Sunday, May 31, 2015

Exposed to Kryptonite: My 2015 VT City Marathon

“F#@%!" I utter. Not loudly, yet at a volume loud enough to be audible to the runner passing on my left. It’s very evident I’m hurting. I’ve just reached mile 10 of the Vermont City Marathon, a section of the course which begins with a modest descent before leveling off. Certainly not challenging terrain, and not far enough into the race to induce “hitting the wall”. Yet, here I am, feeling as though I am about to do just that.

All week long the pollen count has been incredibly high. As a result I’ve been battling intense allergy symptoms which have provoked my asthma. My breathing has been inefficient and slightly labored, even with the help of medications. Yet through it all I remained optimistic that it would clear up by race day. 

Race morning found me with slight nausea, but my breathing much more unrestricted. I’ve had many a race in my career in which I haven’t felt the best in the pre-race hours, yet I performed surprisingly strong and felt almost invincible once the race got underway. I was hoping today would be one of those days.

While not feeling strong, I certainly had been feeling decent from the time the starter’s horn bellowed at 8:03 am. I had been running at a consistent pace and was on pace to complete a very respectable marathon, finishing somewhere in the vicinity of 3 hours 15 minutes. That was, until I hit mile 10. As a result of inefficient breathing my body was using glycogen (it’s most efficient fuel source) at an elevated rate. Once the glycogen goes away, so does any semblance of speed.  So now, at mile 10, the needle on my internal fuel gauge is flirting with “E”.

I reach for a GU energy gel from my Fuel Belt. I have each individual GU packet stored in the belt with the top half of the packet facing down. This allows for fast and easy access, enabling me to remove the GU packet as if I’m removing a gun from a holster. Also, the packets tend to stay in place more securely this way. I blindly reach down and grab the first packet I feel. As I pull it up into view I see it’s the flavor “chocolate outrage”. I am aware that I may just be delaying my inevitable termination from the race. Yet I can’t help but hope that this “chocolate outrage” will provide me with the “rage” of energy I need.

Upon consumption I have a slight spike in my energy, yet it is certainly no rage and it is very short-lived. An epic battle of “tug-of- war” now begins in my mind. The sensible side of my brain gives a tremendous pull, proclaiming: You should drop out! You have nothing to gain by staying in the race!  If you do you will end up walking, being on the course for hours longer than anticipated and it will take at least twice as long to recover once the run is over!

The stubborn side of my mind then tugs back mightily, proclaiming that I should: Suck it up! Dropping out is a sign of weakness! You should stay in the race and finish, even if it is a slower time than you’ve ever done!  At least you’ll have completed the mission! All the while there is a lingering optimism in the back of my mind that I will still get my second wind, a resurgence of energy that carries me through the remaining miles. 

I’ve never been one to drop out. If I start, I intend to finish. The mere thought of a “DNF” (Did Not Finish) is difficult to comprehend. I am also slightly concerned with how my decision will be perceived. I normally am not tremendously concerned with what others think about my actions. However, as a trainer and a coach I want to set a good example. Will dropping out send a bad message? Will taking 5 ½ - 6 hours (or more) make me look unskilled?  Which of my current choices is the lesser of two evils?  These thoughts may be unfounded, but for an athlete who, for the first time in years is suddenly forced to come to terms with the fact that he is human, are completely natural. 

I tell myself I will postpone the decision by giving myself until Oakledge Park, the halfway point. If I am going to get a second wind it should happen by then. At each aid station I consume both water and Gatorade, hopeful that they will join forces to give me the resurgence I so desperately seek.

With each foot strike the tug-of-war continues in my mind, with no clear winner in sight. My pace slows significantly with each mile, down to as low as 9:30 when I finally hit Oakledge Park in a time of 1 hour 45 minutes. Doubling this time would certainly make for a very respectable marathon. However, that would require averaging 8 minute miles from this point forward. I face the reality that this will not happen. It was all I could do to hit the last mile in 9:30 and I feel my energy waning. I still, however, cannot bring myself to actually drop out. If I do drop out here I will still have to walk back to the start. So, I might as well continue to run. The battle wages on!

I continue to shuffle along at whatever pace I can muster. There are no significant terrain changes but my pace continues to slow, with it now down to 10:00 per mile. I'm also feeling out of sorts and not exactly steady on my feet. I make the decision that I will pull out of the race as I hit the bottom of Battery Street. This will allow me to have minimal walking distance to get to the baggage check area where my warm up gear is stored.

However, as I turn the corner from Maple Street onto Battery I am quickly seduced by the rhythmic beat of the Taiko drums and the intoxicating cheers of energetic spectators. The drums are being played at the base of Battery Street and the spectators are lined up along the hill. Both combine to provide a powerful driving force that propels runners up the hill. I can’t deny myself this experience, nor can I resist!

I continue to run(my pace still somewhat resembles a run so let’s go with that) with my eyes focused no more than 15 feet in front of me to avoid being done in by the daunting hill.  As I ascend the hill I hear cheers of; “Go Moe!” To avoid burning excess energy I avoid turning to look at the crowd but I wonder how so many people know who I am. Then I remember that along with my number my first name is written on my bib. I love how spectators will cheer for you even if they don’t know you. It’s one of the many things that make marathons so rewarding.

My legs start to burn with the fires of accumulating lactic acid. I tell myself to just keep moving, make it to the top and worry about the rest from there. The beauty of this stretch of the course is that the drum beat and spectator’s cheers provide so much energy they can make even the slowest runner feel fleet of foot. As a result, I summit the hill much quicker than I anticipated.

As I round the corner to turn into the Battery Park, the tug-of-war is over. My body has made the decision for me. With all of my glycogen depleted, running is no longer an option. I slow to a walk and exit the course, officially proclaiming my sensible brain as the winner.  

I stand in Battery Park to reflect for a few minutes. I’m at peace at the moment but fear that as the fatigue wears off I will become upset that this happened. In my 31 year career as a runner I have NEVER  DNF’ed.  

As I slowly make my way to the baggage area, then to the finish line to transition into the role of spectator, I pause to think further. There really is nothing I could have done differently. What made me have a bad race is a poorly timed peak to allergy season with a pollen count that is higher than it’s been in years. Even Superman has Krytponite to deal with. I was just exposed to my Kryptonite, which happened to be in microscopic granular form. The good news is that I didn’t drop out because of an injury. I live to run another day!

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