Monday, December 20, 2010

Thunder Road Marathon: The South Rose Again

I knew I was in trouble when I saw the T-shirt that said "Flat is for sissies."

 I'm doomed
It was Friday morning in Charlotte, North Carolina, and I was at the race expo picking up my packet and some goodies (more cute hair bands). I had arrived in the city the day before, taken a taxi from the airport, and settled into my sweet 14th floor hotel room in the heart of "uptown" Charlotte. From my window I could see the Time Warner Arena, where the Charlotte Bobcats play. If I pressed my face against the glass I could just barely see the NASCAR Hall of Fame. I had a king-size bed and FIVE pillows (I love pillows). All this for only $89 a night!? Yes. Note to interested parties: if you ever want to visit Charlotte, I highly recommend the Hilton Center City. It rocks.

I was due to have dinner with one of my oldest friends, Ellen, Thursday night, so to pass the time until she was done with work I ventured down to the hotel bar and sampled some local microbrews from Red Oak (Greensboro) and Old Mecklenburg (Charlotte). At the restaurant with Ellen a few hours later I ate cornbread and grits and had a beer from Asheville's Highland Brewing (Black Mocha Stout, oh yum). I was in the South, after all, an area of the country I had limited experience with, and I wanted to absorb as much local flavor as I could.

Friday after the expo I lazed around my room waiting for Carolina John to show up. After two-plus years of being blogger buddies, we were finally going to meet each other! He arrived, and after some discussion, it was decided we would head to South Carolina for barbeque. I said that I had never been to South Carolina, one of only six states on my "states I have NOT been to" list, and, considering SC is extremely close to Charlotte, it was an irresistable temptation. Off we went in the car, a trip during which I learned about kudzu, the world's largest fireworks store (according to CJ, that's because Southerners like to "blow shit up"), the word "you'uns," (I believe it's a variation of "y'all"), and the giant butt in the sky (actually a water tower painted like a peach). We ended up in Gaffney, where I made my prerace dinner out of South Carolina chopped BBQ, hush puppies, baked beans, and a First Snow pale ale from RJ Rockers (Spartanburg, SC). Of this momentous meeting of run-bloggers, I sadly did not get a single picture of us together. Major fail.

Thus it was that I moved South Carolina onto my "states I have visited" list. I'm coming for you next, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Washington, and Alaska!

Back at the hotel, I decided it was time to wind down and go to bed. I didn't have to get up ridiculously early, because my hotel was a short walk away from the starting area, and the race didn't start until 7:45. What a welcome change-- not having to get up at 4:30 am the morning of a marathon! I readied my gear, set the alarm for 6:30, and settled in with my five pillows. I can't say I had a particularly restful slumber. It took me a long time to fall asleep, and I repeatedly woke during the night. I awakened at 6:29 and savored a final minute of rest before abruptly sitting up and saying to no one in particular, "Well, let's get this over with."

I got a banana and a cup of coffee from the quick breakfast offerings at the hotel restaurant, strapped on my various accessories, and headed to the starting area. I left the hotel perhaps a wee bit too late, because I was still frantically untangling my iPod headphones as the crowd began shuffling toward the starting line after the gun. I managed to get the 'phones settled and iPod going before I had to start running (but just barely).

I felt good, but I knew it wouldn't last. I was in for a world of pain, it was just a question of when it would arrive. Within a quarter-mile I was running down the street directly in front of my hotel. I thought, "I could just step out and go back in the hotel and forget this whole thing...I could in bed, all warm and relaxed, in less than five minutes."

I seriously considered this option for two seconds. Then I thought, "No, I came here to do this. I have a job to do today, so let's get it done."

Charlotte skyline. Yes, I stepped off to the side to take this picture.

The first half of the course was the nicest, and not just because I still felt fresh. We passed through some lovely residential neighborhoods of big houses, big lawns, and big trees where a lot of people were watching the race still dressed in their pajamas, holding cups emitting lazy curls of steam in the cold morning air. Groups of kids wrapped in blankets huddled on front lawns. I smelled barbeque more than once. I rolled with the hills, taking it super slow and easy. I was in no hurry at all.

I told you: big trees.

 In the early miles, when life was still good

Miles 1-13: 9:40, 10:10, 9:43, 9:43, 9:57, 9:34, 9:52, 9:56, 9:47, 9:50, 9:57, 10:17, 12:35 (first bathroom break). Time at the half: 2:12:57.

If I could hold my pace, I would finish close to 4:30, a time far off my best but about what I was expecting.

When the half marathoners peeled off and headed to their finish, I felt a brief, intense wave of jealously and longing wash over me. I would have done anything to be almost done, but I had half the race yet to run, and I was starting to feel the effects of my lack of training.

I didn't know it, but I would not run another sub-10:00 mile again. My pace started sliding...10:03, 10:12, 10:22...

It was during mile 17 that the shit really hit the fan. My feet were killing me and my quads weren't happy, either. Faced with yet another hill, I walked. I hadn't walked in a race since the May 2007 Blossom Time five-miler in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. I had always taken a certain amount of pride in my ability to power through any amount of pain and exhaustion in order to keep moving, never stopping. However, this time, I was done. I was toast. I walked. This pattern would repeat itself many times over the remaining 9 miles of the race: slow, painful jog, walk up a hill...slow, painful jog, walk up a hill. The knowledge that I had what felt like an insurmountable number of miles yet to cover made me want to cry. My legs were on fire, my feet were screaming in pain, and there was something funky going on with the pinky toe on my right foot (more on that later).

I barely remember anything about the second half of the race. I sank into a fog of pain and barely looked up from the pavement in front of me. I can't remember anything I saw. It's all an indistinct blur of buildings and streets. I know I took another bathroom break, and my Garmin split for mile 19 (16:40) reflects this. Somewhere along the way I passed a group of people with a table set up in their yard; they were handing out shots of beer. Of course I stopped and had one! I'm a hasher through and through, I never turn down small amounts of cheap beer, even in the midst of agony. A few miles later I came across another, larger, more boisterous bunch of folks partying in their yard. Some guy was standing there with a red plastic cup and I immediately pulled over and said, "I'll take that!" He said, "Are you sure, it's beer." He said most people stopped thinking it was water and, once they learned it was beer, continued on without drinking it. I replied, "Fuck yeah, I don't care," and slammed it. Once again, I'm a hasher, I never turn down beer on trail. At that point I was looking for anything to take my mind off the disaster that was my race.

With maybe three miles left, I decided I wanted to put an end to the agony as quickly as possible. It hurt more to walk and resume running again, so I was going to run the rest of the race NO MATTER HOW SHITTY I FELT. I have never wanted something to end as badly as that race, and the more time I spent running, the sooner it would be OVER.

I was crawling through the pain cave, totally immersed in my own suffering. My quads were at terror alert level red and every footfall felt like I was stepping on knives. I cursed all those missed long runs, cursed my flippant attitude toward training over the previous few months, cursed the extra 25 pounds hanging on me that made my knees and ankles ache. I was in as black and foul a mood as I have ever been in my life.

 Not feeling the love

But I was slowly, painfully, closing in on the finish. I was getting it done, the job I had come to Charlotte to do.

Mile 25. One mile to go. One fucking mile. And then: something happened to my toe. It felt like it had been squeezed and popped like an overripe tomato. If I thought it felt weird and uncomfortable before, this was something else entirely. I immediately stopped and started walking (and my feet and legs sent up a fresh chorus of agonized wails), limping badly. Some guy next to me asked if I was all right and I said, "Something really weird just happened to my toe, I think a blister popped or something!" He asked me if I wanted some water and I declined; that was the only thing that had gone right in this race: I was well-hydrated. No, I said, "I just want this to be over! We're so close to being done!"

I ground my teeth and forced myself to start moving again. Oh, my god, the pain in my foot was incredible, unreal. I felt wetness and I knew I was either squishing blood or some other body fluid around in my shoe. I was so tired by now I was bending forward...perhaps gravity would assist me in my controlled fall toward the end.

The final turn of the course was at mile 26, leaving me with a straight shot of less than a quarter-mile to the finish. I saw the banner in the distance and I kept my eyes glued to it while I jog-limped as fast as I could toward it. The pain cave was brightening; I was rising up out of the dark. I was almost...done...almost...

And then I was. Done. Oh sweet baby Jesus, I crossed the finish, I stopped, it was over. OVER.


I have never been so glad in my ENTIRE LIFE to be done with something as I was to be done with that race. That includes: taking the GRE, writing both my undergraduate and graduate theses, driving 750 miles in one day, remodeling my dining room, all four of my previous marathons combined, and shoveling my driveway for two hours in a blizzard. I may even go so far as to say the relief I felt exceeded the selfsame feelings I had when I woke up in recovery after my hysterectomy, knowing my long nightmare was finally over.

  I have a really weird look on my face, but the photographer surprised me. That, or I was too tired to smile properly.

I got my medal, Mylar blanket, a banana, and a bottle of water. I clutched the wrap around me and slowly limped back to the hotel. Thank god it was less than a quarter-mile away. I got to my room, let the door wheeze shut behind me, let the blanket drift to the floor, set the water and banana on the desk, and bookended my comment to myself from six and a half hours earlier with:

"That was the most horrible fucking thing I have ever done."

You know what, though? I did it. I finished. I worked harder and suffered more for that finisher's medal than in any previous race. I shed blood for this marathon, as I discovered when I peeled off my socks.

 Debris of disaster

 Completely exhausted, but strangely triumphant: I DID IT.

After cleaning up (holy god that hot shower felt good), I put on my awesome black compression socks ($5.00 at Meijer), some fresh clothes, and slooooowly limped my way up the street for...


I also ordered the most outrageous burger on the menu, the ULTIMATE BACON CHEDDAR, with "twice the bacon, three times the cheese." I was leaning toward the black bean burger (it's HEALTHY!) and then I thought, "FUCK THAT. I just ran a goddamn MARATHON, I burned at LEAST 3,000 calories, I'm going to get the GIANT PILE of BEEF, BACON, and CHEESE. I EARNED it!"

So I did. And it was fucking delicious. (So was the beer.)

A few hours later Ellen picked me up again and took me to her and her husband's place for dinner, where I consumed more beer and ate homemade shepherd's pie. I also made the acquaintance of their wonderful cat, Mr. G:

I was cat-deprived so I gave this handsome boy a TON of love. He had the most majestic whiskers and was super friendly.

I felt myself spiraling toward oblivion around 8:30 and I knew I didn't have much longer before I crashed. I hadn't taken a nap after the race and I was seriously circling the drain. I had Ellen take me back to the hotel where I immediately changed into my pajamas and then...WHAM. I collapsed into bed with my five pillows and finally allowed my aching, exhausted body to rest.

The next day I was in the Charlotte airport nervously awaiting departure. I knew a bad snowstorm was at that moment blanketing a large portion of the Midwest; I had seen the flight status boards covered with "DELAYED" and "CANCELLED" and I didn't want my flight to be among them. We boarded on time, left on time, and landed in Detroit ahead of schedule. However, this is what greeted me upon returning to my home state:

Welcome to Michigan!

Driving the forty miles home-- the final leg in my four-day odyssey-- was about as bad as you might expect given the above picture. When I arrived at my home sweet home, I did as little as possible (hang up coat, turn up furnace, retrieve mail, drop suitcase on floor) before crawling into bed and pulling the comforter up to my nose. 

Except for going to work, that's where I stayed for the next five days. The irritating sore throat which had been bothering me before the marathon took advantage of my weakened physical state and dove in for the kill. It quickly erupted into a full-blown chest cold. Monday and Tuesday were...I really have no words. Gruesome. Horrible. Miserable. I could barely walk; what I was doing was more like hobbling. My throat burned and my nose ran like a leaky faucet. My voice was a harsh croak. I came home from work and went straight to bed, totally spent from being awake for nine hours. I could do nothing more than lie there and read while ingesting cough medicine, Nyquil, and various pills. I turned my light off between 8:30 and 9:00 every night. I had no appetite and I lost eight pounds in less than a week. I hung on by the skin of my teeth until Friday when I finally took a day off from work. I was absolutely wasted. The marathon and being truly sick for the first time in years smashed me flat.

Well, there was one bright spot, which was Tuesday afternoon. I met one of my hashing buddies at an Ann Arbor beer bar for their Stouts & Porters Celebration. I had three amazing rich, dark beers. After parting ways I was walking through Nickels Arcade and passed a barber shop. I jerked to a halt, pivoted on my heel, went inside, and fifteen minutes later I emerged with my first real haircut in two years. I say "real" because the last "haircut" I had was the one I gave to myself a year ago with my utility scissors while standing in my bathtub. I had the barber eliminate a couple inches of raggedy frazzled crap and give some shape to the rest, which as allowed my curls to come out and play:

The best part: it only cost $16 ($20 with tip).I am a firm believer in cheap haircuts.

Today, my legs feel okay and the cold has receded, though it has left a sizable amount of flotsam in the form of goopy snot in my lungs and sinuses which I am perpetually hacking up. I still have very little desire to eat and not much energy. That's fine, however, since...


That's the best feeling of all.

Final stats: 4:54:34 (11:15/M), 66/88 F35-39, 1087/1295 OA


Zoomy said...

As godawful as your saga was (aside from the finish...mmm...bacon cheeseburger and beer), I think you did really well. I am certain I could not have run a course like that any faster. This is why I am done with marathons after a mere 3. I can't find any pleasure in that sort of pain for more than about 25k. After that I start to hate myself and running far too much to want to continue.

Enjoy your recovery. You earned it. And baby that toe.

Kristin said...

So sorry the race was so horrible and painful...but how impressive that you toughed it out (and under 5 hours!). Glad you seem to be feeling better in time for Christmas! And REALLY, you've been to 45 states and haven't been to WASHINGTON? ;)

Anonymous said...

The healing power of Guinness...and you definitely earned it!

Chrissie said...

Good for you! Hope your toe and your recovery are doing well. Thunder Road is a hard, hard course. The half there is the only race I have ever dropped out of.

joyRuN said...

Oh good heavens. That second half sounded supremely miserable, & you TOUGHED IT OUT! Then as if it weren't enough, you got slammed w/ some nasty bug afterwards?

Have a well-deserved recovery.

What's on tap for next year?

TNTcoach Ken said...

LOL, you're drawn to red plastic cups! Since there were no other people in any of your photos, this wasn't a sanction race! You were just off trail. Great job........

Bri said...

Sorry about this race. So what became of your toe? Blister or worse? I just finished the California International Marathon and I too experienced the black hole of pain and hurt as I pushed to finish.

Laura said...

OUCH! That course looks absolutely brutal. Very jealous of the pre-race food/drinks though - sounds delicious. And I'm glad you got to enjoy some beer along the way too - makes you a true champ :) Congrats on finishing!

I still want to know what happened to your toe though - or is it too gross to post? Was the blood from a burst blister or did something crazy happen?

Anonymous said...

Flat is for sissys!! I can relate because I live in Colorado Springs, all my runs are hills!! Great job and love that Guiness!!

Nitmos said...

You made it so Congrats for that! Take some rest will you?!

Jen Feeny said...

I already knew the whole story and I still cringed in pain for you! So glad you made it through girl!!! And I'll say it again, I frigging love the new cut with your curls! :)

See you next week! Merry Freaking Christmas!!!

Carolina John said...

It was absolutely amazing to meet you and get to spend time with you just hanging out. But watch out, southern culture will kick your ass like the marathon course did. ouch! That bloody sock is scary.