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.
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.
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.