Not So Scarlet Letters
I always had a bite-the-bullet, grit-your-teeth, and pound-your-chest approach to racing. I also recognized that there were going to be some race days when the powers that be would determine I had no power to be. Those races in which the old biorhythms were slightly out of whack, and that volunteer position of handing out drinks at the initial aid station sure seemed a lot more attractive.
But my credo was that no matter how poor I felt, I was determined I would always finish. Crawling, rolling, slithering—I’d get there one way or another. You wouldn’t see me with my T-shirt pulled up to conceal my face as I sat humiliated in the back of a support vehicle driving to the finish area.
The great runner Alberto Salazar was once administered his last rites after he’d plowed ahead and finished a race with heat stroke. Bob Kempainen, 1996 U.S. Olympic Marathon trials winner, literally tossed his cookies during the race, but he never went off stride, let alone off pace. My idols. I, too, was a warrior. I would finish every race, by any means. I was resolute. I was relentless. I was wrong.
Yes, I am here to admit before all that I’m now a card-carrying member of the Did Not Finish Club. Not really a lodge that everyone is clamoring to get into, but at least one that has some talented runners among its constituency, such as Bill Rodgers. Bill and I, combined, have won four Boston Marathon titles (all right, he’s got all four) and eight marathon DNFs [did not finish] (but he’s got seven of those).
Boston Billy has been smart enough to know when to give in to those little inconveniences, such as the severe dehydration that causes one to feel faint and delirious and see the lovely flashing lights. To paraphrase singer Kenny Rodgers (no relation to Bill):
You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em,
Know when to walk off the course and know when to run.
Don’t count your race finishes before you get to the end.
You may be only halfway through when your race is done.
Yes indeed, those heretofore dreaded and ignominious three letters, DNF, have now officially followed my name in the race standings. Much to my surprise, I was not immediately ostra-cized from the local running club and my application for the next race was not rejected and sent back to me with a note saying,
Sorry. We only accept finishers.
My joining the DNF club all started when I’d read perhaps one too many articles on proper hydration and how it was necessary to take in a sufficient amount of fluids the day before a marathon, especially if the weather was to be very warm.
I was about to run a marathon in the heat of summer and I proceeded to drink water, water, water. My activities the day before the race were then confined to either standing in the bathroom or at the kitchen sink restocking my water bottle. I figured I might not win the race, I might not set a PR, and I might even have to take (for the first time) a mid-race potty break. But I was darn tootin’ gonna be the most hydrated runner out there. A regular water buffalo extraordinaire. I’d take accomplishment wherever I could find it.
Well, apparently, a summer of running in the heat without adequate salt replacement had left me a little light on that highly important electrolyte called sodium. Seems my prerace-day lengthy lavatory intervals hadn’t really helped the situation. My overindulgent-camel routine had left me a little bit too watered down. I should have also had 1 or 12 salty V8s.
Come race day, the first sign something was amiss was when I didn’t need to participate in my prerace port-a-john ritual. This is when, about 46 seconds before the starting gun is to go off, I must bribe the person in front of the bathroom line, as my bladder feels like an overinflated beach ball ready to explode. Seems my condition that day had caused my body to retain all the liters of sport drink I’d ingested that morning, and I felt a little like a waterlogged combination of the Michelin Man and the Pillsbury Doughboy.
The second sign that perhaps this wasn’t destined to be a great, memorable experience was when it felt like I’d hit the wall 600 meters into the race. As the first mile unfolded, I tried to settle into a cadence that was in conjunction with the gush, gush, gush sound emanating from my stomach. It wasn’t a pretty picture. I had the lovely feeling of a swollen, nauseated whale.
By mile 2, those pesky little DNF thoughts first began echoing in my liquid-laden head. I mulled around the fact that perhaps running another 24.2 miles wasn’t the greatest idea to come along that day. But I was a runner—albeit a slower, more uncomfortable version of my former self. I’d been bred on the credo that winners never quit and quitters never win. However, by mile 3, I’d turned to a new page of Bartlett’s Quotations. I was still coherent enough to recall the quote of Teddy Roosevelt:
“The credit goes to the man who is actually in the
arena . . .who strives valiantly . . . and who, at the worst,
if he fails at least fails while daring greatly, so that his
place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who
know neither victory nor defeat.”
Yeah! That was it. I was daring and failing and most of all flailing, but at least a step ahead of those “timid souls.” Even if I quit. The problem was, before officially becoming a race calamity I needed to get to mile 10, as that was where I was first scheduled to see my family. If I packed it in before then, I’d have left them speculating, when I didn’t show up, how I could have become the first runner in modern marathon history to have gotten lost on a straight, well-marked, point-to-point course.
As I plodded forward, it had become quite clear that the only record I’d be setting that day was for being passed by the most runners within the first hour of a marathon. After 139, I stopped counting and simply squished on.
I eventually arrived at mile 10, and there was one slight problem. There, waiting for me, appeared to be the largest congregation of spectators ever assembled in North America. As bad as I felt, I had a little too much stubborn pride to step off the course at that juncture. I feared everyone would go instantaneously silent, collectively point their fingers right at me, and my face would be plastered on that evening’s sports news report in the blooper segment.
In going over the course map with my wife the night before, we had noted that I could easily be seen again either at mile 12 or mile 14. I was now simply praying that she missed me enough to opt for mile 12. She didn’t. I trotted on to mile 14, armed with the knowledge that it would be my finish line.
Upon arrival, I stopped running and officially became a Did Not Finish. And you know what? The running gods did not immediately strike me with a bolt of lightning, and I didn’t suddenly hear Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now saying, “The horror! The horror!”
I also wasn’t required to stand on a scaffold in the center of the local running store and receive the hurled insults of customers, nor to wear the scarlet letters DNF on my singlet at all future races of my lifetime.
I received some medical assistance and was much better later that day after digesting a few gallons of extra-salty salsa. The problem was having to repeat a zillion times to friends just what the heck had happened. After tiring of telling the real story, I opted for advising everyone that I’d actually won the 14-mile race that was held in conjunction with the marathon. No one took me up on my slightly disingenuous offer to see the winner’s trophy.
The good news was that it was the best I’d ever felt the day after a marathon. No soreness in the old quadriceps. Amazing what only going about halfway will do to shorten your marathon recovery time.
Now, I don’t plan to add to the DNF tally that Bill Rodgers and I share. But the DNF did produce something similar to what I learned after finishing my first marathon. It is survivable. And no one laughs at you. Really.
But you just don’t feel quite as justified partaking in the postrace refreshments.