I still don’t know what happened physically, so this is the mental and emotional race recounting of what’s still largely a mystery to me. Later I’ll add some more photos, especially those taken by my friend Atsede which are amazing.
There were two sides to the story of how I felt going in to the race. On the one hand, I had trained and prepared better than for any race ever, and I was on a high from the overwhelming support I received from friends, teammates, strangers. I can’t thank all of you enough. I ran consistent weeks of what, for me, at this point in my running career, is high mileage. Running practically every day for three months, with doubles as prescribed, and as much speed work and strength training as I could. To ensure that I would not be worn out at all, I stopped racing, except for one little 15K last month. When I started having problems in my left shin and calf, I got it treated quickly and adjusted my training as needed- big thanks to RunnerClinicNYC, coach Michele Yates, Tiger Ellen, and Dr. Wayne Winnick. I improved my diet, supplemented with CarboPro products (thank you too!,) had plenty of sleep, managed to stay free of any illness throughout the harsh winter, and got to Italy with plenty of time to rest and get over jet lag. For once, I didn’t suffer any taper tantrums, perhaps because I had finally done enough training that the downtime was a welcome respite. And I felt really good on my last few runs in Torino during the week before the World Championships.
The other side is that a lack of ultra racing had brought my confidence down a notch. I’d done a bunch of back-to-back long workouts and long runs on weekends, but my longest run had been only 32 miles two weeks out, and that included many stops along the way. Mentally I missed the challenges of pushing, adapting and regrouping that take place during long races, and physically I missed simply running and moving a singular focus for an extended period. Still, I trusted my training, and reminded myself that a little insecurity before a big race is a good thing- without it one risks hubris and disaster. I’d had no consistent or planned training going into my qualifying race last November, and that turned out okay, so I believed in a real likelihood of something special this time around. My goal: 145-150 miles, but really as much as possible- no limits.
After a quiet week on my own in central old Turin, teammates began arriving and I moved into our host hotel in the industrial suburb of Rivoli. Things got very exciting and I did my best not to get too caught up in it, making sure I still got enough rest and resisting the temptation to go out for a few more runs or another large group dinner with the gang of superheros (sorry, it takes me forever to unwind after a big social meal). My crew arrived and I spent some time with them and prepared all my gear and my detailed nutrition plan, making sure everything was clearly labeled and that they knew where to find everything. I was a frequent visitor to the medical staff’s quarters, as they worked on the remaining tension in my left calf and that little bump I got on my right knee while running on the trails a week earlier. Given my past history of not feeling any pain during races in the areas that have bothered me during training, I wasn’t too worried about any of these.
My sleep was not great the last few nights and I felt a little stressed on Friday with all the final preparations, including an opening ceremony that started at 6pm, but I made sure to be in bed as soon as I could. I managed about 6 hours of sleep before waking up at 5am- a full two hours before my alarm. At least I had slept well while I could. I followed my usual routines of coffee, shower, a bit of food (mostly some Simply Bars) and fixing my hair before getting dressed.
Around 8:30am we headed to the stadium and set up my aid in a section of a table in the US tent, which was the last tent in a long row on the track- this meant we had a bit of extra room next to the tent and access to the cushioned mats used for the pole vault or high jump.
The day was warm but not too hot. I didn’t’ receive shorts with my uniform but instead got a thin pair of bright red compression capris along with another pair of thicker regular capris. I really didn’t want to waste time changing bottoms so I figured I could wear the compression capris and if it got cool at night I could pull the other pair over them- I even made sure they were stretchy enough to get around both pairs of my Hokas. I decided to skip my usual calf sleeves because of the heat and because Doc said they really wouldn’t do anything.
Before I knew it, it was time to go line up, I found the US ladies and we took a bunch of photos, and then we found ourselves near the front of the crowd. There were some murmurs about us being too far up front (even ahead of the guys, which I didn’t realize at the time) but I didn’t think it was a big deal, I just didn’t see any point in adding uncounted meters or losing seconds by starting further back. A gun went off but it was not the one to start the race, and then another one and we were off. It was tight at the start with an immediate right turn, and I found myself a bit behind Katalin and Aly for a number of laps. I already had to pee right before the race started, but having already lined up with no toilet in sight, I decided to wait an hour so that I could settle in to the rhythm of the race first. It was pretty smooth and comfortable, and once I went to the portapotty I felt so relieved that I picked up the pace a bit for a lap or two before easing off again.
One of my big worries going in to the race was my GI issues. At the risk of TMI, I simply hadn’t gone enough that morning at the hotel, so I knew something would have to give during the race, and this started to happen about three or four hours in. It had to make a couple of pretty awful trips to the portapotty, and called out for medical help from our team, who gave me a pill and a handful of pretzels. The pretzels were awfully dry but I forced them down, along with pretty much everything else TSP handed me. There was quite a bit of shouting from both of us each time I passed by the US tent- the stadium had both music and an announcer blaring all day, plus I would be coming down a straightaway lined with team tents where all the crews seemed to be calling out and shouting at their runners. The US tent was the last one, just beyond the curve and could only be seen at the last minute.
I had been lapping my splits manually every time I crossed the timing mat, but I had no idea where I was in terms of mileage until I began to approach the first marathon mark. Each loop was 2 kilometers (1.274 miles) around the park and with a lap of the track at the stadium. The timing mat was in the middle of the first straightaway on the track, and there was a jumbotron that displayed runner numbers, names and lap counts at the end of the stadium. While the display was really big, it was hard to see from the timing mat, and by the time I got close enough to read it clearly, my name would often no longer be displayed because so many other runners had passed over the mat by then. Still, I had an idea my marathon split was around 3:50, a few minutes faster than expected but still reasonable, I felt.
Sometime in the fifth hour my right Achilles started to ache, and my hamstrings were feeling tight, so I decided I should stop for a stretch soon and get my stomach issues tended to at the same time. Just after finishing five hours I got on the massage table set up outside the USA tent, and pretty much the full medical staff got to work on me at once as I sipped some ginger ale. Everything got stretched, my stomach was manipulated and I was good to go. I felt great.
The next couple of hours I fell into a steady and slower rhythm on my own, listening to music (the same playlist over and over again) and feeling unstoppable now that I had put my stomach monster to rest. My energy levels felt good, I continued to take in a steady stream of calories, fluids and electrolytes and I looked forward to some cooler temperatures and settling into the long middle hours before really digging deep in the last quarter of the race.
Some time shortly after seven hours I began to notice what felt like a tightness in the front of my right hip flexor- it felt a bit early to be getting tight in the hips but I decided that if it didn’t go away on its own I could stop to get stretched after I hit the eight hour mark- that would mean I’d been running steadily for three hours since my last break and it seemed like a good time for my next short break 1/3 of the way in. I counted down the laps to eight hours, and figured I hit my 50-mile split somewhere around 7:40- right around where I wanted to be. With some expected slowing I would aim to run my next 50 in roughly 8 hours and the final 50 or whatever in the remaining 8:20. My hip was getting a bit tighter and I was looking forward to the break. On my last lap before the break, as I passed by the American tent I saw TSP holding a handwritten sign out that said “take the turns easy, a lot of runners are having hip problems.” Something about the power of suggestion must have taken hold here because the ache was much worse on this final lap before my break and it showed in my lap time: it was about 20 seconds slower than the average lap pace over the previous hours.
I stopped for a few minutes, got the hip tended to and was sent on my way with instructions to start out slower and gradually get back to my regular pace, and not to worry about the hip to the point of holding back. I set off walking, uncomfortably, and this was really the beginning of the end. It hurt, it really hurt, and I wondered if I should turn around and go back to medical for more help, but I was determined to keep going. I started running again on the straightaways and took care to walk through the turns, but I never felt like I got much faster than a shuffle. Every couple of laps I had to stop at medical again and ask for more help, but each time I left the pain was greater than before. At one point, as I limped up the ramp out of the stadium, Traci ran past and told me I should consider dropping with the way I was walking at that point. No, I thought to myself, this will pass, and I’ll be fine later.
No such luck. I kept trying to run and kept limping more as I did, dragging the right leg behind me. I experienced huge kindness from others as I struggled, with countless runners encouraging me and asking if I was okay. Katalin came up to me and planted a big kiss on my cheek, Maggie walked with me a minute or two, as did a few others- Dennene from Canada, Enrique, Jenny. Even if I couldn’t run I still wanted to experience the full 24 hours of Torino, and if necessary I would walk and cheer on the hundreds of runners from dozens of nations throughout the night. I just needed to stretch this ache out. After all, I could always walk, right? I’d never not been able to walk my way through anything.
Until this night. Shortly after dark I made yet another stop at medical and set off painfully again. I had to stop here and there, until about two-thirds through the lap I found myself doubled over, hands on knees, wondering how I was going to make it half a mile to return to the stadium. I clutched at the railings for support, hobbled and made it back to ask for more help. I was on the table for a very long time as the medical team tried everything they could think of. Before they would allow me to leave again they wanted to watch me walk, and I couldn’t anymore, each step on my right leg hurt too much. Back on the table, I was asked to consider whether I wanted to risk further long-term damage by continuing in the race. Honestly, there was nothing left to consider, the only way I might be able to continue at this point would be on my hands and knees, and even that might be a stretch.
It is what it is. It was an unreal sense of relief. Nothing had really sunk in, yet there was nothing more I could do if I couldn’t put weight on the right leg. I was carried to the back tent where I was helped to changed into my sweats and then carried back to the high jump mat where I could lay under some thick blankets. There was no pain as long as I didn’t try to move my right leg, so for hours I watched the rest of Team USA and all the other countries run their races, a front row seat in a theater of pure determination. I was not sad yet, that would come later along with much more pain. TBC.
Week in Review: 4/6
Monday: 6.5 miles with 10×1 min., strength workout
Tuesday: 4.5 miles easy
Wednesday: 3 miles with 3×2 min.
Saturday: 62 miles
Week in Review: 3/30
Monday: 5 miles easy
Tuesday: 7.5 miles easy with a fast finish
Wednesday: Rest, and walking around Turin
Thursday: 12 miles longer intervals, strength training
Friday: 5 miles tempo progression
Saturday: 8 miles with short intervals, strength workout