|My right shin, on MRI, and the $1,300 question: Can I run 26.2 miles on it?|
-Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower
If you ever have a running injury, the one thing you should never do is look for advice on running forums.
"You should NEVER run with a stress fracture," a poster wrote in reply to someone who once asked the very question I was asking at the moment -- could I run the Chicago Marathon injured?
I'd told the sports medicine doctor that I didn't need to do the race but then as the days approached I kept coming back to doing the race. There were two things that made me wonder if it was at all possible.
The first was the radiologist's report. "Cortical thickening of the medial tibial diaphysis with adjacent periosseous edema, worrisome for stress reaction," it concluded.
Without knowing for sure, this sounded a little bit different from what I was told over the phone. (Of course, if you check around, there is some thought that there is no difference between a stress reaction and a stress fracture).
The second happened on Oct. 5, just four days before the marathon. My right foot finally gained meaningful turnover on a short run of 2.13 miles.
Two days later, we boarded a plane and flew to Chicago. On the flight, I thought about what I knew. Having missed roughly four weeks of long runs and workouts, my goal was to merely finish. At my best pace at the time, 11 minute miles translates into roughly a 4:44 marathon.
But this would be a big if. I decided to bring money and a credit card with me if I had to drop out. I'd brought the book "Meb for Mortals" with me and it was heartening to hear elite marathon runner Meb Keflezighi mention the times he'd dropped out of races because of injuries. People get injured and there would be no shame for trying and not being able to complete the course.
"This is the most relaxed you've been for a race," the wife told me as we ate Corner Bakery takeout in our upgraded room at the Palmer House Hilton the night before the race. I was relaxed, since I really didn't have anything to lose. I would try to run it and if I needed to slow down I would just do that.
The night before, I gathered up my marathon kit. I decided to wear the red shirt from the 10-10-10 Chicago Marathon, the day I came really close to breaking four hours on an Indian summer day but just could not do it. My side pouch held seven GU Tri-Berry gels, the flavor I've trained and raced with for 16 years.
It also held four small red and black plastic bottles designed to look suspiciously like shotgun shells. These were an untested technology for me (because they are expensive) and my ace in the hole if I managed to run the whole race.
I also threw in two boxes of yogurt raisins that I picked up from the CVS across from the Corner Bakery the night before the race.
In the morning, I made my way over to the Buckingham Fountain staging area and got myself ready for the race. I still was pretty relaxed but wanted to make sure I got to the first wave corrals on time (in 2010, they closed the corrals about 10 minutes before the race, causing people to argue with the volunteers who closed the gate. People were crying, literally, and others jumped the fence in defiance of the volunteers).
I put myself in the back of Corral D, which was the second to the last corral in the first wave. Ahead of me I could see pacer signs for 3:45 and 3:40.
An opera singer sang the National Anthem and while it was beautiful, it felt ghastly as the sound echoed off the downtown skyscrapers. Three geese flew in formation over the corral, just like two tilt-rotor Osprey did when I ran in the Marine Corps Marathon in 2014. And just like that, a few minutes later the race began.
I'd consumed my first GU gel and planned to eat the others at every other water station, which was about every 4 miles or so. I also planned to drink water/Gatorade at each station, having brought one of my special "race straws" for that purpose.
Basically, you take a straw from a fast food restaurant or eatery and cut it about five inches tall, just tall enough to stick out of a Dixie cup. That way you can quickly drink out of the cup without any of it splashing all over you. (I would intentionally drain a cup at aid stations on this race and flick up the straw with my mouth, letting the empty cup drop).
It was cool but by the first mile I'd taken off my Mizuno arm sleeves and tied them carefully in knots around the band of my waist pack. (Later in the race, when I really needed to, I called each knot by my children's names to cheer me on).
The first 5K really told the story of the day. Although I'd had a plan of what I should run, the skyscrapers wreaked havoc with my Garmin GPS signal and it was really not reliable at all for most of the race.
I'd planned to run carefully and planned to bail at the first instance of pain or distress. But nothing happened. I cruised through that first split in 26 minutes, at a pace I knew I was capable. I was running at 8:22/mile when for four weeks I couldn't muster anything better than 11 minutes.
Because my watch was acting funny, I tried to make sure I just ran evenly, even though the pack often left me behind. I crossed 10K at 51:30, for 8:13/mile, and then passed the 15K mark at 1:16:49, having sped up to 8:09/mile.
But I had no way of knowing this. My watch was constantly saying I was running 12 minute miles one second and then 7:30s another. So I tried to run by feel.
My goal at this point was to make sure I would pass the half marathon mark solidly. In 2010, this was the point where I felt myself slowing down past 4 hour pace.
20K came and I ran it in 1:42:41, setting a PR for me this day. (My half marathon PR is 1:42:40, but since there are so few timed splits for the 20K distance, this is why the shorter distance PR is nearly the same).
When the half marathon mark came at 1:48:25, I felt pretty good. I was running alongside some older guy with a shirt that identified him as "Fabio" and the crowd, every few minutes, would shout "Fabio!" Even though that wasn't me, it felt pretty good to run with him.
Even the 1:48 felt good, since I ran that split on Sept. 3 when I ran a simulated 30K at a PR pace of 2:34.
At this point they'd passed out some kind of Power Bar gel. I ate it and it was watery and really not what I was expecting. A mile or so later I tried to eat one of my boxes of yogurt raisins and it was hard to eat on the run without a lot of water.
Right at Mile 16 I felt my calves, both of them, start to really tighten up so I unleashed the first of my four "secret weapons."
These bottles are called "Hotshot," and they claim to be scientifically created to eliminate muscle cramps. I popped one of the bottles open and downed it. The cinnamon flavor burned my throat. (I'll review these things in another post).
I've never run a marathon without having calf cramps and in 2010 they were so severe that I had to stop just to stop them from hurting.
Shortly after I started to get tinges in my calf muscles. But they were not severe, although they heralded something else. My glycogen was gone and I was going to have a slow 10-mile run coming up. My 25K split was 2:09:22, for an 8:39/mile pace, signalling that I was slowing.
I kind of laughed when the calf tinges hit. This is what I wanted, right? So preoccupied with the thought that I'd developed a running injury so severe that I wouldn't get to do what I normally do and this was it -- run without abandon until the tank was empty.
So here it was. Have at it.
I started to have cramps at Mile 18 and downed my second HOTSHOT canister. I was down to two of these and really started to worry about what would happen if I ran out of these. I stopped taking GU gels since they really would not be helping me at this point.
At 30K, I set another PR at 2:37:37, for a 9:06 pace. Things were getting pretty brutal. The day before I recalled how in 2010 I hobbled through the Chinatown gate after Mile 20 and really it now was going to be the same. But this time I had something that kept me from having to stop because of cramps.
Only now I had one more, destined to be used at Mile 22. (I lamented not bringing the entire six pack with me but I didn't think I'd use even one).
As we entered the southside and I'd passed 35K at 3:10:49 (10:42/mile pace), I'd calculated in my mind that I probably would finish in 4:02 or more. The slide was brutal and I reached 40K at 3:46:54, running at 11:37/mile. It was hard to run at this stretch, running so slow on the right side of the road but still being bumped by lots of runners (who probably also lost the ability to steer themselves through the crowd).
The sun was out and it felt brutally hot to be shuffling along. The 3:40 pace group passed me, and then the 3:45 pace group. Then the 3:50 pace group and the 3:55 pace group.
There was only a mile or so to go but something funny happened. At Mile 25, you could see the entire crowd of runners start to speed up. I did, too, and consumed my last HOTSHOT that I'd been saving since Mile 20, ignoring several calf cramps before this, for this situation.
I was surprised that my pace was starting to inch below 10-minute-miles. I knew that at this point it would be extremely close to breaking four hours. I'd somehow still remained ahead of the 4:00 pace group.
I crossed the short overpass that runners here call "Mount Roosevelt" because it is such an awful thing to have to climb up at the end of the race.
On the downhill to the finish, I caught a glimpse of a female runner wearing green slicing across the crowd. She was the only person in the crowd kicking to the finish.
At this point, I told myself that I bet her $100 that she couldn't outkick me and I started to follow her through the crowd, every other stride being shocked into place by my seizing right calf.
She crossed before me (never cashing in on the imaginary bet) but I finished in 3:59:30 (9:15/mile pace for the last split). I yelled out as I finished. It was not a PR but this was an outcome I could not have imagined. I'd missed so much training, wasn't confident that my leg would hold up, ran too fast and bonked 10 miles out and still broke four hours.
It was one of the most tactically gratifying races I've ever run in 30 years of racing -- come up with a plan in the last 5K of the race to run under 10-minute miles when I was only capable of running closer to 12-minute miles. Willing to put my nearly 10-year running streak on the line, I went home knowing I earned something on this day.
I am kind of back to square one. It reminds me of my early days running half marathons, in which sometimes I'd bonk and my calves would cramp up. It would be wonderful to run a complete race someday and with this there's so much I can work on.
When I got back home, I cancelled my follow-up with the sports medicine doctor. Several times I was tempted to type in the patient portal "3:59:30" but I let it go.
Time: 7:41 a.m.
Temp: 55 degrees
Gear: Technical T-shirt, short (Chicago Marathon '10), Mizuno arm sleeves, shorts, Brooks Pure Connect 3.