When a Race Goes Horribly Wrong

The Pittsburgh Marathon was meant to be MY race.

But little went as planned on May 6.

I trained long and hard last spring for my third marathon. I dodged snow plows, braved whipping winds on frigid, single-digit days and completed two 20-milers, one at a 9:40 minute/mile pace, my best yet. I actually paid attention to my diet and adjusted accordingly. I was ready to race.

But on race day, instead of celebrating a 26.2-mile journey, I was weeping in the shower.

I know it sounds bonkers, crying over exercise. But that’s how it panned out.

I headed to Pittsburgh the day before the race with two good friends, including my trusty running partner Gary. Early May in Pittsburgh was unseasonably hot, we realized as we walked to the expo from our downtown hotel. We took this as a sign to hydrate even more.

The highs reached into the 80s both days we were in the Steel City. It was sunny and humid, without a cloud in the sky.

I woke up race morning feeling fresh and ready to run. I ate, dressed and headed to the lobby with my running partners Gary and Audra.

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We bid our loved ones farewell and walked to the starting line.

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It was go time. I was antsy before we started running, but attributed to nerves.

There were other signs, however, that it was not my day.

Clue number 1: It was warm at 6 a.m.

Yep, it was hot and humid before we even started. Weather Service stats place the temp around 75 before we even hit the pavement. I struggle with speed in warmer weather. We should have adjusted our planned race pace to reflect the day’s forecast. But we were excited and knew we were well-prepared.

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Clue number 2: I felt like crap at mile 5.

I figured my energy would kick in several miles down the road. Some days I’m just not feeling it until I’ve logged a few miles. I just hoped the boost wasn’t too far off. Unfortunately, it never came.

Clue number 3: I stopped talking.

I’m typically a Chatty Cathy when running with my pals. I stopped contributing to the conversation shortly after mile 6.

“I knew something was off when you went quiet,” Gary said later.  “It’s not like you to be quiet for so long.” No offense, he added.

Gary and Audra kept asking if I was ok, I grunted affirmative answers. Audra checked if I wanted to walk and I declined. But I should’ve listened to her suggestion. There’s absolutely no shame in walking and it really may have made a difference.

Clue number 4: I couldn’t get enough water.

I grabbed multiple glasses of water at several hydration stations, dumping most in my mouth but some on my head. Gary handed me a drenched bandana to cool me down somewhere around mile 8.

Clue number 5: Things started turning purple.

That’s when I really started to take notice that something was wrong.

I’ve been overcome by the heat on training runs before and know that when start to see colors it’s time to listen to my body. That’s when I called it. This marathon wasn’t happening for me.

“Guys,” I grunted shortly before mile 10 and the turnoff for the half-marathon course. “I need to cut it at the half. I might make it 5 more miles but another 16 just isn’t happening.”

It killed me to say it. But I knew it was the right call. I knew if I dropped, they’d stop too. The last thing I wanted was to take my running partners down with me.

“You do what you have to do,” Audra assured me. “It’s ok.”

Moments later, we reached the split, I turned left with the half-marathoners and walked across a bridge that spanned the Monongahela River. Marathoners were running across the westbound lanes, and I veered toward the concrete barrier, prepared to climb over the wall, find my friends and to return to my rightful place in the race.

I stopped and shook my head. I couldn’t even run across the bridge, let alone another 16 miles.

I burst into tears.

I walked a half-mile or so before I started running again. I wanted to throttle anyone kind enough to cheer me on, assuring me I was running well and almost done. I wish.

Those last few miles were rough, I walked then ran and walked again. I finally saw the finish line and headed there as fast as possible. I grabbed a bottle of water and drained it.

A volunteer handed me a medal. I tried to dodge it, but it was plunked around my neck despite my protests. It was the least of my problems.

I made my way over to the family reunion area, where I fortunately located Gary’s wonderful family, who were surprised to see me, but took care of me nonetheless.

Two hours later, I was thrilled to see Gary and Audra finish the race, but teared up since I wasn’t with them.

Some runners tell me I need several factors to align on marathon day. I had trained properly – check. But the weather was not favorable. It was a good 25 degrees warmer than what I’d hoped for.

I should have heeded the warnings. There were so many things I could’ve done differently that may have allowed me to at least complete the race

But I didn’t. Life’s full of lessons, isn’t it?

Since May, I’ve completed two more marathons and am planning to run another in the fall. Can’t keep this runner down.

Have you ever had a race not go as planned? 

0 thoughts on “When a Race Goes Horribly Wrong

  1. Smart? Maybe. It was the right call for sure. Just a huge letdown. You finished your first! (and since 2nd!) such an incredible accomplishment! What’s next for you? Wineglass?

  2. I think anyone who has run a marathon or two realizes that there is only so much you can control, and it truly is a blessing — although that may seem an inapt word to you thinking back on Pittsburgh — to have the ability to listen to and know your body so well, and to learn something from every long run/race. That is the beauty of running distance (that, and getting to chat with some cool people on a regular basis).

    • You are right Mark. Not every race is going to be THE race, no matter how prepared you are! I am pretty blessed to run with a great group of people on a regular basis! Still can’t wait to hear more about your snow marathon!

  3. Ah yes! Ft. Lauderdale marathon in February of 2012. Almost a carbon copy of Pittsburgh. I had trained hard and was proud of my training. I had done two 20 mile training sessions solo, and one in 7 inches of fresh snow. My socks froze to me smeakers on that day. Marathon morning was warm, 68F. We ran in the dark for the first 10K, and then through a shaded nature preserve for the second 10K. I was on the mark for a 4 hour marathon at the 13.1 mile marker. Then the run went out onto Highway 1 or A1A as they call it in Florida, and the sun came out. The secenery along the ocean was beautiful, but the sun was cooking this fair haired New York boy like a lobster. I knew I was in trouble when I rubbed my hand across my shirt for some reason and I was not sweating! I did finish the marathon in about 5 hours and 38 minutes, not that I have the time engrained in my head or anything. When I finally ran across the finish line my wife Rene was there taking pictures and talking to me, I didn’t even hear her or recognize her. What a day! I must say that ocean sand feels real good on tired marathon feet!

  4. Almost forgot. The high for that day in Ft. Lauderdale was 87F. Hottest day on record for that date! Even the natives were complaining about the heat!

  5. Oh Dan! I remember your unseasonably warm Florida marathon. You were such a trooper to keep going! Its just hard when you train well, taper properly and are ready to run…. and mother nature has other plans for your big day. Your advice on this was so helpful as well!

  6. Your post was familiar to me–I have had a similar experience. I think the important thing is that we allow our running experiences to teach us lessons, which will help us down the road. As in all life lessons–they’re never fun to learn, but they enable us to be even better in the future 🙂

    • You are absolutely right! And I know I learned so much from this experience, even though it was horrible at the time. Now I just need to run a marathon in which I can attempt that 4:15 goal again!

  7. I ran the half that day, and had to go back to pace a friend for his last 6 miles, I ran home for a bit first, so I could lay in the AC. It was SO hot, I felt so bad for anyone running the full that day. I’m hoping we actually have Spring this year, since we went straight to summer last year. It’s good that you knew your limits, way to listen to your body. 🙂

    • Thanks Kristy. I’m glad I listened to my body as well. It was rough. Are you running the half again next year? How did your friend fare in the heat?

      • I’m doing the Flying Pig full this year instead, just for fun ->I’m doing Boston 3 weeks prior 🙂
        My friend did great, it was his first full marathon, his goal was sub-4, and he ran 3:59 something. (I personally think he could have ran a 3:45, but he was playing it safe.)

        • So glad it went well for your friend! Sounds like he was smart with playing it safe!

          Ah! The Flying Pig! That’s in Cincy, right? It looks like a blast! Good luck with Boston as well! How is training coming along? Here’s hoping the weather is far more seasonable than last year’s freak heat wave!

      • Yep, it’s in Cincy. It’s always the same day as Pgh’s, so I figured this was a good year to do it, since it’ll be just for fun anyway.
        I am really hoping the weather for Boston is better this year! I was just coming back from a femoral stress fracture, so my 1st run was Dec. 13th. Training was going well until almost 3 weeks ago, during my second 20 mile run, I started having pain in the opposite hip, so I haven’t ran since. At this point, the goal is to just start and finish Boston. I doubt I will do anymore long runs, but we’ll see, hoping to run pain free on Saturday.
        I’m scheduled to run a marathon a month for year, starting with Boston, so the goal is to just remain healthy. I will be blogging as I go, pghrunner.com. ☺☺

        • I found you and am now following you! you definitely made the right call on your self-imposed running hiatus until Boston. Better safe than sorry! And what a cool idea to run one marathon a month this year! What else are you planning to run? I’ve only got one more marathon on my dance card for 2013 – NYC! finally! But am planning on a few 1/2s

      • I’m going to start running again on Sat., I really hope I remain pain free, I’m doing Boston even if I have to crawl.
        As for my other races, there are too many to list, ha, I have my schedule on my blog, just click the green tab for raec schedule.
        Following you on Twitter too. 🙂 Maybe you guys will be running one of the races I am running. It’s bound to happen at some point.

        • I just peeked your schedule – nice! I’m going to have to check out a few of those summer marathons. I *might* be running Rock-n-Roll Pgh. Have you done that one before? Is it super hilly? Am sure we’ll run into one another at an upcoming event!

      • There you go! Pretty cool to be part of a race it’s inaugural year. I signed up for Cleveland’s RnR HM, also in it’s inaugural year.

        • Yeah! I wish I could run RnR Cleveland this year, but its the same weekend as another race I’ve already committed to. II might do RnR Philly. maybe, we’ll see

  8. Glad I found you! And thanks for the follow. Ugh, I remember this race last year. I did the half but I was overdressed in a tank and capri tights. All my photos of me I am drenched in sweat. But you definitely made the right call. You have to listen when your body speaks.

    • You’re welcome! I’m glad you found us too 🙂
      As you can see I had a rough go of it last year. But it was a good learning experience. It still makes me sad sometimes, but it completely the right call! Someday I’ll go back. I really want to conquer that course.

  9. Oh my gosh! Thanks so much for sharing. I feel like there is a real chance for this with my next race. Chicago in July can’t make up its mind. Thankfully I’ve been training in Alabama (its been in the 70s in the mornings since April) and Philly in a heat wave (Sunday’s 10.5 started at 79 degrees with 90% humidity). I felt terrible all day Sunday, but still hit below PR pace, which means I can do it. Just can’t psych myself out, or be stupid and push too hard.

    • You’re welcome. I know I am not alone when a planned race goes horribly, and I hope it helps. I know hearing from others’ about a bad run has really helped me as well.

      Chicago in July could be tough with heat and humidity, but you never know. Just be sure to listen to your body on race day. If its really hot or humid, slow down. that’s OK, it really is. Drink lots of water too. And don’t beat yourself up if conditions are favorable. There’s always the next race!!

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