And that was that. I ran the Children's Hospital Half Marathon a few weeks later and felt great. I went to New York City a few weeks after that and ran a 10-mile loop in Central Park with the golden leaves dripping from the trees and felt inspired, seduced by the experience, even after a stranger walking her dog felt compelled to stop me mid-run and, gesturing towards my chest, remark "I used to be like you--like a boy. But then I hit fifty and BAM! there they were! I had to go to the doctor, I thought something was wrong with me!" Throughout Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year's and NFL playoffs I ran, gradually nudging the mileage upward, sneaking out the door before dawn on frigid Sunday mornings to put in 12, 14, 16, 18 miles, returning home as the kids were finishing their pancakes, waking up a couple of mornings a week to pound out miles on the treadmill before work.
It was only when I stopped to consider what was going on in February that I felt the first real stabs of trepidation. Then, my sister called to tell me she was getting married. In Las Vegas. Super Bowl weekend.
"Super Bowl weekend?" Cade practically shouted. "If the Saints are in the Super Bowl, there's only two places I want to be: in Miami or in New Orleans."
"That's a big if," I said, but what I was thinking was something along the lines of oh no that's the week I'm supposed to run 40 miles and how will I do that in Vegas and what if we have Super Bowl on top of that?
And Cade said "Stop being so negative." Or something like that.
And we all know how it turned out: the Saints did go to the Super Bowl. And we went to Vegas, and I got up the morning we left and ran 6 miles, then did the same the next morning in the fitness center of the Luxor hotel and casino, then flew home the following day and voted for the next mayor of New Orleans. Then got up Sunday, Super Bowl Sunday, and ran 20 miles.
After that, everything seemed easy. The next two weeks of training consisted of a gradual step-down--a "taper"--in mileage and intensity, a welcome relief. There was Super Bowl parade and Mardi Gras and still I ran, faithfully, up and down St. Charles Avenue, slipping on bits of broken beads, trampling discarded tarps and cigarette butts. It was sinking in: I was going to run a marathon. I was ready to run a marathon.
Come Sunday morning, I had a plan. I thought I could run the race in close to 4 hours, but I wanted to focus on having a good experience so I was aiming for something closer to 4:10 or 4:15. So I lined up with the 4:15 corral, with the idea that I'd go out easy, maybe speed up a bit in the second half if I was so inclined. The weather was absolutely perfect, 50 degrees and sunny with very light wind. Perfect running weather. The crowd was perky, the race well-organized, the spectators were spectating, I felt good. I had my Gu, I had my plan, I had the training under my belt and I was going to take this race. Phiddipides was a goddamn fool.
I felt good, really good, throughout the first half of the run, up Tchoupitoulas to Jackson, down Prytania to Jefferson, down Jefferson to Magazine and through Audubon Park. I was so relaxed that I stopped to use the Port-a-Potty at the entrance to the park, which I never do during races. I thoroughly enjoyed the stroll down St. Charles, the energy in the French Quarter, the beauty of Esplanade. I saw Cade and the kids at the top of City Park, around mile 15, and stopped to give them each a kiss and have a swig of Gatorade. I was ready to speed up a bit.
Then, as I passed the sign marking the 17th mile, I felt a tiny pop in my left hip, followed by the electric jolt I have come to recognize as sciatic nerve pain. During my first pregnancy, and after giving birth to Sydney, I had terrible problems with this, the pain getting so bad at times that I could barely stand up straight, let alone walk (or run). My doctor told me, way back when, that during pregnancy and childbirth the pelvic bones shift and expand and then constrict, opening up lots of opportunities for the sciatic nerve to become compressed. It was an issue again during my second pregnancy, but the issue seemed to have resolved itself, and I have never, ever, during any one of the thousands of miles I have run, had a problem since.
Until mile 17. I sat down on the side of the road and stretched, hoping to persuade the nerve to just move over a bit, to quiet down, to behave already. I got up and limped along the road, testing things out; there was some relief, but not much, but maybe, just maybe, enough to get me through the next 9 miles. Nine. Freaking. Miles. I needed a plan, a different plan. I decided I would concentrate on getting to each water station--there was one every couple of miles--but soon realized that wouldn't work, I needed to focus on making it to every mile marker. The pain was intense, horrible, stabbing, and now my gait was awkward so my knee was hurting, everything was hurting. No, not everything; my lungs, my stomach, my quads, my feet, and my entire right side felt fantastic. It just wasn't fair.
I passed the sign marking mile 20 and started to cry. No, no, that wouldn't do. I sniffed back the tears and thought about giving birth. What I wouldn't have given at that moment to be back in the delivery room, at 8 centimeters dilated, coasting the waves of pain that would bring my child into the world. I knew that pain, that pain was manageable. This, right here, was un-chartered territory. I had no idea how to do this. I gave birth to both of my children without the benefit of pain medications; I did this by training myself to focus fully on the pain, not to push it away but to embrace it, to take it in, to stare it in the face and memorize its features. That strategy was not going to work here; every time I thought about what was happening to the left side of my body I started to cry. I needed another game plan. I remembered an article I had read a few months back in a running magazine; the author had talked about running through pain or exhaustion and suggested that the only two ways of dealing with this were to focus on the discomfort or to dissociate from it. Dissociation it was, then.I looked around for something to focus on. I was in Gentilly; Gentilly was a wasteland. There were people all over the side of the road, stretching or gasping or just collapsed. I passed--yes, passed!--a woman I'd been chatting with way back in the good old days (around mile 9) and asked where her husband was. "Oh," she sputtered," he's done." It took me a moment to realize that she meant he had dropped out of the race--not that he had finished it. I passed a middle-aged man who identified himself as a physician and gave me some advice about the Left Side (he thought the pain was triggered by running on uneven surface, and suggested I try to find a part of the road that was slanted and run on it. Of course, from that point on, the road was perfectly flat). I thought about nothing and everything; I floated somewhere outside or above or next to my physical body and observed my own struggle with passive interest. I know this sounds insane. It was, it really was.
And then I passed the sign marking mile 24. I shook my fists at the cheerleaders as they waved their pom-poms in my tear-streaked face. I passed a water station without stopping for a drink, and I gave a really nasty look to the man who clapped me on the shoulder and smiled at me as I ran past. Who the fuck did he think he was, anyway? Why would he smile at me? He should get off his butt and run next to me, that would be the really helpful thing, not some patronizing clap on the shoulder that was supposed to make me feel--Yeah, I was in a bad way.
At mile 25 I saw a sign that read "Get Crunk, Mommy" and looked down to see my two children beaming up at me. Cade had some Gatorade waiting for me so I stopped. I told him what was going on and started to cry. Now, this man loves me, and I'm sure he hated to see me in such pain, so I understand why he said what he said next, but really--he should know me better. He knew enough not to suggest an epidural when I was in the throes of labor, he knows that I don't quit things. He should have realized that if I'd been running in that state for and hour and a half, another 10 or 11 minutes was not going to be an issue. But still, he looked at me and told me I needed to stop running. I turned and jogged away, my children's cries rising up behind me. I hadn't even said goodbye.I turned into City Park and I was feeling pissed off. I hated everyone, but most of all those half-marathon runners with their bright green bibs and their smug little faces and their beers and their gear bags, walking back to their cars. They probably ate all the food and drank all the beer, not that the thought of any of that appealed to me. As I made the turn at the top of Lelong Drive, a woman looked at me and shouted "You're almost there! The finish line is just on the other side of the museum!" and I thought, if I discover that the finish line is not directly behind the museum, I am going to turn around and beat the shit out of that bitch. That's the thought I had as I ran towards the museum.
I was not in a good way.As it turned out, the finish line was not directly behind the museum, in fact it was about a quarter of a mile or so past it, but the last thing I was capable of doing was turning around and jogging back to an earlier place in the route, let alone beating the shit out of someone. And I even managed to smile a little in the general direction of the photographers as I crossed the finish line, about 4 1/2 hours after I started. I took my finisher's medal, grabbed a banana, walked to a spot just past the runner's chute, found a tree a little off to one side and sat down in its shade and sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.
These were not tears of relief, or pride of accomplishment, or even of exhaustion or pain. It was disappointment I was feeling, and it was bitter. Now, before everyone decides that I'm just being too hard on myself and I should feel proud that I finished and all of that nonsense, I should make it clear that the disappointment came from the overall experience, not the results. I can run a faster race, and I will someday--maybe even later this year. And the idea of not finishing is so foreign to me, so utterly incomprehensible, that the mere act of crossing the finish line feels less like an accomplishment than it does a requirement. So I met the minimum requirement. So what?I'm disappointed in my body, that the pain prevented me from having fun and finishing strong. I don't run races with the goal of finishing, of enduring, but with the purpose of challenging my potential and pushing just enough to feel like I ran a good race. I did not run a good race on Sunday. Enduring physical agony and mental anguish is not healthy, nor is it something to be proud of. And now that I've had a few days to think about it, I realize that this sort of issue could probably have been prevented, had I spent more time stretching and paying attention to strengthening the muscles that keep my hip and pelvis aligned and stable. Next time I will be more prepared.
I can hardly wait for next time.