Lessons

It could have been worse. Actually, that’s an understatement. It really couldn’t have been any better. A cloudless sky, 75 degrees at the hottest point of the day, and a constant breeze on a Minnesota day in June… I couldn’t have ordered a more beautiful day on a silver platter. I had begun obsessing about the weather about seven days out as I normally do, knowing fully that the forecast could completely change, particularly in Minnesota, where folks have a saying: “If you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes.” I checked the forecast daily- sometimes twice a day, even, and it never changed: no rain, no wind, and warm but not hot. Could I be so lucky?

I woke up Saturday morning to an absolutely gorgeous blue sky, temperatures in the low 50s, and many encouraging messages and thoughts from my family and friends. It was so often those thoughtful words that kept me going during the last six months, and Saturday morning was no exception. I left for Lake Nokomis in South Minneapolis feeling excited and ready for whatever the day would bring.

When I arrived (twenty minutes behind schedule, as always, running on Egyptian Standard Time), I found the area where my running club, Minnesota RED, had set up camp near the lake. Two other women from the club participated in FANS- one in the 12-hour event, and the other in the 24-hour event (amazing!). They are veterans of this ultrarunning thing, and I have looked to them over the last year for advice, as they had run FANS many times before. I set up my chair and gear next to theirs, weighed in at the medical tent, applied my sunscreen, got my iPod ready to go, and sat down until it was time to make our way to the starting line. Other running club members trickled in… the start of our race was a gathering point for them. They would see us off at the start and as we came around for our first lap around the lake, and then begin their normal Saturday morning workout. At least twenty people must have shown up, which was a great way to get started with what would prove to be a very long and difficult day for me.

The scene at an ultramarathon is quite different from that of most marathons, particularly big marathons like Chicago or Marine Corps. Ultramarathoners are a bit of a different breed… a motley crew, if you will. The outfits are different, the average age generally seems much older, and the camaraderie is like nothing I’ve ever seen. Ultrarunners are a minimalist bunch… I didn’t notice many gadgets, straps, or trinkets. Some folks didn’t even have shoes. The scene itself was also very bare bones. No loud music to get people pumped, no pomp and circumstance, just the ring of a cowbell, and we were off.  I loved it.

My plan had been to run two five hour marathons, which would give me two hours to run the last ten miles. It seemed so attainable in my head. Each marathon would be more than an hour slower than my best, and two hours for ten miles seemed like plenty of time. I finished the initial out-and-back stretch and settled into my pace as I began my first lap around the lake to the cheers of Minnesota RED.

Within the first thirty minutes I could feel the pain in the ball of my right foot flaring up. I have since learned that I have a Morton’s neuroma, a pinched metatarsal nerve that has become inflamed. It feels a bit like my sock is bunched up between two of my toes, and with prolonged and repeated impact leads to pain and numbness. I’d had a feeling it would bug me on race day. Still, it was tolerable and I tried to enjoy the cool morning breeze and friendliness of the runners around me. Several people were at FANS for the first time, while others had done it before. Fast Eddie, the only person to have run the FANS 24-hour race every year since its inception, returned this year for the 23rd time. And by the way, he’s 72 years old. You could tell the newbies from the veterans by looking at everyone’s bib number, as the total number of FANS miles each person had run previously was printed in the corner. I was proud to wear mine, which displayed the 50.79 miles I had run at FANS in 2011.

As I ran my first laps around the lake, I stopped at the aid stations to pick up fluids and snacks from the “buffet”: water, Gatorade, Coke, coffee, fresh fruit, potato chips, M&Ms, gummi bears, cookies, crackers, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, turkey sandwiches, and even pizza later on in the day… you’d have thought it was a garden party. I felt fine until about mile 18, when a wave of nausea came over me. My Minnesota RED friends were wonderful and asked me as I rounded each lap whether I needed anything. They took turns running with me, and when I started to feel queasy, insisted that I take in more fluids and electrolytes.

When I stopped at around mile 25 and took my shoe off for the first time, I discovered a blood blister that had developed deep below the huge callus on the bunion of my left foot. Between the nausea, blister, and my general discomfort so early in the race, I felt like a complete rookie… not enough fluids, not enough electrolytes, and worst of all, no foot kit! I muscled through two more laps around the lake and decided- with the help of sage advice of my friends (though not without a “talking to” for being so unprepared)- that the blister had to be lanced if I was to continue the run. My fellow FANS runner’s husband was kind and brave enough to lance my blister by sticking a needle deep into it, below the callus, and threading it all the way through. Ouch!

With thread in my foot and renewed energy from the electrolytes, I put my shoe back on and… whoa. I couldn’t run. The pain was too much in my foot. I had been warned that it would hurt, but that it would ease up as I got back into my groove. I couldn’t bear the sting of the blister, and so I decided to walk for a while. I walked one lap and then another… and realized that my goal of running 100K had quickly slipped away. I knew there was no way I could keep up a fast enough pace at that point to get the miles in, so I revised my goal and made it to continue moving as much as I could for the remainder of the race… about five hours.

I had the great fortune and blessing of being watched closely by good friends to make sure all was OK, and enjoyed my friends’ company as I walked and, when I could, ran around the lake. My colleague and friend had come out from Washington, DC to support me in the race, and several other friends, both running and non, showed up throughout the day. I still felt incredibly queasy. The thought of eating anything from the buffet only made me feel more nauseous and my foot was stinging terribly. Still, I had never before felt so much support and love from so many good friends.

I rounded what I thought would be my last lap around the lake at around 7:13 pm. For the final hour of the race, runners have the option of continuing around the lake, or running a short course, which is an  out-and-back stretch that is measured at each eighth of a mile. The race rules state that if a runner does not complete a full lap around the lake before the race time is up, no part of that lap counts toward his or her total distance; therefore, the short course provides a way to continue to accumulate distance without fear of not finishing a full lap. I wasn’t too crazy about the idea of running back and forth on an eighth of a mile course for 47 minutes, but at the rate I was going and with 45 miles on my feet already, I wasn’t confident that I could make another lap around the lake in time before the course closed. Thankfully, my dear friends who were running with me had more confidence than I and convinced me that I could run one more lap in time, but that I’d have to hustle and grit through the pain. I trusted them, put my head down, and began running.

I finished that last lap in about 25 minutes. It was probably one of my fastest laps of the day. It hurt like hell, but I made it around one more time with 20 minutes to spare before the 8:00 pm race closure. I squeezed in about another mile and a half on the short course amid cheers of support and encouragement from my friends before the cow bell rang to close the race. With tears running down my face and pain radiating throughout my body, I walked to our running club’s campsite and collapsed into a chair. I couldn’t explain my tears, other than as the result of complete exhaustion, pain, relief to be done, and frustration with a difficult day. I finished with 49.17 miles… 12.83 miles short of my goal. I was so disappointed.

In the days after my run, following some reflection and rest, I realized that my day, though difficult and not as I had planned, was not a waste; rather, I gained so much from it. I learned a lot two Saturdays ago. I learned that no matter how much I trained or prepared for race day, so many things could go wrong. I learned that it’s probably not a good thing if my first visit to the biffy is more than five hours into the run… it might be a sign to drink a little bit more. I learned the magic of electrolyte tablets. I learned never to show up at FANS or any race of this nature again without a foot kit, and that the foot kit had better include a needle and thread at the very least. I learned that it’s OK to revise my plan and goal in the middle of my race, and that I can still achieve something great if push. And most of all, I learned that I have so many wonderful and supportive friends who believed in me that I could make it through twelve hours of discomfort, and at times, even agony. Emerging from this year’s FANS with that knowledge alone made the day a success for me… and on top of that, I have 49.17 miles to add to my bib number for next year.

Thank you for reading!

10 thoughts on “Lessons

  1. Seriously? I must be emotional today… This made me cry. Not because I am sad that you were 12.whatever miles short of your goal but because you are amazing!!! How lucky am I to be able to call you a fellow runner, colleague and friend. I brag about knowing you often. Yes, I admitted that! Congratulations on this amazing achievement and I look forward to hearing about the next amazing journey that I'm sure is in your near future!!! Thank you for sharing!

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  2. Deena, i know this wasn't easy for you to process and share, but i really admire you for your courage to dream BIG and put yourself out there… i brag about you too! (usually prefaced by saying… i have this really crazy best friend who is doing _____)

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  3. Thank you so much, Sarah. This means so much to me. I am looking forward to the next adventure, and still to reaching the goal that I missed this time. I'm so excited to hear that you are back in your running shoes and feeling great!

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  4. Thanks, Kara! And thank you again so much for coming out and running a lap with me! It means so much to me that you were there and that we got to catch up with some tea afterwards. 🙂 I hope to see you again very soon!

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