“The best laid plans of mice & men often go awry.” — John Steinbeck
I trained harder and smarter than ever before. I planned more carefully. I ate & drank more carefully. I followed every bit of advice from outstanding experts on running & nutrition. I actually planned what pace to run each mile, …no, it was more specific than that. I planned the pace of each uphill, downhill, and flat stretch of every part of the 26.2 miles that make up the course of the Knoxville marathon.
I followed the plan every step of the way, from the week before the race. Every meal was planned. No morsel went into my mouth that was not in the plan. On race morning, I met up with a fellow runner aiming for the same pace and we warmed up exactly as I had planned. For the first 6 miles, we ran the course almost exactly as planned… never more than a few seconds off the anticipated pace.
If everything was going according to plan, then why is the word stop in the title of this post? Because April 1 just wasn’t my day. Once I started warming up, I could tell that I was not quite right. I decided it was just jitters, but by the third mile I knew it was something more. Still, I pressed on in the hopes that I would suddenly feel better. I drank a little extra. Not better. I let my friend know that I would be stopping at the port-a-potty and that I would try to catch up if I could. I just needed to take a break and see if I could figure out how to force myself to feel better.
I took another drink and set out to see if I could catch up. I maintained pace for several more miles, but it was more difficult than it should have been. It was the right pace for my training. I had calories on board & I was drinking according to plan. At that point it was still overcast so it was cooler than I had anticipated. I should not have felt worn out, but I did.
By mile 12, I had managed to maintain a 7:11 pace but I was slowing down fast. I picked up the pace a little as I passed the crowds in World’s Fair Park, but I was struggling. As soon as I got around the corner I walked for a bit. I ate a little extra and drank 8 ounces of water that I was carrying with me. Then I gave it another go. The extra fuel and water did no good. I continued getting worse. It felt as if I were hitting the wall, but I knew better. I had plenty of fuel. I just felt horrible.
When I got to the water station around mile 16, I stopped and drank 10 cups of Powerade. I didn’t think I was dehydrated, but I did not know what else to try. I stood at the table and drank cup after cup. I walked a hundred feet. I stretched and waited for the extra fuel to filter into my body. Time was slipping by but I was not panicked. My attempt at a PR was done. I knew that. I just wanted to see if I could learn something about my body. Could I recover from this tailspin and maybe learn an important lesson for next time?
I began to jog but did not press too hard. I wanted to find out if my body could recover or if it was just sick. The first 13 miles were at a 7:17 pace. The next 5 miles averaged around 12 minutes per mile. 18.38 miles into the race, my muscles quit. They locked up. No amount of Powerade or gel was going to help me recover. I sat on the curb of Central Street and rubbed my legs while runners jogged on past.
I walked a little bit in one last attempt. I analyzed my situation as I walked. I had people that were waiting and expecting to see me enter the stadium at my target time, but that was not going to happen. I was capable of walking the last 8 miles, but I asked myself the tough questions:
- What benefit was there to me continuing?
- What risks were there?
There would be no PR for marathon and not even a course PR. I had already experimented with the only things that I could change and that did not work. Walking in would meet no goals. The only real benefit would be for my ego. I did NOT want my first DNF [did not finish]. The risks were huge. My form was horrible, so if I jogged, I would be tearing up muscles and wearing down joints. If I walked and I really was sick, I might risk making myself more sick. Both choices would lead to weak legs and missed training. Despite the failure in this race, I had made great progress in training. I had proven this in the Strawberry Plains Half Marathon just 6 weeks earlier.
I had nothing of real value to gain, and I had a lot to lose. Time to quit. I sat at the corner of State St. and Cumberland Avenue and talked to the nice policeman that was monitoring the course and keeping it safe. Then I collected myself, removed my bib, and started walking back to the car. Thankfully, the car was less than a mile away.
I did it all right, but still had a bad day. 6 months of training for one event. On that day, I was sick. It happens.
The difference between this event and other disappointments in my life is that this was very public. I have been sharing my training ups and downs with thousands of people online through Facebook, Twitter, and the Daily Mile. My friends from the Knoxville Track Club were also aware of this. Many people were in the stadium waiting to help me celebrate. I had set a huge goal and completely flopped in front of the entire world.
The good news: I have gotten nothing but support and understanding from everyone. Runners rock! I was sick on the wrong day. So what.
Good news part 2: This was not my biggest event of the year. I still plan on making more progress and breaking the 3 hour mark at the 7 Bridges Marathon in October.
I will continue to share my journey and I hope my response to this situation will give hope to other folks that have to stop in a race. Stopping during a race when you are hurting does not make you a quitter. It means that you want to be healthy. It means that you intend to keep trying on another day. That is not quitting. That is wise running.
It has taken a few months & a few miscues before my doctor and I finally figured out the issue that stopped my marathon. I have had a bacterial infection for months. I had a few minor symptoms, but they were barely noticeable at that point. There was no pain at that point, just some unexpected fatigue. I thought I was suffering from overtraining, but that was not it. The fatigue I experienced during the marathon was an early warning sign about the infection. Hence. stopping was the right choice.
Since then, I started speed training at shorter distances. With so much anaerobic work, the fatigue seemed natural. It gradually got worse but we didn’t figure out what happened until June 1, exactly 2 months after the marathon. A strong antibiotic has me on my way to a full recovery.
“Train hard, race easy, & enjoy the run!” — P. Mark Taylor