My first endurance event was the Silicon Valley Marathon. To say it changed my life would be an understatement but not for the reasons you may think. It broke me — both physically and mentally.
As with most newbies, I made the three classical mistakes — overtrained, went out way too fast and failed at nutrition.
Most people hit the wall at mile 20 — I hit it at mile 13.
The day started off great. The usual nerves turned into excitement when the gun went off. I rocketed off, not knowing that the pace and the heat would soon take their toll.
San Jose, CA can get hot. Really hot. Not Death Valley hot but hot enough that the radiate heat beating off the pavement gives the occasional mirage.
The heat was actually tolerable in the beginning (Marathons start early) and by the time I hit mile 13, I felt pretty good.
After mile 13 things went down hill fast. My first sign of trouble — cramps.
When Your Body Talks — Listen
Cramps happen for various reasons. Eating too much, breathing too shallow or tight muscles. I started to get muscle cramp in my calves, which are pretty essential to running. Not only essential but a sign of what was to come — dehydrated.
Dehydration sneaks up on you. It’s not like you avoid drinking — it’s that you really don’t feel like drinking. Even eating, my other problem that day, is hard. During endurance events, you stomach actually starts to shut down. It’s conserving energy and pumping that blood to your legs — that’s partly why you get stomach cramps.
One thing any veteran endurance athlete will tell you is that fueling and hydration are things you need to practice. I know, it sounds silly that you have to practice eating but it really is the difference between a great day and a miserable day.
The cramps were subtle at first but then started to really take over. I stopped to stretch and that’s when the dehydration hit me.
Endorphins and adrenaline are wonderful things. They protect us from our fears and get us ready to fight or flight. When they wear off, it’s like a junky going through withdrawals — you start to shake and just feel awful, like being hung over.
For me, I would feel awful for the next 13 miles. So awful, that most of the time, I walked — unable to muster the courage to run.
What kept me moving was two important things. The first being my desire to finish and the second being the fans cheering me on.
Now, I know this sound corny but when a total stranger tells you great job, you can do it or you look great, you don’t want to let them down. Maybe it’s just me but the simple act of a total stranger unselfishly encouraging me to continue on was inspiring.
The other motivation was not wanting to fail. I has already given up on finishing strong — that delusion faded with the first cramps. Now my mission was to just finish.
The Longest Miles
The race course is an out and back, which means you see others coming back from the turn around point at Los Gatos High School. This is doubly depressing because the competitor in you wants to speed up to “catch” the others while the human in you envy’s those people passing you.
The worst part is the Los Gatos Creek Trail (mile 6-11 and mile 15-20) simply because you are exposed. No trees and no cheering fans — just light brown dirt that sticks to everything. This part of the race was the most mentally challenging since it really feels awful to run along side the weeds and dried up creek.
Eventually, after a tortuous 13.1 miles, I slowly jogged across the finish line, ahead of an 80 year old man who just completed his 100th marathon. It felt good for about 5 seconds and then my body totally shutdown.
I got cramps, stomach pains, dizziness, you name it, I had it. When I called my wife to pick me up, she could hardly understand me. I was slurring, confused and making no sense at all.
When she finally came to pick me up, I slumped in the car and passed out the whole ride home.
It took me 4 hours to feel human and a week to feel normal. That day taught me something about myself that every endurance athlete knows and lives by — you really just compete against yourself. Oh and make sure you eat and drink — that’s the other valuable lesson.
How about you? What was your first true test of endurance? Let’s discuss it in the comments.