The first real clue that something was very wrong was having to answer in the negative when someone asked me directly if I could move. That's no good, I thought, kind of far away. A while later, on my way back in, I stumbled when someone asked me the day. July? No... June. I'm not at work... so it's Saturday. The... 10th? No. Father's Day. The 20th! I finally say, proudly. “Sunday the 21st. Close enough.” the EMT laughed. I was less satisfied. But feeling good enough to not be worried. But it wasn't until I was close to leaving the tent, when one of the NYRR staff asked if I was here with anyone, or if there was anyone I was going to call, and I started mentally bringing up names and dismissing them one by one, due to my own personal insecurities and anxieties, that I knew I was all the way back to being myself.
On the way home, fresh off my spectacular defeat, I couldn't stop thinking about one thing in particular people asked when I started running. “Well what are you running FROM?” har har har. Everyone had a small laugh at that, but I always knew exactly what I was running from. And I held out for a good while. But it had finally caught me.
I try not to be negative – I swear - but one thing I cannot endure is body odor. The rank, bitter, inescapable smell of someone with the retch - I can't stand it. It makes me instantly nauseated, and almost angry. In the moment – a subway car, an elevator - I find it not only unpleasant but almost disrespectful. The thinking is: we're trying to have a civilization here, and the only way for it to work is a mutual respect. And that means doing the bare minimum to not make people physically sick when you stand next to them in a crowd on a hot, muggy day. I don't care if you're stinking up your apartment, but if you know you're going to be around people, use some god damn deodorant.
I understand objectively that it's not the biggest of problems in the world. Everyone has their own things that drive them up the wall. I have friends who get grossed out by people eating on the subway, or biting their nails or otherwise grooming themselves. These aren't problems for me. But when a familiar, disgusting smell appeared as I stood in the first corral at the NYRR QUEENS 10K at Flushing Meadows Park on Sunday June 21 (Father's Day), it added a new, pungent wrinkle to my mounting uneasiness. "OK fine, I can understand smelling like this after the race. Still perfectly avoidable, but understandable. But before the race even starts? Did you do a three mile warm up for a 10K? Are you trying to make everyone around you sick?"
I don't believe in omens as such. I believe you can leave your house and see a bird in a tree looking at you and it can make you anxious for a reason you can't put your finger on, and you can view that anxiety through the lens of whatever is happening in your life, and "take that as a sign" so to speak. This is not a new or radical idea. The concepts or physical objects you come across are integrated into your consciousness and colored by it. Like picking up a tennis ball with muddy hands, and the ball gets dirty. This is a long way of saying the only reason I would consider something like a foul smell an omen is because I'd already (if subconsciously) done the logical math and come to the conclusion that everything that had gone on the past week added up to a heap of trouble for me. And that's what it smelled like.
I had reasons to be worried. My training had been off all week. Because of prior engagements on Wednesday and Thursday I hadn't been able to run, so I had to do prep runs on Friday and Saturday. Also my Wed & Thu plans meant late nights, and lots of food and drink. This was after a fairly active weekend as well. The day before the race, Saturday, I ran a slowish 6.5 miles with a friend from my running group and felt pretty good. Not PR good, not sub-42 good, but I felt I could pull off a respectable showing. Friends from my running group were planning on meeting up after the race to go out to a famous dumpling house near the park, and after that I would be heading to the Bronx for a BBQ with my parents and my sister's husband's parents. After that, if I was still up for it, I would do a session of yoga at my gym to unwind, and get ready for the week. This was the plan. I expected pain. I expected it to suck. I did not expect what actually happened.
Saturday afternoon the word came down from NYRR that the start of the race had been pushed back from 8am to 9am due to heavy thunderstorms that were supposed to be moving through the area. I was grateful for the extra hour of sleep, but was sort of worried about the back end of the race moving close to 10am, when the very exposed course would be vulnerable if the sun came out.
In the morning, it appeared the storms had moved through, but had not taken the humidity with them. Skies were thankfully overcast. I'd been hydrating like mad the past two days in preparation, but forgot to take a small bottle of water with me for the road as I usually do for races I have to travel to. No matter- I would get something to drink once I got to the park. I caught the 7 train at 5th ave and thankfully got a seat. By Grand Central, the train was packed with runners all doing the pre-race ritual of checking each other out, stretching, chatting, whatever individual prep was needed. I didn't feel like shit but I didn't feel great either. Not tight, just off. Not tired, just low energy. No mojo. It's hard to describe. As I stood in the corrals before the Brooklyn Half, I was pumped. I couldn't wait for it to start. Here, if they announced suddenly that the race was canceled and everyone should go home, I would have been perfectly fine with it.
I stood there in the first corral listening to NYRR's pre-race stage team (who I've come to love, by the way. I think the dude, whoever he is, has an amazing radio voice, and should do voice acting) go through their announcements, I notice this b.o. stench come wafting in and just got a horrible feeling. There's no way to tell who it is, obviously. There's 500+ people in the corral and everyone is shuffling around, trying to get position, stretching, and moving around anxiously. I hold my nose and wait.
More announcements. For the second time, the stage team remind everyone that bibs are non-transferable, selling bibs is not allowed, and that anyone who is caught doing so will have their results disqualified. They pushed this hard in the pre-race email too, on the heels, I'm assuming, of the Brooklyn Half, for which I saw many bibs traded and sold. I've never heard of the long arm of the NYRR law coming down on anyone, but these warnings are new. Maybe there were some club team shenanigans happening?
After some Queens related trivia (established in 1683, named after Princess Catherine of Portugal (!), on its own would be the fourth largest city in the country, etc etc), a brief speech by the new NYRR CEO, and what was probably the best performance of the National Anthem I've heard at a race yet, the horn sounds. Within the first 200 feet of the race I know it's just going to suck. I'm tight, running too fast, and already thinking about how much I hate 10Ks. I hit the first mile in 6:10, which is way too fast. At my last 10K I went out fast but was hitting 6:30s. 6:10 should be reserved for a 5K. It's hard, but I slow down and hit the second mile at 6:24. Still too fast. I try to slow down some more. Here I start feeling the humidity. I hit a water station but I'm breathing too hard to drink it. Part of it goes down the wrong way and I gag. I try to dump the rest over my head but it just spills over my arm.
This is where things get really difficult. Mile 3 clocks in at 6:38 - I hit the 5k split at 20:06, which is actually a 5K PR for me. I came into this race with no intention of PRing but I'm on a PR pace. I'm also struggling badly, but I struggle badly in almost all of my fast races. I have no reason to think that anything's really wrong. Why not just keep it up, endure the pain, PR, and deal with everything after? If I can hit even 6:50s I'll probably PR. Hell, I could probably hit two 7s and save some gas for a last push. And if I don't PR, no big deal. I wasn't going for it anyway.
But I have to pull back for a bit or I'll have to stop. As we're coming around the lake the sun comes out which adds a new, terrible dimension to the race because of how exposed the course is. There's a dude in a bright yellow shirt nearby that's running a little slower than me so I move over to his shoulder and pace off of him. It's still hard- hot - but I think if I can hang with this guy for a while I'll be fine. My legs are feeling extremely heavy and I'm cursing myself for back-loading my weekly miles. I would have been better off not running at all, I think. But I'm able to hang with this guy. Around the mile 4 marker he hits the water station. I consider it, but I'm thinking I'm breathing too hard to drink without stopping. If I stop it will just be harder. Two miles and change to go, I'll make it to the end soon enough, and it will all be over. I can do this. I am going a little slower, and think that I will see Yellow Shirt come up and pass me, but he never does.
Now, the back half of this course is a straight mile in/mile out turnaround. What I remember thinking here (around mile 4.5) is God damn, this turnaround is taking FOREVER. Mile 4 is probably the longest a mile has felt, ever, race or not. There's some mental relief after the turnaround and as I pass the mile 5 marker, but not much. It's not so much me fading as much as it is time slowing down to a crawl. It's hot. Oh god, is it hot. Breathing is hard. 5.1. Almost at a mile to go. 5.2. One mile to go. Wait, there's always that .1 that you never think about that is added on by all the zig-zagging you do over the course of the race. So I've ALMOST a mile to go.
I stumble. The way you would crossing the tape. My heavy feet go plop-plop-plop and I stop. Panting, I look up, straighten myself, and start again, but my legs aren't there. I hit the ground. It's not too long before people are on me. "Are you OK?" I have no idea. My body is an oven and I need to throw up. I crawl to the grass and stick my finger down my throat. Nothing comes up. I've never been able to do this but I need to try. Someone gives me water but I can't lift my face up to drink it. Hands on my back. "I'm hot. I'm sick. I need to throw up." Just statements of fact rolling out of me. One more time I stick my finger down my throat but nothing comes up. I moan and fall to the ground. Everything goes white.
At some point, probably pretty quickly, people who know what they're doing - medics, EMTs, presumably - arrive. They pull me up to my knees and try to give me water. I'm limp in their arms. One guy is trying to feed me some kind of gu/glucose thing. "Here, you've got to try to take some." It's almost impossible to even open my mouth, let alone swallow something. I take a small dip of it. It's horrible. They plead with me to try and take another. "I can't, it's disgusting. Please." I take another. "I need to throw up." I don't throw up. There's a commotion happening behind me but I don't know what it is.
"OK, lay him down"
I'm on the grass on my side. This is nice. I could lay here forever. But I'm so hot.
"Can you move?"
I try to move. "No," I moan. Oh boy, that's no good, I think. You never want to answer "No" to that question.
"Roll him over"
They're all talking to me, saying it's going to be OK. A sheet has laid down and they've rolled me on top of it. Someone gives a three count and I'm lifted up and placed on a gurney. At some point I can feel myself loaded into a truck and hear the EMTs talking about prepping a saline IV for me. I'm moaning and talking nonsense. They tell me they have a bag with my shoes and stuff in it. I panic thinking about my phone- I can't lift my arm to feel in my shorts for it. I try to form the sentence: "Is my phone in my left pocket" but don't get it right until very slowly and loudly annunciating each individual word. They tell me it is, and that relaxes me a little.
"How do you feel?"
"Like complete shit."
They ask me what my name is (I tell them), Do I know where I am (yes, Queens), what my phone number is (I tell them).
"Good. What day is it?"
I have no idea.
They hook up the oxygen thing with the little nose tubes. I feel cold air being pushed in, but I'm begging for ice on my forehead, my neck, anywhere. All I can say over and over is how hot I am. I'm still limp. They're telling me everything they're doing. There are cuts on my knees that they're cleaning out. I ask if anything is broken? They say it doesn't look like it but there are some bumps and scrapes. I am thirstier than I've ever been. They say the IV is almost ready, and I'll be getting it directly into my blood. That sounds nice. I finally get some ice on my neck. I can't tell if all of this happens at once. The sequence is all off. I can open my eyes but not much else. I think of myself there and I laugh and the next second I start to tear up and cry. I'm delirious. I assume I'm not dying but I can't tell for sure. I start having real trouble breathing. I can't take deep breaths so I'm trying to take it in gulps. Everything was good until I couldn't breathe. That makes me nervous.
"I'm scared," I say.
The IV is ready and the EMT tells me that there's going to be a pinch. I tell them to do whatever they need to do. As soon as it's in, the truck starts moving and I hear my watch beep. It has the auto-resume feature enabled. This genuinely makes me laugh. Then I start to tear up again. I'm still having trouble breathing. But in a minute or so the IV is doing its work. I can feel myself start coming back around and I tell them so. They're happy but they say they need to cool me off. They ask me more of the same questions, and this time I get the date right. They're trying to keep me talking. They get me to move my arms, wiggle my toes. "I'm coming back," I say. "I'm coming back." They ask me my medical history. I stop for a moment, unsure how to answer. They go down the list. Heart conditions? Surgeries? Diabetes? "I don't have a medical history, I guess," I say. The EMT laughs. "That's good, good. How we doing?"
"Better." Now I'm almost fully back, and the first emotion in is shame. Embarrassment. I start apologizing and they tell me No. So I just thank them and tell them they're amazing.
Soon we reach the tent and they roll me in. One of the EMTs points to a low bed and says we're going to move you there, can you stand? I'm pretty sure I can so I answer in the affirmative. They have me hold the IV and help me over to the bed. As soon as I lay down they take my temperature, rectally, which the EMT apologizes for. I don't give a fuck, but it makes me think, do people in my condition complain about this? How?
"102" he says. He turns to me, "We have to cool you down."
They place ice packs all over me, which feels amazing. I'm very relaxed now. They tell me, Heat Exhaustion and dehydration. Well, OK. I see one of the EMTs walk over to the cooler and extract a 1L bottle of water. It looks very, very cold. He comes over to me, and says "You're going to hate this."
He unscrews the cap and starts pouring the water all over me. I howl like a newborn. It's agony. It goes on for way too long. When it's over he apologizes. I grimace. I'm not in any position to bargain, but I say "Please, please don't do that again." He laughs, comes over and takes the IV out and bandages me up. "You're gonna be OK."
He gives me a small bottle of water, which I finish in about two seconds. Gatorade is next. They tell me to drink another. And another. And another. Three in total. I'm sitting up now. I have no idea how much time has passed, but I estimate I've been in the tent 15-20 minutes. I feel like I'm ready to get up and I do. I'm sitting in one of the chairs by the entrance to the tent when one of the volunteers comes up to me. "Feeling better? You gonna be OK?" I insist I am. "Did you get your medal?" No, no, it's OK. I didn't finish. "Nonsense. I'm getting you a medal." I can't argue. In another minute she comes back with a medal. I thank her and put it in the bag with my things.
As I'm getting ready to leave. I feel my phone vibrate. It's a text from one of the guys from my running group. OH GOD. DUMPLINGS. I text him back a brief rundown of my situation. He asksif I'm OK, I insist that I am, just feeling humbled. He asks if I'm OK to get home and I say I am. I'm a mess though. I weakly put on my shoes, take a minute to gather my stuff and my thoughts, and thank all the EMTs again before leaving the tent. Outside, it's sunny and bright and hot. I try to put my shirt on but it's wet and gross and too much effort anyway. I've never wanted a shower more in my life. I walk over to the baggage claim area, show them my shirt, bib still attached, and get my bag. Inside are fresh socks and a clean shirt, which I am incredibly grateful for. Putting these on makes me feel sort of human again.
I'm not quite ready to leave the park and hit the train yet, so I sit on a bench and call my parents and tell them what happened. Eventually I'm ready to grab the train back into the city. It's hard seeing all the other runners. I'm hurt, embarrassed, defeated.
Not much else happened that day.
A lot of people ask me what happened, and all I can say is I honestly don't know. I have my suspicions. I suppose I could chalk it up to "one of those things" but unfortunately it's my instinct to beat myself up for my poor choices in the week or so leading up to the week. Yes, it was brutally humid, but it was humid for everyone, so I can't use that as an excuse. Was it because I back-loaded my miles? I took Wednesday and Thursday off and ran those miles on Friday and Saturday instead. Not the smartest thing to be sure, but I've had bad tapers before. Was it my shit nutrition during the week? Did I drink too much Thursday? Was it because I had problems sleeping all week? Job stress causing me to lose focus? Most likely it's a combination of all these things, combined with the fact I went out too fast and didn't back off when I felt myself hurting. Seems like the most obvious thing in the world.
I wish there had been warning signs, but there weren't. Or at least not that I remember. According to my GPS watch, which was running the whole time, I went down at mile 5.6, which means there's a whole .3 I don't remember at all. Maybe there were warning signs I'm simply fated to not remember.
While I was running, I just assumed the race would continue to suck for the duration, and I would be fine after. Coming out of my last race, I was thinking one of the great things about running was that there's pain in the moment, but after, you don't remember the pain. All that remains is the joy of work, of pushing your body, of accomplishment. Sitting on the bench in the shade afterward, talking to my parents on the phone, there was none of that. I felt every bit of my 40 years. I felt like a fool. I felt like it was over. When I started running I found utter joy in pushing and pushing. The potential felt bottomless. All I had to do was keep pushing. Passing out to heat exhaustion and being unable to finish was something that had literally never occurred to me. Stopping for a minute due to pain - having to take a bathroom break - having to stop and walk for a few moments - these all seemed like things that were possible. But being unable to finish? I'd never considered it. On the bench I raged that now I had to consider it.
There's a grim consolation in knowing that it's all my fault. That I could have prevented it, had I approached it a little smarter. Had I prepared a little better. Had I respected the distance/speed combo that makes the 10K the most challenging, inhumane, cruel and pointless of all the road races. How stupid to think I could just go out there and run a 42 minute 10K because it was the next logical step! No, the next step is apparently something else. But what?
I called out sick to work on Monday and spent the day in bed, watching Netflix. Tuesday I went to work but skipped the gym. Wednesday I brought my gym gear to work but did not expect to feel like going out there. But I did. I went and did an bodyweight routine and some light dumbbell work. It went OK. But it was time to do the next thing.
The thing I'd been running from caught me. The endgame of that was literally running myself into the ground. That was over now. It was time to find something to run toward.
I got on the treadmill and did three slow miles. The first one felt horrible and I wondered if I would do another. But I did. The second mile was a little better, and the third was even better. Thursday I did four slow miles. Friday I did five. Saturday I did a little over six. I was still going slow - around 85 percent, by my completely arbitrary estimation - but I was feeling strong. Sunday's an off day. I have to take care of other shit. But I felt ready to start - even if I had to start all over again. It's funny how things can change so quickly. But it's even funnier how things can change so slowly.
And for the love of god, use some fucking deodorant, people.
As an end note to this, I feel compelled to mention, regarding the EMTs and NYRR personnel, that I was blown away by their professionalism, skill, and their regard for my well being. I feel extremely fortunate to have been in their care. Due to the nature of the events described here, my recall of certain specifics and chronology is fuzzy, and everything is recounted to the best of my understandably handicapped ability. I've tried to reconstruct the events as best I can. But make no mistake, the race/medical crew were incredible.
And seriously, fuck the 10K.