Thursday, December 13, 2012

With Every Race There Are Lessons To Be Learned...But You Must Listen

“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt
I'm woken by a cramp in my right calf that wants to rip my gastrocnemius tendon from the bone. I jump out of bed and limp around the bedroom until it finally releases, but a residual tightness lingers. I haven't noticed (or registered) that this has been happening all week - my calves...the arches of my feet...cramping. This is not normal, and I've dismissed these anomalous events without much notice. That is a mistake.

A couple hours later I'm in the car heading to Denver International Airport on route to Tucson for my 6th marathon of the year, and my final race for the year. I turn off of E470, go to accelerate the car onto the highway and my shin muscle tightens into a knot. My foot is stuck at a 90 degree angle and will not go down. I press my heel down on the accelerator and rub my shin until it releases. I pull into the Pikes Peak parking lot, find an empty space barely missing the next car as I angle in and the shin cramps up again. I jerk to a stop, and sit there for a moment trying to collect my thoughts. What the heck is going on, I wonder. I pull up the parking break, get out of the car and both legs, from the knees down, tighten up into a knot of anxiety. I feel completely out of it. "Crap. What the hell is going on?" I say out loud to no one. What am I doing going off to run a marathon when I'm feeling like this? I get on the shuttle to the terminal and eat a banana...drink some water...swallow an Endurolyte...My calves feel like they have Mexican jumping beans zinging around under my skin. Every muscle flex results in a gripping cramp.

...And I doggedly push on with the plan.

On the plane the flight attendants hand me cans of water, stashed in their pockets, every time they walk by. I eat another banana...drink more water...and tomato juice... I am sooooo tired of drinking and eating.

We land in Tucson. It's hot and dry. This is the dessert after all. Chollas, and yuccas and cacti dot the barren, windswept, landscape. I am still out of it. I get my rental car and I try to get my bearings. In Boulder the mountains run north/south, but in Tucson there is no rhyme nor reason to be found in the mountains that ring the valley. Eventually I find my way to I10 and then to my hotel.

...Drink and eat and drink and eat...

So goes the rest on the day...and the I frantically message my PT, Heather. Her advice is to do what I've been doing. She tries to reassure me that all will be well. All I envision is being stranded on Mt. Lemmon with seized up calves. This is something I've never experienced. I don't know what to expect, and it's difficult not to expect the worst. I try to distract myself with facebook, messaging with Sandra, who also reassures me that all will be well and I've got what it takes...and a 'Big Bang Theory' marathon...I joke that my legs just really want to run...but I'm very worried. Very very worried.

I wake before the alarm at 3:55 a.m. The sparks are still firing fast and furious beneath the skin of my calves. I drink some coffee, eat a Marathon Bar, take a shower, decide what to wear, pack up my stuff and head for the shuttle parking. It's 5:20 as I climb onto to the frigid yellow school bus. It's pitch black out.

It takes close to 45 minutes to reach the start a couple thousand feet up Mt. Lemmon. We're dropped off in the middle of nowhere, amongst the cacti and scorpions and gila monsters and javelinas...Luckily, dessert creatures are quite shy, because they tend to be fairly fierce.

Lights flood the start area, but all around is mysterious darkness.

The gun goes off and we head off toward the rising sun. I am completely fixated on my are they feeling...what's going on down there...and I'm taking it very very easy. This course is a net downhill, but the fact is that it is not an easy course. There's lots of uphill and rolling sections. Each mile ticks by. So far so good. I feel good. Really good, but I don't trust it - not in the least.

As we turn onto the highway, around mile 14, heading for Tucson the headwind picks up, blowing the mile marker signs down. It's not terrible, but it's there. I'm praying that it won't pick up. And the miles continue to pass...and I still feel really good. By mile 20, having felt no weirdness in my calves, I decide to push it. For the next 6 miles I feel stronger than I've ever felt at the end of a marathon. I've cut my pace by about a minute a mile and feel stronger with each passing mile.

And as I make the final turn towards the finish line I push with all I have, and cross in 3:48:16. I'm happy because this went so much better than I anticipated...and yet there is this little voice in my head..."My god! You have so much left!! Ugggg!!!"

And how many times do we hold back in life, afraid about what could happen? How many times do we play it safe and then wonder what if...?

Now, don't get me wrong here. I am very happy with this race. But, here's what I realized: I've mentioned before that I've been in search of that race that feels easy - where everything falls into place and you just do what you can do, what you know to do. I felt this running the Colorado Marathon in 2011 - and I've longed, thirsted, for it ever since. And here it was...and I am left feel that...well...I could have done better! Talk about nothing making you happy!!! I just set a master's PR, got another BQ, and all I can think is that I could have done better.

So, what did I learn? 

First, don't ignore things the week before a marathon. Of course there's the usual taper madness and aches and pains that come with tapering, but cramps are different. I should have been paying better attention and taken better care of myself.

Second, don't awfullize about things you can't control. Easier said than done, but at least I now have the experience of having something completely new happening the day before a marathon and it still turned out alright. If that happens again perhaps I won't be such wreck. Or, maybe I will...

Third, and most importantly, I learned that I'm not really after that easy race, I'm after that hard effort that succeeds beyond my wildest dreams. I want to feel good at the end of a marathon, but not good in the sense of having anything left to give. That's a difficult thing to put your finger on, but that's what I want.

Will I even know when/if it happens?? I don't know. I guess that's why I keep doing this stuff...


  1. Congratulations! Everyone I know who went to this race had a good one--I'm jealous (even with the calf cramping angst). :^)

    I hope you're recovering well and plotting your next one. Running does keep us hooked, doesn't it? There's always another challenge, another tweak, another kind of experience to seek.

    1. Thanks Terzah. I'm recovering fine. Running a bit and TRYING to take a little down time after a busy season. Just started swimming! And after years of not swimming, I've rediscovered it and I love it! If you ever want to go for a swim, let me know ;)

  2. The difficult times make the good times sweeter! Congratulations on finishing your race.

  3. Belated kudos on your marathon, Caolan! The 3 points you offer are good for all the stuff of life. Much appreciated!


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