This piece was first published on my old site on October 17, 2013.
If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you already know that I did it.
What is “it?” It is a Boston Marathon qualification. Barely.
But I’m not going to tell you about the race. I can’t, because I’ve promised a six-part exclusive to another publication about my quest for the Boston Marathon, so just be patient.
But there won’t be much detail about my visit to the med tent in that series, and it’s still kind of a funny story, so let’s talk about that. Maybe we’ll learn something important while we’re at it.
I’ve ragged about CrossFit and the increased likelihood of injury. I’ve also written for my syndicated Chicago Tribune column about why I won’t let my kids play contact sports. And yet, seemingly hypocritically, I pushed my body way past its limits. I’ll try and justify my actions later in this piece, but before things get too boring, let’s get to the puke.
I needed 3:25 to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I finished in 3:24:31. That’s only 29 seconds to spare in a race that lasted over three hours. During the last few hundred meters my legs and brain were no longer on speaking terms. I looked like I had a combination of cerebral palsy mixed with scorpions shoved down my underpants.
At ten feet from the finish line, I did a staggering fall over several feet, and had to crawl the last few feet to get my BQ time.
Then the medics converged on me and wheeled me into the med tent.
Want a laugh? You can see this all on the video I posted on my Facebook page. Look for the spaz.
If you watch the whole thing you’ll see me wheeled off by the medics. I knew what they where thinking as they transferred me to a cot in the med tent: that I was delirious or possibly even about to have a heart attack. Neither was the case. I was completely lucid and my heart and lungs felt fine.
It was my legs. Specifically, the quads. They were done. For the first half of the race my pace was 4:40 per km, but the last kilometer took me six minutes. Going so slow actually gave my heart and lungs a break so I wasn’t panting at the end. I just used every muscle fiber in my quads to complete exhaustion. As a result, I beat the required qualifying time by a scant 29 seconds.
There were doctors and paramedics and nurses all giving me lots of attention. Meanwhile I nattered away with information like where I was, what my name and birthday was, what today’s date was, and what my home address was. This was to prove to them my brain was fine. I am married to a physician and my best friend is a paramedic. I know the drill.
A paramedic asked me to count down from a hundred by sevens. I rapidly tore through it down to the 50s and he said, “Yeah, you can stop now.”
“It was just my quads,” I said. They’re toast. Nothing left.
“Well, we want to get you fixed up, so we’re going to start off with some oxygen.” Cool. Never had oxygen before. They put the nose thing on. “Okay,” he said – never caught his name, unfortunately – “Now I just want you to relax while I take your pulse.”
He asked me to relax, so I closed my eyes.
“James! James!” he called as he shook my chest.
“What?” My eyes slammed open.
“You passed out for a second.”
“No I didn’t. You told me to relax, so I closed my eyes. Did you want me to keep them open?”
“Probably a good idea,” he said.
They also took my blood pressure just to make sure I wasn’t over hydrated. I told them I didn’t think that was the case. I’d drunk what I thought was enough, but figured I was definitely on the low side. I could have taken a little more time at the aid stations and drank more, for certain. Still, I was somewhat dehydrated, and apparently IV fluids really make you bounce back fast, so I didn’t complain when they hooked me up.
“Oh, shit!” I said. “My wife and kids were watching the live feed of the finish. Can I borrow someone’s cell phone?” A medic asked me the number, dialed it, and handed me his phone. In addition to everyone being so nice and attentive, the medic didn’t flinch at me using his cell for a long distance call. I committed to keeping it brief.
My wife answered the phone.
“Hi, it’s me. I’m fine. It was just my legs giving out. I didn’t have a heart attack.”
I can’t remember exactly what she said then. She didn’t yell though. She was quite understanding, actually. I was worried she’d be freaking out because she made me promise I wouldn’t kill myself with this run. She knew how bad I wanted the Boston qualification and was concerned I might drop dead in pursuit of it. She told me that coming home alive was far more important than hitting the goal. I agree.
But yeah, it was just the legs. Plus, some dehydration. Also, puke.
Extreme exertion can make people feel sick to their stomachs. Blowing one’s groceries is a regular occurrence on the reprehensible fat shaming game show The Biggest Loser. It’s not something I recommend. In 20 years of being a fan of fitness, I’ve never barfed once. Until now.
“I’m going to be sick,” I said. One of the medics tending to me got me a container to puke in. It was not sufficient.
You know when you get large fries at a roadside burger joint? You know the rectangular cardboard container the fries come in that’s about three inches by six inches, with outward sloping sides that’s about two inches deep?
That’s what they gave me, and I told them it wouldn’t be good enough. “That’s what we got,” he said.
It took a few minutes. It’s like the too-much-tequila ritual in the bathroom, where you just want to spew and get it over with. Finally, it came. About 200 calories worth of Gatorade (actually, it was Cytomax, but whatever) was carefully aimed into the middle of the insufficiently sized puke receptacle, and of course about 20% of it splashed over the sides. God, I hate barf.
“I need another,” I said. Same thing happened the second as the first time.
Five minutes later, despite feeling embarrassed over public barfery, I felt significantly better. The IV and O2 were contributing as well. I’d been in the med tent a total of 30 minutes so far.
“How much longer do I need to stay here?” I asked. Until the IV was done, it turned out. Which was going to take another hour. During that time, a very nice athletic therapist named Shawna massaged my legs. I apologized numerous times for the smell.
Surprisingly, after the IV was done I was able to walk out of the med tent just fine. Well, just fine in terms of having the usual post marathon shuffle. I drank a lot of Gatorade that afternoon, and was fine to go celebrate at the pub.
Now is the part where I justify my masochistic behavior.
I don’t advise overdoing it. I have a reputation for going hard, but not for being stupid. I chase neither pain nor injuries. In the case of my recent marathon, although I used up all my legs had, my joints, heart and head were all within tolerable limits. I will suffer no long-term ill effects from this marathon. I didn’t blow out a knee and was never close to collapsing and dying.
And there was a point, at least.
It was the one time in 20 years of fitness that I went right to my limit, and it will be the last. I really wanted a qualifying time in order to run Boston and write about it. It’s something I’ve been working towards for months because, as you may remember from what happened at the last Boston Marathon, next year is a story that needs telling, and I want to tell it.
With a marathon, it’s not the distance that kills you; it’s the speed. Had I done it ten minutes slower I would have been in much better shape. 3:24.31 will stand as my all time personal best for the marathon. It is a time that I shall never attempt to beat, because I don’t see the point.
I had a damn good reason for going to the wall last Sunday, and it’s an experience I don’t wish to repeat. And yet, I constantly read and hear of people everywhere chasing this type of exhaustion on a regular basis because, I don’t know, they think it’s cool.
I don’t think what happened was cool. I think it’s embarrassing. This is not the way I wanted the marathon to go. I wanted to finish strong with a larger margin. But I trained as hard as I could, and what happened, happened.
Needing medical help after a workout is not cool. Don’t think that it is.
James S. Fell, CSCS, is an internationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and AskMen.com. He is the author of Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind, published by Random House Canada.