Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Singin' those swamp stompin' blues

I imagine you can tell a lot about a person by looking in their medicine cabinet. (I’ll give you a moment to go through yours mentally and worry about it just a little.) When I lived in NYC, mine was full of stuff to deal with respiratory infections. I used to get at least one bad cold and several minor colds every year. You just don’t even want to think how many evil germs are coating any given pole or strap on a subway car. (I also had the keg-sized vat of Tums to deal with the other fun by-product of living in the city: stress.) Since I moved to the rural Midwest and took up running, however, the medicine cabinet has been quite different. Gone are the NyQuil and TheraFlu; instead there are things to heat up tight muscle tissue, things to cool down inflamed muscle tissue, things to prevent chafing, things to kill pain. I may be sore, but by golly I’m not contagious.

I recently bragged about the fact that I haven’t had a bad cold, flu, or any other type of respiratory distress since I became a distance runner. While this was true—there were many winters I would shake my head pityingly as non-running friends seemed to come down with one viral infection after another—it was also an incredibly foolish thing to announce. You know that ironic bus, the one that always seems to hit people right after something good happens to them in hypothetical situations? Well, it got me this weekend, and got me good.
I went down to Memphis with a bunch of running buddies to run a 50k trail race called Swamp Stomper. What could possibly be bad about that? Memphis—barbecue, Beale Street, Peabody ducks and Gus’s chicken—plus 50k in the woods plus cabins in those woods shared with a score of fun-loving beer-drinking ultra runners seems like the formula for fun. Only problem is I woke up Saturday morning feeling like there was a softball-sized wad of phlegm lodged behind my sternum.

The race was Sunday morning. I had a few options. I could run the 50k anyway, just pace myself a whole lot slower than the already-slow pace I’d planned. I could downgrade to the 25k race, which started an hour later and which a great many of my running buddies had opted to do, mainly so they could party harder on Beale Saturday night and not have to worry about getting up to run 31 miles at 7:30am the next morning. I could opt out of the race entirely, but that was not something I considered—at least not Saturday morning.
By Sunday morning, I considered it. The softball felt like a bowling ball. I had one of those really gross coughs that, had I heard someone else nearby issue such sounds, I would shoot them a look of loathing and disgust—how dare they be out in public spreading their tubercular nastiness? There was no question of running the 50k; 7:30am came and went without regrets. But I did not want to have come the whole way down there without running at all. I bucked up and went out for the 25k.

Twenty-five kilometers is around 15-16 miles. This is not a tremendous distance for me to run; I’ve run ten marathons and three ultras, and while the terrain for this race was definitely not flat—many ups and downs, much roots and rocks—it wasn’t a whole lot tougher than any other trail I’ve done. None of that matters: this was the slowest I have ever run any distance, any course, any time, in my life. My pace was so slow that a brisk walker could have easily kept up with me and a competitive walker could have beat me by a good hour. Wow, was I slow.
Slow? Whatever. Slow was not the problem while I was running. Finishing was the problem while I was running. I didn’t want to. I kept thinking, OK, I’ll get to the next aid station and I’ll tell them I just can’t go on. It hurts to breathe. Every time I cough it’s like I’m coughing up thumb tacks. There’s no shame in a DNF, I kept telling myself, and what exactly are you trying to prove? Who the hell cares whether you finish this race or not? The people who really care about you, the people whose views you admire and respect the most, the people whose opinions are most meaningful to you will not think less of you.

Does this sound familiar? If you’re a runner, I imagine you’ve likely had this moment too: the trying-to-talk-yourself-into-doing-something-you-really-want-to-do-but-you-aren’t-going-to-do-after-all. I realize it makes no sense. That's probably why I kept going.
I used to be good at math a long time ago, but not anymore, and at no time are my math skills worse than while I’m running a long, painful race. The course was an out-and-back, but with a twist: on the “out” part, runners had to do an extra 3-mile loop, which they would not do on the “back” part. As I finished the 3-mile loop and trudged onward to the turnaround point, I kept trying to figure out how much further I had to go until the next aid station—the aid station in which I would declare my DNF-ness—and kept failing. There were no mile markers, and I had not turned on my Garmin; normally this would be how I like it, but in this case I was going bonkers. Where was that damnable aid station? Why the hell was this taking so long? For the love of all that is holy, why won’t they let me DNF?

I had forgotten, you see, that we didn’t do the 3-mile loop on the return. I was assuming that the turnaround point was the halfway point. When I finally realized my mistake, I felt two things: 1) relief, because this meant I was farther along than I’d thought, and 2) weary resignation. The turnaround point was beyond half way. With less than half of the race to go, I could not DNF. No, that isn’t a rule; that’s just the way my mind went. When I got to the aid station, I filled my handheld with Gatorade and water, choked down some pretzels and ginger ale, and began the long trudge back.
And I did make it back, among the last of the 25k finishers. And that’s about the best thing I can say.

Hey, it happens. I’m not going to mope about it. At the same time, I’m not entirely willing to sweep all mopey sentiments aside and slap a happy face sticker on the whole ordeal. A bad race, by definition, does not feel good. In retrospect we can talk about lessons learned, we can say that at least we tried, but if we force ourselves to be happy about learning lessons and at least trying, I daresay many of us will come up short. And that’s OK with me. Happiness is only one of the many things a person can feel. Running has made me exquisitely happy at times, but it has also made me feel frustrated, anxious, resentful, and downright glum. And yet I keep coming back for more.
People have accused me of enjoying my misery, of refusing to be happy. The next time someone says that to me I’m going to smile and happily punch them in the neck. I enjoy being depressed as much as I enjoyed having deep-vein thrombosis last year. They are comparable, after all, both being illnesses—as is respiratory distress. I sure as hell didn’t enjoy hacking up phlegm-coated thumb tacks, but only a fool thinks every race, every experience, every moment of life is going to be enjoyable. I think that’s a good thing. It’d be awfully boring otherwise.

I’m off to the drug store in a bit, on a quest to fill my medicine cabinet back up with cough suppressants and decongestants. To make room for them, I’ll move out the things I no longer need: the leftover Coumadin, the unused Lovanox, and the remaining Paxil. The last is an antidepressant. I’m off those. Life won’t always be enjoyable—sometimes, running in the swamp with a bowling ball in my lungs, it will downright suck. But I’ve made it to the turnaround point, so I guess I’ll keep going.


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