Raleigh Reflections

Apr 14 2014 Published by under Harebrained ideas

Yesterday I ran in the fourth race of my crazy idea to do 12 half marathons in 12 months. The race was in Raleigh, NC, which put out its best spring colors for the occasion. And its pollen. It brought LOTS of pollen. Thanks, Raleigh.

Unfortunately, the amazing traffic horror that is Northern VA did its worst, and it took me 8 hours to make what should have been a 4 hour trip. It's a good thing I like podcasts and audiobooks...

But I got lucky, in a way. Enough people were also in the traffic that they held emergency race bib pickup the morning of the race, so by 5:30AM I was a real registered runner and ready to go.

The races are getting easier. I didn't think they would. I mean, I still LOATHE the terror that lies between mile 10 and 12. But I'm in better shape, and even the rolling hills of Raleigh (and boy, did they roll) could not bring me down. I ran a personal best of 1:53:29, sticking to sub 9 minute miles the whole way (previous PR 1:54:19, which I performed in Philly in...I think 2011). It brings me hope that I'll break that 1:50 mark eventually!

The weather was beautiful, the race well organized, I was with friends from grad school, and generally I had a great time. But as we stood around after the race, all was not well. Word went around that someone was receiving CPR at the finish line. He was not the only one.

Two people died at Raleigh. Two men, ages 31 and 35. One between mile 10 and 11 and one at mile 13, less than two minutes from the finish.

It was shocking. I've heard of deaths during marathons from natural causes, overwork, undiagnosed heart conditions, dehydration or hypokalemia. Of course we all feel pretty tense, as it was also just the anniversary of the Boston tragedy.

But this is the first time I'd ever heard of deaths during a half. And the men were young. One was my age. I can't stop thinking about their friends and family, waiting for them hopefully at the finish, ready to hand out Gatorade and celebrate.

We all know that things happen. The medical tents every two miles and the golf carts along the course to transport the sick and injured are testimony enough to that. I now realize that I was running near where one man went down, between miles 10 and 11, and they pulled us off the course onto the sidewalk while the ambulance came racing by.

It's a sobering reminder that I have a hobby that can kill people. Not because other people wish them ill, but because the hobby itself beats up your body.

And it's been making me think. There's been a recent uptick in race deaths, or at least, in the number I hear about. Why? Are people running it even though they are out of shape? Are they running with underlying problems? Are they inexperienced and not listening to the signals they are getting from their bodies?

No one really knows. It could be any of these things. But it did make me say to myself: LISTEN to my body. Listen to it. And if it says stop, stop. Not in the "this hill sucks and my legs hurt" way, but in the "my heart is doing crazy things, and I am having an asthma attack" way.

It can be easy to ignore your body and its signals. Especially on the racecourse. Signs around us proclaim "no pain, no gain!", "pain now, beer later!", "pain is weakness leaving the body!", you look around you and you see the people running around you, and they look ok, and you don't want to look weak. As the miles accumulate, your brain starts to get a little funny. You're tired, and those messages, the acts of kindness on the race course, small dogs, everything seems to have more meaning and seriousness than it ever had.

...and this can be dangerous. I'm getting tired of seeing all this "motivational" stuff that screams of manliness (or whatever), of embracing the pain. This is a race. Not a war. This is a race that you run because you want to see if you can. Because you want to be in shape, maybe even because you want to have fun. It is not a fight to the death against the forces of weak willpower and flab.

I worry that those messages may motivate the wrong way. They may encourage people to run through pain that is telling you to stop. They've done it to me. They've fed my inner competitive spirit (which is, admittedly, exceedingly strong), and kept me running when one knee can barely take my weight. Kept me sprinting when I am inches away from throwing up, and end up dry heaving  on the other side of the finish line. I'd like to think my inner common sense would bring me to a halt for something actually life-threatening. But well...I don't know. I need to keep that in mind.

Was this glorification of pain the cause of either one of the deaths? I'm sure not. But it did make me think. When does "no pain, no gain" cause more pain than gain?

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