The L.A. Marathon: Race Report

Short version: I ran myself into the med tent with mild heatstroke just after mile 16. All the non-sports people I know are like, ‘Oh my god! Heatstroke! You almost died!!’ And, all the sports people are all, ‘It was only mild heatstroke. You could have kept going.’ I’m falling somewhere in between those two right now, and very much never want to try running a marathon again. For at least a few years.

Long version: It was warm. Arguably, it never got as hot as some people were predicting it might, but at 5:45 a.m. at Dodger Stadium it was concerningly warm. All last week I’d been preparing myself for ‘this is going to suck, but you can tough it out.’ My tentative race plan was: 1. You will probably not run your pie-in-the-sky, ‘A goal’ of 3:06. 2. You could still run a PR around 3:10, sub-3:15. 3. Only if you aren’t stupid; don’t be stupid. 4. Go for it, but in a conservative way and 5. When it starts to suck early, because it will, hang tough and know it sucks for everybody.

So, that’s what I tried to do. I ran some 7:05s for the first few miles, but they were all downhill (more or less) and it felt easy slow. I did not let myself get ahead of the 3:05 pace group, because “don’t be stupid.” By mile 2 I was dripping sweat and thought ‘well, this is going to get hot.’ Around mile 4, we went up a steep hill and I let the 3:05 pace group slip away, because “don’t be stupid.” After that, I was sort of just running, some by myself, some through people who were already looking hot and tired.

By 7 or 8, it was feeling really hard and I was getting the chills a bit. But I, literally, thought to myself: It’s not possible to be having heat issues this early; I haven’t even been running long enough, so these chills must be because of the breeze or something (?). And, anyway, I was still running 7:10s or so, so it’s fine. It’s fiiiiiiiine. I was taking water and Gatorade at every aid station, but I wasn’t making it to the next one before I was dying of thirst again. (And, for the record, I had oatmeal, a Gatorade and some water, and a gel before the start, and one more gel around mile 7. After that I was having a hard time imagining swallowing anything else.)

By mile 10, I was struggling. Somewhere around 9, two guys next to me were talking to each other and one said, “It’s not good if it feels this hard this early” and I went, ‘heh.’ I remember hitting the 10 marker and just thinking, ‘Fuck.’ I was still running in the 7:15s-ish, though, and it was hard to tell if we were going uphill, so it’s fine, I thought. It’s fiiiiine. I had promised myself I was going to be mentally tough for this race. I wasn’t going to drop out or check out. I was going to fight for it. So I did. My thing I had planned on telling myself was: ‘You’re tougher than you think you are. You can do more than you think you can.’ I had planned on telling myself that in the second half of the race, because I didn’t expect it to be nasty hard too much before then, but oh well.

By 11 or 12, I was in bad shape. I was getting the chills and things were a little light-headed and dizzy. I was fighting for every mile and keeping them somewhere in the 7:20s, but I knew that it was not fine. At this point, it became one of those battles: If you know you’re in bad shape and it’s only getting worse and you don’t think you can finish, but you promised yourself you wouldn’t voluntarily quit, then what do you do? You make it so you’ll be involuntarily done, whether that’s because you get to the finish or crash out sooner. At least that’s the option I took. I have this tendency to wallow and, like, hope that someone will just spontaneously pull me from the course and tell me I should sit down in the shade and have some nice ice water. But, I wanted to be mentally tough. Instead of wallowing, I tried to smile. Studies show that you can affect your mental state by smiling in races. So. I tried to do all the things that keep you mentally positive. I tried to hang on to people next to me and get whatever boost there was from the atmosphere. I repeated ‘you’re tougher than you think you are’ in my head until it became gibberish. Mostly, I thought, if I’m going to end up running myself into the med tent (which it was starting to seem that I was), then I’m going to run as hard as I can until that happens.

I don’t remember much from 12 to whenever I stopped just after mile 16. I have no idea how I made it that far either. I was almost totally cognizant at the time. I knew where I was and I knew I saw Steve at one point (and tried to tell him with my eyes that I was in a bad place), but it all got a bit blurry, in that way things get in races when it’s like you’re watching from far away on the other side of a bright light. I kept trying to be tough and I would have sworn to you I was hanging on to 7:30 pace, but my Garmin suggests that I actually dropped pretty sharply to 7:50s.

Look, I expected it to get that bad. I did. I’d been preparing myself all week for it to get that bad, for me to have to tough it out for 8-10 miles. I’ve had bad heatstroke before, and I knew there was a chance I’d end up lying down in a med tent with an IV. I just expected that 8-10 miles to be the last 8-10 miles.

By around 16, I was getting the chills regularly. I was cold and hot, and I was dizzy, and things were getting light and dark, and then my chest started to hurt, and my heart felt like something tight was around it (which is new, by the way, that’s never happened before). And somewhere in my head I thought, ‘oh good, a med tent’ and I stepped out of the race and did that crumpling/collapsing thing and laid down on the side of the road. Of course, it turned out it wasn’t a med tent, it was actually just a random tiny tent of people cheering their friends on. So I freaked those people out.

For a few minutes, I just laid there with my eyes closed and rolled onto my side and tried to sit up and tried to get my eyes to focus and the lights to go back to how they’re supposed to be and then that was a lot of effort, so I laid back down. I don’t think I had the capacity to say anything for a couple minutes. And that freaked out the random people I had decided to lay down in front of even more than they were already freaked out. Then the cops and paramedics on bikes got there and also freaked out, and called an ambulance and a fire truck. And, I think my head was sort of lolling to one side and when I did start talking it was all slurred and along of the lines of: ‘It’s fine, ‘tsfiiiiine, my chest just hurts, *wave hands, close eyes*,  whatevvvver, *lay back down*”

Somewhere in my head I knew I was fine, actually. Or, I would be fine relatively soon. This was not a permanent state. I also knew that I always look really bad, even when I’m killing it. And I just didn’t have the wherewithal to explain to a bunch of people the degree to which I was messed up. They wanted to send me to the hospital and I kept saying, “No, no.” Finally, it was decided the ambulance would take me 200 meters down the road to the actual med tent. Then, those doctors kept trying to send me to the hospital and I kept saying, “No, no.” I think I even said, “I don’t go to hospitals,” which is absurd. Of course I go to hospitals. I’ve been to lots of hospitals. That’s how I know they won’t be able to do much for mild heatstroke.

Eventually, Steve found me and Natalie drove over to pick me up and, by then, almost an hour later, I was fine. Not great, not really even ok, but fine.

So, could I have toughed it out for longer? Yeah, maybe. Would it have been worth it? Probably not. Part of the mental calculus that my brain does when it can’t even see straight was that it decided there was no reason to land myself in the hospital. I didn’t care much about just finishing. It wasn’t going to be a good time. And I wasn’t competing for a place. If I really screwed myself up for good, what would be the point? After lying in the med tent for 20 or 30 minutes, I actually thought I should get back up and start running again. Steve said that was dumb.

It always seems to me that how soon after a race you start planning the next one, how much you want a do-over, is often dependent on how much, subconsciously, you felt like you had left to give. The day after my Ironman I basically was Googling to find another one later that month. This time, there is almost no part of me that wants to think about another marathon. People keep suggesting them and I keep cringing. No, no, that sounds terrible. I even paused on an email from the Chicago Marathon and thought about it in passing for a second. I like the course and it’s fast and late this year, but then it made me want to gag. I can, actually, barely think about any races at all right now. They all sound awful. (Which is unfortunate, because I am definitely doing some triathlons that I was excited about.) The amount I am still emotionally and mentally and, to a degree, physically messed up makes me think I didn’t have much more to give on Sunday. For whatever reason. That was all there was.

7 thoughts on “The L.A. Marathon: Race Report

  1. Oy. I think I can definitely say I have never been in that place in any race, ever, and if I got there, I think I would have stopped much sooner (because, yeah, SOOOO much not worth it). But I did run marathon #1 with a really bad asthma attack, and it was that same feeling after–I could not face the idea of running, any amount, at all, for a full month, and it was four or five months before the thought of another marathon didn’t make me cringe.

  2. Dear Kelly,
    I’m so sorry LA didn’t go well for you. Even as a random reader, I was sending you good vibes and thoughts of “Get your shit together and pick it the F up!” After such a lousy and traumatic physical experience — a result of the conditions, not your conditioning, it seems clear — it makes sense that thoughts of another marathon are far from your mind. Hope you can feel confident going into tri nationals. You’re a great athlete, and I enjoy your training reflections as well as your excellent sports writing. Hang tough and trust that you’ll have a better race soon.
    Best wishes,
    Carrie

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