When you nearly get hit by a car three days before the Boston Marathon, maybe it’s a sign it was just not meant to be.
At the time I saw it as a near miss. So near, in fact, that I tripped to get out of the way of the oncoming vehicle-- the driver’s head buried in her cell phone as she barreled into the intersection. I fell, turned my ankle (it’s still bruised and swollen, nearly two weeks later) and landed on both of my hands-- though the only scratch on my body was, ironically enough, on the knuckle of my left middle finger.
Which pretty much sums up my entire Boston Marathon experience.
It’s no secret I struggled mightily this training cycle, and honestly, probably since my BQ at the Albany Marathon on March 7, 2015.
Post Albany, it was difficult to get motivated for runs. Gaining a few seconds on a 5K or 10K or even half marathon wasn’t inspiring, especially after doing what seemed impossible--a 33 MINUTE PR in the marathon distance, and a time 90 minutes faster than my first-ever marathon. Plus, I was worn out from an intense ten-month training cycle that resulted in PRs in every distance from the 5K to the marathon in just six months.
Race after race, I came up a few seconds short. Self-doubt crept in. My paces fell off. My training suffered. I became paralyzed by fear and lack of confidence. I wondered if Albany was lightning in a bottle.
Meanwhile, life happened. And it hurt.
Within a span of six months after my BQ, one of my best friends died in a tragic car accident. My sister and niece left an untenable living situation and moved in with us for two months. My beloved 13 year-old border collie died the morning after they moved out.
I had also quit PR and was taking teaching jobs all over the city trying to make up for lost income and fill the void left by marathon training. In reality, the driving around and out of control schedule and over-commitment were all dragging me--and my running--down, especially as I continued to cling to a nightlife filled with restaurant openings, concerts, and social engagements that left me too exhausted for teaching my early morning classes and getting in quality workouts later in the day.
But I was stubborn.
I stuck to my running schedule, forcing workout after workout on a tired body and mind and legs, even after I got my act together with sleep and food and knew in my gut that my coach and his plans were no longer working for me.
I kept thinking that if I checked all of the boxes, that if did all of my workouts, that if I put myself through the paces, so to speak, I would somehow regain my shape and speed and confidence.
Because in times of crisis, that’s what’s worked before.
Running has been my one constant companion for the past eight years, through job loss and divorce and death and new relationships and all the chaos that life brings.
Running has also been the primary outlet for my anxiety and depression.
The thing that has gotten me out of bed on days I wanted to stay there, that has given me a sense of joy and accomplishment when I’ve felt like a failure at everything else, that has helped me clear my head and feel able to face anything and everything that comes my way.
And then, suddenly, running became the SOURCE of my anxiety and depression.
I was confused, defeated, debilitated, paralyzed, and heartbroken.
And the more doubt I had, the worse my runs got. My tempo runs stalled out around 8 min/miles, when they had been 20 to 30 seconds faster a year before. I struggled with long runs, only getting two 20 milers in before race day--the second one a do-over after an aborted 23 miler just six days prior.
And the more my anxiety increased, the more my health suffered. I was sick for three weeks in January and again for nearly a month in March, when I broke out in hives on a near daily basis in spite of keeping my diet fairly clean. Oh, and I quit anti-depressants cold turkey halfway through my training cycle.
I started to panic about the race. I worried about being strong enough to finish or clocking a "slow" time. I felt utterly lost and unprepared, especially when my previously flaky coach completely disappeared on me a month before race day.
I remember having a conversation with my friend Brittany about my fears, and she said, “what’s the worse that can happen, a DNF?”
And I said, “no, I’ve never DNFed a race before.”
And she said, “See? You’re not going to start now.”
Well, now I know that a DNF is definitely NOT the worst that can happen.
The worst for me was 20 miles of utter, sheer misery that started the minute I toed the line at Hopkinton on April 18. At nearly 11 a.m., it was hot, sunny, and windy. Nothing felt right. My legs felt like lead. My breathing was shallow and labored. I started pouring water over my head two miles in. I took my shirt off (I don’t do that in AUGUST in Atlanta!). I tried slowing my pace. I took walk breaks. I grabbed sponges and ice and popsicles from strangers. But I couldn’t keep going. I bailed just after Mile 20 and found myself in a medical tent, heart rate and blood pressure high, nebulizer in hand, legs shaking, and my entire body wracked by waves of nausea and worse--waves of defeat.
I blamed the heat. The late start. My lack of training. Myself for not carrying my inhaler. The food I ate (or didn’t eat) the night before. My negativity and lack of mental toughness, which people were so quick to point out to me during my pre-race freakouts. I was convinced I just wasn’t cut out--emotionally, mentally or physically--to run marathons, that day or any time, really.
I felt like a failure. A quitter.
Worse than making the decision to quit was the wait to get back to the finish line. Once cleared by the medical tent (in their defense, they never gave me a chance to get back out on the course--a decision that saved me an ambulance ride, or worse), I waited on a SAG bus that doubled back on the course to pick up other runners, then to a central bus stop at Boston College, then an excruciatingly slow ride back to Bolyston Street. I remember complaining I could have walked faster and wishing I had. I probably could have, but not without severe consequences.
Because later that night, after I’d cried into my pizza and two glasses of red wine and was feeling utterly sorry for myself and wanted to punch anyone who walked by in a Boston jacket or medal, I got violently ill.
On the floor of our hotel bathroom. The sickest I’ve been in my adult life.
I was up a few times, and then went back to bed, assuming I was just dehydrated and would be fine if I slept it off.
I woke up the next day and couldn’t even eat a cracker or take a sip of Sprite. It took a trip to urgent care, the ER, an overnight in the hospital, one CT scan, and six bags of fluids in less than 24 hours for me to realize it wasn't my fault.
I had contracted a horrible intestinal virus (or perhaps consumed some tainted food) a few days before the race, and my intestines were swollen, which is why my breathing was labored, why my stomach was off, and why I got so violently ill (running 20 miles in that condition didn't do anything for my health, either!).
There was nothing I could have done differently that day that would have changed the outcome of my race.
I did my best, and making it through 20 miles that sick was an accomplishment in and of itself and a testament to my strong will and fitness.
Looking back, I felt “off” going into the race.
But every symptom I had could be explained by something else.
Bloating and queasy stomach? Carb-loading. Travel. Period. Jitters.
Labored breathing? Allergies. Anxiety. Asthma.
Exhaustion? Early morning flight. Long training cycle. More jitters.
I had a panic attack at the expo. I struggled to walk half a mile the day before the marathon. My pre-race shakeout run was awful. I could barely eat at all the 24 hours before the race, because I felt so full and bloated. But none of these things, singularly, are unusual for me. What was unusual was the conflux of symptoms simultaneously. I was just too race-focused to notice the signals my body was giving me.
Even at the starting line, I just remember feeling HOT. Like 90 degrees in Atlanta summer hot, not a 70 degree, low humidity, late morning Boston spring hot.
And to be honest, I still have my “what if’s.”
What if I’d started even more conservatively, more like 9:30 or 9:45 pace, to account for the heat, versus a marathon conservative pace of 8:40?
What if I’d had more fluids that morning before the race?
What if I hadn’t gotten to Athlete’s Village so early and had to wait so long?
What if I hadn’t walked eight miles the day before the race?
What if I’d had more food the night before or morning of the race?
What if I’d worn a different singlet (mine was black and tight and not what I like for 70 degree weather, but I hadn’t packed a back-up)?
What if I’d just kept walking? At least I would have finished.
I’ll never know, and while I want to hold on to my rage and despair and frustration and disappointment, I have to let it go.
I held onto too many emotions and negative baggage going into the race, and I won’t do that to myself again.
I have a new coach. A fresh start. And a new goal: get back to Boston and finish what I started.