The Wind-Up Hurt Chronicle: 2016 Omaha Marathon (State #45)

I woke up very early, as usual, and sauntered to the hotel mini fridge to grind a Clif Bar like a camel chewing cud, washing it down a Blue Machine smoothie. The 2016 Omaha Marathon was almost three hours away, and I didn’t want to wake up Mike in the next room by turning on the TV, so I put on some headphones and let the finger-tapped gothic musings of Katatonia wash over me. After four songs, I went back to sleep.

(left to right): Mike, me

(left to right): Mike, me

Hours later, Mike and I were following the crowds to the TD Ameritrade Arena. Within minutes of arriving, the speakers cracked alive with the sound of a nervous official who told us that there had been a nearby shooting, shocking the crowd into silence. We waited, slack-jawed and a little on edge, for the rest of the report. But even before reassuring us that our personal safety was not in jeopardy, he broke the news that the race start would be postponed by an hour. To make matters worse for many runners, the delay would also mean a last-minute course change.

The collective groan spread across the crowd faster than a 400-meter repeat. In that moment, I merely shrugged at the delay, though I was fully aware that it meant it’d be four to five degrees warmer than expected. Mike and I had walked around Omaha the day before under a cloudless sky in hopes of finding a local gem. We found Bob, a pedestrian bridge named after Bob Kerrey, former Governor and Senator from Nebraska, and I came home with a slight sunburn on my forehead.

But despite the sunburn, the delay, and the warm weather, I let no nerves invade my morning. It was another marathon, just like the thirty-three others I had run before, in a new state. Unlike many runners around me, who were loudly bemoaning the possibility that their times today wouldn’t be honored by the Boston Athletic Association, I had no time expectations. I was there to run 26.2 miles in whatever time I could.

Mile 1

Mile 1

An hour late, we were on the road. Two miles later, we were out of downtown Omaha and into newly built residential neighborhoods. Without a time goal, I decided to experiment with my breathing, opting for a faster intake earlier in the race. The farther we ran, the greener the path became. Around the 10k mark, we entered a park, whose leafy cover allowed us to forget that, just like the day before, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

And then, a mile later, we reached the river. A concrete path two people wide ran between the river and several industrial silos, whose petrochemical perfume stuck to me like an unwanted GU aftertaste. However, the mephitic odor wasn’t what I most lamented about this stretch. It was, instead, the complete lack of shade. From this point until the turnaround six miles later, where we would retrace our steps all the way back to the start, there would be no more protection from the sun.

Mile 5

Mile 5

Up until the half marathon point, I had been running comfortably, knocking out 8-minute miles as if on autopilot. But right at that turnaround, something happened. It was as if my body had decided to completely forget that I’ve been running marathons for almost seven years. All my experience on the roads, with the repetitive plod of feet across many hours, was harshly erased. My body crossed into a parallel universe, where my memories of running were intact, but my body didn’t make the transition.

Mike and I crossed paths just beyond the turnaround. He asked me how I was doing, and I replied that I felt like I was at mile 22, not just beyond 13. I was still running in the 8s but I could tell I was on borrowed time. Ten minutes later, like a wind-up toy that had only been cranked to reach fifteen miles, my body shut down.

This had never happened to me before. Like any long-distance runner, I’ve bonked before. I’ve bonked as early as mile 18, but every time, it’s been a slow descent into fatigue. Even in Berlin, where I ran the first half too fast, I still managed a slow deterioration. But in Omaha, it was a complete shutdown. I stopped to walk, shaking my shoulders and slapping my back, and tried to pick it back up. But within a quarter mile, I was gassed.

My body was either unable or unwilling to run, and I didn’t know which scared me more.

Miles 7 through 19 were this exposed

Miles 7 through 19 were this exposed

Mike passed me at mile 19. He offered a few kind words of encouragement while pulling away from me. The last of it he spoke to the air, as I couldn’t run fast enough to keep up. Many more runners would pass me after him. With each one, I’d try and kick forward, trying to get back into a gallop. As if in a dream, I was unable to sustain it. My walking breaks grew, my pace crashed, and my attitude soured.

What the hell was happening.

Mile 13.3

Mile 13.3

I had no singular reason for why I had crumbled so quickly. I had eaten plenty the day before, had put in the requisite miles during the summer, and had run a very hilly 3:42 just two months prior. Objectively, it wasn’t even that hot. There were times when I actually shivered during those last miles. The wind had picked up, licking the sweat off my head and reminding me of how dry the air felt.

But there I was, walking the last two miles of the Omaha Marathon in their entirety as if I had never run before. My last attempt at running had left me seeing stars. A race photographer had stationed himself just a mile from the finish to capture everyone’s last dash toward the finish. I didn’t even bother with histrionics and shuffled past him with my hands on my hips, disappointed and dizzy. What tiny stores of energy I still had were saved for running the bases of TD Ameritrade’s baseball diamond, a sputtering toy too far removed from his last confident stride.

Mile 26

Mile 26

I stopped the clock at 4:22, my second slowest marathon to date. Mike was at the finish line to capture my unsightly finish, which started an afternoon of nausea and exhaustion. I found a patch of shaded grass and let my feet stop moving, loudly proclaiming to Mike that I had just finished the kind of race that could get me to reconsider running altogether. I was in no mood to read about silver linings or to exhume the bright side of anything. That race was a sucker punch to the ego and my self-worth. It’s one thing to push yourself to your limits and earn a deserved finish. This was not that. This was a sudden implosion, an inexplicable and precipitous failure of all systems.

Or was it inexplicable?

In the first half of this post, I formatted a few phrases and sentences in bold. As if to console my wounded self-esteem, I looked back at all these reasons as perhaps individual Jenga pieces that I removed over the course of the weekend. Perhaps it’s because I refuse to believe that I’m simply not in marathon shape, or that sometime in August of this year the gene responsible for sucking at running was switched on.

Finishers. Notice the dark, ghostly veil draped over me? It's the shadow of death.

Finishers. Notice the dark, ghostly veil draped over me? It’s the shadow of death.

But either way, it shook me. Whether it was because of a series of subtle mistakes or one big, ineffable change in my body chemistry, I can’t say. But I do have another go at the distance on October 9 in Rhode Island. Whether I decide to tempt another potentially disastrous run or play it safe will depend on what happens between now and then. Either way, I will start the next one without the insouciant bravado of races past, where a sub-4-hour finish is basically guaranteed.

Onwards. With trepidation and even a little reluctance … but onwards, nonetheless.

marathon_map-058-ne

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About Dan
Running a marathon in all 50 states because there's no better way to explore the world around you than on your own two feet, for as long as you can, until you hate yourself and everything around you. Then you stop, get a medal, and start over.

15 Responses to The Wind-Up Hurt Chronicle: 2016 Omaha Marathon (State #45)

  1. Oh no ! Sorry to hear about the slog at Omaha. As you said, it may have been just the right combination of factors prior to race day and on race day that came together to precipitate the outcome. Onwards and upwards, though.

    Does racing marathons still excite and motivate you ? Perhaps some time away from marathons after your 50 state quest is complete will recharge you mentally and physically.

    • Dan says:

      I guess I’ve found that I put an unhealthy amount of pride and excitement in whether I can post a competitive time. If I lose fitness to the point of struggling to finish in below 3:40, then I’ll have to either train like an idiot before signing up for another marathon, or reevaluate what interests me about the sport in the first place. Hopefully, I have the knowledge and tools to do the former, so I think that’s what I’ll be doing this winter. Thanks for reading!

  2. Jen says:

    Wow, that’s perplexing to say the least. Hopefully it was just a random thing, and Rhode Island fares better. Good luck!

    • Dan says:

      Rhode Island fared better, so I’m no longer (completely) confused by the Omaha ordeal. But with no more race registrations paid for, I’m not sure when the next test will be. Thanks for reading Jen!

  3. MedalSlut says:

    Sometimes the body just isn’t in the mood to cooperate – let’s just hope is was a fluke, and nothing to jeopardize the comfort of future races. As an aside, 4:22 might be your second slowest, but it’s my second fastest ever marathon finish. Ain’t nothin’ to sniff at, but better luck in Rhode Island!

    • Dan says:

      Yeah, it certainly gave up at mile 16 without much of a warning. I think my head was baking from the sunburn, which dehydrated me much earlier than anticipated. That’s the prevailing theory, anyway. Thanks for reading 🙂

  4. T Roy says:

    Could it possibly be the beginnings of adrenal fatigue?

  5. Mike says:

    OH-maha…

    As badly as I’ve been wanting to read this, I made myself wait until I’d (almost) finished my own. Which wasn’t easy, because even though I saw you cross the finish line healthy with my own eyes, the title admittedly raised some concern. Glad the only injury suffered in Nebraska was to your ego. No doubt you’ll be fine in Rhode Island… and I have a good reason for saying that.

    As frustrating & unprecedented as your bonk was, I know what you were going through out there, because the same thing happened to me at mile 16—in Boston. BOSTON. Despite thousands of the most raucous spectators on the planet screaming at me to keep going, my body suddenly lost all interest in running. And my mind had nothing to say about it. At the time I figured it for adrenal fatigue as T Roy suggests—I’d packed a whole lot into the week leading up to the race—but the truth is, I still don’t know exactly what happened. And six days later at Big Sur, facing the same doubt & hesitation you are now, I ran a faster race on a tougher course in a driving headwind. Go figure.

    Krishna may be on to something as well—as a runner you never want your 50 states quest to become an albatross, but with that many marathons (and that much travel) it’s impossible not to have motivational peaks and valleys, particularly when the end is in sight and you have to go through Nebraska, Rhode Island and West Virginia to get to Alaska and Hawaii. Inspiring new challenges like Ice Age are few and far between, and you can’t always be chasing that next endorphin high. Remember what Freud said?

    Despite the outcome, I’m glad we had the chance to experience “Nebraska’s most vibrant city” together while doing what we (usually) love to do. Thanks for making Omaha more memorable than it had any right to be—we’ve got to keep meeting like this! Already looking forward to your breaking out the winged shoes next time we meet. Because sooner or later I’ll cross that finish line with your footprints on my back.

    Onwards to Rhode Island—chin up, buckle down, redemption Sunday awaits! And don’t forget to listen to “Estranged”.

    • Dan says:

      You did bring up a good point, which I was unable to appreciate given how upset I was with my finish: I wasn’t injured. Fatigue and dehydration are awful companions, but at least within a day or so, I had “recovered” from that, and was able to run again. Injuries are rapscallions that are harder to shake.

      Anywho, the time to adjust my training is now. One big part of my Omaha stumble that I almost refused to acknowledge is that I wasn’t able to knock out many quality superlong runs this year. First, it was my injury in the winter/spring that threw off my Ice Age training, and then it was a significantly humid summer in Chicago, squeezing every drop of sweat out of me by mile 12 of any early morning run. Without the distance in my legs, it was tough to stay strong after 18 miles.

      Fortunately, with the winter, that becomes less of an issue. The real challenge will be getting out the door and making it happen. Because 2016 has been the first year since 2010 where I didn’t improve my marathon time. Omaha might have been the wake-up call I needed to turn it around in 2017.

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