I had big goals for the Seashore 50k, but the weather had other plans. After a fantastic fall of training, which included pacing a 3:45 marathon and two successful solo runs of 27 and 29 miles, I felt so ready to run sub-4:30 at Seashore. It’s a flat, fast course and it takes place in late December, so my history of violent stomach troubles while running in warm, humid weather should not be a factor, right? Wrong. It would be just my luck that a late-December heat wave would strike on the day of my race.
I stayed in a pleasant hotel on the beach, but when I arrived Friday afternoon to warm, humid conditions, I wasn’t able to enjoy the scene. Instead I was filled with a sense of foreboding, knowing that the conditions the next day were not going to be favorable. I was still hopeful that the predicted 70 degrees wouldn’t feel unbearable and that I would be able to take advantage of the cooler morning hours and still hit my goal.
Race morning was cool and pleasant. I found several DailyMile friends and met some other folks from Richmond (identifiable by their Seal Team gear).
I got to the site early and it was chilly. It also was beautiful, as the trail runs along a bay that was lit by the rising sun. I took a short walk down the start of the trail to get a feel for what I would be running on, and was very happy to find the flat surface covered with a blanket of pine needles. Perfect!
At the stroke of 8:30, the race got underway. I started somewhat close to the front, but there were some heavyweights there who I knew were going to take off fast. And they did. But I maintained a place that was somewhat close to the front of the secondary pack as the leaders slipped away. I was confident in my approach, taking the opening miles very easy and letting myself fall into a groove. It’s the way I’ve been running this fall and it always produces good results. I don’t worry about what my watch says, particularly in a trail environment where it always reads incorrectly.
I found someone nearby to talk to – I wanted to be friendly, of course, but also to check and make sure that my effort was truly conversational. After a short out-and-back on the paved entrance road, we turned onto the trails where we would spend the rest of the day.
The trails were flat and beautiful, and I confirmed that the challenge of this race was not going to come from the topography but from the weather and my effort. I ran the first 15 miles in the 8:10-8:30 range, feeling great and soaking up the atmosphere by chatting with fellow runners and enjoying the scenery. By Mile 15 I was pretty much alone and had started counting the runners ahead of me who were starting their second loop after the turnaround at approximately Mile 16.5.
At 15, the trail emerged from the forest and ran through an exposed marsh, and for the first time I really started to feel the heat and humidity. My pace was still around 8:30 but I could tell the effort was slightly more noticeable. At the turnaround I discovered that I was in 27th place, which was kind of exciting even though I had no real goals in that regard – you never know who’s going to show up on race day, so plotting out a finish place is useless. I also realized that my current pace would have me finishing around 4:18-4:20 – far ahead of my 4:30 goal. But I knew I would need that cushion as the day continued to get warmer.
As I began my second loop and saw the runners behind me, I could see a lot of discomfort on their faces. Many people had already started to walk. But I was still feeling strong, and happy to be embarking on my second loop, so I pressed ahead.
As I reached Mile 19 I was definitely in a very focused zone. The effort was growing just a little harder, but I had been running for almost 3 hours already. I had made a conscious effort to adjust my fueling for the conditions by drinking more water and pushing up the frequency with which I took my Shot Bloks by about 5-10 minutes. Other than the effort, though, my body was feeling great.
At about this time my friend Andrew popped up to run with me for a bit. Although I wasn’t in a position to do a lot of talking, I was happy to see him and have some company for a while. Together we passed runner #26, and a little later #25 to put me in 25th position around mile 20. Andrew, who was registered to run but has faced some injuries, fell back to find another friend as I pushed ahead.
I took my very first walk break at this time and turned in my first mile of the day that was over 9 minutes. I told myself that it would be OK since I had a 10-minute cushion to hit 4:30. And this approach worked well for a couple miles. The running felt good but it also felt nice to take a 1-minute walk break at each mile.
But at Mile 23 I had to take two or three walk breaks as my breath started to grow shallower and it became harder to bring down my heart rate. That mile passed in 14:20. And suddenly I felt that familiar tingle that starts in my fingers and becomes a queasiness that spreads across my body. Oh no! Is this really happening now? There was nothing I could do. I stopped and sat on a small bridge and vomited repeatedly.
Several runners passed me as I sat with my head in my hands. I sat for probably 7 or 8 minutes and was overcome with weakness. I considered dropping out at the next aid station – at Mile 25 – because I felt like all was lost. I was far too weak and I was now caught in that too-familiar scenario of losing all of my fluids and not being able to take any in. There was no way that 4:30 was happening now, and it appeared that sub-5 was out of the question, too. Part of me had been so set on hitting a goal time at this race that I didn’t even care about “just finishing” – it wasn’t worth it to me if I was just going to run another 6-hour 50k. I’m not proud of those thoughts, but that was what was in my head at that moment.
Somehow I was able to get myself together and start moving again. And then, surprisingly, I was able to start running again. With about 7 miles left to go, I knew I would not be able to run the entire distance, but if I could alternate some running and walking, I might still have a chance to come in around 5 hours.
Mile 24 – including the puke stop – ticked by in 25:00. Ouch. But I put it behind me and kept going. But about a mile later my rebirth was extinguished. I suddenly felt completely empty and nauseous, and had to sit down immediately. Runners trickled past and I was hit with a resigned comeuppance as my 25th-place position dissolved into the 40s and 50s.
All I could do now was walk to the next aid station. I hoped they would have some Fig Newtons that would revive me and allow me to make it to the finish. At this point I had accepted a slower time but felt much more strongly about finishing. I wanted to earn my medal and go home a finisher, no matter what.
Some volunteers were stationed at a turn about 30 yards from the aid station, and as soon as they saw me they knew something was wrong. They told me medics were at the a/s and called them to my assistance. They helped me to a cot to lay down and immediately packed ice around my neck and armpits. They made some calls and I could overhear them saying I couldn’t go on, and arranging transportation to get me back to the main road. I was still alert and OK mentally, and spoke with the volunteers as much as I could without making myself sick again. They removed my timing chip and my bib. I moved to a golf cart and got wrapped up in some blankets since the ice had lowered my temperature effectively. I was feeling very weak and very sad that I was being pulled. It was a relief to have a team of professionals looking after me, but I felt I could make the last 6 miles if given enough time to rest and recover. But it was not to be. I trust their judgement and am so appreciative of their help and concern.
I was carted to the park’s visitor center, where an ambulance met us. I really didn’t want to go to the hospital but knew I would feel revived with some IV fluids. I would have to go to the ER to receive an IV, so I consented and was taken to Virginia Beach’s Sentara General. After three bags of fluid and a shot of Zofran to help with the nausea, I was feeling great and ready to go finish up the race. But doctors don’t think the same way I do, and I sat in the ER for more than 7 hours as tests were completed and then re-completed to make sure everything was OK. Which it was.
Postscript: So where does this leave me? Sadly, I feel like it means my ultrarunning days are mostly behind me for now. This dangerous, race-ending descent into sickness has happened to me five times in the past 18 months – three times during ultra events on warm days and twice on shorter runs in the heat of the summer. Every time it happens, according to yesterday’s doctor, my skeletal muscles are breaking down and being released into my blood. Kidneys are not able to process those materials and the condition can result in serious kidney damage or failure.
But why does this continue to happen to me? I am thoughtful about my drinking and nutrition, and I have no trouble with these issues when the weather is agreeable. Yesterday’s doctor speculated that my body is extremely sensitive to certain conditions and even that my body has some kind of abnormal reaction involving salt on hot days. I don’t know. I just know that something isn’t right and it seems to be something more than simply eating or drinking the right things. I have tried so many different approaches to race nutrition and have still come up empty.
What exhausts me the most is when this happens during a race. Not only am I emotionally invested in these events, but the travel and fees and my absence from home are a real cost to my family. Not to mention whatever bills hit me after this ER visit. I just feel so silly and embarrassed to undertake these things with such high hopes and have to come back afterward and tell my friends and family that I crashed once again. And there’s also the toll on my own confidence. I’m tired of failing.
But I love running long distances, and that won’t stop. What I foresee happening is a return to shorter-distance road races and then the occasional ultra run by myself or with friends. No organized ultras, but rather the impromptu jaunts in the woods or around the city that I have enjoyed so much. Then, at least, I can choose the weather!