Brace Yourself: Houston Marathon Race Report

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A kiss for my mama at the finish (Photo courtesy of Wendy Shulik)

On Wednesday, we laid my mother to rest.

On Sunday I ran the Houston Marathon and qualified for the 2016 Olympic Trials. It was the last possible date to do so. I was wearing my mother’s ring and holding back tears.

On the first day of the New Year, my Dad had called during dinner. Immediately, I threw a few items in a case and engaged in a panic-filled, adrenaline-fuelled 5-hour night drive. During which time I clung to the hope that I would arrive and miraculously everything would be ok. We’ve made a mistake, they’d say. She’ll be just fine, they’d say. After all, if anyone could beat the odds it was her. She always was a tough one.

But it wasn’t ok. She had suffered a massive brain aneurysm. Which then caused her to suffer a cardiac arrest. Which threw a blood clot into her brain. Which led to a stroke. The stroke that eventually obliterated her entire right frontal cortex. As if that wasn’t enough, when she lost consciousness, she had aspirated fluid, later developing severe pneumonia. When the full picture about her condition emerged, it quickly became clear that my mother’s condition was almost hopeless.

Yet hope we did. What else could we do? While simultaneously bracing for the worst, my Dad and I, and later my brother, who flew across from England, spent agonizing days at the hospital by her side. We were desperately searching for signs that she would come back to us. It was utterly alien territory and we were unsure how interpret her ‘poor’ (hospital-terminology) responses. We were told she was a ‘5’ on the scale of consciousness used by the medical profession. We knew that this was the worst possible score, but I only looked it up for the first time in writing this blog. The brief description cuts to the bone. Level 5: deep coma; decerebrate rigidity; moribund. Chance of survival: 10%. Regardless of the grave assessment, we talked to her as she lay unconscious and intubated. We told her what she meant to us, why we needed her so very much.

When the time came, we held her hands and gently stroked her hair as she passed. The heart-wrenching hospital visits ended, but a new undertaking awaited. We worked as a family on the myriad arrangements, and there was much to do. We spent two days searching through thousands of photos, organizing them by date and selecting only the very most meaningful for an electronic photo gallery to be played at her service. Moments captured that made us laugh and cry, but most of all, remember. Things and times I had long since forgotten became instantly, immeasurably, treasured. Heed this: take more photographs.

Wednesday’s service was a beautiful tribute to her life of joy, adventure and laughter. When we arrived home late on Thursday I quickly unpacked and repacked a case for Houston and set the early alarm to catch my morning flight out of LAX. One busy activity rolled into another. For over two weeks, each waking moment had been filled with tension, tasks, grief, too-little sleep. Or running. Never have I been more grateful for the outlet of running.

I arrived in Houston late on Friday afternoon. Collected my bib, hopped on the hotel treadmill, got food, fell into bed. A familiar sense of hustle.

Then, on Saturday, for the first time since my Dad had called to say my Mum collapsed and was being airlifted to UCSF ICU, I found myself alone in a quiet hotel room. There for the sole purpose of running my fastest marathon to date and qualifying for the Olympic Trials. In the silence, my world abruptly stopped turning so confusingly fast. At last I tuned inwards. How was I feeling as I readied for the next day’s race? Beyond exhausted. Emotionally wrecked. Empty.

I was awoken on Sunday morning at 12:30am by a piercing, crushing headache. Two Tylenol, a few more fragments of sleep, and it was go-time. My head throbbed mercilessly under the quilt of acetaminophen, but it eventually subsided before the start.

As a new American citizen, I wept at the national anthem, choking back emotions that were all too ready to spring to the forefront once more. The gun went off and I tried to settle into a rhythm. I took great comfort from a training block that assured me I was more than capable of doing this. No matter what the day brought, I held myself to meet the task at hand unrelentingly, to get the job done. Nothing else would suffice.

Predictably, there was nothing easy about it. My body ached and grumbled almost from the start, pleading with me to stop this madness. There was no lightness, no flow. Even the early miles took commitment, effort, focus. I shut it out and thought of all the people who believed in me. I thought about pain and how nothing could compare to the last couple of weeks. If there was a mantra I held dear in this race, it quickly became the lie I told myself over and over. There is no pain. There is no pain. There is no pain. Sure there was — a virtual avalanche of the stuff — but it wasn’t enough to stop me. Not today.

The mental intensity I mustered to continue running at a qualifying pace was ugly. It was so much that I could not gather the physical strength to take my usual last gel at mile 21/22. It sat right there in my pocket. I thought about it a lot in those last miles. I really should take that gel, I thought. It would help, I thought. But I knew that if I did, the effort of carrying out this small, simple act would break my stride, and with it risk breaking my very will to continue. So I didn’t.

I crossed the finish line, expecting a flood of emotions to hit me. I kissed the ring I had worn in my mother’s honor and blew it to the sky. In truth, all I felt was a sense of calm relief. A goal so outrageous that I couldn’t even acknowledge it out loud at the beginning of 2015 had been achieved. It brought me a moment of peace in a storm of tumultuous emotions. My efforts had been worthwhile. I had done it, and Mum would have been so very proud.

2:44:25 (gun), 21st female, 6th American, 2nd Masters

Photo courtesy of Wendy Shulik

Photo courtesy of Wendy Shulik

Equipment/Nutrition/Coaching:  Note, this is a mixture of sponsors and non-sponsors. There’s no favoritism here. It’s just what I use because I like it.

Nike gear:

  • Lunar Racer shoes
  • Epic Run shorts
  • Western States Nike Trail team singlet
  • Sunglasses: Run X2 S

Pre-race fuel:

  • 2.5 hours before: bowl of oatmeal with whole milk and sugar, cup of black tea, cup of coffee
  • 1 hour before: 2 scoops Gen UCan (I like Tropical Orange or Pomegranate-Blueberry)
  • 10 mins before race: 1 Mountain Berry VFuel gel, sips of water

In race-fuel:

  • VFuel gels, Mountain Berry flavor (at miles 6, 12, 17)
  • Sips of water from Dixie cups

VFuel have been my go-to gels for a couple of years now. Why:

  1. They *never* upset my stomach, even without water
  2. They aren’t as thick as some other gels out there
  3. They taste great

Post-race recovery:

  • Picky Bar (favorites are Need for Seed, All in Almond or Blueberry Boomdizzle)
  • 2 scoops of Hammer Recoverite (Strawberry)
  • An enormous protein and carb-rich meal
  • Celebratory beer

Coaching: Mario Fraioli

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6 thoughts on “Brace Yourself: Houston Marathon Race Report

  1. Caroline, I know your mother is very proud of you. And I want you to know that as one of her friends, I’m very proud of you as well. You are an amazing daughter, mother, wife, and friend. And to top it all off I love how you reach for your dreams and push through to the finish line. You are an inspiration to us all. Thank you for sharing the details of your days. God bless you and your family as you move forward. I look forward 2 more of your articles. Hugs and more hugs! Love, Deborah Aldrich Spurling

    • Thank you Deborah. You meant so much to my Mum and have always been a true and dear friend. We appreciated your support and you making the journey across the country last week to honor her memory with us. Love you.

  2. This was beautifully written. I hope it was a good outlet to sort through so many conflicting feelings.
    I am very sorry you lost your Mum. What a perfect tribute to her, though, in that race. She knows what a strong woman she raised, and you were able to drive that point home.
    Congratulations.

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