Pheidippides Died

I am sad to say that my marathon debut ended at the 40km marker of the Athens Classical Marathon. It’s the first time I’ve ever tried to run a marathon and also the first time I have ever dropped out of a race. I’m still trying to get my head around it all.


Naturally I didn’t quite know what to expect from a marathon. My training had gone really well, as had my taper. I had brought most of my usual food with me to Athens to make sure that in the days before the race I’d really only eat things that I knew would work well for me.

On the morning of the race, I felt really good. I was calm and just looking forward to the experience. The start was quick and amazing. There was a minute of silence for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings, after which someone roared:  “Nobody can stop us!” I know it sounds cheesy, but it was such a primal roar, it actually brought tears in my eyes. I was certainly ready to go.

The start of the race was really smooth for me. I ran swift-ish but really comfortable and was at the tomb at Marathon bay (about 5km into the race) before I knew it. At 10km I was still gliding through the sunshine (it was 26 degrees Celsius and no cloud in sight), and clocked a 10km split of 51 minutes, which I was very happy with.

At 12km I got the first cramps in my digestive system. This sometimes happens to me during runs, but up until yesterday, this has always been solved by a trip to the port-a-loo. But not this time. I visited the loo (cursing the time that this lost me), but to no avail – the craps not only stayed, but got worse. I used breathing techniques that sometimes help and ran on up the hill. The devastating problem was that I couldn’t drink anything with the cramps, and even trough I was still running strong at this point, I knew then that I was in trouble.

Kilometers 16-18 are the only genuine downhill section of the course before 31km (the rest really is mostly uphill). I cruised down this hill still feeling really strong, foolishly thinking that I had turned this around. In hindsight, this might have been the start of the fuzzy thinking, because how I could have thought that I was turning this around without being able to eat or drink a thing is beyond me.

My half-marathon split was 1:51, which again I was happy with. It might sound like a big deterioration from my 10km time, but given that the course goes uphill from 9-16km and I had a loo stop, I was still happy with this time.

At the 22.5km aid station I forced myself to sip some water, knowing that this was a bit of a do-or-die moment. My whole digestive system was staging a dirty riot. The cramps weren’t just in my stomach, my entire mid-section was turning solid. I walked through the aid station, which I absolutely hated – my main goal for the marathon had been to run the whole way. Secretly, if things were going really well, I was going to aim for a sub 4 hour marathon.

Just out of the aid station I started to jog again and that was the beginning of the end for my marathon. I felt absolutely terrible. We were still climbing uphill and the cramps were so violent that I had trouble keeping my body upright. I remember glancing at the runners around me and thinking “Hey, most of these guys are struggling too.” Then a young man dashed across in front of me to get violently sick by the side of the road. I thought: “Look, at least I’m not THAT bad.” Unfortunately, this was immediately followed by: “Actually, I’m exactly that bad,” as I fled behind some bushes and hurled up the water I had just drank plus whatever else was in my stomach.

Stopping the race and admitting defeat would have sensible at that point, but it actually never even crossed my mind. In my head, I was still going to cross that finish line. Despite throwing up, I actually started to run again pretty soon afterwards, although I can’t say how fast this was (I’m assuming not very). Every time I ran, the cramps were getting so bad that I couldn’t keep it up. My plan at this point was to simply walk through the aid stations from now on, and run the 2.5km stretch between them. It’s obvious now that my thinking wasn’t super clear.

At the 25km aid station, I decided to try drinking something again. I’m not even going to try to justify this now, as at the time in my dehydrated head, it was just what I needed to make myself feel better. Still, when I found myself throwing up again (this time in the port-a-loo), I was mostly experiencing mild surprise and anger at the situation and frustration over further lost time. Yes, really, after throwing up twice my main thought was “I’m never going to finish this in under 4 hours now”…

I started to feel really faint in the cabin, but in my head this was nothing that a little fresh air wouldn’t fix, so I stumbled out and walked on. Then I ran again for a few hundred yards, until the cramps made it physically impossible to put one leg in front of the other at any speed, and I walked again. The infuriating thing is that my legs and lungs felt pretty good still.

In my head (for the last time, only people who have been on long rotten runs before can possibly understand that thought-processes move to a different dimension in these situations) I thought that if I make it to 31km, I’ll be over the last hill and can cruise downhill into Athens – much like I cruised down the hill from 16-18km.

So I ran/walked/jogged/walked/staggered on until cresting the last peak just after 31km. I don’t know why I was surprised that things were only going downhill from there in every possible sense.

I did get a little boost from the downhill section, but this didn’t last for more than a kilometre. At the 32km marker, I couldn’t run at all anymore. Five mere steps of jogging would send my body into such violent cramps that I was starting to worry about falling over. “Fine”, I thought, “I’ll just walk the damn thing”.

At 34km I couldn’t even walk anymore without the cramps taking over my whole system. I felt like fainting again and knew I had to sit down or some poor bugger would find my lying face down on the concrete. I staggered up to some medics and sat down next to them. They were asking if everything is alright and my answer was: “I just need to rest for a few minutes.” I actually did just that, got up and walked on… only to sit down again at the next medic camp after another kilometre or so (things are getting really hazy now). This medic promptly wrapped a tinfoil blanket around my shoulders and suggested that I should drop out. I remember asking him how far the finish line was in response, got up, and walked on…

At the next medic station there was a doctor, who firmly advised me to drop out. Apparently my pulse and blood pressure were doing funny things at this point. But then he was called off to an ambulance, so in a move that embodies bravery and lunacy in equal measures, I got up and kept walking. One of the medics came with me and what followed is one of the most bizarre memories I have of the event. We were walking through a tunnel, only he was walking backwards but in front of me, keeping a very close eye on me. I don’t know how much of that was actually real, but if it really did happen that way, it’s a good indication of how fast – or rather slow – I was staggering along at this point.

I passed some more medics and stubbornly ignored them, afraid they would not let me continue at all. That’s when the shaking started. The hair on my body just stood up and I was shivering so violently, it was all I could do to keep my legs pointing in the same direction. I knew I had to stop again…

Just past the 40km marker I actually recognised my surroundings. I knew exactly where in Athens I was. The stadium was genuinely just two turns away. Perhaps it was this sense of physical orientation that brought about some mental clarity. I spotted the medics again, staggered towards them on extremely unsteady legs and asked for a blanket. A really nice medic girl who spoke no English at all maneuvered me into a nice spot in the sun and wrapped a foil blanket around me. I remember her having her arms around me to steady me.

I remember looking at the road and runners tumbling past me and evaluating what it would take to join them again.

So I asked myself:

“Julia, why do you run?”

I run because I love it, it’s fun and it makes me feel good.

“And are you loving this, is this fun, are you feeling good?”

No, not even remotely. This is miserable. I wouldn’t even be proud to go on now, there’s a good chance I will genuinely physically collapse if I go on. This is all wrong.

Pulling out was still really hard. I sat down on the sidewalk, less than 2km from the historic Panathinaiko stadium and finish line and cried, due to the disappointment and anger at not finishing and also the relief that it was over.

Everything after that is really hazy. I think we got a taxi home. I felt absolutely abysmal for the rest of the day, couldn’t eat and struggled to get any fluids into me. I think I remember seeing Spongebob Squarepants on TV, but that might well have been another feverish dream…

Today I’m still feeling shattered and feverish, although my legs feel great despite almost running a marathon yesterday.

Of course I’m disappointed to not have finished the race, but I don’t regret dropping out. I know there will always be some who will equate a DNF with weakness. This is not what my runs are like. In training, I completed five great 20-mile runs and finished them tired but comfortable and happy. I’m happy to stick with runs when they get tough and battle it out. I’m even quite good at commanding my tired legs to keep going. Yesterday was an entirely different beast, and I think it’s right to terminate any run (even if it is THE big race) when it’s getting into unhealthy territory. In fact and in hindsight, I think I should have pulled out of the race much sooner, for instance at the point when I knew for certain that any fluid intake made me vomit. I’m not even proud to have battled on as long as I did. Although I find my stubborn idiocy mildly comical now, I equally know that I could easily have ended up in A&E attached to an IV drip. No medal is worth that.

Right now, I’m mostly trying to get my head around what went so wrong. I’m pretty sure the answer is that I was simply dehydrated, but I genuinely don’t know what I could have done differently. I did drink to begin with, but then the cramps prevented me from continuing to do so, which made me unable to drink, which made the situation even worse. I drank plenty of fluids on the days before and my usual 500ml of sports drink on the morning of the run (as I had done prior to all my long runs). I think the heat had something to do with it as well – 26 degrees isn’t that hot, but there was no cover or shade at all until the very last stages of the race. If I ever try a marathon again, I want to make damn sure that it won’t be such a miserable experience.

Finally, I’d like to say that despite it all, the event itself was amazing. The organization was incredibly smooth and the atmosphere was wonderful. Everyone was so helpful and the crowds were fantastic – on a good day, it could have been a wonderful run.

22 thoughts on “Pheidippides Died

  1. TartanJogger says:

    I’m so relieved that you are now feeling better, and able to write do well about the run. Although you’re disappointment is natural, and you’ll hear that phrase ‘so close’ a lot, the physical issues you suffered from, and your natural reactions to rely on your training and push through is what makes you a runner. I’m so sorry that this one wasn’t to be for you- but you’ll be able to take all of the experience with you into future races.

    • Thank you for your kind and supportive words. It was definitely a character shaping experience! I’m still trying to get my head around it, but apart from being disappointed with things going so badly on a day I spent 4 month preparing for (which as you say is totally natural), I genuinely have no regrets as such.

  2. Trails and Ultras says:

    Oh God that sounded horrendous. Poor you. I remember my first ultra…except it wasn’t an ultra because it ended it half way as I wept and snotted uncontrollably on the side of a mountain, before being escorted by a kind and sympathetic marshall down to the main checkpoint in the valley. At the time I thought, all those months of training, the travel, cost for accommodation, all down the drain. I have to go back and tell my family, friends and colleagues that I failed. I just felt completely wretched. Now I think it was one of the best things that could have happened in terms of developing my character, and has led to me having the courage to make dramatic changes in my life. I believe that life gives you the lessons you need to learn, even if it doesn’t seem like it at the time. Incidentally, I came back the year after and completed that ultra. You’ll come back stronger, faster and wiser next time and when you succeed it will mean so much more to you than if you had completed it the first time round. 🙂

    • Thanks a lot for the encouraging words – I’m glad I’m not the only one who failed the first time around. I’m sure my training was good, it was just on the day that things went majorly pearshaped. I’m pretty sure I’ll try again before too long. 😉 And I completely agree that I definitely learned a lot yesterday, about myself, marathons and running in general.

  3. This sounds like a really tough experience but there will be more races! This one is only a drop in the bucket.

  4. Hazel says:

    I’m so sorry to hear you were unwell, what a shame. It sounds like you had a really rough time and gave it your all anyway so well done! As you say there will be lots of other races to enjoy, glad you’re feeling better now.

    • Hey and thank you! I did give it my all on the day, no doubt about that. Of course, afterwards I can’t help but think “I was only 2km away!”… It’s just one race, there will be others and not all races can be great. 😉

  5. Jim Brennan says:

    Every marathon is different, you just happened to have a rough one on your first. Anyone who completes five 20-mile training runs is not weak in my book. I swore I wouldn’t run another marathon after I ran my first in 1981, and I didn’t run another until 2001. I’ll run my fourteenth on Sunday. Get that one out of your system and move forward. I love your post, it is so honest. Keep running, and keep writing.

    • Dear Jim – thank you for your supportive words! I’m glad you enjoyed my post. It was a horrible experience in many ways, but mostly one I can learn from. Upwards and onwards!

  6. Riggle Runs says:

    I had to drop out of my first marathon at 32km. I knew it was the right decision at the time but I still felt guilty for not gutting it out. But as I made my way back to the finish to turn in my chip and cheer on my friends, I saw finishers passed out on stretchers, which promptly restored my faith in my decision. You’re definitely not weak and hopefully it provides the motivation to make your next marathon (or race) even better!

    • Thank you! I Not all runs are good and sometimes things just go wrong. It’s a shame when it happens in the first big race of such a long distance, with so much training that’s come before it. As I said in the post, I think it’s absolutely right to stop a run when it becomes too torturous or unhealthy. There will be other races and hopefully next time will be better!

  7. Live to fight (or run) another day. I understand the original marathon distance was 25 miles, so you probably did the distance of Pheidippides at any rate. Glad your outcome was better. Thanks for the follow. It helped me find your blog – another blogger who enjoys running with new travels.

    • Thank you for your visit and your kind words! The modern course starts at the stadium in Marathon and runs down to Marathon Bay, where the battle was fought. We passed the tomb of those who died in the battle around 5km into the course. I definitely covered the distance which Pheidippides ran, and still ran from Marathon to Athens. 😉 I just didn’t get a medal for it. I learned a lot from it and feel like I’ve achieved much regardless of not crossing that finish line. It’s just one day, one run – there will no doubt be others!

  8. I’m late here but commiserations and congratulations for what you went through and achieved! I really agree with your opinion on the situation: you gutted through with incredible determination but running past misery and to the point of risking your health isn’t what distance running is about. You were ridiculously and running-drunk comically brave. Also, as a medic I do find that image of the medic walking backwards in front of you both plausible and quite comical!

    • Thank you! I think that there’s a fine line between bravery and stupidity, and I have found that this line is blurry and it’s possible to be both at the same time. 😉 Running away from a medic only to be led away by another one walking backwards is definitely not one of my finer moments!

  9. Kudos to you for listening to your body. I’m sure it was a hard decision to make to stop running, but it sounds like a very smart move on your part! There is almost nothing worse than getting sick to your stomach on a run, you never know how your body is going to react. Thanks for posting about your experience, we all like to write about PR’s and how amazing running is but the reality is a lot can go wrong no matter how prepared we are-and with five 20 milers you were more than prepared! You handled the situation well, and there is another race out there waiting for you!

    • Thank you! I completely agree – there’s no room for error when it comes to a marathon, and we can only do our best on the day. The training was great, but on the day it just wasn’t happening. I’ll try again before too long!

  10. You actually made me feel better about my half marathon with stomach issues from last weekend. I felt pretty bad, but not as bad as you. I’m glad you’re doing ok. I bet your next attempt will be stellar.

    • I’m sorry you suffered too! Sometimes, things just don’t work out – we all have bad runs, it’s just a shame when it happens during the big race. I hope you feel better too, and keep running! You can learn a lot from these experiences!

  11. […] at this point a lot of runners were visibly starting to struggle (and heaven knows I’ve been there too!), but not today! I had found the 4:00 pacers, and couldn’t help but notice that the four […]

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