Helsinki: My Victory Marathon

The idea of running in Helsinki came up during dinner with a group of running friends on December 31, 2015. We were about to ring in the New Year with a half-marathon that would start at midnight near Zurich, something that probably only running enthusiasts would define as a great start to the year. We were also accompanying our friend, Will, who was setting out on a journey of 52 half-marathons in 52 weeks that night. He pulled out his itinerary and we were considering where we might meet him next. When a 17k run in Helsinki was mentioned, many in the group responded with enthusiasm.

That weekend, we also met a woman from England, who told us about the “Marathon Globetrotters” club. Anyone who has run 5 marathons in 5 different countries would be eligible for provisional membership. I realized that if I ran the Helsinki marathon, which would take place the same day as the 17k race, I would be eligible. And finally, the timing worked out for my life and training, so I committed.

Training went well and as I mentioned in this post, I was beating my personal best times in shorter races during the months preceding the race. My goal was to finish as close to 4:30 as possible this time, perhaps even break it. Yet to build my confidence that this would be possible, I wanted to run a half marathon in under 2:10 and a 10k in under 58:00. In all my years of running, I had never obtained such times, so I knew it would need to step it up a bit. I ran 8 races between March and July and not all of them were successful, but finally on June 19, I ran a hilly half-marathon in 2:06 and on July 3, a 10k in 55:33. My performance in Helsinki would depend on the weather and other factors, but after these experiences, I was confident that it would be possible to break 4:30 as long as I could remain mentally tough over 42.195 kilometers.

Traveling to Helsinki the day before the race was a bit stressful, but since I took the time to pick up my bib on Friday night, I could take it easy on Saturday while waiting to start at 3pm. It rained all morning and from my window, I saw wind ripping through the trees. I have to run in THAT? I knew the route would already be challenging because it was hilly, but with the addition of bad weather, I recognized that I might have to revise my goal and strategy. But not yet, I told myself.

I arrived at the venue, bought a rain poncho and within a few minutes ran into Will. Seeing him gave me a major boost and it was great to pass the last hour of waiting in good company. He would run 17k, continue another 4.1k to complete his weekly half marathon, and then try to join me for a bit when I passed 25k, where I would be starting my second loop.

I was in good spirits and feeling positive at the start. My goal was to complete the first half in 2:10 and then try to not slow down too much during the second half. If I could manage this pace for the first half, I would be quite confident that I could finish the second in under 4:30. Yet, I would also have to adapt to how I was feeling and I didn’t know how the route and weather would affect me. It was raining and still windy when the race started. Yet I felt really good and at the 5k mark, I realized that my pace was spot on. The hills were friendly and I overtook them with ease, but I was less enthusiastic about the wind, which challenged my stride. At 10k, I was still on pace and feeling good. Really good. It was raining harder but I didn’t care.

Pushing forward for the halfway mark, I was still taking it easy, but not too easy. I noticed that there was water everywhere (see the map below) and we crossed over a lot of bridges, which meant more up and down movement. The rain was letting up by this time but I was worried about some knee pain that I had been experiencing in the past months. I started to feel it before 15k, but then it passed after a few more kilometers. My pace remained steady and my half-marathon split was precisely 2:10. I was thrilled!

Screenshot 2016-09-11 09.23.48.png

And yet I knew that the first half was the easy part. At that point I had to NOT think about the fact that I was only halfway done, but rather stay present in the moment, take one kilometer at a time, and try to keep up my pace. I needed to make it to 25k, where hopefully Will would join me for a bit. My pace remained quite steady and soon I saw the 25k marker approaching. Yet looking to my right and to my left, Will was nowhere in sight. I checked my watch and realized that since I was trying to not be overly optimistic when predicting my time at the start, Will wouldn’t have been expecting me yet. Later I would realize that he had missed me by only a few minutes.

The next few kilometers were a low point for me. The hills confronted me again, and the wind slapped me as I passed by the various bodies of water. I tried to remain fully in the moment, paying attention to my breathing and trying to not be influenced by the muscle pain, which was ever increasing. One kilometer at a time. I knew I was slowing, which was part of the plan, but I was still on target for a sub 4:30 finish. Yet the hardest part was still to come.

It was at around 30k that I started to face the biggest mental challenge. I had been preparing for it and thus remained positive. Just after 33k, the hills that I took on with ease the first time around were back to challenge me on a deeper level. I tried to tackle them with good technique, maintaining my form and not allowing them to overly exert me. The last kilometers were not easy, but the anticipation of finishing in my goal time was driving me forward. Still, one kilometer at a time and I was already calculating my anticipated finish time as I passed each one.

After passing the 40k mark, I wanted to crash through to the end. 41k came soon enough and I knew I would finish around 4:25 if I could manage not to break, even though I was feeling really tired by this time. Could I even accelerate at this point? Then, unexpectedly, I saw Will to my left, but he was focused on his phone. I yelled and waved as I passed and within seconds, he was at my side and then taking a video, which I didn’t completely appreciate in the moment. “See you at the finish!” he said, as I turned to enter the stadium. The last meters were long but finally, I was approaching the arrival. I looked at my watch just before arriving and saw “4:24” but then it changed to “4:25” as I crossed the finish line. My official net time was 4:25:03.

A few minutes later, I saw Will again and after collecting our bags, we “went live” on Facebook to report my arrival to my imaginary fans who were cheering me on from a distance. (In reality, I know that only my dad was actually tracking me live, but hey, that’s still enough to keep me going!)

The race was great and I definitely felt stronger, especially since my finish time represented a 27-minute improvement on my last marathon, which, by the way, was completely flat and in perfect weather. This was the first time that I was able to maintain my goal pace over the course of a full marathon. However, the best part was how I felt afterward. My head was clear, my vision sharp and I had no pain above my shoulders. Compared to previous experiences, it felt like ecstasy! (Or at least my personal definition of ecstasy since I have no real experience.) The feeling continued for the next couple of days. I didn’t care how much my legs hurt, how difficult stairs were or how tired I felt. I simply couldn’t stop smiling because my head felt so good. Over the next two days, I walked another 30k in Helsinki and Tallinn and had energy left to spare. It was a big difference from the last time when I was confined to bed for a day, vomited all night, and felt foggy-minded for weeks.

I reported back to Dr. Stanton and she responded, “Full steam ahead with your life please!” Those words almost brought tears. “Full steam ahead” never felt possible before, especially not after completing a marathon. But now it does, not only in terms of running marathons but also in other areas of life. Frankfurt broke me, but Helsinki proved to be a victory! Hopefully, Hamburg will be next in April 2017. Stay tuned!

Oh, and now I am a Marathon globetrotter!! 😉

13938006_849546172139_7948956759550670433_o.jpg

Advertisements

How running marathons led me to the cure for migraines (Part Two)

(Continued from Part One)

I started researching why people get sick particularly after marathons and discovered that all of my symptoms pointed to a condition called “hyponatremia,” which is caused by low sodium in the blood. Hours of sweating and the intake of a lot of water and sugar (to “fuel” the marathon) both contribute to the loss of sodium, and without being properly replaced, it can cause severe physical reactions like those I experienced, and can even result in death. I was especially at risk for this as I tend to lose a lot of salt in my sweat (I can see it on my skin!) and had always maintained a low-sodium diet. Now I know that I really should have sought medical help after Florence and Frankfurt. I had assumed that I was experiencing a “normal” migraine and that medical personnel would likely misjudge the symptoms as in the past. And then a light bulb went on in my head: What if all of my migraines are somehow related to a lack of sodium?

So I did a Google search on something like “migraines and low sodium” and came across Dr. Angela Stanton and her book, Fighting the Migraine Epidemic: How to Treat and Prevent Migraines without Medicine – An Insider’s View (Bloomington, 2014). As it turns out, Dr. Stanton is a scientist who has been studying the migraine brain and shows that an imbalance of potassium and sodium causes migraines. She proposes a detailed protocol and nutritional guide to achieve a proper balance, which helps to control the onset of migraines in those who are susceptible to them. She was kind enough to communicate with me directly and helped me to understand that in addition to not properly replacing the salt I was losing, other habits that I thought were healthy were actually detrimental. All forms of sugar must be avoided, and this applied to the “nutrition-packed” smoothies I was consuming almost daily and carbs in the form of pasta and other grains that many marathoners have been taught are essential to fuel the marathon distance. The reality is that these foods quickly transform into sugar in the body, which in turn prohibits the proper absorption of salt (Longo DL, et al. Harrison’s Manual of Medicine 18th Edition, McGraw Hill Medical, New York, 2013). Understanding how to change my diet to find the proper balances took months and some trial and error, but the results were immediate. I haven’t taken Imitrex since the day of the Frankfurt marathon last October. That is indeed a major breakthrough for me!

Of course, this had a big impact on my running, as well. While it took some time to train my body to perform on a lower-carb diet, it was amazing to finish a long run or a race and to have a clear head for the rest of the day and then to wake up the next morning feeling fresh. After a few months, I built up enough confidence to run a race one morning and play a concert the same evening, something I would never have risked before. I felt like a different person! Already in 2016, I have run personal best times in 10k, 20k and half-marathon races, and these experiences increased my confidence that I could push myself harder without fear of triggering a debilitating episode. For my long runs and races, I have replaced energy drinks and sugar-packed fuel with salt pills and natural fruits and nuts. I was always told that I couldn’t survive long distance running without “carb-loading,” but now I see that I function even better by consuming no sugar and fewer carbohydrates.

And so I signed up for another marathon – the Helsinki City Marathon on August 13. I’m excited but also nervous. All of this will be put to the test; will I really come through okay this time? The nightmare of Frankfurt still haunts me, but I am hopeful that the experience will remain only a memory that will fade with time. Helsinki will be a difficult route and I’m not sure of what I am capable at this point, but I intend to push myself harder than before, confident that I am now more in tune with what my body needs in order to successfully take on 42.2 km/26.2 mi and stay healthy. Of course, I won’t be setting any world records, but I’m so thankful that I can now pursue this passion without the physical barrier that tormented me for most of my life. I feel more alive than ever!

How running marathons led me to the cure for migraines (Part One)

Perhaps it seems counterintuitive that an activity like running, which for me often triggered migraines, actually led me to the cure for them. But indeed, it is true.

I first experienced migraines as a young child, from the age of 7 or 8. Too often during my childhood, I would spend hours or the whole day confined to a dark and quiet room, usually vomiting and in agony until the pain passed. On several occasions, they landed me in the emergency room and then when I was 17, a migraine halted my life for two months.

At the age of 22, they got even worse and would start with stroke-like symptoms (loss of vision, numbness in the hands and face, seeing lights, confusion, inability to speak or understand) and would proceed to a violent migraine that would last for hours or days. On several occasions, a friend or family member took me to the emergency room when I was in such a state and the medical team tested me for stroke, spinal meningitis or a brain aneurysm by performing a spinal tap, cat scan and MRI before treating the pain. I learned to beg my friends to NOT take me to the hospital when such symptoms hit and would instead take a powerful drug called Imitrex, which sometimes worked and sometimes did not. During certain seasons, I would have fewer migraines and during others, they would more frequently interrupt my life.

At some point, I developed a passion for running long distances. It was often a direct trigger for migraines, but I wanted to keep going so badly that I put up with the consequences. Yet I could never plan anything important on the same day or the day after a long run because I knew a migraine could follow. Even if I didn’t develop a migraine, my head often felt cloudy and dizzy after running long distances, putting me in what felt like a “pre-migraine” state.

Several friends and family members encouraged me to stop running, arguing that perhaps my head just couldn’t handle it. While I knew that there was an obvious connection, I couldn’t stop. Pushing harder felt to me like a way to fight my physical limitations, to move forward in spite of them. So I kept running long distance races and kept training for marathons to the extent that my body would allow.

There were some scary moments, though, like once when I was out on a long run, miles from home, and started losing my peripheral vision. I knew I only had minutes to get home before I would be incapable of finding my way. I flagged down a taxi and begged him to take me home even though I had no money on me. Not knowing when these episodes might start was destabilizing. After the Florence marathon, I was hit with a migraine that wiped me out for days. And after a great experience of running the Frankfurt marathon last October, I was a complete mess. I spent the rest of the day in bed and was vomiting all night. During those awful hours, I didn’t ever want to confront a marathon again, but I also didn’t want to give in to such defeat. It took weeks to recover from that episode. The Frankfurt marathon had truly broken me.

And then, everything changed.

(Continue to Part Two)

Paris 2015: The Marathon I finally ran!

The Paris Marathon has been on my bucket list ever since I moved to the city nearly five years ago. I first registered for the 2011 edition of the race just after moving here. That spring, I got a bad sinus infection that lasted over a month and basically put a stop to my training.

I tried again for the 2013 edition. I trained hard through a cold and snowy winter and was in the best running shape of my life. I went all out for this one: raised money for an association in India, told everyone I knew that I was doing it, and even hosted a “Marathon party” (which was a lot of fun). Two weeks before the race, I got a stress fracture and had to stop running for six months. So it was the marathon I didn’t run. That was really tough.

Psychologically, I wasn’t prepared to try again in 2014 (I ran two other marathons that year instead). And even when I signed up for 2015, I still felt uncertain about it. But I knew that it was something that I wanted to, needed to finally overcome. I had to at least make it to the start line this year!

Sunday was a beautiful day in Paris and finally I was in the starting corral. I was thankful that the departure area was well organized so that we weren’t overly congested in the first kilometers. This was a pleasant surprise, as the Paris Half-Marathon has been quite a different experience in recent years! Yet I was still a bit overwhelmed by the massive size of this race, especially since my last two marathons have been quite small in comparison.

And so I started out easy and a lot of people around me made me smile. There were people in costumes, and a pair of surfers passed me up after a few kilometers. We ran straight from the Champs-Elysees to the Bastille, a very familiar stroll for me. Just before km 5, we passed by my French church. I was happy to see a few familiar faces outside, notably Anne and Nathan. I gave them the sweater I had been carrying, as the sun was already warm.

I continued on easy and was encouraged to see my Let’s Run Paris friends cheering at km 8. Shortly later we entered the Bois de Vincennes, where I train regularly. Lots of people were running around trying to find a tree behind which to pee. Around km 10 my ankle started hurting (a pain that has been recurring over the past few weeks). I tried to relax it a bit and hoped it would loosen up. I also noticed that a tiny pebble had entered my shoe. It moved with each step, which quickly became incredibly annoying, but I didn’t want to stop to remove it.

The sun was bright and the temperature was rising. I don’t do well in heat, so I knew I needed to be careful to not overdo it. Every once in a while volunteers were spraying cold water which was so refreshing to run through. The run was feeling good and as we left the Bois de Vincennes, I anticipated the slight decline ahead on Rue de Gravelle. The musical groups were great, but at around km 16 I think I almost lost my hearing, it was so loud!

11138501_10153058779446655_6038725072341612948_nWe were returning to the halfway point at Bastille and the sun was starting to get to me. My head was hurting and I realized I was slowing a bit. I thought of this chart that someone posted on Facebook a few days before the race. I’d say it’s fairly accurate. The halfway point can be a bit of a downer, especially if you think about the fact that you’re only half way there. I figured I just needed to push through until km 34 when I would see the LRP cheerleaders again, but some more familiar faces around this point would have been encouraging. Later I found out that Anne and Nathan were looking for me at the Bastille but missed me. If only I had known I would have looked too!

We turned the corner and started running along the river and at this point I remembered standing in that exact spot two years ago, sadly injured but still cheering like a crazy American, “YES YOU CAN! YES YOU CAN!” I was again filled with gratitude that this year I was pounding the pavement rather than standing on the sideline.

People have told me about the dreariness of the tunnels along the next stretch, but I still wasn’t sure what to expect. There was, indeed, a long tunnel followed by two shorter ones. The great thing was that they provided shade from the sun. There were also videos, disco lights and what!? Even a D.J.!? And this marked the transition from the “familiar East” side of Paris to the “less familiar West” side. I settled in and waited for how the course would surprise me.

Finally we were approaching the Eiffel Tower. I was in pain by this time, but my drive was still strong. Now around km 30, I wondered if it would be better to incorporate some walking intervals through the refreshment area or to just keep running. But when I tried to walk, it seemed to hurt even more, so I just kept running instead. I tried to make myself accelerate, but it was tough. The uphill segments were not at all appreciated at this point!

From km 32, I started to calculate my anticipated finish time. I was having bouts of nausea but determined to push forward. The kilometers were still passing relatively quickly. I knew I would see the LRP cheering squad at km 34 and sure enough there they were, along with Ivy who jumped on course with me for the last 8km. I was just trying to focus on closing in on one kilometer at a time, still dealing with some nausea, and she brought enough fun and energy for both of us. She was taking pictures, videos, carried my water and grabbed more water for me when we passed the refreshment points. I was starting to feel dehydrated by this point and couldn’t seem to get in enough water. So it was brilliant to have a water angel by my side!

11093191_857429574318318_347116911_n

But there was this thing that was annoying me to no end, that tiny pebble in my shoe! I tried to trap it between my toes, but it continued to bounce at every step. Whatever! And then, much to Ivy’s amusement, we caught up to the surfer men! And of course Ivy took their picture.

 

 

11154765_763539036129_3289397791418764948_oDon’t break under pressure. At km 41 a picture would be taken and automatically posted to my Facebook profile. That kilometer was long as it always is in a marathon. Then came mile 26, then km 42… and at that point Ivy was directed off course because she wasn’t wearing a bib. In my calculations from km 32, I had forgotten to factor in the extra .195, but it was ok because in any case I still finished 4 minutes faster than in Florence. Progressing little by little on this challenging distance, that’s all I require!

However, I was really dehydrated by the end. Proof? I went for over 8 hours without peeing! After my arrival, I felt pretty bad and I knew I just needed some water. But the water station was still too far away. Just before I was about to collect my finisher T-shirt, a volunteer stopped me and called for Red Cross personnel, who then promptly took me to the first-aid tent. There they gave me water and checked my vitals. Before long I was feeling better and was ready to leave, but they wouldn’t let me go because my heart rate remained elevated… for over an hour. Finally I got in touch with Franck and Luvyl who finished after me and came to rescue me after I waited there for an hour and a half. After some serious rehydration, everything eventually returned to normal.

All in all it was a great experience, the Paris Marathon finally conquered. And now I wonder… shall I give it another shot in 2016 or just be content and move on?

11129696_763577563919_543397285074960198_o10505040_761781877489_216000914257180996_o

 

Today is Uncomfortable

I’m a bit shaken right now. In the middle of a rehearsal with a colleague early this afternoon, I saw that my dad was calling. Usually I don’t answer my phone while rehearsing, but I felt like I needed to check in so I picked up and said, “Hi Dad, I’m in a rehearsal, but is everything ok?”

At the same time, my colleague looked at her phone and saw that her mother had called. And so we learned of the shooting that had just taken place in my very neighborhood here in Paris. Time started to slip away as we read news reports in shock. When I saw the pictures, I couldn’t believe it. This is my neighborhood of Paris, my hood. The street I so often run, bike, walk…

When we finally tried to resume rehearsing, we struggled to concentrate. Instead we spent most of our rehearsal time talking about fear, peace, life and death.

Last night I was biking home from my German class, in a bike lane, and a car nearly hit me. I yelled and they stopped just inches from where I passed. It was the closest call I’ve ever had on a bike.

On Christmas Eve, I was in Amsterdam and went with friends to a 10pm service. I didn’t understand much, but the music was beautiful and the evening peaceful. And at least I understood what we were celebrating. On the way back, I thought I saw blood on the street as we were arriving home. Later someone told us that two men had been stabbed on our street while we were at church.

I’m saddened for these lives that were lost and especially burdened for Paris today. Everyone here has been affected. Whether it was interrupted rehearsals, school lock-downs, canceled activities, gatherings of solidarity or deserted streets, we all felt it and saw the effects today in some way.

These recent situations, which have come too close for comfort, remind me of the fragility of life. In an instant everything we hold to in life could be gone. I shared with a friend today how I almost lost my life in 2007. Usually conversations about death take me back to that experience.

It’s easy to get comfortable and to not think so much about important issues of life and death. Sometimes it takes uncomfortable experiences to turn our focus from the temporal to the eternal. Indeed, it was during those days of feeling so close to eternity back in 2007 that I had such a clear focus on what is truly important in life and what is trivial. And the deep assurance that nothing can rob me of what I treasure the most:

“For I am persuaded that not even death or life,
angels or rulers,
things present or things to come, hostile powers,
height or depth, or any other created thing
will have the power to separate us
from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord! (Rom. 8:38-39)

Today is uncomfortable, but it draws my heart to what is really important. So again I claim these words. And I cling to Jesus.

Thanksgiving Marathon – Florence 2014 (Part 2)

The half-marathon mark was quickly approaching. Only half-way? You have got to be kidding me. I wasn’t in pain yet physically, just tired and not caring. I searched inside of me for something profound to drive me on. Nothing came. I’m in trouble, I thought.

So, since I couldn’t pull it together, I reached for some outside inspiration. I remembered the words of the man from Portland. I recalled what my doctor had told me. I thought of what friends have been telling me all my life. Basically, if you don’t slow down and start enjoying life, you’re just going to drive yourself to the ground.

That’s right, and sometimes we do go through life running even when we would rather be walking. We can get so focused on the goal that we miss everything we pass along the way. Oh, another thing my doctor said? That I needed a week-long vacation, away from the pressures of life and work. I haven’t taken more than a weekend away this year. Still, it seems impossible. I don’t have time! Truly, there are things we learn about ourselves during a marathon that we don’t learn anywhere else. There are things that confront us during those hours that we cannot escape.

So this was all starting to feel quite negative, and I still had half a marathon to finish! At this point, my pace was still on track for the time I wanted, but the thought of keeping it up seemed impossible. The initial excitement seemed to have died down a bit around me as well. I was passing people who were already walking. I found my earphones and put them in. The music gave me a little boost. I thought, what the heck, I’m just going to enjoy this marathon like everyone seems to say I should.

I didn’t care about time anymore, I decided to just to glide through to 30k. I wasn’t going to use any more mental energy to calculate my pace and my predicted pace. I even started to walk through the refreshment stations and enjoy a cup of hot sweet tea instead of simply spilling it all over myself. I was still mentally a bit checked-out, and occasionally I had extreme thoughts like, “I have six hours to finish this thing, I wonder if I would still make it in time even if I walked the rest of the way?”

After 30k, I started taking short walking breaks (1-2 minutes) every 10 minutes. Whatever, I didn’t care. Then, something crazy happened. I realized I was at 33k already and I looked at my watch again. It seemed that even with a conservative pace from there on out, I might still be able to finish a few minutes faster than I had in May. This gave me a slight bit of motivation, and although I continued to take walking breaks, I was more motivated to keep a good pace for 8-9 minutes at a time.

Finally, I reached 39k and mustered the strength for a little pep talk that consisted of one word, “BURN!!!!” So I did, I started running again and didn’t stop until I reached the finish line. I passed so many people who were walking during these last kilometers, including the four men in purple shirts, who were clearly struggling by this point. I was glad I still had something left to give, even though perhaps earlier I hadn’t given all I could. Then I started counting down the minutes to myself, knowing when I had only 14 minutes left, ten, five, two… From kilometer 40, I knew when I would finish, and I came in right on the money. WAAM! Five minutes faster than in May! How did that happen??

And then it wasn’t pretty. My head was not happy. I started walking again and realized I had a debilitating pain in my right hip, so instead of walking I was limping. I very nearly burst into tears, but then again, I didn’t care enough, even to cry. I mostly just felt awful. I wanted to get back to my room. I had to get there. The sooner, the better.

My French friends finished before me, but waited in the arrival area for me to show up. I was so touched by this gesture! We were all happy to be done, and we all felt completely spent. We parted ways and I had to find the bag that I had checked earlier. I asked someone and he pointed to some tents that I could barely see. “500 meters,” he said. “No!!! I mean… thanks.” And I limped over there, stopped to take a couple of pictures and then collected my bag.

The next mission was to find a taxi. I didn’t care how frivolous it was at this point, I knew I needed to get back as soon as possible. And by now my hotel was another 2.5 kilometers away. I spent about 10 minutes trying to communicate with Italian volunteers about how to get a taxi. Apparently it was all very complicated because so many roads were still blocked off for the race. I was getting nowhere. Walking to an accessible taxi station would have meant walking too far for comfort in the other direction. The streets were also packed with people, so I wasn’t sure how a taxi would get through. My head started to swim. I stopped and leaned against a post. Then I heard someone next to me saying, “tutto bene?” I nodded my head, I shook my head, and then I signaled that I was dizzy. Finally someone said my best bet was to just walk to my hotel. But I caaaan’t!!!!

Still, I did. I limped all the way back. And yes, it took forever. I was hungry. I was tired. I was hurting. I was also nauseated. I arrived next door to my hotel and knew that once I went up I might not be down again for a while. I needed some kind of fuel, so I stepped into a gelato store for their “Thanksgiving” special (pumpkin-flavored gelato), one of the few things that was at all appealing in that moment. They served me, congratulated me on the race, and then I sat down for a few minutes. I enjoyed a little bit of the gelato, but then I started seeing zigzagged lights, and knew I had to get to my room subito. I took the migraine medication that I had with me, threw out the rest of the gelato and hurried on to my hotel. But the time I reached my room, I couldn’t see clearly anymore. I was conscious enough to change into dry clothes but the next few hours were a blur. To be honest, it was also a little scary.

So, this one didn’t end so well. Maybe I’m not made for marathons? Maybe not, who knows. But I can’t imagine that I will stop here, especially since I’m already registered for the Paris Marathon in April. If I’m going to quit, I simply have to quit on a better note than this.

Post-race, is it possible to still be thankful? Yes, I believe so, if I choose to be. I’m thankful I made it to the start. I’m thankful for my French friends, for my running group in Paris, for the spectators, the volunteers. I’m thankful for the journey God has brought me through. This difficult experience reminded me of more difficult things that I have suffered in the past. I’m thankful to have finished, to have made it back to my hotel safely. I’m thankful for the reminder of the fragility of life. I later learned that a 38-year-old man had collapsed and died one kilometer before the finish line. When a fellow runner dies in a race like this, it affects all the rest of us, too. We can’t help but think, “that could have been me.” I hurt for his family. I’m thankful that God carries us in times when we lose the motivation to keep going. He carried me and protected me through this race, and for that I am thankful. I am thankful for life.

Still, I do need to cool it now for a while. And as a friend corrected me, “you must not just try to rest, you must actually rest!”

Well, at this point, I’m so shot that by default I have no other choice!

2014-11-30 20.07.08

Thanksgiving Marathon – Florence 2014 (Part 1)

My choice of the Florence marathon was inspired in part by someone I met after my last marathon in May. Having traveled to Europe all the way from Portland, he remarked that I could access so many amazing marathons relatively inexpensively from Paris. He had already run 42 marathons, but emphasized experience over time as his main goal. He said, “I figure that if I just keep going I’ll eventually get faster and stronger. I just don’t want to push myself so hard that I stop enjoying it.”

I thought about that. A lot. And I figured, if I can do two marathons, I can certainly do three. And why not hop over to another country for the experience?

So, this was the first time I traveled internationally for a race and also the first time to race in a country where I didn’t speak the language.

I had never been to Florence, but I already knew that I love Italy. And what better place to carb-load for a marathon? Furthermore, the marathon fell over Thanksgiving weekend, so I was happy for the distraction from the fact that I was far from my family and their traditional celebrations. I made the arrangements five months in advance, which meant I got a great deal on travel, registration and accommodation.

However, it’s been a hard year for me physically and that put a damper on my excitement for this race. Once again, my body shut down a few weeks before D-day. I went to see my doctor and at the first meeting, he said it might not be a good idea for me to run this time. In fact, he didn’t want to renew my medical certificate (required for European races). That was only ten days out and I wasn’t feeling well, so I figured if I didn’t run in the end it wouldn’t be so great a loss. I didn’t feel up to it anyway.

He ran some blood tests and a week later gave me the clearance to go ahead but not without a word of caution: “Just take it easy, whatever you do, don’t go out there and give it your hardest effort. Enjoy yourself. Enjoy Florence.” But when is it ever possible to “take it easy” during a marathon?

I walked away thinking, so I’m really doing this thing? I knew I wasn’t physically in top form, but I wasn’t mentally prepared either. I had burnt out a bit, lost motivation. Hopefully the excitement of it all would give me some energy?

The weekend was nice. I relaxed and strolled around the city. Saturday night I met up with some new friends from Paris. During a training run in Paris a few weeks earlier, we had realized that we were running the same race in Florence. It was fun to have dinner together and talk about the race. I followed their lead for gelato afterwards, although I wouldn’t have done so on my own.

By the time I went to bed, I was getting a bad headache. I tried a hot shower, some standard pain meds, and stretching but nothing was helping. Afraid I would wake up with a migraine, I decided to take my migraine medication as a preventative measure to kill the headache, hoping that the resulting drowsiness wouldn’t get me down too much the next day.

I got a decent night of sleep and was in good spirits in the morning. As much as I try to have things planned out in advance, I left my hotel not quite knowing how to get to the start line, which was 2 km away. I had walked all over the city the last two days, but I just wasn’t convinced that I wanted to tag two more kilometers onto the front end of 42.195, especially since I was already a bit groggy. I thought about getting a cab, but it seemed a bit frivolous. The man at the front desk said I could walk across the street to find a special marathon bus that would take me to the start. Brilliant!

I crossed and saw runners walking this way and that, but no bus and no group of people waiting for a bus. So I asked a couple of runners if they knew where the bus was. “No, we’re taking a taxi!” they said. “Oh, can I share it with you then?” I asked. “Sure!” So I jumped in with them. They were a lovely couple from Austria and this would be their 13th marathon. The taxi dropped us a short walk from the start and the 9€ fare split three ways felt good to me, only that the couple wouldn’t let me pay! So sweet. We walked together and chatted on the way to the start area.

In the starting corral, I met with my French friends and together the time passed quickly as we waited for 9:15 am to arrive. I was a little concerned that I was feeling a bit fuzzy as I waited, but figured it was the effect of the medication and that it would pass. It only took minutes for the 1100+ runners to cross the start line. Yet just after we started our watches, the road got so congested that we had to come to a dead stop two or three times within the first few hundred meters! That was unfortunate. I would have rather waited an extra minute before starting than having that minute on the clock! Finally we were rolling, but as we had decided to join a pacing group, we were elbow to elbow for a while.

The ambiance was fantastic in those first kilometers. The pacers were a bit crazy, yelling and cheering in Italian and even though I didn’t understand a whole lot, they had me smiling and laughing, too. I also quickly picked up on the Italian word, “dai,” which means “come on!” But it sounds like “die,” and later in the race, I wanted to yell back, “Yes, I’m dying!!”

Usually the pace would have been fine for me for a long time, but by 10k, I realized that my heart rate was higher than it should have been and so I started to slow a bit and over the next 10k watched the pacer balloons, along with my French companions, slowly fade away in front of me. I was still in the company of four men who were obviously employing the Jeff Galloway method of running/walking. They were in purple shirts and kept passing me, and then falling behind again when they took their walking intervals. I wondered how this method would work out for them. Eventually they plowed ahead.

I also realized by 10k that I was pretty tired. I shouldn’t be tired already at that pace, or this early in the race. Yet I managed to stay quite steady until 20k. By 15k, I was tired of circling parks and while they were pretty and all, I wanted to be back in the city with more excitement, crowds, etc. When is the party starting? I wondered. I thought they were supposed to have a clap competition here. I don’t see anyone clapping! Maybe they only clapped for the elite runners.

I also realized that I was a bit checked-out mentally. That lack of motivation I mentioned earlier? It was only getting worse. What am I doing here anyway? Whose grand idea was this? Maybe I’m not cut out to run marathons. Maybe I should stick to shorter races. I may have a point there. In any distance up to a half marathon, I can usually predict my finish time within a minute. With marathons, I can be accurate only when predicting within a 30-40 minute window!

I tried to assess where my head was, how I could get rid of the negative thoughts and motivate myself to push forward, or if I even wanted to. And I realized that I wasn’t all there. Still moving, but mentally drifting. It wasn’t like what I had experienced during my first or second marathon, when I was present from beginning to end. It was different, and it wasn’t looking good. I simply didn’t care enough. Oh no, what to do?