The Toronto Marathon: Something Old, Something New …

“Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.”

Yes, I realize this saying is related to weddings and it’s typically reserved for the bride, but it seems appropriate for my race report for the Toronto Marathon, so I’m stealing it.

Something Old

That would be me.  I am now officially an old man who cringes at the sounds of a party.  In the hotel room next to me.  The night before a marathon.

Becuase my kids had a full day of baseball games and tournaments on their schedule for Saturday, and because my parents were also in town visiting, I didn’t want to leave Cincinnati until Saturday evening.  My flight got me into Toronto at about 8:30 PM and to the hotel by about 9:30 PM.  As I made my way down the hallway to my room, I could hear loud music and a bunch of people obviously in full party mode.  There were plenty of, “Dude!  That’s so cool!” to be heard.  It reminded me of dorm parties in college.  So I called down to get my room moved, which they did without any fuss at all. After getting situated, I got to bed by about 11:00 PM.  Not too bad.  Now, I typically don’t sleep well the night before any race, so I didn’t expect a full 6 hours, but I also didn’t expect to hear from Dude and the Dudettes again either.  But, Dudes ‘R Us and crew decided that the hotel couldn’t possibly contain their “epic blowout” (that’s an actual quote), so they noisily made their way to the elevator.  And back.  Twice.  2:00 AM and 4:00 AM.

Dude.  Not righteous.  I felt like the old man at the end of every Scooby Doo cartoon.  “And I would have made it, too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids…”

Something New

I went down to the start area early on Sunday morning.  This was a well organized set of races, and the way they set things up was great.  The half marathoners started at 8:00 AM, the marathon started at 9:00 AM, marathon relay runners went off at 9:20 AM and the 5K start was at 10:00 AM.  That made for almost no congestion at the beginning of the race.  No time spent zig-zagging in and out in order to keep any kind of pace at all.  Loved it.  They also had an indoor area where runners could wait before the start, which helped me a ton.  Since I couldn’t make it to Toronto until late the evening before, I had completely missed the expo, which meant I had to pick up my bib Sunday morning before the race start.  It was pretty cold Sunday morning, in the mid-40s, and it was raining off and on, so being able to relax inside for the hour and a half I had until the gun went off was very welcome indeed.

Another “new”.  The race started promptly at 9:00 AM in a light drizzle and temps somewhere in the 40s.  I had made the call that morning to wear a long sleeve running shirt instead of the short sleeve one I had thought I would be wearing.  Later on, I’d be very glad I did.  I settled in early and found my pace pretty easily, right at about 8:30 min/mile.  There were a few nice downhills and one decent uphill pretty early on, but even with those, I managed to keep my pace pretty steady.  As I was running along, I realized something the “something new” that should have been incredibly obvious:  I wasn’t in the U.S.  More specifically, the markers along the course were all in kilometers, not miles.  Didn’t seem like much of a big deal, I’d just keep watching my Garmin to keep on pace.  Until I couldn’t.

Something Borrowed

Just after the halfway point, the course takes the runners under a large, relatively long underpass.  This was borrowed from the Chicago Marathon, I’m certain, because how else could I keep up this ridiculous analogy?  In Chicago, that underpass is right after the start, and it threw me for a loop then too.  That same kind of satellite-blocking underpass in Toronto was far later in the race, but it had the same result for me:  mild panic.  When I glanced at my watch for the next couple of miles, it was reporting really odd paces.  Like 13:00 minute miles although I hadn’t slowed a bit.  The great part was that we got to go through it again at about mile 24 and mess me up one last time before the end.  I need to investigate this more so that I don’t get mentally thrown by this in the future.  That, and I need to begin wearing a pace bracelet so I only really need to know my elapsed time.  Lesson learned.

One other borrowed item; a quote.  All week long prior to the race, the weather report kept getting worse and worse.  Last Monday, the race day forecast was mid 50s and overcast with a slight chance of rain.  As the week progressed, it deteriorated to what it actually ended up being on race day:  high 40s/low 50s, steady-ish rain with wind gusts from the north at 20-30 mph.  After seeing that, a friend of mine sent me a quote from Bill Bowerman, the famed University of Oregon track coach:  “There is no such thing as bad weather, just soft people.”  I kept repeating that to myself after making the turn back towards the finish.  This out and back portion of the course is a tough, long slog under good circumstances, but it was even harder on Sunday.  The turn for the change from “out” to “back” is made in the middle of mile 19, and honestly, I was hurting by then.  As I made the turn, we found three wonderful things greeting us:  steadier rain, a long slow uphill, and the hard wind in our faces.  I wished I had borrowed Bowerman’s steely resolve because my pace really deteriorated during this stretch.

Something Blue

Once again, the something blue was me.  More on that in a moment.

As I fought hard through the last portion of the race, I found myself having to stop to walk every now and again because I found myself cramping pretty badly.  Just my hamstrings at first, then lots of other leg muscles later.  While I had been alternating Gatorade and water at the stops in the second half of the race, I still don’t think I did a good job with my electrolytes.   I had absolutely no issues at all with dizziness and my heart, which was a huge relief, not only to me, but to my family and friends as well.  But, I think if I would have done a better job managing that, I could have finished the race a bit stronger.  Another lesson learned.

When I finally made my way into Queen’s Park for the finish line, I was just physically wrecked.  I know you’re supposed to be, but since this was my first marathon where I ran the whole way, I hadn’t really experienced the physical toll before.  I couldn’t get myself to run, even though I had just a quarter of a mile or so to go.  I tried repeatedly, but I had nothing in the tank.  One of the race volunteers wearing a red vest saw me struggling and came up to me to help.

“How are you doing?” she asked.

“Hurting,” was all I could muster.

“Sick or just tired?”

“Not sick,”  I said.

“OK, so let’s try something.  No running yet, but let’s just see if you can bounce a bit.”  And so I bounced.  “Let’s turn that into a shuffle. Just a shuffle.”  And I started to shuffle.  “Doing great.  Can you make it a jog?”  So I jogged.  “Don’t look now, but you’re about to enter the chute.  50 meters to go.”

I looked at the finish line, looked her in the eye and said, “Thank you,” as I took off to finish my vindication marathon running.

Whomever you are, thank you.  From the bottom of my heart, thank you.  Amazing what a positive impact a complete stranger can have.

After crossing the finish line, I kind of stumbled my way through getting my medal, a mylar blanket, a carton of chocolate milk and a bagel.  I asked a volunteer to point out where the shuttle buses back to the hotel were.  My flight back home was at 4:30 and by then it was a little after 1:00, so I knew I couldn’t waste much time.  I made my way to the buses and  started to shiver a bit since the wind was still up and I was soaked, head to toe. I, along with about 6 other marathoners gingerly climbed the stairs of the bus, then ever-so-slowly sat down in our seats.  After sitting and enjoying the heated bus for about 5 minutes, the driver announced that the bus taking us to the Marriott had just pulled up.  “We need to get off this bus?”  “You sure do.”  And in unison, 7 rain-soaked, exhausted, freezing runners, said, “F*#k.”  Pretty comical moment.

We slowly moved from one bus to the other, and in another minute, we were pulling away to head to the hotel.  After what only seemed like three blocks, our driver said, “OK, you’ll hop off here, then go down this block, make a left, and the Marriott is 2 blocks up.”  “You mean we have to get out and walk?” asked the Grumpy 7.  “You sure do.”  And we all sang the same refrain again.

By the time I walked to the hotel and was waiting for the elevator, I was shaking uncontrollably I was so cold and tired.  A group of people who were walking toward the same bank of elevators stopped talking all at once to say, “You look kind of blue.  And cold.”

A warm shower has never felt so good.  And I did make it to the airport on time, made the flight, and was able to get back to my family in time to exchange marathon stories for baseball stories.

This marathon truly was a vindication for me.  After having to walk/run the entire second half of the Chicago Marathon last fall due to a knee injury, then blacking out after the 16th mile at the Flying Pig two weeks ago, this one was my first, solid, no injury, no issues marathon.  I went into it not necessarily caring what time I ran, just wanting to complete it running and anything else was gravy.

I learned a lot of lessons out there on Sunday.  I learned that I’m not quite as far along as a runner as I thought I was.  That’s not me beating myself up, it’s just me looking at the facts, and I am completely OK with that.  Now I know what I need to improve if I want better times.  I also learned that I need to rely a lot less on my Garmin to help me keep pace.  Sometimes simple really is better.

And finally, I learned that when you set a goal for yourself, and you let nothing stop you from getting to it, not even fear, you can remind yourself, your kids, your wife and your family, that anything can be achieved.

When I started this marathon training cycle, I had set my goals to be:  A) 4 hour marathon, B) 3:50:00 as a stretch, and C) 3:45:00 if everything went absolutely perfect.  Well, I attained my A goal by running a 4:00:40 marathon, and I’m damn proud of it.

Toronto Marathon: Why I’m Running

I realize that given my recent issue at the Flying Pig Marathon, it seems crazy to think that I’d immediately turn around and sign up for another.  But I have.  Today I confirmed my registration for the Toronto Marathon which is this Sunday, May 15th.  So why am I doing this?

  1. I received good news from the cardiologist.  The thickening of the walls of my heart are nowhere near what you’d see in a disease state, like you might see in hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.   He told me it’s simply something I need to be aware of, and to take extra steps to make sure I hydrate properly.  That’s something that’s in my control to do.  When I asked him if I could keep running, he said, “Absolutely.  Just hydrate better.”  “Running marathons?”  “Yes, knock yourself out.”  Having a cardiologist with a sense of humour is of dubious comfort.
  2. I want to.  I admit it.  I put in a lot of hard work over the last 4½ months to prepare, so I’d like to see this through until the end.  In my way of thinking, what happened last Sunday was a stumble, and I want to move on.
  3. The most important reason to do this, however, is not for me.  It’s for my family.  I cannot allow the lasting memory they have of me in a marathon to be me face down on the side of the road.  It makes my kids afraid and it makes my wife worry.  My sisters and parents too.  Since the Pig, every time I’ve left the house and said, “I’m going for a run,” I could see the worry in their eyes.  I want it to go back to two weeks ago when there was pride in their eyes when I was heading out for my run.  I know that’s too much to ask so soon, but I believe that this will go a long way toward helping their healing begin.  And I want my boys to learn a hard life lesson:  you don’t fold your hand every time you’re faced with adversity.  Get up, get back out there and fight.


    The Flying Pig: an unexpected result

    A couple of months ago, I found and posted a funny picture of a running t-shirt a friend had pointed out to me. The irony will become apparent as you read.

    Funny running t-shirt

    Sunday morning, May 1st, started early.  While my alarm was set for 4:00AM, it wasn’t really needed as I had a fitful night’s sleep and was awake before it ever went off.  Par for the course on race day eve for me.  I never sleep well before races, so I got up, got dressed and went downstairs to start getting ready to head down to the Flying Pig Marathon.  I ate my typical breakfast, took in a bottle of water with some electrolytes then got in the car to go to the race.

    I have never been so confident going into a race before.  All of my training, including a tune-up half marathon about a month ago, went very, very well.  I had a goal I felt like I could reach and a plan to make it happen.  The weather is always a factor in an event like this, and frankly, it wasn’t cooperating.  Here’s what the forecast showed that morning.

    Weather forecast for the Flying Pig

    There are some things in life I can’t control, and the weather is surely one of them.

    Once down at the race, I had a bit more water with electrolytes, made one more quick trip to the portapotties, then went to my corral and found the pace group I planned to follow:  3:45:00.  My spirits were high and I was still feeling great about the marathon.  As it had last year at the Flying Pig, the rain started about 15 minutes before the gun went off, so we all stood there trying to keep as dry as we could waiting to hear the countdown to the start.  And soon, the gun did go off and the Flying Pig Marathon was under way.

    One thing you learn to accept as a runner is that some days you’ll just feel it and the whole run will seem effortless. Other days will feel like you’re working hard for every stride.  I got a taste of the effortless, cruising feeling at the Heart Half Marathon in March.  Although I held a quicker pace than I had ever run, I never felt like I was really pushing hard.  Sunday was not at all that way.  Right from the beginning, the 8:35 pace I planned to keep in order to reach my goal felt like work.  I wasn’t struggling, just working.  So be it.  That’s why you train, in order to know how you’ll react when it’s easy, and what it will feel like when you have to push hard to get there.  While training for this race, I had three 20+ mile runs.  The first 20 miler and the next 21 mile run fell into the “cruising” category.  The last 20 miler was work.  All three of them were run at about the same average pace and on the same course, it’s just that the effort level to accomplish them felt different.  Again, that’s why we train.

    So the race went on and the miles went by.  Even the big hills between miles 5 and 8 weren’t so bad.  As I was approaching the Hyde Park area (at about miles 9 and 10), I got to see some friends cheering, and I knew I’d see my wife and two boys as well.  And sure enough I got some high fives and “Go Dad!” cheers.  That’s always a pick-me-up.  At this point, my average pace was about 8:27, right about where I wanted it to be.  Everything was going according to plan.

    Just after after mile 14, nature called.  I’ve never had to stop to use “the facilities” during a race before, but sometimes when ya gotta go, ya gotta go.  Since I was a bit ahead of schedule pace-wise, I wasn’t concerned about it, and just got back to running when I was done.

    Soon after the 15 mile mark, I got to see my wife and kids again, which was a surprise.  Because my younger son had a baseball game scheduled for Sunday, I only expected to see them that one time back in Hyde Park, so it was great to get another jolt of energy.  As I approached the 16 mile marker, I had another surprise, but this one not so good: I got a little bit light-headed and dizzy.  A few seconds of internal debate lead me to decide to stop and walk for a small bit, and that seemed to clear the cobwebs, so I went back to running after maybe 15-20 seconds of walking.  When I started running again, I felt strong with no more dizziness at all.  I passed the 16 mile marker and checked my watch:  2:16:04, still right on the money at an average pace of 8:30/mile, so the small bathroom break and the short walking stint hadn’t really affected my goal pace badly at all.

    I was about to enter part of the course that doubles back upon itself.  I wondered if I’d get to see my family one more time since they wouldn’t have had to move at all to see me again, but I couldn’t do the mental math to know if waiting would make my son late for his game, so I tried not to get my hopes up.

    Then everything went black.

    The next thing I remember was waking up, face down on the side of the road.  People were shaking me saying, “Are you OK?”  and “Wake up!”  and “Is it OK to turn him over?” and “Call 911.”

    I had collapsed on the course.

    When I came to, I remember wondering why I was in the dirt and leaves, and how I got there.  These memories are only in tiny slices because I wasn’t quite with it yet, but I remember a runner stopping and saying, “I’m a physician.  I’ll stay with him until the EMTs get here.”  I have no idea how much time passed but I do remember EMTs asking me questions.  At some point, I noticed my wife and two boys were there, and it registered with me that they were visibly (and in retrospect, understandably) upset.  As they closed the door on the ambulance, they told me they were letting my younger son ride up front to distract him with the lights and sirens.

    Two small side trips into history, one from a long time ago and one more recent.  When I was 13 years old, I started to have trouble with dizziness and getting light-headed during exercise.  I noticed it while at basketball practice that year.  I had a bunch of tests run at the time to try to find a cause.  One thought was that it was blood sugar-related, so they ran a glucose tolerance test on me.  Another thought was that it was heart-related, so I had to wear a portable EKG for a week (including during basketball practice).  The result of all of that:  nothing.  No heart issues, no blood sugar issues.

    Last summer as I had started training for my first marathon, I noticed an occasional bout with light-headedness, especially on warm, humid days.  I decided to visit a nutritionist and one of the main pieces of advice she gave me was to drastically increase the amount of water I was taking in on a daily basis.  Based on the amount of running I was doing, I was not hydrating to meet my body’s needs especially with all of the exercise.  So, I started drinking at least 2L of water daily and haven’t stopped.  Since making that change, I hadn’t had any issues with getting dizzy running (until Sunday).

    Back to Sunday.  Once at the hospital, they did 5 tests so see what was going on: a urinalysis, a blood analysis, a chest X-ray, an MRI and an EKG.  From all of those tests, only two things showed up as problematic.  I was extremely dehydrated and I had a bacterial infection.  Nothing regarding the heart, head or lungs at all.  As soon as I saw my urine when giving them a sample, I could have told them it would come back as dehydrated.  It was way too dark and most runners become pretty attuned to that color as an indication of their hydration after a run.  I saw three different doctors that day, including a cardiology fellow from the Cleveland Clinic.  She told us we had nothing to worry about, that this was a simple case of dehydration syncope and that I needed to do a better job of taking in fluids during the race.  She went so far as to say that I would have never been admitted to her hospital; this hospital was being far too cautious.  The other two doctors also independently came to the same conclusion:  the tests showed nothing to indicate any serious underlying issue.  However, they still wanted to get an echocardiogram (ECG) to make sure.

    The plan was to get the ECG first thing Monday morning, then get it read by the cardiology specialist, and assuming everything was good, I’d be out of there before 10:00 AM.  I’ll write another hospital rant post at some point, but in the end, the ECG was completed and the cardiologist called back to give me the results.  Same as before, with one small wrinkle.  The valves looked good, the blood flow looked good, the rhythm was good, and communication between the two sides of the heart was working properly.  However, he did notice a thickening of the walls of the heart.  When I asked what that could mean, he said it would make me more susceptible to passing out if I got dehydrated, but other than that, I’d be fine.  So I asked him if I had any resctrictions and he said none.  “You mean I could go running tomorrow?”  “Sure, just make certain to stay hydrated.”

    At that point I finally got to go home (11:00 PM, for those keeping score).  In my excitement to be leaving the hospital, I did not ask very many follow up questions.  Once I got home, I couldn’t sleep quite yet so I decided to do some research on thickening of the heart walls, and honestly, I scared the hell out of myself.  The first thing you come across is a disease called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Otherwise known as the #1 cause of sudden death in athletes.  Scary stuff.  Since then, I’ve had to keep reminding myself that the cardiologist did NOT say I had HCM, he said he noticed that the walls of my hear are a bit thickened.  I’m still waiting on a call back from the doctor to get that, and a handful of other questions answered.

    The Flying Pig did not turn out the way I thought it would, obviously.  What did happen put a pretty big scare in me and maybe even more so, my family.  The doctors have given me a very clear message, that I shouldn’t be hampered by this at all in the future, assuming I do a better job hydrating, so I’ve decided to not let this stop me from doing the thing I love: running.  My first post race/emergency room visit will be tonight.

    During this whole ordeal, I got absolutely amazing support from so many people, far and wide.  My family checked in on me constantly, my wife’s family helped occupy my boys while they worked on me at the hospital, and my running friends from all over helped keep my spirits up via text and Twitter.  Thank you all so much.

    To wrap this up, I thought I’d post my Garmin data from my run.  The amusing thing about it is that you can see where I come to a stop after mile 16, but nobody paused my Garmin, as the t-shirt above suggested.  So you can see my journey from the Flying Pig Course to the hospital, all covered in exquisite detail.