Running Stories

On A Leg and A Half

On A Leg and A Half
NU Hartford Marathon
Hartford, CT
October 11, 2014

In late June 2014, I was running great and feeling even better. I was focused on running my second “double” – two marathons in one weekend. I felt like my 2014 body could crush my times from Missouri and Iowa in 2007. So, without hesitation, I signed up for a race in Connecticut on October 11 and Rhode Island on October 12.

On July 1, I ran an all time 4-mile personal record (PR) on the treadmill when I clocked a 29:35. Outside on the pavement, I attacked an 8-mile loop from my house on July 6th. While I didn’t set a PR for the entire route, I did set a PR on the mile that involved the toughest hill in my neighborhood. I was stoked because I had run this mile in 8:06, almost 20 seconds faster than any previous best effort.

For the first time in a long and storied history, the National Cherry Festival of Races was holding a half marathon on July 12th. Traditionally, I had been running the 15K route each year. This year the race director had given me a free entry into the half marathon in return for some pre-race suggestions and a post race review. So, I felt “obligated” to give this race a hard effort.

I had run hard on Tuesday and Thursday prior to the Saturday half marathon. I thought to myself, “Well, let’s push it one more time today and take it easy next week”. With my age and running experience, I simply should have known better but I was like a kid with a new toy. I just “had” to see how fast it would go – again.

The race was going well and near an 8 minute pace. I knew this wouldn’t be a PR but it would be really close. Then, somewhere in the 7-8 mile range, I felt something pull in my inner left groin. It really didn’t change my stride but I knew something was not right. I finished in a respectable 1:45:23.

After I sat down for a little while, I got up and then I definitely had a good limp in my walk. “Crap”, I thought. This might take a week or two to recover from. “Oh well, there is still plenty of time to get the work in and prepare for the double. No need to worry too much”, I reasoned.

On July 15th, I made my first entry in my running diary about the left groin/hip problem. Just 7 days later, I set yet another 4 mile PR with a 28:56 effort on the treadmill. How bad could it be?

On August 3rd, I skipped my first workout to rest the injury. A week later, I had a very solid 15-mile training run. I was still convinced that I could run through the injury. Doubt crept in further on August 16 when I quit on mile 5 of 8 during a trail run. The left groin/hip just couldn’t take the extra pushing, twisting and stress of the dirt track.

August 24th was the day after the Big Little Trail Races that I host at my home and on private trails in the surrounding neighborhood. I had spent a lot of time on my feet the day before but sticking to my schedule, I headed out for a 12 mile run. It was a disaster. I don’t think I ran half of it. I hobbled on the run, limped on the walk and was generally lethargic. I began to consider the fact that maybe I was not only really hurt but also over training.

I was stretching the injury on a regular basis but I was also concerned that too much yoga could be aggravating the injury. I thought about seeking professional help but never did. I was too afraid that they would shut me down and I had a couple marathons to run. I just wanted to get the marathons behind me. Then, I could get professional help and take some time off. (Again, “What in the hell was I thinking?”)

The hip/groin problem only got worse. On August 28th, I had a hard time walking at the end of an 8-mile run. I did manage to complete a 16-mile run on September 7th. I was on a roller coaster of good days and bad days. There was the injury and there were also classic signs of over training. Mentally, I tried to focus on the October weekend and continued to grind out the daily schedule.

Dan Zemper is a deep tissue massage therapist in my hometown of Traverse City. I had gone to him in the past with an ankle issue and a back problem. Each time, I left feeling better. Dan worked on my hip/groin on September 8th. I felt like the pain and stiffness was almost gone for a couple days.

On September 11th, I went out for an early morning 9-mile run. I felt great at the start but I hit the wall over the last 3 miles. It was another classic sign of over training. I needed to eat better, sleep better and workout less. I thought it was something I could manage and still continue to prepare for the races ahead.

While I knew what I needed, I just didn’t listen to the voices in my head (yet again). I continued to force myself to get the runs in and hit the goal times. Forget about the fact that I had never before needed to push myself to get the training done. It didn’t register. I was tired all the time. I was hitting most of my goals but it just wasn’t as easy as before.

On September 18th, I crashed and burned on a 10 mile run. The next day, I had a great start then a serious decline over 7 miles. Later that day, I donated blood over my lunch hour at work. Then, I did a second workout by biking a 9-mile route from the office to my house at the end of the Friday workday.

Saturday, September 20th, I woke up sick and feverish. There was no way I could run. I wasn’t much better the next day either and skipped all workouts. This was the first time in months (maybe years) that I had missed 2 runs in a row while preparing for a marathon. This was not good.

Around 5 pm on that Sunday, I was having trouble getting urine out of what felt like a full bladder. I became very concerned about my kidneys and had Mary drive me to the emergency room.

The doctors discovered a bladder infection. I had probably been carrying it for weeks. What I thought had been overtraining was in reality the E Coli infection creeping into my body. Donating blood in my infected state had been similar to getting pushed off a cliff. My white blood cell count skyrocketed and my body reacted with alternating periods of sweating and chills.

How does a 52-year old man get a bladder infection? The key word in this question is “old”. I had attributed frequent urination to the fact that I was a runner and drinking larger quantities of liquids than the average person. Well, the fact was I had an enlarged prostrate.

When a man’s prostrate grows, it pushes into the bladder, making it smaller and requiring frequent visits to the rest room. It also doesn’t allow the bladder to empty completely. Thus, I cooked up my own batch of E Coli in the fluids at the bottom of my bladder. This infection slowly crept into my system. The upside of donating blood lies in the fact that the infection would have gone undetected much longer.

I checked into Munson Hospital under a heavy dose of IV medications for the next 40 hours. It was an exhausting stay. The regional hospital was busting at the seams with patients. The doctors were great and the nurses nice but the living conditions were simply horrendous, awful and deplorable. I can safely say that I saw the clock on the wall in each hour of the 40. There was just no opportunity to sleep for any period of time.

My roommate was an 87-year old gentleman with multiple issues. Here is a breakdown of just one 2 hour period of activity with this patient: wet his bed, pissed all over the floor when he missed his urinal, ripped out his own IV causing blood to go everywhere, and forgot to take the lid off his urinal, causing his urine to go all over the floor.

The elderly gentlemen refused to use his call button and ask for help. So, the nurses had an alarm on his bed that went off like a London police raid during each incident. Thus, there was no way for me to sleep.

My roommate talked out loud to himself when alone. When a nurse was in the room with him, voices would raise because he was hard of hearing. I tried to be as patient as possible and some of the interactions were actually humorous. Here are a few of the classics from “behind the curtain”:
1) “That’s a turd. It’s as hard as a rock. Wait, it’s a piece of the chair.”
2) Room service walks in and asks him his name and birthday. Old guy replies, “That would be toast and yogurt.”
3) “This is agent B24. Are you there 289?”

I begged everyone who would listen for a change of rooms after the first night. I did feel sorry for the man but I also knew I needed to get some sleep in order to completely recover. I was simply exhausted and at my wits end. I got a lot of promises but I never received a change of rooms. To this day, I remain a bit pissed off when I read that Munson is a top 100 hospital.

I thought about my aging process when I listened to his phone call conversation with his wife. He cried on the call because all he wanted to do was to go home and be with her. I couldn’t imagine how that would work. It was sad and made me realize that one day that could be me. I needed to get home too!

I did get out on Tuesday and headed straight home for some good sleep. I managed to go back to work the next day and slowly the healing process progressed.

I got the doctor’s permission to resume running on Saturday, September 27th. I had missed a full week of workouts with just over 2 weeks to go. The double attempt began to seem foolish but I wasn’t quite ready to give it up.

With my two running buddies along, I attempted a 5-mile run. I made it 1 mile before walking. They stuck with me and we did a run/walk the rest of the way. I finished the 5 miles in 57:52. It was a depressing 11:34 per mile pace but at least I was moving again. I had a chance.

I had lost some weight, strength and overall “mojo”. For a week or so, I could eat anything and everything without gaining a pound. This is when I knew the body was still fighting on the inside. Prior to getting sick, I could walk by a bowl of ice cream and gain weight! So, I took advantage and fueled up on everything in sight. It was actually fun for a few short days.

Slowly, over the next couple weeks, I regained my strength. I cut down my mileage and failed to get in the 2 final 16-mile runs on my schedule. I knew the infection was past when I started to put on weight again and my running times got better than that first 5-mile attempt.

Even though I was getting stronger, I was still having some issues. On October 5th, I crashed and burned on an 8-mile run. Two days later, I was sluggish on a 5-mile run but at least it was 12 minutes better than my previous worst. The double attempt was in serious jeopardy.

Mary and I flew to Hartford, Connecticut on October 8th. We hit the back roads of Connecticut. We lunched in Windam and strolled through some shops in Kent near the New York border. We ended the first day near the coast in West Haven, Connecticut.

The next morning, we drove over to Essex. There, we found the Essex Steam Train. This authentic 1920s steam locomotive and passenger cars have been operating on 13 miles of track in the Connecticut River Valley since 1971. We opted for the complete 2.5 hour narrated trip that began at the 1892 Essex Station.

At Deep River Landing, we left the train and boarded the riverboat Becky Thatcher for a cruise on the Connecticut River that lasted about an hour. The Becky Thatcher was a triple-deck Mississippi style riverboat.

We paddled past the William Gillette castle sitting high above the river and the renovated Goodspeed Opera House that sits on the water’s edge. After the boat ride, we got back on the steam train and finished the return trip to the station.

Ever the shopper, Mary found an antique shop near the train station so we wandered over. We enjoyed a nice visit with the shop owner who recommended we take a driving tour of Stonington, Connecticut and also take in the shops in Mystic. So, we headed that way late in the day, ending up at a hotel with an ocean view in Westerly, Rhode Island.

We fell asleep to the crashing waves and woke up to a beautiful ocean sunrise. Rested, we went back across the Connecticut border to the coastal towns of Stonington and Mystic. Mary shopped, I sat and we both ate. After lunch, we headed to Hartford and the marathon expo. We had circled the state of Connecticut on less than a tank of gas!

We spent Friday night at a Hilton right next to the hotel expo. I smiled inside while I waited in line at the reception counter and listened to an elderly lady who was in town for a knitting convention complain about the crowds as well as the fact that some of her roads would be closed in the morning for the races. “Hartford – where knitters and runners collide”, I thought to myself.

This was the point where I officially bagged the double attempt. I reserved an extra night at the Hilton. Instead of hustling down to Rhode Island after the race, we would rest up, sleep in a little and head to the airport on Sunday in a relaxed fashion rather than a post race frenzy. I was hopeful that I could gut out one good race but by then, I knew that 2 marathons was simply not a smart move (At last, I was listening to the inner voices!).

Watching the weather in the warm hotel room while I laid out my gear for the morning, I discovered we would be cold and wet the next day. Our time in Connecticut had seen perfect weather to this point. The local weatherman was warning runners to prepare for temps in the 40s and a light rain. I put out one more shirt and a throwaway sweatshirt for the start.

The weatherman didn’t disappoint. Under an umbrella, Mary and I strolled down to the starting area in Bushnell Park near the Connecticut state capitol in a light rain with the temperature near 48 degrees. The wind was minimal. Overall, it really wasn’t a bad day to run. I would have liked another 10 degrees but wasn’t going to let the weather get me down.

I found the 4-hour pace group. My plan was to hang with them as long as I could. I had been training for something faster and was hopeful that my lack of conditioning the past few weeks might somehow, someway still allow me to get through the course in a decent time.

Being one of the original 13 colonies, Hartford is a historic town and the course would be full of significant sightseeing opportunities like The Wadsworth Atheneum (the oldest public art museum), Mark Twain House, West Hartford Reservoir, Noah Webster House, Rentschler Field (home of UConn football) and Augie & Ray’s Drive In (a family owned institution since 1940).

The route also ran past the oldest continuously operated post office in the country at mile 17 in East Windsor Hills. The first post rider arrived here in 1783.
Near mile 21, marathon participants ran the same route as French General Marquis de Lafayette’s officers raced down in 1778, while the General’s headquarters were in South Windsor, CT. The French officers entertained themselves with gambling and horse races that started at Lafayette’s main street home.

I tried to think about all of this but as the race progressed I could only focus on getting to the finish. I was under 4 hour pace but barely after 7 miles. By this point, the hip/groin was getting tight. While I didn’t mind the cool, almost cold weather, my aching muscle issue sure did.

I lost sight of the 4-hour group after 11 miles and my watch flashed 2:05:47 at the halfway point. Mentally, I felt strong but just couldn’t get the bad leg to keep up with the good leg.

Mile 15 was the last mile I had under 11 minutes. By mile 20, I had began to run/walk and my mile times rose to 13 minutes, 14 minutes and even into the 15s. It was a suffer-fest as I simply put my head down, ignored the scenery, the sparse crowds and concentrated on getting to the next mile marker. I often joke that during some marathons I run 26 miles and in others, it is necessary to run 1 mile 26 times. This race became one of those series of 1-mile runs.
The marathon guidebook I picked up at the expo had talked about 35 bands along the course but many must have cancelled due to the cold weather and rain. I am not sure there were 5 bands on the course let alone 35.

The pre-race hype also had mentioned a spectator friendly course. Spectators were sparse. I did see Mary twice in the first 7 miles but after that it was pretty lonely. It is one thing to suffer with support but slogging virtually on alone was a real drag.

The 4:15 group passed me like they were floating. I cussed under my breath when the 4:30 group went by a bit later. I had been running under 4 hours for the past few years. I didn’t like the feeling of being near the back of the pack – hurt or not. One foot in front of the other, head still down, I slogged on. The last 6 miles took me almost 90 minutes.

I crossed the finish line in a merciful 4:54:47 for an 11:08 average. I was in some major pain and discomfort at that point. I found Mary, put my arm around her shoulder and together we hobbled to the beer tent. I was cold, tired and miserable but I was going to get that free beer!

I ended up 1995th out of 2,415 finishers in the marathon. I was 1168th of 1,349 male finishers. In my age group of men 50-54, I placed 121st of 144. I took no pride in any of these stats.

I started this training cycle in the best shape of my life. I had finished a crumpled shell of my best self. In hindsight, I realized that I had taken my fitness for granted and abused it. I had no business running so hard so often at my age. I had ignored my mantra of “make a plan, follow a plan” thinking I could go faster and harder “just one more time”. It was a hard and difficult lesson to learn.

I left my empty beer glasses and put my arm around Mary for the mile plus walk back to the hotel. I was cold, beaten and defeated but far from done. I had completed a marathon on one and a half legs after the worst illness of my life. While I took no pride in my stats, I was thankful to have finished.

My personal pity party was over before I eased myself into a hot bathtub back at the hotel. I had begun to focus on getting to physical therapy, reducing my mileage and climbing back to my previous healthy condition. I vowed that the half a leg was going to be my best leg by the next time I stepped to a starting line.