There are a few people in the world (Dean Karnazes says he’s one) who can train for marathons and ultramarathons without getting injured. I suppose it is because they are biomechanically engineered for running, have perfect form, and got the “running gene.” Then there’s folks like me. I run because it makes me feel great, but it also hurts sometimes. I have to be careful. On the other hand, if I stopped running every time I felt a little twinge, I’d be back on the couch where I sat for four decades. No thanks.
Earlier this week, my Achilles tendon was a bit sore and inflamed. Uh oh. I iced it and stretched it. I told Coach Dave about it on Saturday. “Hmm,” he mused. “Had you not told me that, I was going to have you do a six-hour long run tomorrow.” We consulted, and in the end he told me to have a six-hour run as my goal, but if the Achilles kicked up, stop running. “And don’t take ibuprofen; that will mask the pain.”
The weather was not about to cooperate with this plan: forecasts were in the 90s with high humidity. Last time I ran in similar heat, I ended up with some crazy rash on my feet and legs, diagnosed via the internet as “heat rash,” also known as “diaper rash.” This time, I got ready by waking up at 4:30 am. I put goop (aquaphor) on my feet and bra line to avoid chafing, and then I dumped powder in my socks. I think this is what they do to babies with diaper rash. Only they put the powder in their diapers. I slathered myself with sunscreen, SPF 50 with zinc, and then I sprayed sunscreen on top of that. I loaded my running pack with extra sunscreen for later.
And, as the sun rose, I took off. I ran for about an hour circuitously from my house in Byrd Park towards the Sportsbackers’ Stadium, where my marathon training team (team Cocoa) was to begin its 8-mile run. I got near the Stadium with some time to spare, so I did some nearby loops, and in doing so I spied several marathon training team peeps who looked at me quizzically, no doubt wondering why I was adding “a mile or two” to the 8-miles on the plan.
I refilled my water bottles and added Tailwind, my nutrition, to my bottles, and listened to the banter. “I usually run faster, but I think I’ll run about a nine minute pace today, because it is just so hot.” A nine-minute mile is what I can do on a good day in the winter, if I don’t have to do anything else for a few days. As I waited for the official start, I wondered if I should forge ahead, but because it was my first day with the group, I waited. Coach Ellie, also a fabulous chef, said a few words about our route (which would take us back to Byrd Park and through Carytown) and we were off.
Or I should say, everyone was off, and I was right there behind them. After a half mile or so I spotted a woman behind the rest of the group, and I surged to catch up to her. “I’m Lou,” she said. Lou was more or less my age, and this was her first marathon training team year. “Your first marathon?” I asked. “Oh, no, not my first, and I’m getting slower, but I don’t worry about that anymore.” How many marathons has Lou done? 80‼ Wow. After a mile or so, I realized that Lou’s slow pace was around 11 minutes per mile, not something I could sustain if I planned to run for six hours, so I dropped back and let her go. This left me dead last. One of the team’s coaches ran with me for a bit, seemingly concerned at first about my slow pace, though he was kind enough not to say anything other than “how are you doing?” “I’m doing FABULOUS, thank you! Today I am going to run for six hours.” (A/k/a, well, I’m slow, but I’m not about to fall out and require an ambulance.) Once he realized I would make it and I knew the way, he was off to tend to folks who were faster, but less sure of the distance. Soon I noticed a group of runners who had headed the wrong way and were retracing their steps. For a moment, I thought I’d catch them, but of course they were faster than I am, which is how they did this far plus “bonus miles” faster than I did. I let them go, too.
Just around the corner, I heard and saw something terrible. A dog was barking and slamming against the inside of a car. There was no sign of a human. Inside the car, I saw the dog, a pit bull, next to a bowl of water. The windows were not cracked. I noticed that the front door itself was cracked, as was the hatchback to the car. But only a crack, and in this heat, the dog would die quickly. I turned off my watch and looked about for the owner. I took out my phone and wondered aloud what to do. As I was about to dial 911, a police officer showed up. Later I learned that Coach/Chef Ellie Basch had called 911 when she ran by. She also was the person who cracked the door and hatchback. The owner had left the dog there without even cracking any windows or doors! The police officer said that animal control was on the way: they would take the dog if the owner did not show up. Later Ellie drove back and reported that the car was still there, with a ticket on the windshield, and the dog was gone: no doubt taken by animal control.
Back at Sportsbackers, I refilled my water bottles and reapplied sunscreen liberally. I asked for recommendations about the most scenic route to downtown, and took off, with one guy shouting at me as I left “you are going out again? I saw you running in before we started.” Little did he know that I had over three hours of running left to do. One of the advantages of running on your own is that you can go wherever you’d like and change your mind at a moment’s notice. So I headed through Northside neighborhoods to make my way downtown. I enjoyed the scenery, the old homes and big trees, and then I turned onto an unfamiliar road. I was a bit disoriented, and then I realized I’d been there before, on a bicycle, lost. That other time, I had (1) asked a homeless person for directions (who told me something very confusing), (2) asked Siri for directions (who gave me directions to Hong Kong and mentioned water) and (3) cried. This time, no tears; I just ran toward the tall buildings in the distance. The key was that I had to run so far and so long, it didn’t really matter if I ran a few miles “too far” this way or that.
It worked! I got to Jackson Ward, then through the downtown streets I made my to Brown’s Island, where my friend Emily Bashton was doing her first race as a pro at Xterra. I wanted to arrive in time to see her finish this race. As I arrived, she was leaving “T2,” which means she had finished her swim and bike ride, and was headed out on the last leg of her race, a 10K run. Well, Emily’s a heck of a lot faster than I am, so I knew I could get something to eat and drink and cool down a bit and she’d be back in no time. And so she was. It was thrilling to watch her cross the finish line. She came in 8th overall among the pro women triathletes. GO, Emily!
After more sunscreen, I walked with my friend Susan Ann toward her car and then took the pedestrian bridge from Tredegar to Belle Isle, where there is a scenic dirt running path on the grounds where, during the Civil War, Union troops were held. The route was shady, thank goodness, so I did two loops. On the second loop, I was thinking about what an incredibly lucky woman I am for getting to run for six hours on a hot Sunday. I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. And my mind went off into happy land. Do you know what happens when you are running on dirt or trails and your mind goes into happy land? My toe caught on a rock and SPLAT! I found myself lying flat, face-first on the ground. There was dirt all over my legs, body, and arms. And a little between my teeth. I spent the requisite two minutes inspecting the damage and feeling sorry for myself, and then I got up and dusted myself off. Oh, well.
Next up, I climbed the stairs at 22nd street to get to Riverside Drive. I took one long pause to view the James River from the top of the stairs, and then I was delighted to see that the entire 22nd street entrance to the Buttermilk Trails had been renovated. It’s beautiful! And the water fountain there was great for washing off my wounds from my fall. I hopped onto Riverside Drive on the theory that it is shady. I had forgotten, though, just how hilly it is! And by now, it was getting hotter. It was a slow few miles that got me back to the Nickel Bridge, just a short way from home. As the six hour mark loomed on the horizon, I began figuring out my last miles. I had in mind finishing 27 miles before the end, but about two miles to the finish, I realized that to do that, I would have to find Lou’s 11 minute per mile pace again. And that wasn’t going to happen. So I started to walk. It was right then that I realized: my Achilles was fine! It had not flared up all day. I finished my six hours right at 26.2 mile, a marathon. A slow marathon, but not a bad day’s work for such a hot and humid day. No medal, but I walked right into my backyard, took off my shoes, and got right in the pool with my running dress on. Felt good on the boo-boos on my knees from the fall, and on the heat rash I’d gotten, yet again. Ahhhhh!