn’t 100%. But the adrenaline got me off the line and Justin and I began our race. I encouraged him not to look at his watch a few times in the first half mile. We saw a runner running the wrong way on a road next to the course and then pass us. I hoped he wasn’t cheating. Turns out he and a bunch of other runners took a wrong turn almost immediately and had to backtrack. I looked for my family as we went through Rosslyn. I was completely lost in that effort and was unaware of where I was on the course until my watch vibrated to alert me of the first mile—I’d forgotten to turn off autolap and did not even know where the mile marker was relative to that split. It gave me a 6:56 and we’d already passed the mark, so we were going too fast. We’d agreed that he should run over 7:00 for the first few miles BEFORE I got hurt, and here I was ruining his race plan. But then I saw my family with the Crafts, cheering at me in the crowd, and I forgot all about being off pace.

We started up the only significant hill of the race and were passing a lot of people, but getting passed by a lot of people too. I tried to slow down as the pain started to creep up, but we split a 6:44 second mile up the hill (again, GPS, not mile markers). And then things just sort of started to settle. Justin would run next to me or right behind me, we’d chat a little every once in a while, but we just kept running. I was hurting, but honestly it was less than it had hurt at all in the past week. I was bored to death with how slow we were going (no offense, rest of the world) and we just plugged along. I was looking around, taking in the sights of DC as Justin regaled me with tales of Marine Corps Marathons he’d spectated when his dad ran them, and I thought of my dad running this same race before I was born.

I looked along the route at the spectators to see if I knew people, always looking for my family. There was one girl who I saw three times in the first nine miles. I told her that, too. I chatted with other racers as we grouped together. I did math in my head as we passed mile markers to get actual splits, but never touched my watch. I was actually starting to feel better—noticing my hamstring less, feeling more confident. KC and the kids had a great view of the course on some bridge (Rt-66) right around mile 10, and I waved up at them, smiling. I told Justin our gun time for 10-miles (I don’t remember what it was). He told me that his brain didn’t work anymore and asked me the pace. We were somewhere under 6:50 probably, but I felt ready to keep up the pace and he did not. So I consciously let go of him (from ahead of him) and just started to run. My GPS was more closely mirroring the clock splits, and I was running in the mid-sixes. My 11th mile was a 6:21. I thought that I could conservatively keep that up, and then maybe in the second half of the race get closer to six-flat or faster.

I was wrong. 77 minutes in, I felt a pull. OK, too soon, I thought. Let’s back it down to 6:30-6:40, maybe group back up with Justin. Nope. For the next four minutes, I slowed down until I was running over 7-minute pace until I just had to stop. I came to a complete stop. Let’s review other times I’ve come to complete stops during a marathon:
  • Boston 2004 – Had to go into a bathroom
  • Shamrock 2006 – Had to tie my shoe
  • Chicago 2009 – Had to stretch (twice)
Not a track records of success during those races. Tying my shoe wasn’t that big of a deal, but this didn’t bode well. I stretched, then got back on my way, briefly. Somehow, I managed to split 6:30 for the 12th mile, with walking. I did not stop my watch. I approached the Blue Mile, which the course website describes as “the emotional blue Mile of the course where fallen service members are commemorated in photographs along the roadway decorated with American Flags." What a place to have to walk through. Looking at those pictures, passing people standing every two feet holding up flags. There was nowhere for me to go but in the grass. I couldn’t walk on the road past all of those people. It was embarrassing.

Justin had already passed me and I walked across the 20K mat. I was still in this race. Over the next nine minutes, I continued to attempt running, but it would only last for a few meters. I could not continue to run. But I knew I had to be looping back at some point, I just didn’t know the course well enough to know how far. It was over. I stopped my watch at 12.82 miles, after 90:43 of running.

I started my watch over for the walk that I was about to do in order to get back to my family. I walked for a few minutes until I got to the half way mark… somewhere around 96 minutes gun time. There were two spectators there—one kind enough to let me use his phone. I sent KC a text to let her know I was no longer running the race. For the next 55 minutes, I walked along the course. I took a gel, I took water, I almost took some Halloween candy, I almost took a mimosa, but I didn’t want to stand around drinking with their actual glass champagne glasses, nor did I want to take that with me. I was passed by thousands of people. People offered words of encouragement, trying to get me to continue. I saw other people stop to walk/stretch and jump back in. I tried to do the same, just to get this nightmare over with. But I couldn’t even jog two strides. Running was not an option.

Once I got off of the Hains Point area, I was excitedly looking for KC everywhere, but also growing more and more embarrassed as I walked along the course. Sometimes I popped up onto the sidewalk to get out of the way of the actual runners. I made sure to cross the timing mat at the 25K so that she’d get a text message to let her know I was still alive, but she didn’t—they only went out at the 10K and 20K. She’d planned to see me at 16, so I thought there was a chance that maybe they were walking towards me, but I also just thought that’s where I would find her. 16 was right around a 180-degree turn, and she was nowhere to be found. I borrowed my third and final cell phone, but this time to call her. She was at mile 16 too, we’d just missed each other. So, I kept walking.

We reunited somewhere after 16. She said I looked great, considering. I offered to keep walking the course (I only had 10 miles to go!) if they wanted to wait and I told her I was in high spirits, mostly because I’d already had an hour to be depressed and sad, now I just wanted to go home. I made a tough phone call to my mom, who was at the finish, to let her know that I wouldn’t be arriving by foot and apologize for wasting her day. We continued to walk along the course until past mile 17, where I officially dropped out of the race and we headed for the metro. Four words.

My GPS splits
The metro station was a tough place to be. There were people walking around with their medals on from the 10K, and even a few people who had already finished the marathon. I was standing around in my racing kit, looking like an idiot. I came out and went to get my bag, and who should pop up but Justin! He was going to get his bag too, and said he’d had some watch issues so he wasn’t sure whether he was under three hours or not. I pulled my phone out of my bag, and the last text that I’d received was his finishing result, 2:59:53! We celebrated briefly before he announced his retirement from marathoning. His result made my day a whole lot better, and I felt less sad for myself.

We loaded up into the car, went to the hotel to pack, get lunch, and hit the road. While I was in the hotel room packing up, KC was in the car with the kids, who had fallen asleep. I came down to the lobby to find them all inside, because the car had started smoking and she had to get them out and shut it off. The day continued to get worse. Who gives a shit about dropping out of a marathon now? My mom called to tell me that my grandmother had taken a turn for the worse and probably wouldn’t make it much longer. Who gives a shit about dropping out of a marathon now?

Long story short, we got the car “fixed” after a brief wait ($$)—thank goodness there was a place open on a Sunday! We had a stressful lunch, got to Fredericksburg to see my grandmother one last time (she passed away the following Wednesday morning at 92 years old), and I haven’t run in two weeks. I talked to a few people while I was waiting for the car to get fixed and KC was entertaining the kids in the hotel lobby/an ice cream place, and it’s all about perspective.

The Internet is still waiting
for me to finish the race.
Those four words though. It’s just a marathon. Well, now that it was over, I had new four words I was thinking about. I’ll never drop out. I’d given a lot of shit to people who dropped out of marathons. Sean. Alec. Rachel. Chris. Sean. I always said I wouldn’t. I told Charlie before that I wouldn’t line up if I didn’t think I could finish. If I started the race, I was going to finish it. Well you know what, I was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I could NOT finish that race. I tried! And it wouldn’t have been worth it to walk from mile 11 to mile 26.2. What would that prove? That I’m a stubborn ass, probably. KC said she was proud of me for dropping out. That sounds silly, but it was the smart thing to do. The only thing to do, really. Am I eating crow? Absolutely. But there’s nothing I could do about it. And none of those people who I’ve given so much crap to have said a word to me (granted I don’t talk to any of them much anyway). But if they did, I’d welcome it.

I had some really good training until the end of September. It doesn’t matter what I thought I could run, but I was feeling good about it. Then I got sick, and I got injured. I did the absolute best I could to rehab and make it to the race healthy, but it wasn’t meant to be. Now I can say that I’ve dropped out of a marathon. I’m in that club. I’m embarrassed about it, but at the same time, I’m not, because I tried. I didn’t drop out because I was slowing down or I wasn’t feeling well. I could not run. Period. I probably shouldn’t have even lined up, but I would have never known. This way, I knew for sure and I have little regret.

2018 is going to be the year of the 5K. Take that as you will. I’ll come back to the marathon in 2019, somewhere. I have unfinished business at Marine Corps, but that may have to wait until another year.

I welcome any and all trash talk about me dropping out. I deserve it. Just say it to my face (or directly to me electronically)—that’s what I would do to you.

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