Monday, April 23, 2012

Episode 3 - The Marathon Strikes Back

After successfully completing the 2011 Boston Marathon in under 4 hours, LiverRunner spent the winter training under the watchful gaze of Master Yoda. With the gentle winter, he was able to accumulate over 650 training miles. Winter turned to spring, and the LiverRunner came into April 10 pounds lighter than last year and in the best shape of his life. Running a personal best in 2012 seemed a given, the question was only by how much. But as Patriot's Day approached, the weather forecast grew hotter and hotter, until finally it approached 90 degrees. The Marathon was not going to go down without a fight...

The week leading up to the marathon presented one perfect day after another - 50-55 degrees, mixed clouds and sun. But all runners' eyes were on the forecast for Monday. There were competing models, one predicting that a cold front from Canada would burst down on Sunday evening while the other was predicting that the cold front would stall and leave us with hotter than normal temperatures on Monday. As the weekend approached, it became clear the the model predicting a 1 day heat wave was going to be correct.

Over the weekend, the BAA (who run the race) sent out several emails. First, they told us it could be hot and to plan accordingly. Then they told us that it will definitely be hot and that we could defer our run to next year if we wanted. Finally they sent out an email basically telling us not to run. Great!

To deal with the heat, I came up with a cooling plan. I had frozen two handheld water bottles, planning on bringing one to the start and then swapping it out with a replacement at mile 17 where Liz would meet me. I had two different types of electrolyte/salt capsules, so that I could drink a lot without worrying about hyponatremia. Then there was the matter of Yoda.

I had planned on running with Yoda back in February, when my friend Paul suggested I dress up like him. There was no way that was going to happen, but as I was googling Yoda, I found the backpack. I could be just like Luke! I mean, there was really no reason to do it except that I thought it was hilarious. Marathon running is somewhat serious business, and liver disease is definitely serious business. So I figured I would do something funny to lighten things up a bit. But as the forecast got worse, I had to reconsider the idea. I don't do well in the heat to begin with, and having something on my back trapping body heat seemed like it could make things worse. But then I figured that this was just going to be a casual "fun run" so I might as well keep him.

To help with the heat, I bought two Platypus water bladders and drinking tubes, and again I froze them (with Nuun, an electrolyte drink) with the intention of starting with one and swapping it out at mile 17. I figured that the ice would keep my back a little cooler, plus I could drink ice cold fluid whenever I wanted.

On Monday, the forecast turned out to be correct. I was sweating and feeling the heat just sitting around before the race. I had on my heart rate monitor (as I did for all my training) and as we walked to the start it registered over 105. That was about 20 beats higher than normal, but I hoped it was just nerves.

As we walked the 0.7 miles to the start, I ran into my teammate Brian. I had run a couple miles last year with Brian, so it was cool to meet up with him again. We decided to run together again, at least for the first few miles, and try to keep each other in check but still running on a time target. I think we decided to run about 9:30 per mile, getting us to the half just over 2 hours and then maybe going for 4:20 overall. Within the first mile I knew that wasn't happening. The start is tremendously downhill, yet even running a 9:48 mile (which also turned out to be my fastest mile of the day), my heart rate started hitting the 170 range.  That is normally where I run at half-marathon pace (about 7:50 per mile pace).  Another way of thinking about it is that at that pace in training, my heart rate was normally around 144.

At that point, I knew that even the casual plan that Brian and I had come up with was going to be too aggressive.  I hoped that things would settle down, but it wasn't happening.  It was already so hot that I was searching out water and hoses sprays as much as I could.  I stayed to the right side of the road to stay in what little shade there was.  I couldn't believe how fast people were blazing past me.  It seemed like no one was taking the heat warnings seriously.  Before the race, I had decided that my main goal was to not end up in a medical tent.  I had my wife and kids waiting for me at home, and making it back safely to them was more important than any time goal.  I didn't know what everyone was thinking, but I let go of what little time-goal vanity remained and just focused on safety.

Brian and I split up around mile 4 or 5.  My heart rate was still high, even though I had slowed to 10:30 miles.  After we split up, I spotted another Liver teammate at a water stop - Amy.  She had been running with a teammate too, but now, like me, she was running solo.  We decided to stick together from that point on and try to get each other to the finish line safely.

Everything from then on was a blur.  I think I've purposely forgotten most of it, as it was easily the worst physical torture I have endured in my life.  The sun blazed down mercilessly, with neither clouds nor breeze to offer relief.  Occasionally we would spot some shade and thousands of runners would jam into one small section of the road to try and get under it. The slight tailwind would normally be welcomed in cooler temps, as it would help us run faster.  But in the heat it just created a convection effect, making the heat feel even worse.

The crowd was amazing - offering ice, drinks and hose sprays.  The handheld bottle was great because it allowed me to fill it with ice and water and spray myself down whenever I wanted between water stops.  Normally I hate running with it, but this time I loved having it.

There were sirens and ambulances along the way, which I had never experienced in prior years.  By mile 8, the "run" had the look of a zombie march.  This usually doesn't happen until around miles 18-20, when overly ambitious runners hit the wall and are forced to walk.  We weren't even close to halfway done when the marching really started.

Normally you try to run a marathon as straight as possible, so as to not add unnecessary mileage.  This year, we were running from one side of the road to the other - seeking out shade, hose sprays, cooling tents, ice and water.  We passed the Liver cheering section at mile 17 and stopped long enough to take some pictures.  I saw my friend Luau just after that and told him that it was massacre.

Back when I decided to make this a "fun run", I figured that by going so slow, it wouldn't bother my legs at all.  I had put in multiple 21 mile training runs this year (at a much faster pace) and was never sore as my overall volume of mileage was much higher this year.  But around mile 17, my quads started to feel fatigued.  And worse, my right IT band started giving me serious pain.  This has happened to me only once in the past year, so I was definitely surprised.  I guess by running at a much slower pace than I'm used to, my gait was different enough that my legs weren't happy.  Or maybe the heat messed up my legs too.  And I'm sure carrying three extra pounds of ice on my back wasn't helping.  This "fun run" was anything but.

After we left Luau behind, I spotted my wife and daughter.  Usually seeing my family really gets me inspired to finish the race.  It normally brings hope and happiness.  This time though, all I could think about was business.  Get the replacement water bottle.  Take the old one and fill it with fresh ice and give it to Amy so that she can have one too.  Replace the bladder in Yoda (which didn't melt enough to drink until about mile 12 and never fully melted while the replacement didn't melt at all).  Get some of the emergency cold packs (I would stuff it under my hat).  Ready to get through the last 9 miles.

The slog continued.  We would mix running and walking up the hills, as I was still watching my heart rate.  We also walked through the water tables. I had to stop and stretch my IT band numerous times because it kept locking my knee up (painfully).

Finally we met Amy's partner and friends in Coolidge Corner.  This was a nice emotional pick up, although it seemed like 3 more miles was still so long.  At this point, the heat had really peaked out, and since we were in a more urban setting, we didn't really have people hosing us down.  A couple of Amy's friends had jumped in to help bring us into the finish, but even though we were so close, neither of us could really muster much of a charge.  Now we were not only dealing with heat fatigue but also just regular marathon fatigue.  At that point, we had  been out there for almost 5 hours - much longer than either of us had prepared for - so even though we were walking a lot, the pain was significant.  Despite taking 5 or 6 salt caps, I had a killer cramp in my left calf.  And although I was extremely thirsty, my stomach was so full and bloated that I didn't want to drink anything.

Eventually we got down to the city and made the turn onto Boylston Street.  As we approached the Finish Line, I could hear the announcer call out my name over the PA, which was pretty cool.  I waved in acknowledgement.  When we got to end, I raised my hand up with three fingers to signify my third time crossing that line (and also as a call out to Yoda, who only has three fingers, er, claws).  My German friends  (and Tarantino fans) will notice that I properly used my thumb, index and middle fingers to designate the three.

For only the second time since checking my time at the halfway mark, I looked at my watch to see the final time: 5:18.  Exactly 1 hour and 20 minutes slower than last year.  But I didn't care about my time.  I had made it without needing medical attention, and I felt pretty decent.  I gave Amy a hug and both congratulated and thanked her for running with me to the end.  Then we parted ways.

So this was the year that the Marathon definitely struck back.  As a runner, it reminded me to always respect the distance.  It was brutal, but I'm also really glad I did it.  It was a completely different experience, and I know that the camaraderie and misery make me feel like I really shared something special with my fellow runners.  And I also feel a deep gratitude to all the volunteers, event workers, EMTs, fans, family, Liver Team supporters and staff and everyone else out there that made this marathon possible for all of us.  We really could not have done it without you!