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

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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?