We Learn From Failure, Not From Success.

“I am glad that I paid so little attention to good advice; had I abided by it, I might have been saved from some of my most valuable mistakes.”

–  Edna St. Vincent Millay

Prior to running the Athens Classical Marathon, I had contemplated a plethora of possible race scenarios: great run, good run, fun run, slow run, tough run, seemingly endless run, painful run… The one thing that wasn’t on my list of conceivable outcomes was the dreaded DNF. This post is not really intended as a moan about the first race I’ve not completed (ok, maybe a little); it’s mostly about accepting that stuff (and other things beginning with s) happens.

I’m happy to make a mistake. Heck, sometimes I go and make the same mistake three or four times, just to make sure that it’s definitely a mistake. However, now that I have learned that making a mistake in a marathon results in a long, long journey of inconceivable misery, which slowly descends towards a final destination in the depths of deepest despair, I have decided that there are some mistakes I’d rather not repeat.*

So what went wrong?

First and foremost, I simply wasn’t prepared for the heat on the day of the race. And to be fair, nobody was prepared for that, as average temperatures in Athens are around 14 degrees in November. On the day of the marathon, it was officially 26 degrees, but my watch clocked a scorching 31 degrees around lunchtime. To say that I didn’t train in these conditions is an understatement – living in Scotland, I never had a chance to do so.

Still, on the day of the race I did everything as I had practised during my long runs – which meant that after a mere 12 kilometres I was experiencing the first signs of dehydration.

At this point, my lack of experience with the distance and conditions meant that I never realised what was happening to me and therefore failed to do anything useful to remedy the situation. If I had slowed down significantly at this point in the race and re-fuelled properly, I believe that I might have drastically changed the nature of my subsequent run.

Instead, I just decided to do what every darn motivational message about marathons tells you to do; I kept going when things got tough. As it turned out, this was the single worst thing I could have done. (Oh, hindsight!) I’ve learned an important lesson about marathons (and life in general) and that is that there is only one rule when it comes to holes: when you are in one, don’t keep digging.

Ultimately, my marathon debut ended after 40 kilometres as a result of a rookie hydration and nutrition mistake, coupled with my complete lack of experience of how to deal with these issues.

However, it would be unfair to write the whole event off as a failure.

Head in Hands

Despite not crossing the finish line, it wasn’t all bad:

I ran 40 km in one go, which is further than I have ever run before. Okay, so it was two kilometres short of the finish line.  On a training run, that little shortfall wouldn’t even bother me. I still ran from Marathon to Athens, and the modern route is longer than that which Pheidippides ran all those years ago. Unlike the Greek hero, I survived the experience (barely). Hey, I even got further than Paula Radcliffe did on the same route in 2004.

Secondly, I absolutely loved the training. Not for a second did I think that it was all for nothing – nothing that happened on the day of the race can diminish the 1000 wonderful kilometres I have run in preparation for the race. I also believe that my training itself was good – my legs felt great on the day and my recovery was swift.

On the day, I handled the tricky start of the race quite well, in that my pacing was steady and appropriate. I have some fantastic memories of locals handing olive branches to the runners around the tomb of Marathon and even brought one home with me. I loved seeing hundreds of children standing by the side of the road, watching the runners fly by with big, admiring eyes and outstretched hands waiting for a high-five. I was happy to oblige, as often as I could.

I actually ran a pretty good and well-paced first half of the marathon. I should add that I’m reasonably familiar with racing the half-marathon distance. Although I have never before run into trouble as early as 12km in a race before, I somehow can’t help but think that I subconsciously went into some half-marathon survival mode which I didn’t even know I possess, but which could nevertheless come in very handy in future races.

Finally, I’m genuinely glad that I stopped when I did. Pulling out of the race was not easy, but it has taught me a lot about myself as a person and as a runner. Some runners drop out of races the moment their goal time becomes unattainable while others don’t drop out until they literally collapse. I was physically unwell when I stopped; shaking and weakened by severe cramps. Clearly, I’m not a runner who will run myself to oblivion for the sake of a medal. I’m cool with that. I am grateful for the moment of clarity I had during the darkest moments of the race: I run for fun, because I enjoy it and because it’s good for me. Ok, so I won’t be an Olympic runner any time soon. I’m glad I’ve cleared that up for myself.

And now the rant – I’m sorry. (I’m not sorry.)

Sometimes, dropping out of a race is the right thing to do. There, I said it. I know it directly defies the countless pictures, articles, motivational slogans, mugs, t-shirts, and whatnots which suggest that running is painful but that true runners are so awesome they rise above the pain and keep going anyways. I’ve learned that this can be a dangerous message. Running on tired legs and fighting fatigue is one thing every runner needs to face at some point. However, this should not be confused with running through an injury or genuine physical distress, which is just silly, self-destructive and dangerous.

I’m not trying to justify my own actions; I maintain that I am glad that I dropped out of my first marathon. Sure, a DNF is a nasty blow to the system (not to mention ego), but I’d take it any day over a medal presented in conjunction with an IV drip in the back of an ambulance on route to the nearest A&E.

Because I dropped out, I was able to run again in the days that followed the race. It also meant that despite everything, my first marathon has been a positive experience for me, and one which has taught me so much!

forward

*Naturally, I’m already planning my next marathon.

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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.

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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.