Since I’m in the middle of some running down-time, I want to take a little walk down memory lane to write about one of the most important days of my running career – the day of my first marathon. First marathons are a special moment for any runner, but mine carried a little extra weight and, I like to think, became a defining moment that helped shape my perspectives and goals in every aspect of my life.
Allow me to set the stage. I started running regularly in January 2005 when some friends prevailed upon me to sign up for the biggest running event in the area, the Monument Avenue 10k. I ran Monument Avenue that spring (in a shade over 58 minutes) and one other race later that year – the 8k that was held in conjunction with the Richmond Marathon in November. My friends ran in the marathon that day, and perhaps it was then that the seed was planted.
At the time, I would not have considered myself a serious runner. I didn’t even run Monument the following spring – the only time since 2005 that I’ve missed that race. I certainly didn’t follow any training plan and was not organized in my approach to running. I’d run when I felt like it, and I was pretty slow. I wouldn’t even say I loved running. If weeks went by without running, then so be it. I wasn’t part of the running culture – I didn’t follow blogs or keep up with the latest shoe trends. I was just a guy who went jogging occasionally in the neighborhood.
But as the spring of 2006 wore on, my good friend Steve and I decided almost on a whim to sign up for the marathon training team that summer, a coach-led program that would lead us up to the Richmond Marathon in the fall. It was an easier decision because my employer paid for it. I showed up to the first workout on a late May morning wearing a cotton shirt. It was the last time I’ve ever worn cotton on a run.
Each week we gathered to knock out the weekly long run together, and each week I learned more about running, from the theory behind certain practices (like why you shouldn’t wear cotton) to the actual physical reality of what it meant to run 12, 15, 18 and 20 miles at a time – distances that I had never approached before.
It was mid-September when injury reared its head, and I missed every scheduled run for the next three weeks, with the exception of a single 3-miler. I’m a bit foggy on the exact injury, but it was ITB-related and it was painful. I came back for a 37-mile week, including my only 20-mile run of the season, in early October. That didn’t help the injury. After that, I ran a total of eight short runs over the next five weeks before race day. Despite the injury and the utter lack of proper training, I still knew I was going to run the race.
Summer gave way to fall, as it always does, bringing the pleasant temperatures that runners consider a reward for suffering through the heat and humidity of July and August. The average temperature on the day of the Richmond Marathon, held Nov. 11 that year, is 52 degrees. But, in a twist that would have severe repercussions for many runners that day, the temperature crept from the mid-60s early in the week to 80 on race day.
I don’t remember much about the actual race. I didn’t write a race report afterward (which is why I’m doing it now), and many of the details have been lost to time. The sudden heat wave was definitely a factor on race day, but fortunately my injury was in decent shape because I had taken so much time off. I don’t remember the start of the race or the first miles. However, my memories of certain moments and thoughts are crystal clear. Turning onto Forest Hill at Mile 11, facing directly into the rising sun for the first time that morning as the course made its way eastward, and wilting under the heat. My friend Andrew emerging from the side of the course near his house at Mile 13.5 with a bottle of Gatorade, cap already off. I had emptied the bottle within the next mile. I was becoming dehydrated and remember feeling spent already – not a good sign when you’re just halfway through a marathon.
I remember nothing else until about Mile 21, passing under the Pope Arch in a haze. At this point I remember my vision shifting and blurring, like a dream sequence in a movie. My friend Molly approached on her bike around Mile 22 and I couldn’t make my eyes focus on her. I don’t remember any physical pain, but the mental fog was overwhelming. I remember weaving and drifting from side to side as I shuffled on the black asphalt under the baking sun. I never considered stopping – I wasn’t even aware of what was really happening to my body. I was no longer in control, and I was too impaired to realize it.
The last thing I remember was the training-team coach floating past near Mile 22 – was he running? riding a bike? standing on the side? I had no idea. He immediately singled me out and asked if I was OK. I mumbled yes and carried on, but he sensed something wrong, and later told me he regretted not pulling me off the course at that moment. I was a complete zombie.
I’m laying on my back. Three men are kneeled next to me. I’m in the middle of the street, but I have no idea which street. The forms of runners are passing but all I can see is the sun shining directly into my eyes. I reach up to move my hat over my eyes. Something is in my arm. An IV. I am so weak. I can hardly control my arm as I try to reach for my hat, which is tilted back under my head. There is nothing I can do. Rolling my head to one side is at the outer limits of my ability.
My mind is as weak as my body. I don’t have the energy to wonder what’s going on. I’m a passive observer to whatever’s happening to me. Minutes pass and the three paramedics lift my limp body and carry me to the sidewalk in front of a gas station. I can’t offer help by supporting even a single part of my body. My friend Molly appears on her bike and identifies me to the emergency workers. They ask for a phone number to call but I can’t make myself produce a noise. A minute passes and I’m able to slowly indicate the seven digits of my wife’s cell-phone number by showing the corresponding number of fingers. Molly makes the call.
Eventually the ambulance arrives and I make the short trip to Retreat Hospital’s emergency room. Slowly I recover enough to be able to talk to the paramedics – thankfully the hopelessness of those first minutes has passed and I realize I’m going to be OK. At the ER my wife and family arrive to be with me. I don’t remember any tests, but eventually the doctor reveals that elevated levels of certain chemicals in my blood are the telltale signs of a heart attack. I’m admitted to the cardiac intensive-care unit, where I will spend the next three days under constant supervision. I am not allowed to leave my bed or exert myself in any way – probably the most effective marathon-recovery plan I could have hoped for. I was never sore or in any pain related to the run.
After countless tests my diagnosis was revised – I didn’t have a heart attack (although a family history of heart issues warranted follow-up with a cardiologist). I had suffered from rhabdomyolysis – a condition where muscle begins to break down and release toxic chemicals into the blood, which can lead to kidney failure. It is often a result of heatstroke. After a total of four days in the hospital I was released.
I later found out that the gas station where the paramedics had attended to me was at Mile 24 – I had covered two miles of the course with no awareness. My last memory is of the coach near Mile 22. It’s frightening to think of what I must have looked like – a runner with no sentient activity behind a pale mask, perhaps running, perhaps walking, certainly not in a straight line. Did I speak to anyone? I awoke on my back but had no scratches – did someone help me down? Did I just quit on my own? The paramedics had already started the IV when I awoke – I’ll never know if a runner helped me and then went on his or her way after the medics arrived. Also, my watch was stopped. 3:57.
It’s hard to emerge from an experience like this without learning some things about yourself. For better or worse, I ran until I could run no more. It’s the only race that I’ve started and not finished, and I take a small bit of twisted pride in the fact that I didn’t give up – I was literally carried off the course after falling unconscious. But the supreme failure of that day was rooted in my inexperience – I didn’t have respect for the distance or the conditions. Looking back, I know I wasn’t prepared to run a marathon that day. In addition to my lack of sufficient training, I was severely underhydrated for a long-distance race that took place on a day that saw nearly record heat. I didn’t adjust my plan accordingly.
Months after the race I saw a cardiologist who finally confirmed that there were no irregularities with my heart. I could run again, he said, “but I wouldn’t recommend any more marathons.” He politely offered the admonition that most doctors would give in the same situation, and I politely ignored it. I knew my body and, after all the rigorous testing that followed this incident, I knew that there was no basis for his warning.
In the end, I had set a goal that remained unfulfilled. No matter that I had finished 24 miles of the marathon – I was not a marathoner. I couldn’t suffer that kind of defeat and not answer it.
I signed up for the next year’s Richmond Marathon, and I finished it.