Monday, March 7, 2016

I Survived the Napa Valley Marathon

There are a few things I learned about the Napa Valley Marathon.  First, the scenery along the course as every bit as gorgeous as you would imagine on a country road winding through the iconic wine country. The race was impeccably organized, every last conceivable detail executed by some of the most enthusiastic volunteers you'll ever meet. And you have to love a marathon that features beer and wine tasting at the marathon expo.

As for running the marathon, I learned a few things from that, too.  For example, no matter how slow you think you are starting out in a marathon, go slower. I also learned stuff you never experienced training for the race can hit you unexpectedly. The marathon is a cruel and unforgiving endeavor and despite your best efforts to prepare for, a marathon will still throw the unexpected at you.  Which happened to me around mile 20, where I was feeling  optimistic about my finishing before the wheels fell totally off.

Just after the 18 mile mark, still feeling good, 1-2 miles
away from full blown melt-down
In many ways, simply getting to mile 20 was an accomplishment in itself. The last month of marathon training, I was hobbled by a pain in the left half of my butt. Sitting down for an hour as a time caused a dull ache, requiring me to get up and walk around to work off whatever was ailing me. Morning runs began to start off with me limping around for 10, 20 yards, before I'd loosen up and regain my form although dull aches in my hips often persisted throughout the run. My usual stretching routine and ice, old standbys for combating any injury, didn't seem to do much for it.

What was this mystery ailment? Believe it or not, I figured it out reading Facebook. The morning the day before the marathon, I noticed a post from Runner's World on Piriformis Syndrome. Piriformis Syndrome is caused by a hip muscle imbalance where the small Piriformis muscle in the hip tightens down on the Sciatic nerve, causing pain. The symptoms of this injury matched what I was experience perfectly. I even tried one of the specialized stretches from the article to relieve the tightness in the Piriformis muscle and the numbing ache immediately decreased in intensity. Better to learn late than never, but I do wish I had seen that article a month earlier. The last month before the marathon, I had some good runs, although it was becoming increasingly obvious my sore butt was really starting to compromise my training.

So while it was still looking good for me at mile 19, running mile 20 became a struggle and it all went downhill from there.  Staggering across the finish line after shuffling the last six miles, I still just made it within my time target range. Gasping and trudging through the finishing area, a medical person at the finish line singled me out from the crowd and started asking questions like "Are you all right?" and "How do you feel?". This was not a good sign. My insistences of "I'm OK" finally persuaded her to let me go.  Five minutes later after meeting up with my wife, I needed to lie down and sure enough, another medical volunteer comes right over and starts asking the same "Are you OK?" questions. This time, they take me the physical therapy room.

Yours truly finishing the Napa Valley Marathon
The problem was electrolytes, or the lack thereof. I avoided Gatorade at the aid stations, drinking water instead, worried Gatorade would upset my stomach. Problem was, I wasn't replenishing any of the electrolytes I was sweating out, which caught up with me at the end.  I had six runs of 20-22 miles prior to the marathon without these problems. But those runs were completed at temperatures 5-10 degrees F cooler than race day and covered at slower speeds, so I probably wasn't sweating as much.  These factors may have conspired to hide an electrolyte deficit issue that reared its ugly head on race day.

I sat in the physical therapy room, cold and shivering, not looking too good. Some Gatorade and salty broth later, I got to the point where I was coherent enough to walk slowly back to the car on my sore left hip so my wife could take me home.

Finishing a marathon is an accomplishment in itself. I entered this whole deal with both optimism and apprehension, both of which in hindsight seem totally warranted. Will I ever enter the marathon madness again? Perhaps. Before I'll even consider another one, I've got to get rid of this Piriformis thing, get my hip muscles into balance and figure out the best way to get electrolytes into my system. Then, I'll consider doing another marathon. Or not.

Running a marathon is like climbing Mount Everest. The human body was not meant to climb Mount Everest. It serves no essential purpose to the rest of civilization, the climb is full of real dangers, yet people do it anyway and we celebrate those that do. You learn a lot about yourself and look at the world in new ways pursuing dramatic, yet obsessively absurd quests. Which is why I'm glad I took this on in the first place. Three years ago while I was battling injury inducing form imbalances, the mere idea of running a marathon was totally inconceivable, but I've broken down those barriers and proven its possible. That's what runners do, break down barriers. Breaking down barriers in running has given me the skills and tenacity to take on challenges in my family and career, which have far greater consequences than a finishing place and time.

But you'll notice all the emphasis on the word "I" because running a marathon is undeniably a self-centered act, even if family and friends are cheering you on. Trying to achieve the family-work-running balance becomes exponentially harder when the running part of that triad involves long morning runs necessary to prepare for a marathon.  Something tells me I'll be on a marathon starting line again, but there's a lot more to running than marathons. I'll be doing non-marathon running stuff for a while.

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