Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Marathon Report: Lehigh Valley (Almost Killed Me)

Most of my marathons seem to try to kill me. Maybe I'm just prone to hyperbole. I can't really blame the races. I'm the one signing myself up for them! Although sometimes I get the confirmation emails and think, "wait, did I just do that? Another race?!"

I think a lot of runners have this "problem."

I trained hard for Via Marathon. Really hard. Too hard.

I did very poorly in Lehigh Valley. My goal was to qualify for Boston. I didn't come anywhere in the same galaxy as close. I was more than an hour slower than my previous PR.

My friends in LUNAR (Lace Up Now And Run) were wonderful. They were extremely supportive. While I was having a very hard time, emotionally, before the race, they all told me I was going to kick butt and qualify. And then after the race, instead of being disappointed in me, they all told me I did a great job.

That helped me a lot. It made me realize that most of my failure is in my own head. My physical failings were an extension of that. I pushed myself too hard. And it's not because I wanted to do my best. I mean I did. But I trained stupidly, and I knew that, and I did it anyway. My expectations of myself are too high, and I was constantly angry at myself for not meeting those ridiculous expectations.

In the seven days from August 14th to the 20th, I ran 100 miles. In one week. Partly it was to support Shawn Mastrantonio, an inspirational and courageous man who had his third brain surgery in his battle against Von-Hippel Lindau. Partly it was to achieve something I never had before (my previous 7 day mileage record was less than 80 miles). Mostly... I guess I wanted to feel that I can accomplish anything, even if I break myself in the process.

And break myself I did.

I developed a bad case of Overtraining Syndrome. And then I topped that off with CNS (Central Nervous System) fatigue. Those are real things, and they take weeks to recover from. Here are the common symptoms between the two:

  • Persistent muscle soreness and fatigue
  • Increased susceptibility to illness and injury
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Burnout
  • CNS fatigue also comes with insomnia, headaches, and a compulsive need to exercise

Looking through that list, I realize I've had these symptoms for a long time, even before I started feeling really bad. And it's a spiral. The worse I felt, the harder I pushed myself. I refused to rest. Instead I punished myself for my perceived weakness.

"I definitely recommend undertraining syndrome."

It all culminated on Sunday in Lehigh Valley. I was extremely stressed going in. Running races used to be fun, and it wasn't anymore. I really really wanted to qualify. And I knew I wasn't going to. And that knowledge just... destroyed me.

On Friday evening and Saturday morning, I trained with a pair of Rokudan (sixth degree black belts) who traveled from the Pennsylvania Koei-Kan dojo. I was worried about training karate so close to the race, but I'm glad I did. It got me out of my head for a while and I felt good. I needed that. When it comes to running, I still feel like the next race is my last chance ever to do well. But karate is a lifelong journey. That's something I have to realize about running. It's not all or nothing. It's a lifelong mission. It will always be there for me.

Geoffrey, Meghan and I got to Allentown, Pa at about 3. I was definitely excited to spend the weekend with them. I had been neglecting my friends for quite some time due to my pervasive gloominess. So if I had to deal with yet another disappointment, I'm glad I had their love and support. The two of them also weren't feeling super great about the marathon, so we were a somewhat miserable trio. But it was much better than being miserable alone!


We went to the expo. It was just like every other expo... Except it was at the Steelstacks in Bethlehem! There was a mountain of old rusty pipes and structures as far as the eye can see and it was quite epic. I could see folks tiny as ants touring them. It looked pretty cool, although I'm far too boring these days to do something like that. There were also gigantic rollercoasters literally across the street from our motel. Also too boring to do that. But we talked extensively about how we totally would if we weren't, like, running a race... and then totally tired out from running a race the next day.

Ask me if I want to get up at 5am to run double digit miles? Heck yeah I'm in! Ask me if I want to do something fun? Um, I'll get back to you.

We met some fellow LUNARs at the expo, which is always a treat. We had dinner with them afterwards at a pretty snazzy Italian restaurant, Molinari's. Snazzy = expensive. But oh-so-delicious. Totally worth it. We crashed in our hotel rooms. This was our first marathon where we didn't get trashed the night before, since we don't drink anymore. But at least Haiko was there with me.

"Don't do it! Just stay in the motel and drink coffee!"

We got up at about 4:30am. I tried not to think about the race too much. I actually wasn't feeling too terrible. My legs were sore, but then they always are. I felt like maybe I could actually do this thing. I went to the bathroom about.... 12 times. And twice more at the port-o-potties at the race site. We got to the race by about 6am.

I got excited. I couldn't help it. There were a lot of people and a lot of energy. I had been psyching myself up and at that point I had convinced myself that I was going to run the race at warp speed. I was going to qualify by some ridiculous margin that would leave people aghast.


Even at 7am it was already warm, and quite humid. I'm accustomed to a constant stream of chatter from the announcer at these events. But there wasn't much this time. I waited at the starting line with a thousand other people for about ten minutes, just... standing. And then suddenly we were moving. I didn't hear the gun or horn or whatever. I hit the button on my watch as I crossed the starting mat.

My goal was to run the race in about 3:07, which would allow me to qualify with enough of a margin that I'd be able to get in to Boston. I figured I had to average 7:05 miles. By comparison, my last two marathons I averaged a 7:25 pace. So yeah, even at peak condition this would've been quite a feat.

I had to battle the crowds in the first mile, so my first split was a 7:17. I got down to a 7:08 on the second mile and felt pretty good. The third mile was mostly downhill, and I allowed myself to go a little fast to make up for the first mile: 6:58. Mile 4 was a 7:08. I kept doing and redoing the calculations in my head, and decided that a solid 7:08 pace would just do it.

Mile 5 was a 7:13. This was hard. My effort felt like I was running a 10K, except I had over 20 miles to go. I was already feeling gassed. Mile 6 I had to stop to retie my shoe (literally the first time ever; and yes it was double-knotted). I still managed a 7:20. But I was definitely slowing down. Somewhere around here I  passed a woman holding a sign with our projected finishing time: 3:09:58. That was not promising. Mile 7 was a 7:43, and I realized I was done.

I felt extremely dejected. I didn't know if I should try to push it or if I should just give up. And there was so much of the race left. It was a really dark point for me.

But then something utterly bizarre and unexpected saved me.

And by saved I don't mean I suddenly recovered. I meant it saved me emotionally. This single thing completely flipped my mood. After this completely unexpected event, I was able to slow down, relax, and just enjoy the race. I mean, most of the race was on a trail along a river, and it was beautiful. So what could possible have changed how I felt about the race so powerfully?

A train.

A grumbling, clanging, clanking honest-to-God TRAIN.

Right across the course.

I read the post-race reviews online the next day. There wasn't supposed to be a train. The race coordinators spoke with the train company every year to make sure there was no train. There was a special "no train" black out period of no train activity that was planned during the race to make sure there was NO TRAIN.

But there it was. Just after mile 7. I turned the corner and saw several hundred runners. Waiting for a train to pass. And that was it: The message from up high that said, "it doesn't matter if you run perfectly; you still wouldn't be able to qualify because of this train. So you may as well just relax and enjoy yourself."

And I did just that. I actually smiled. I stopped and peed at the side of the road while the behemoth rolled by behind me. That felt good. Then I joined the crowd and watched the train roll by. Most of them were pissed. I was not. I was happy. It was exactly what I needed for the day to not be totally awful.

Even though I felt much better in my head, physically my body continued to deteriorate. I was in a lot of pain. Even my arms hurt from holding them up. And because my legs were so weak, weird random muscles started aching from the effort of compensating. It was bad news. At around mile 10 I decided I was going to drop out halfway.

So then I started thinking everything I would have to do after I dropped out. First I would have to find a ride to the end of the race. I had no phone on me. Then I would have to give away both the shirts I got. I would have to tear up my bib. I would have to forego my medal. And that's when I realized it.

I didn't want to do any of that.

I decided that I would rather suffer for hours than go through all that bull$hit. For all you sane non-runners out there, this probably boggles your mind. I would rather suffer in agonizing pain for hours than deal with the inconvenience of finding a ride and throwing some stuff out.

So I kept running.

I hit the halfway point at about 1:45, which was slow for me, but acceptable for a hot humid day with a $hitty body. I thought, "maybe I can do this marathon in 3:30. That would be OK."

Not. Even.

I kept going slower.... and slower.... and slower. I had to take regular walk breaks because I hurt so much. My ego didn't even care anymore. I just walked every time my legs felt like they were going to explode or fall off. My paces fell to 10 minute miles, then 11, then 12. Mile 25 took over 13 minutes.

Geoffrey caught up with me at around 17 miles. He was suffering too. We ran almost the entire rest of the race together. And that really helped. I hurt, but at least I had company, and that made the pain much more tolerable. It felt like a leisurely adventure on a pretty trail with a good friend. I mean, my body was dying, but other than that!

We ran/walked together and tried to keep each other's spirits up. We worried about Meghan and our other friends running the race. There seemed to be a lot of people having a tough time. The miles crept by. Geoffrey decided to do the last mile fast. I tried to keep up, but I felt exceedingly nauseous and gave up. I was a total loser but it didn't matter. I crossed the finish weakly after 4 hours and 15 minutes.


Meghan cheered us on at the end. It turns out she dropped halfway. That super sucked for her, but it was the smart choice. Here's her recounting of the race: A Big Fat DNF. Afterwards I was really lightheaded and loopy. I lay down in the grass for a while. Eventually we got on a bus and rode back to our car.

We rested, we ate, we loitered. Then we watched Sully, which is an awesome movie about a guy who runs! Apparently he also saved 155 people in an epic plane landing. But mostly he runs! I can't remember the last time we went to watch a movie like regular humans. We slept a lot and left the next day. The construction on 476 was awful.

I haven't run since then. I broke my 114 day run streak. I realized the only thing that accomplished was to ruin my legs. It's inspirational to see folks with run streaks in the thousands of days, but that's not me. I do more than just run. Monday I biked, and it was awesome. Tuesday I swam and taught karate, and it was awesome. This morning I got up early and lifted with my cat (she didn't lift much; she's lazy).

I'm relieved the race is done. I hadn't realized how badly I was stressed before it. Now I'm actually enjoying exercise again. My body is healing. And my mood is significantly better than it's been in months. I even feel good about Via Marathon. It became a fight for survival, and I survived. I did not give up. Despite the immense challenge, I finished the race. And I'm proud of that.

Two relieved runners.

The other LUNARs who ran the race had a hard time as well, and like me they're beating themselves up. Don't! It was a brutal day, and all of you amaze me with your strength and tenacity. We will all see one another again at a future race. And we will destroy it! Together!


  1. LOVED reading this!!! Excellent. :) <3

  2. I think you tried to mirror your training to other people who have qualified for Boston. You also biked and swam and did a lot of other races. You are an incredible athlete Peter, but you are YOUR OWN athlete. You should focus on finding out what mix of mileage works for you, not what others are doing.
    That said, great effort and race! You finished! Next time will be different :-)