Call it a moment, I call it life

Here is what I know now.

Being an athlete is about being resilient.

If I had thought I wouldn’t be able to finish the Reggae Marathon on Saturday, my first marathon, I would have canceled the trip. So even though I didn’t feel 100 percent, I trusted my training, stuck to the plan, and arrived in Negril on Wednesday evening.

For the five days I packed two suitcases.  I checked one and hand-carried my gear bag – my foam roller; my pilates ring, which resets my SI joint; a lacrosse ball for rolling my feet and pecs; bands for strengthening my arms and quads; magnesium oil and Voltaren gel for my hamstrings and calves; energy gels; s-cap salt tablets; protein powder; my Brooks; and multiple pairs of running shorts and tanks, etc.

Wednesday was a long travel day so after a late dinner, I walked over to the fitness center for 30 minutes of cardio on the elliptical. That’s when it hit me.

There isn’t anything about the way my body feels right now that indicates I can run 26.2 miles. In one day. In one race.

I am in deep shit.

By Thursday morning I was even less confident.  I woke up early and did a two-mile walk around the property. We were beach front, but because I was planning to run on the treadmill after my warm up and was wearing the Brooks I planned to use on Saturday, I didn’t walk on the beach because I did not want a speck of sand inside my shoes.

I listened to Keith Jarrett’s Koln concert (my massage therapist Eric Newdom's excellent suggestion) during my walk and headed into the weight room for core and upper body work.  I was joined by two adorable 10-year-old boys, and I successfully resisted the temptation to 1. get a photo of the three of us doing bicep curls and 2. correct their form.  Soon I moved to the treadmill and ran two miles at an easy pace.

Dinner the night before the race with my Squad: Bob, Mia, Ken, Margot, and me.

Dinner the night before the race with my Squad: Bob, Mia, Ken, Margot, and me.

I spent the rest of the day with Bob, Mia, my cousin Ken and his girlfriend, Margot, trying to act normal and doing what people do when they’re on vacation in such a beautiful spot in Jamaica – drink (alcohol is dehydrating so I allowed myself a single shot of vodka and a splash of freshly made fruit punch), eat, swim, read (Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic), listen to music, chill.  By the time I turned in for the evening I was thankful I had gotten through the day without injuring anything.

Friday was pretty much the same, except that I did my two-mile walk on the beach wearing my alternate Brooks, which got very sandy, and was in bed with my head on my pillow by 8:30 pm so I could get at least a solid 6 or 7 hours of sleep before getting up at 3 am to eat a bagel, drink a cup of coffee, and warm up.

Race morning

As soon as my alarm went off to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” performed by Israel Kamakawiso’ole, I jumped out of bed and did my best rain dance as the weather forecast called for sunny skies with a high of 88 degrees.  

I ate breakfast in my room, walked over to the fitness center to warm up, and met Bob and Mia in the hotel lobby at 4:15. The race was scheduled to start at 5:15, and since the start was just a few steps away, we relaxed in the hotel, talking with the other runners (there were about 50 staying at my hotel), including the hotel manager who was doing the 10K.  Most runners were doing the 10K or the half (there were 450 Reggae Runnerz from all over the US doing the shorter races).

At about 4:50 we headed over to the park where local volunteers holding torches lined the beginning of the race route.

The race director announced there would be water and first aid stations every mile along the 26-mile route.  I registered some of this and thought to myself, that's so nice having water stations every mile. Unusual but nice.

There weren’t any corrals so at the start, people began to move –both runners and walkers together – and things didn’t really smooth out until mile 3.

I paced myself to go super slow, plugged into my music, and was in my zone. Even though I felt great and was tempted to take advantage of the darkness by picking up the pace and covering as much mileage as possible, I kept my pace steady. I wanted to be conservative and not risk re-injuring my hamstring or even tweaking it so early in the race.  Where 4 weeks ago my goal was to finish as fast as possible and still enjoy the experience, now my goal was to finish.

6 mile marker
This was the end of the first loop and we were back at the start.  The sun was just getting bright and I felt strong.  I had my first energy gel at 45 minutes in and took the first s-cap salt tablet at 60 minutes.  Both the gel and the salt caps require water so I drank a bag of water with each. (In Jamaica they use plastic pouches of water and Hi-Lyte).  

10 mile marker
Just after the turnaround of the second loop, my shoulders began to bake in the sun and the weight of the heat was just so unexpected.   I watched other women runners and tucked the icy water pouches into my bra straps to cool my chest.

The music in my ears stopped.  I looked at my iPhone and saw a message that said something like “iPhone needs to cool down before you can use it.”

Yeah man tell me about it.

I took the phone out of my armband, plugged it into my portable battery charger, and slipped the phone into my shorts' pocket on the side of my left leg. At the next water station I tucked an icy pouch into my shorts both to cool my phone and my leg.

13 mile marker
At the half, my pace was still very easy but I felt like I was working at VO2 max - my maximum aerobic capacity.  I thought I could have a heart attack and it occurred to me that I might not be able to finish.  It was an odd feeling because nothing hurt – my muscles were fine.  It was just that I was having trouble breathing.

I felt my skin burn and when I saw Mia and Bob, I asked Mia to spray some sunscreen onto my shoulders and arms.  I already knew that running with sunscreen on my skin was problematic but I felt I had no choice.  I tan easily and don’t usually burn, but this was different.  What I was feeling was burning on my skin.

19 mile marker
Mia: You got this!!! Only 7 miles to go – and you do 7 miles practically every day! You got this!

Me:  7 miles? You mean 6 miles! This should be the 20 mile marker! Somebody moved the 20 mile marker!!

At the next water station, I looked down at my arms and hands. They had blown up like a balloon.  My fingers were so swollen I was having trouble holding on to the pouches of water.

I asked the Jamaican support team at the next water station if they had any sunscreen.  One of the guys ran to his truck and grabbed a can and handed it to me.

A young woman took the can from my hand.

“Let me do it,” she said, as she sprayed the sunscreen carefully and gently on my shoulders and back. 

The guy asked me if I could remove my cap so he could pour water on my head.

“Go for it.”

The water on my head felt great.

“Thanx. You’re the best.”

I tucked fresh icy pouches under my bra strap, opened a pouch with my teeth (I was getting really good at this – you know, biting and spitting all at once) and drank it as I jogged away and had an energy gel.

20 mile marker
I was nauseated but couldn’t tell whether I was sick from the energy gels or from the salt tablets or maybe just from the heat.  But I knew if I threw up that would be it for me, and I was too close to the finish to let a little vomit take me down.

I was crisscrossing the road to find bits of shade, and although the sun and heat continued to be a big factor, I was focused and determined.  I hadn’t listened to music in nearly 10 miles and began to understand what my State Department colleague Hugo was talking about when he told me about the benefits of unplugging.

I needed to stay sharp and watch where I was stepping because sometimes I had to run on the grass and under trees to get shade.  There were tree roots and stones and ditches. And I was concentrating on my breathing.

I began hydrating at every mile – sometimes water, sometimes Hy-Lite, whatever they had -  but I was also eliminating frequently.  I had heard about runners peeing on themselves but never imagined how that could happen.  After the first time I didn’t think anything about it and just kept doing what I needed to do.  There was a woman earlier in the race, maybe even before the half, who had defecated on herself and there was poop everywhere – in her shorts, on her hands.  I passed her as she was headed into one of the toilets and I really felt for her.  I knew there wasn’t any water in there.

I looked down at my arms and they were coated with a mix of sunscreen and a film of salt.  That’s when I figured out that the burning was from the swelling and not from the sun, and the sunscreen was making things worse by clogging my pores.

A member of the race support team on a bike swung by to check on me and offered me a banana. I had turned him down earlier but this time I asked him what he thought.

“It’ll make you feel better.”

I ate the banana and hoped for the best.

23 mile marker
Another support cyclist began riding beside me and started up a conversation. We talked about cycling versus running, about my time living in Kingston over the winter, and about President Obama’s visit to Jamaica.  He was friendly and personable and I was glad for the company.  He was taking and making calls easily all the while chatting with me and riding slowly as I kept to a steady jog.  Since I wasn’t using my phone and had lost track of where I was and the time I asked him about the finish.

"You’ve got 2 ½ miles before the chute."

That’s when he saw my arms.

“I think I should call one of the ambulances.  They took a woman out of the race who was swollen like you and she had leg cramps.”

There was no way I was getting in an ambulance with 2 ½ miles before the finish. 

“I don’t have any leg cramps,” I said.  “My husband’s a doctor and he’s at the finish.  Let me call him and see what he says.”

I dug out my phone and called Bob.

Amazingly he picked up.

“Hi honey! Your phone says you’re in Equatorial Guinea!”

“Ok that’s interesting.”

“Where are you?”

“I’m 2 ½ miles from the finish.  I’m very swollen but I don’t have any cramping. Should I stop drinking water?  Should I take a salt tablet? Should I be concerned?”

“I have no idea,” he said.  

I paused.

“Ok, sounds good,” I said, “see you soon.”

I hung up.

The cyclist looked at me.

“He said it’s completely normal and to be expected and I’m fine.”

“Ok good, I’ll go check on the other runners.  Have a great finish!”

The Finish

The official race cut off:

7 hours and 15 minutes.

My official time: 7:13:21.

After crossing the finish and resting for a minute and removing my shoes, we walked back to the hotel and I took a swim to cool off.  My cousin Ken brought me an unbelievably delicious icy cold glass of homemade chocolate milk.  I don't remember much about the next 30 or 40 minutes but I can still taste that glass of milk.

So here’s where my training paid off.

  • The strengthening work I’ve been doing with Nancy Accetta at Equinox allowed me to run 26.2 miles without an ache in my back or my pecs or my knees.  Truly epic.
  • By following the advice of nutritionist Sue James and consuming 40 grams of protein at every meal since injuring my hamstring and then carb loading at least three days prior to the race, despite putting on so much weight over the last three weeks that I could barely bend down to tie my shoelaces, I did not experience a single muscle cramp at any point during the race.  I haven’t hit a wall during my long runs in months and I believe I have Sue’s hydration and nutrition plan to thank for that.  This week, as I’m deloading, I’m focusing on eating smaller portions.  Since my hamstring is still healing, I'm shooting for 30-40 grams of protein at meals but can get that by eating egg whites and skipping the yokes.  Already I feel lighter. (At least I can button my work trousers.)
  • In addition to rehabbing my injuries, Kevin McGuinness, an incredibly gifted, young physical therapist who btw has a terrific series of videos on Instagram, taught me critical exercises to tone my diaphragm in order for me to breathe more effectively when I run.  (I made Bob fetch a volleyball from the beach so I could do these in the gym early Saturday morning during my race warm up.)  At the hottest point during the race, when I started to panic, I practiced some exercises Kevin showed me without the volleyball and within minutes I was able to steady my breathing and get myself back on track.
  • On Friday, at Mia’s suggestion, I made a checklist of my warm ups so I wouldn’t find myself at the start realizing I had forgotten to roll my calves. I learned most of my warmups from Reuel Tizabi, my former trainer, who advised me to begin any workout with 8 minutes of walking, either outside or on the treadmill.  Probably the only time I skipped this was in London when I injured my hamstring, so yeah, I won’t be doing that again anytime soon.  I have no idea where he came up with the 8 minute rule and I don’t think I ever asked him. Of course you know when I got to the fitness center at 3:30 am to warm up I realized my list was on Mia’s phone. But Rue set me up with good habits, and I was fine.

What I did well

  • I finished.  It wasn't pretty, and it took nearly 2 hours longer than I planned, but I kept my focus and did what I needed to do to get to mile 26.
  • Despite the fact that I woke up Saturday morning with the awareness that my left leg miraculously felt identical to my right leg I maintained an extremely easy pace for the first half of the race.  I was planning to increase my pace slightly around mile 6 so I could get in as many miles as possible before the sun came up but decided to conserve my energy so I could finish the race.

What I need to work on

  • I’ve looked at the videos and I could do so much to improve my posture, my stride, my pace.  This is my focus for the next several months
  • Learn more about the science of hydration – so complicated but incredibly interesting. More later about this
  • Continue to build endurance by incorporating timed runs into my training and I look forward to continuing to train with running coach Ann Alyanak from the Run Smart Project
  • Perfect my rain dance 

Would I do another marathon?

  • Definitely.  It was an extremely positive experience
  • In Jamaica? Probably not. I'd have to train in heat and sun, which I don't think is smart.  It's true that I run in Washington over the summer and I ran in Kingston when I was there over the winter but I never ran in the heat of the day.  You wouldn't have to do much to convince me to return to Negril next year to run the half, though - anybody want to join me?

See you next time!