What I Learned from My Worst Race Ever

I’ve never had a bad race.

Until I did.

The night before the Savannah Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon and Half Marathon, race organizers warned runners that the weather would be unseasonably warm. Drink lots of water, they said. Slow down, they said.

Slow down?! I’d been training 12 weeks to run a 1:38 PR in this race and a little bit of heat and humidity wasn’t going to slow me down.

Until it did.

Right before race start. So happy. So naive.

Me, Lindsay and Robin at the race start. So happy. So naive.

I was standing near the front, squeezed in with a serious crowd of runners, when the race-horn blew. The mass of runners lurched forward with intention, void of the nervous chatter or enthusiastic “woo-hooing” that peppers the runners further down the line. I know, because I’m usually back there. But here, at the front, there was just breathing, feet slapping pavement and the occasional watch alerting a runner to his overzealous pace.

“We’re going too fast,” I heard a guy to my right gasp to his running partner.

I looked down at my watch to see my pace. 7:10. I had to maintain a 7:30 pace to get my PR—but the fact that 7:10s could qualify me for the NYC Marathon was on my radar—tucked into the make-believe zone where unicorns are real, Sandra Bullock is my best friend and David Beckham wants me real bad. Some call it mental illness. I call it mental hopefulness.

By mile 2, acid began to collect in my stomach and I thought I might heave. My heart was pumping too hard and the negative thoughts starting unfurling from the dark corners of my head. At mile 2, I usually feel like a winged gazelle, not a quadriplegic manatee. Something was wrong.

I gave myself some quick tough love.

You’ve got this. Suck it up.

And then I looked down and saw my pace slip to 7:40.

I don’t got this. I’m gonna throw up.

Plan B: No PR—just hold 7:50s.

Two miles later, I wanted to stop.

Plan C: Just don’t walk.

Plan D: Just finish.

The next 9 miles felt like the longest I’ve ever run—some of which I walked. I felt like a failure.

My friend, Chad Brock, who was cheering us on, snapped this photo. Glad you can''t see my face filled with pain.

My friend, Chad Brock, who knows all too well the pain of running, snapped this photo. Glad you can’t see my face filled with pain.

Then, just one-mile from the finish line, I looked around me and noticed with half-closed eyes that I was still surrounded by runners—good runners—who were engaged in the same strange shuffle-scuff-run I was. My brain, depleted by effort, was trying hard to make sense of what I was seeing, when I heard a familiar voice yell out.

“Go, Andrea! You can do it!”

Huh? It took an enormous effort to turn my head in the direction of the voice, slowly, like a dim-witted Brontosaurus looking for some greens to munch on. And there on the sidewalk, running parallel to me, I saw my running partner, Lindsay.

“I threw up at mile 5! I pulled out! You have to do this for us!”

Nothing made sense. Certainly not Lindsay on the sidewalk at mile 12. But I was more grateful for her at that moment than I’d ever been (and I’m pretty grateful considering what she’s seen me—and my body—do while running together). I summoned up what little bit of race I had left in me and pushed to the finish. In that final stretch, I noticed runners cramping, vomiting and even someone who had collapsed and was receiving aid. It felt like it would never end.

Until it did.

Once I crossed the line and controlled my instinct to vomit on the nice lady trying to put a finisher’s medal around my neck, I realized that my poor race wasn’t about a lack of training or mental toughness. It was about unseasonable temperatures and a stubborn unwillingness to heed the warning from more seasoned runners who knew it was not only OK, but also necessary to back off. That just finishing could be enough.

A number of runners didn’t finish, either because they knew better or their bodies wouldn’t let them—whichever came first. Tragically, one runner took his last breath on that race course. Another would collapse at home a few hours later.

And there I was disappointed about running 8 minutes off my PR.

For people who log ridiculous miles each week, it’s easy to get wrapped up in finishing times, PRs and medals. And because we sweat, bleed, blister and cramp through most of our days, it’s easy to overestimate our toughness. It’s also easy to forget that what we do isn’t easy.

But this race reminded me that we are a fragile lot. Life rarely goes as planned; why would a 13.1-mile race be any different—any easier?

Yesterday, I ran for the first time since the race. I didn’t have any expectations; I just wanted to run. Somewhere around mile 4, Lindsay and I began discussing our plans for our next race and what our goals would be. And that’s when I realized what I was supposed to take away from Saturday’s botched race: You just keep going.

Until you can’t.

The End--of yet another new beginning.

The End–of yet another new beginning.

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15 thoughts on “What I Learned from My Worst Race Ever

  1. That was fabulous!!! THANK YOU and Congratuations. While I’m no where near your league as a runner, I still shared your thoughts and feelings – just on a different level. I was so happy to just finish without being a statistic and learning that with the euphoria of PR’s also comes the possibility of disappointment. Accepting both will continue us on our paths to Victory 🙂

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    • Thank you, Christine! I finished alongside a runner way outta my league. She was supposed to do the marathon. Her response was great: “Not my day.” And that’s when I realized it was hurting everyone. When I walked, I hurt.

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  2. Andrea,

    Thank you for sharing. I was doing and going through the same thoughts at times (a slower pace). This was my first 1/2 marathon and I was excited. I did not run the last week leading to the race because I was afraid I turn something or pull something and miss the race. My best practice times were 8:15 miles and with the heat I figured I should back off and shot for 8:30. The first five miles I was doing 7:50. I tried to back off the pace but only took four seconds off. When i hit mile 5 and we went back up the hill I knew I was in trouble. I ended up walking some here and some there (I’m guessing a mile or little more). I saw the people being treated and I kept thinking if you stop, you will be mad at yourself (heck with health concerns). I finished right at 2 hours. I’m not sure when I’ll run another, but I will.

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    • Thanks for reading, Brian! You should definitely do another one (though it sounds like you still did great–just not the race you wanted). The biggest runner’s high I ever had was from my first half. Not even my first marathon could compare. It’s such a great distance. The Tybee is coming up in February and it’s a flat, fast course. I’ll be there!

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    • It took me a while to sort through them, too. At first I thought the lesson was: Stop doing this ;). But I found a silver lining when I looked deeper. Good to know I wasn’t alone in my misery. Definitely makes a difference.

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  3. Aw, I’m sorry your race didn’t turn out. I would be in the same boat — I think many runners would. It’s your goal race, do or die, right? I hope you get a chance at redemption. If only weather didn’t matter…

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  4. By far, running has been my most influential, honest and brutal teacher. So many lesson learned along the way and so many more to come. Thanks for sharing one of yours. Keep going girl.

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  5. I forgot how much I enjoy your writing, Andrea. (Found you again through Kristin’s FB!). Congrats on finding your silver lining in a brutal race. I had a friend who also had huge goals for that race (sub-3 the full), which quickly turned into sub-4, which quickly turned into “just finish,” and he was eventually diverted off the course at mile 24. MILE 24. There was a lot of heartbreak that day. I’m glad you got something hugely valuable out of it that day. Love your perspective.

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