Friday, April 13, 2012
The problem with bananas (the ultramarathon that never was)
Before you start reading here is a huge disclaimer. If you are faint of stomach stop reading now, I'll give you the Cliff Notes version. I didn't finish. I DNF'd. My stomach hated me and I had to quit. There ya go. Stop reading now.
However, if you are curious as to the numerous lessons I learned out there and have at least somewhat of a strong stomach (or are willing to skip over the gross bits) then read on...because what I can say for sure is not finishing taught me more then finishing ever would have.
To start lets go back a bit. The race was originally supposed to be run on St. Patty's day, March 17th. As luck would have it San Diego was forecasted for an awful storm that weekend. A storm like we almost never have...torrential rains, flash flooding, snow. The race is run through a flood wash and is so remote the choppers needed to get runners out should a major injury occur wouldn't be able to fly. With this in mind the race director made the wise (although soul crushing) decision to cancel the race. I called Bex at 6 a.m. with the news. Even in her sleepy state she was just as stunned as I was. After a few tears we rallied and became thankful a few days later when they rescheduled to April 7th (luckily I was already off that whole weekend).
Approximately one week later I came down with Death Cold/Flu 2012. I haven't been that sick in ages. I was in bed for 2 full days before I could even think of moving. And forget eating, that was out of the question as I had no appetite and had an array of GI symptoms to go with my sore throat, cough, stuffy nose, headache, body aches, high fever, chills....well you get the point. It was awful! Our whole house was sick...it was almost epidemic in proportion (ok, maybe a little dramatic, but it was bad).
Because of this my 2 weeks pre first 50K (aka 31 miles on mountainous, rough, unforgiving terrain in the heat) were spent in bed resting. I attempted to eat what I could but my body simply wasn't cooperating. I knew it was going to be a gamble out there but I had to try. Even worse was the 2 days before the race my body decided to be even kinder and give me more GI symptoms that kept me close to home and without any form of an appetite...awesome.
As I woke up on the morning of April 7th I was conscious of the fact that I was nauseous and not even the slightest bit hungry. I downed 2 Immodium as is my standard pre race ritual since my stomach always tends to give me some trouble. I choked down an english muffin with peanut butter as we drove up to Laguna Mountain and Sunrise Trailhead...
At 5000 ft of elevation we knew the descent and ascent in and out of the desert would be brutal. But we put those thoughts aside and geared up to go early for the 6 am race start. I hit the bathroom once on our way off and felt fairly great (the feeling didn't last long). Logically I knew beyond a doubt that I was far less then 100%. But blame my stubborn nature or the simple fact that I/we had trained months for this event and I had to give it my best shot (I never dreamed I would be forced to give my all).
The morning was beautiful as the sun rose slowly over the mountains. Bex and I were on our way to ultramarathon greatness...and we were together. Let me segway a bit and really hammer home the importance of this event. See we meant to do this distance a while ago...like a year ago actually for Bex's 30th birthday. But Bex was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis. A hefty diagnosis for anyone...but a virtual nightmare for an endurance athlete. It stopped all plans for running an ultra and basically stopped many of her endurance plans altogether. But in true Bex fashion she sucked it up, fought through, and vowed to conquer the distance. When your best friend wants to give a big F you to RA by completing an ultramarathon...you sign up with her...period. That's what friendship is. That is the nature of our friendship...always has been. An eternal vow that whatever god awful scheme one of us comes up with (legitimate or not) the other will follow. Because who doesn't want a partner in crime, a battle buddy, an accomplice in all things ridiculous. And over time and miles this goal became extremely important to me too.
Ok...back on track...er trail as it were. By a few miles into the race I knew things weren't quite right with my stomach. Call it intuition or simply years fighting my own body but I knew it was going to be a long day. My first pit stop happened extremely early in the race (and when you are out in the desert a pit stop means simply a bush with which to hide your *ss from other racers...no porta potty here). It was gross, disgusting, and completely necessary. Thankfully I have some foresight and pack baby wipes for most long runs...cause you never know.
This pattern kept going over the next few miles...run a bit, stop, find a bush, potty, run....etc...ad nauseum (literally). As we hit the first aid station we dropped our jackets and surveyed the cornucopia of goodies on the table. My first clue that I was bad off was that nothing on that table looked remotely appealing (if you know me you know I can eat most men under that table, so the fact that I wasn't hungry at all was BAD). So I settled for some electrolyte drink and moved on.
The next 6 miles were downhill. And I don't mean a little jaunt down a small grade...I mean DOWNHILL. We descended into the desert over 5000 ft in those 6 miles. And about 2000 ft of it was in the last 2 miles. Nothing hurts more then jarring your GI system repeatedly running downhill for 6 miles. It's like shaking a soda can (or for the parents, jostling a baby that just ate...bad juju). By the time we reached the desert floor I was in bad shape...nauseous, cramping, and pit stops were happening so frequently we were miles from where we should have been by this time. I kept hopelessly looking at my watch knowing how far behind we were falling from our goals. I know I told Bex many times to go on ahead and I would just keep going as I could. I knew even as I said it that she wouldn't leave me like this. It just wouldn't happen. We don't leave each other unless it's dire (which it later was). We are battle buddies...and this was battle. You don't leave your friend to suffer in the desert alone. Instead she kept trying to help me...giving me suggestions for what to do. Nothing worked. Somewhere into mile 12 the nausea became too much. I started dry heaving (as there was virtually nothing in my stomach at that point). We were walking with another runner (an amazing man in his 70's) and he kindly gave me some electrolyte pills after he learned my plight. I felt a bit better as we headed into the 2nd aid station around mile 13. We saw a good friend there and she gave me many suggestions for what to eat to stop the nausea and try to put a dent in the huge caloric deficit I was rapidly accumulating. Flat soda, potatoes with salt, fritos, and bananas (you had to know there was a reason for the title of this blog). Someone also had some Tums and I downed those too. It hurt. I didn't want it. But I'm a smart girl and knew I needed every precious calorie.
We left the aid station after I took my gazillionth pit stop and headed into Box Canyon (a sandy beautiful place that on any other day I would have been so excited to run through). As we emerged into the desert I felt a brief moment of health and said we should jog...cause with scenery like this you just have to!
It didn't last long as I quickly stopped and everything I had painstakingly taken in at the aid station came back up. Everything. Let me tell you...there is nothing classy about vomiting. Specifically when you couldn't be bothered to fully chew your food. Yeah, bananas are awful coming back around. The worst was everytime I thought I was done and would try to clear my throat a bit of banana would gag me and I would vomit again. It was a vicious cycle. The funny part was my only thought in these moments was for Bex. I know beyond a doubt that she HATES vomit with a passion. And yet she stood there...watching me...helping me...and never batted an eye. That is true friendship. My other thoughts were jumping around as angry tears streamed down my face. I also knew how far back we were getting and how much I was holding Bex back...it was horrible. The other racers were amazing though...as was my battle buddy. People would run by and yell "It's ok honey! Get it out and keep going!" It was almost comical.
After that I got down one gel and some water. I felt a bit better and trudged on at the fastest walk I could muster. We pulled into the turnaround aid station and I had some water and wet my hat and buff with ice water to stave off the encroaching desert heat. We quickly turned around and kept up our relentless forward motion.
At mile 16 my mom called Bex. I had texted her earlier that I was in bad shape but with spotty cell service she couldn't get hold of me. After Bex got off the phone she told me what my mom had said...it was simple...be a nurse for yourself. What would you tell a racer that was in your situation. I had to think about that for a bit. I was still excited about the fact that I'd kept a gel down and was telling Bex this fact when she simply gave me the hard truth..."Great, you've had 200 calories over 17 miles. How do you expect to get out of the canyon on that?" I was about to tell her that I thought I may be able to get another gel down when in that moment of pure irony everything came back up again.
It was then that I knew I was done. Over. Finished. There are some things that pure will and stubborness can fuel you through. An ultramarathon in the heat and up 5000 ft isn't one of them. As we hiked the mile back to the aid station I cried. Tears of pain, defeat, anger...everything. I apologized more times to Bex then I knew...she finally told me to shut up and stop apologizing. She was right. Apologies don't apply here...to these circumstances. At mile 18 we reached the aid station and I dropped out. The paramedics and volunteers took over and gave me small bits of fluid as I sat down. They removed my pack and tended to me as Bex fueled up to keep going. We looked at each other and didn't have to say much. When you've been through so much with someone words are unnecessary. I knew she needed to finish. She knew I needed her to finish...for both of us. She was feeling great and who knows when she would feel great like this again. With a few words and a quick I love you she was off. Into the desert. Alone. I felt so sad. I felt like I had let down my best friend and sent her into the unknown alone. But at the same time I knew it was going to be a life changing experience for her...thankfully I was right.
The medics took my vitals and told me my blood pressure was a bit low...hmmm...shocking. As I sat there wallowing in my grief I still knew that there was no way I could have kept going. I was nauseous, cramping, with fingers the size of sausages (a pretty decent sign of electrolyte imbalance). My head ached and I was a bit dizzy. My race was over. But my day wasn't done. I still needed to get to the finish line to wait for Bex. Luckily there was a driver heading that way and once I was a bit more stable he offered me a ride with another runner who was suffering the same problems I was (seems the Death Flu hit a few more people during the weeks prior).
I went to the finish line and waited with J and Nathaniel for Bex. We knew from the smattering of texts and phone calls that she was ok and moving forward at a decent pace considering the delay and conditions. We watched other racers finish with huge smiles on there faces...it was so motivating I couldn't even be sad. I had 2 more bouts of vomiting but was finally able to keep some water down and simply staying still sitting on the grass was the only thing that felt ok. So we waited....
And she finished...sprinting and smiling. It was overwheling wrapping her in a hug as she came across the line. It was a big group hug...and it was good. She had done it. And I have never been more proud of her.
Looking back now a week out I still know beyond a doubt I made the right decision. It was an extremely hard decision but I finally listened to my body and did what was right. Maybe going the additional 6 miles while vomiting wasn't so smart but I couldn't go down without a fight. I fought like h*ll and I lost. Oh well, such is life. Tomorrow is another day...and next year I will try again. There is always another day. And our motto has always been "Do you want to run today or do you want to run for the rest of your life?" If I had tried to keep going I would have ended up in the hospital without a doubt. I chose to run forever. And run forever I will. Because you don't attempt an ultra without a deep love for the sport and a strong will. I will be back...and I will finish. But I may never look at bananas the same again....