The Ninth Half Marathon (or Nature Calls)

Caveat Lector (Let the Reader Beware). This running post is a bit blunter than most of my previous running posts. You have been warned.

For those that run distance, you know that sooner or later, nature calls. Sometimes it is a subtle whisper and other times it is a scream. I have always said that when running distance you have the Three P’s and the F to consider, together known as the Four Considerations: Food, Pace, Potable Water, and Potty.

My ninth half marathon in Charlevoix, MI, brought the last one of the Four Considerations to my attention. No, I didn’t crap myself although secretly I think my “Running Wife,” Jenn, might have found that amusing since she had to contend with a rumbly stomach before, during, and after several races.  Some included epic stories that we still laugh about years later.

The day before, for whatever reason, my belly was not happy. I thought that whatever it was had passed, literally, by Saturday morning. I had a rather restful sleep at my friend’s house in Elk Rapids and woke up feeling pretty good…at first. By the time we completed the half hour drive to Charlevoix, my stomach was grumbly and my back was a bit achy. I expected the latter after the factory work I endured for the previous two weeks.

Once we got there and found the running party, I headed off to start my half marathon. My friend Andi was doing her first 5k and would begin her race a half hour later. The time came and we started off. Slow. None of us in our little band, which coincidently, were some of the same folks that I did my first marathon with four years prior, were going for a PR for this race. We just wanted to have fun and enjoy a new course. It was about 62 degrees, overcast, and foggy. It was good weather to run a race and I had a short bout of being bummed about not doing the marathon. But I knew it was a good decision. I didn’t know how good it would be until later.

Now mind you, by the time I started, I probably used the restroom at least 10 times in the past 24 hours. It was that crazy. The “SYT Diet Plan” was in overdrive and I should have kept my electrolytes up. Oh, what exactly is the SYT Diet Plan? “S&!# Yourself Thin” is what the SYT stands for. This wasn’t what my friend Kari calls a “Panic Poo.” This was something more akin to Cholera.

But the first three or four miles went well. Being that it was foggy, the sweat rolled right off rather than evaporated but since it was cool and overcast, we didn’t overheat. However, the full feeling in my bladder didn’t go away like it sometimes does. I finally caved and decided somewhere around mile 5 to head off to water a tree. I eventually found a place and shot off the trail to the clump of trees and tall grasses.

By the time I rapidly loosened the string on my running shorts and started to “make water,” as Morgan Freeman would say in “Driving Mrs. Daisy,” I realized I would be breakfast for about three dozen mosquitos. There was no hope in keeping them off my arms, legs, neck, or face. But I was determined that no mosquito was going to bite me…where it mattered. The old middle school lyric “there’s a skeeter on my peter, whack it off,” suddenly jumped from some dusty corner of data storage termed “childish and useless” into my conscious mind. By the time I was done and running back to the trail, I must have taken 4 or 5 bites. None where it mattered frankly.

Now that should have been the glitch in the race. But I had more to come. My new engineering job has a lengthy orientation on the factory floor that is rather labor intensive and tough. After die grinding shafts for hours and hours bent over on a used wire spool that served as a chair and torqueing truck tire lug nuts, my back was stiff even after Friday’s short, slow four mile run.

Around mile 6, I felt my back start to tighten back up and the pain was radiating to my neck. I rarely have back pain but then again, I rarely die grind or torque truck tire lug nuts. However, any residual stiffness I have in my core in any race is usually long gone by six miles. Here it was intensifying. Jenn and gang and I were still chatting away and laughing at stories which are our usual situation when we run a Saturday morning training run.

When we reached the turnaround point at 6.55 miles, not only was my back aching, my stomach decided to act up. At mile seven I couldn’t even swivel my head more than 30 degrees either way or I would be really hurting. I was also hoping to spot a porta-potty.

At 8 miles, Jenn and I had pulled a little bit ahead of Cheryl and Deb. I think this was due to me subconsciously hoping that a plastic throne would be just around the next corner. I was also nearly in tears because my back and neck had turned into one giant pulsing ache. Going a bit faster was a way that I hoped would get me through the race before my body killed me. And in doing so, I was helping my back but really pissing off my grumbly belly.

At mile 9, I reached a serious conundrum. Go the faster pace and risk the dreaded fear of all distance runners – needing to go in the middle of nowhere with nothing but your socks to use. If I went slower, it would take longer to complete the race and might make my back worse. So, we kept up the faster pace.

Jenn was chatting with me and I was trying to carry on the conversation as we started passing people. She was doing a good job keeping the stories funny and enjoyable and she kept telling me in her mom sort of way (she has two kids) that a porta-potty was just around the next corner. “I know I saw one there.”

By the 10th mile, my back was beginning to hurt just a bit less but my stomach was really aching. It was getting serious. Jenn was like “well, if one isn’t up there (motioning to some tree or house at the limit of our visibility), it would be just a bit beyond.” In other words, my dear friend was not the only one full of shit.

Around mile 11, we could feel our pace quicken further. She started off on the next “I know the potty is just ahead” when I cut her off and said, in a serious tone, “it better be because if I get another contraction like cramp like I just had, I’m giving birth right here on this trail.” Of course she doubled over in laughter and although I wanted to laugh too, I couldn’t. I needed to focus.

Did you know that you really cannot run with clenched glute muscles? I suspected that for years but never had to actually try until my ninth half marathon (and somewhere in my 4,300th mile run since I started tracking).

At mile 12, I had to take a longer walk break and now, in addition to everything else, my calves were cramping up. This is when I knew I probably lost too many electrolytes with my personal cholera-like fun from the day before. I caught back up to Jenn and she informed me that she also was feeling rough in her legs and struggling. But by this time we were closing in on the finish.

Luckily for me the crap contractions had subsided and I figured that coming up on the 13th mile, one of two things would occur. Either I wouldn’t have another cramp and all would be well, or I would have one and wind up being utterly mortified and possibly having to kill myself in shame.

As we rounded the last corner, I could see the finish up ahead and it was on a downhill. I tapped Jenn on the shoulder and said lets sprint this in. Now, I normally sprint a race finish whether it is a 5k or a 42 mile ultra. Here there may have been a bit more in the afterburners because I wondered if I would need to keep going and knock over people to get to a restroom.

Just then, I exploded. In a sprint, that is. My back was no longer quite as sore, the pain in my calves was tolerable, and my gut was apparently tired of pushing. I was flying down the hill to a finishing speed so fast I wasn’t sure I could stop before ramming into the people huddled at the end or if I would fall over. The crowd cheered and even though my overall time was rather slow for my usual ability, I got several complements from strangers about my strong finish. Little did they know that it wasn’t just for show this time, I was planning for it to be a necessity. Luckily for me the need to go had completely disappeared. I don’t know what happened or why but I was relieved, in a matter of speaking.

Jenn finished a few seconds afterwards and Cheryl and Deb finished a few minutes after us. We grabbed food and Andi and got a group shot together. It was a good day all around.  We managed to have fun, and complete a race in decent weather.  Andi finished 3rd in her age division in her first 5k (which is awesome to say the least), and I didn’t crap myself. I braved a sore back, a hungry flock of mosquitos wanting to suck on parts of me no insect should be near, tight calves, and a gut that wanted a guest appearance on “Cholera and You.”

Running teaches us patience with ourselves. It teaches us our limits and how to exceed them. It teaches us that humanity is at its finest when in friendly competition. It teaches us that we really complete against ourselves.. some days quite literally.   It also teaches us to take what the trail gives us, even if the trail gives us the runs.  Why yes, pun totally intentional.

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