Runner’s Journal: The race day hangover

You trained for months, sliding on your running shoes to head out into the rain, snow or blistering heat, logging miles when your legs were begging for some well-deserved down time in front of the TV, all in preparation for that moment you had circled on your calendar for ages: race day.

Whether you’re a competitive runner with dozens of races under your belt or a newbie who’s anxious to cross the finish line for the first time, there’s nothing quite like race day. After all the training, adversity and anticipation, it all comes to a head on race day. Doesn’t matter if it’s a 5K or a marathon; all that matters is the task at hand, the race that lies ahead of you. Even better, you’re surrounded by people who’ve gone through the same experience to get to this moment, and most of them are just as excited to see what the day holds. As a runner, you’re part of a growing community — the number of marathon finishers rose to a record 467,000 between 2008 and 2009, a jump of nearly 10% — and on race day, you can see it. You can feel it. It’s an awesome experience.

But eventually, the race will end. Whether you’re happy with your time or just happy to have finished, you’ll cross the line (or get booted from the course) and that moment you waited for, the dedication and hard work…will be over. Then what?

Like the much more common hangover, a race hangover can cause physical pain — body soreness (obviously), a headache (if you haven’t properly rehydrated), and even nausea and diarrhea. Unpleasant, perhaps, but true in some extreme cases. For me, though, the toughest part is the emotional letdown once the excitement wears off and everyday life takes control again. I felt fantastic after I finished my first half marathon last year — well, okay, I felt like shit, but I felt good about feeling like shit. I’d worked my tail off all summer and ran four miles farther than I had ever run before, and I finished with a strong time. It was a great day.

Then I realized I didn’t have anything to train for anymore. After being so focused on this one race for so long, I suddenly felt lazy and uncommitted. Was I going to fall back into my life of inactivity and excuses now that race day had passed? The mental and emotional shift — from race prep to race recovery — was pretty startling. The cure? Well, I signed up for the Vegas half marathon two months later, but different people will handle their race hangovers differently.

If you choose to jump back into the racing community, be sure you’re realistic about your goals and that you give your body enough time to recover. Obviously, your down time should be longer between longer races, but as always, just listen to your body and be smart when you choose your next race. Don’t let a particularly persistent race hangover force you to commit to something you can’t handle. If you’re new to this, take it slow and enjoy it along the way. As you get more miles under your feet, your racing frequency will jump too. That’s when it really gets fun.

Nearly six weeks later, my hangover from the Chicago Marathon is still lingering. Fortunately, I finally figured out why everything went so horribly wrong — I was taking Tylenol with codeine to help me sleep through my shoulder pain, and didn’t know that codeine can cause dehydration and electrolyte imbalance, a particularly brutal combination for a marathon — but now I’m just anxious to get a quality time on the board after finishing more than an hour slower in Chicago than I had planned. Not wanting to waste my eight months of marathon training, I’m aiming to run the Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona Marathon on January 15. Tick tock.

My legs have been more tired and sore than anticipated as I’ve ramped my training back up, which makes me wonder if I’m trying to climb this mountain too soon after my last attempt. I’m being cautious, though — I haven’t signed up for the race yet or booked any flights — and I finally had a strong run earlier today, so I feel like I’m on my way. I’d prefer to not have to train through an Ohio December, but so be it. As long as my body holds up, I’ll be out there on January 15, gunning for 3:30 again.

Some hangovers are just too strong to ignore.

  

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Why run?

Why run? It’s a damn fine question, one I couldn’t stop asking myself as I trudged along during a brutal 14-mile training run last weekend. “Why am I out here?” “I feel awful.” “Wish I hadn’t run out of water five miles ago.” “How the hell am I going to run 26 miles in October?” That last one, in particular, has been gnawing away at me in the days since the 14 miler, but we’ll revisit that question in the coming weeks of this series. Today, let’s start with two words that non-runners will routinely throw your way when they see you lacing up your shoes or hear about your latest race: Why run?

Of course, there isn’t one stock answer to this question, and different runners will offer different responses. As someone who ran competitively in high school before taking the next 15 years off, getting back into running has been like reconnecting with a long, lost love. I stopped running after graduation in 1995 because whatever passion I had for the sport had dried up when I stepped onto the Ohio University campus later that fall. Who wants to go for a five-mile run when there are beers to be drained and late-night fast food to be devoured? And after four years of training and racing in both cross country and track, my body (and my mind) needed a break. I just didn’t know my break would last 15 years.

I had tried to pick it back up several different times during those 15 years, but my restarts never lasted longer than a month or three for one simple reason: I didn’t have the proper motivation. If someone had posed the “why run” question during that time, I wouldn’t have had an answer. Every couple of years, I’d force myself to go on painful two- or three-mile runs with one abstract goal in mind: to get into shape. And after a couple months, with my times not improving and my body still feeling like crap every time out, I’d throw in the towel and wonder how and why I ever ran in the first place.

Everything changed last April. A friend who knew I ran in high school asked if I wanted to be a part of his four-man marathon relay team in Cincinnati’s Flying Pig Marathon. I hadn’t run longer than four miles in at least 10 years, but something about the challenge of training for and competing in a legitimate road race compelled me to say yes. I regretted it almost immediately. My leg of the race was about 5.5 miles long – the shortest of the four, but also the hilliest. What had I gotten myself into? I had a hard enough time finishing three-mile jogs around my neighborhood, so how was I going to double that up on a bunch of hills in the matter of a couple months?

I had some training to do.

If you’ve had an urge to start running but haven’t been able to either take the plunge or stick with it for any real length of time, I recommend signing up for a race. It’s instant – and very real – motivation. Your training runs take on a true sense of purpose and urgency when you’ve got an actual goal you’re working toward, rather than the abstract concept of merely running to get in shape. Spending $50-$100 on the entry fee helps too. Knowing I had committed to this race in April, and knowing that I had three other guys counting on me to show up on race day, I finally started to see my times drop and mileage increase. I soon graduated from two miles to three and four, then five. I wasn’t setting my watch on fire by any stretch of the imagination, but I was running farther and faster than I had since my high school days after failing to improve during any of my previous false starts over the past 15 years. Then one day, I set out to run six miles and, realizing just how good I felt in the middle of the run, I decided to tack on another mile…then one more. Two months earlier, I struggled through two- and three-mile runs, and now I had an eight miler under my belt. I was back.

We ran well in Cincinnati – not as fast as I had hoped I’d run, but not bad for my first real race in ages. More importantly, I had rediscovered the passion for running I thought had vanished for good. Being in that race environment and talking with other runners who had been working as hard as I had (and harder) to accomplish a goal energized me and served as a wake up call. After my leg of the race was over, we headed back to watch runners cross the finish line at the end of their own half and full marathons. I felt good about what I had accomplished that day, but watching them finish their race, I knew was ready for more. I signed up for my first half marathon a couple weeks later, and by May of this year, I had completed half marathons in Columbus (1:35:31), Las Vegas (1:35:34) and Cleveland (1:32:51), and am currently training for my first full marathon in Chicago this October. How’s that for a turn of events?

So why run? I run to challenge myself, to set a goal and accomplish that goal. Running can be a very personal experience – it’s just you and the road or trail. There’s no coach out there barking instructions, no teammates clamoring for attention, no scoreboard to worry about. I run to find my limits and expand them, to redefine my comfort zone, to defy that voice inside my head that tells me my legs hurt too much and my lungs can’t take any more. I run to prove to myself that I can accomplish anything if I’m willing to work hard enough. I run because, on my personal list of life’s simple joys, crossing the finish line sits near the top, and crossing the finish line ahead of my target time is even higher. I run because it’s time that belongs to me and me alone, time I take to improve my health, achieve my goals, clear my mind, and find some peace amidst the rhythmic sound of my footfalls. I run because I spend too much time sitting at a desk with my eyes glued to a computer monitor. I run because it feels good to sweat. I run because there are few things in life that taste better than cold water after a long run. I run to escape my thoughts, work through a problem or just blow off steam. I run to be part of a community, because the energy at a big race is intoxicating and inspiring, even if you’re just a spectator. I run because my kids see me run, and because we just bought my eight-year-old daughter her first pair of running shoes. She can go a mile or two at a time right now, and she loves it. I’ve asked her why, but she hasn’t figured that part out yet. She will.

Finally, I run for moments like the one I had yesterday. I was still trying to figure out why my 14 miler had gone so poorly – I finished eight minutes slower than I wanted – and challenged myself to make up for my mediocre showing with a quality five-mile run Tuesday morning. Three days after having my worst run of the year, I came back with my best run of the year, beating my target by a minute and running faster than I had for any of my previous training runs. I guess I run for a chance at redemption too.

So now the question is, why do you run…or why will you run?

Jamey, the editor-in-chief at Bullz-Eye.com, will be updating his Runner’s Journal a couple times a month as he trains for his next race. Currently, Jamey is training for the 2011 Chicago Marathon – his first full marathon – on October 9, and he plans on running the Tough Mudder next March. Email jcodding@bullz-eye.com with comments, questions or your own thoughts on running.

  

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