It’s been exactly one week that I finished the 2017 Maratona di Roma, a race I had dreamed of running and finishing for a long time. This was actually my second attempt after having to drop out last year, due to a hospital stay.
The course for the MdR is advertised as beautiful (true!) and fast (probably true) – so I had high hopes for a PR. I’m not a fast runner and definitely not a fast marathoner. I have no ambitions to qualify for Boston or win any age divisions. But as I started training for the MdR I generally felt in good shape through a combination of Crossfit, daily biking and running. I was confident I could finally break 4:30.
Spoiler alert: I did not.
It didn’t start too badly though.
For both the New York City Marathon and the Munich Marathon, I trained with the FIRST method. The plan is based on a recent 5k, 10k, half or full marathon time, then gives you target paces for a weekly interval, tempo and long run. You only run three times a week for 16 weeks, but every run is challenging. There is no easy running. However, it does allow you time for additional recovery or cross-training.
I started training for the MdR just before Christmas, just as I was going through a busy period at work. But even as it was exhausting to train three times a week, Crossfit, work too many hours, travel for business and still try to sleep enough, I enjoyed doing it.
I even continued running outside as Munich was hit by true-winter-like temperatures of -17°C (1°F). I still ran outside at 6 AM. I ran and sprinted and tempo’ed on icy roads. And it went so well that I still kept hitting and beating my target paces. I was so fast. I was high on adrenaline. I felt like I was flying.
And in retrospect, I was goddamn stupid. This is probably where I went wrong. Just because you can run faster than your target pace, doesn’t mean you should. I learned the hard way that running faster and harder doesn’t necessarily mean better. Just because you can run your 16k tempo at 5:50 pace instead of 6:26 (as prescribed per training plan), doesn’t mean you should.
I do realize now that I made a very rookie mistake: I overtrained. Badly.
This is where the fun ends
I kept ignoring the little pains and aches for as long as possible. Until they became so unbearable that I had to stop runs and was unable to finish them as I limped home.
I saw several doctors, went through mixed emotions. Hope, despair, hope, despair. Hope. The first doctor told me, I had an inflammation, gave me a cortisone shot and advised me to find another sport. The second doctor believed at first it was the meniscus, then sent me to the MRI where we found out I had a torn calf muscle and multiple stress fractures. Possibly in both legs. And possibly not just the shins.
(For the record, in the MRI picture above, you see a dark, round bone – my thigh bone – and a much lighter bone below it – my shinbone. They’re both supposed to be the same color. Dark. All the white stuff in my shinbone are the little tears of the stress fracture.)
I might have cried (a little) after the diagnosis. With the marathon only two weeks away, I was pretty devastated. I knew that a stress fracture takes more than a week to heal. 4 if you’re lucky. More like 6 – 8. Or more. I had already accepted that I would not be running this race. The second year in a row.
There were no words for my disappointment.
All the sacrifices. Time spent running that I could have spent with my friends and family instead. Or sleeping. Toward the end of the training cycle, I was physically and mentally exhausted. The combined stress of hard training, work (including a lot of traveling for business), therapy, multiple doctors appointments, having to organize a household and trying to see friends – it all became too much. But above all, the disappointment about the fact that this had been my shot at a PR – my endurance was great. My heart, lungs, muscles. All so strong and powerful. Yet my bones would have none of it.
My orthopedist, a former professional tennis player, had plenty of empathy. I received great treatment. We talked about what could be done and what would be safe. After the diagnosis of stress fracture, I had said goodbye to the idea of a PR. My priority had shifted to making to from the starting line to the finish.
The prescribed me a bunch of painkillers and magnet therapy, where magnetic rays are stimulating your joints to heal. 30 minutes every day. I knew it wouldn’t be a magic fix, but maybe enough to get me through.
We agreed I’d attempt the marathon. Take a bunch of painkillers the night before and day of, run and see how I feel. Drop out if I had to. But at least try.
Hours of Hell
I flew to Rome on Friday, so that I’d have all of Saturday to make it to the expo to pick up my race package without any rush.
I got really overwhelmed at the expo. Alone in a sea of people. All these people looking a lot fitter and faster than me. I also got really scared of what lay ahead of me and whether I’d reach my goal.
By the time the race finally came around, I actually felt surprisingly calm. I felt relieved. We were gonna do this, I was gonna see how far I’d come and then it would be over. My only job post-marathon would be to allow my body to heal.
Most of the race is a blur. I actually don’t remember much of it, except that I was in pain. Pain. So much pain. Pretty much from the first step I took. I didn’t expect the marathon to be pain-free. None of the marathons I have run has ever been pain-free. I had just hoped it wouldn’t be from the very start.
The first thing I noticed was the calf muscle. It felt so incredibly tight. Later throughout the race, I had to stop several times to try and stretch it out. I also noticed my shins straight away, but ironically not the area where I had received the magnet therapy treatment (that pain didn’t come until later), but further down. My ankle joint and midfoot also hurt.
It wasn’t that bad at first. I hurt, sure. A lot sooner than I had hoped for. But it took until Kilometer 8 until I actually started wishing for the finish line. (Yay, only 34 km to go!!) Usually, that sentiment is reserved for the last 8 kilometers. ;o)
The course leads past a lot of (historical) sites but I can remember hardly any. I was so focused on somehow getting through this pain, while listening to my body for a sign that now was too much and I needed to drop out. I can’t tell whether that sign never came or whether it did and I just chose to ignore it.
I remember running around Castel Sant’Angelo and around Piazza Cavour with Rammstein blasting from a speaker somewhere nearby. Nobody else but me apparently thought it to be funny that they were singing about masturbating just steps from the Vatican City. I also remember running along the Via della Conciliazone, facing St. Peter’s and thinking that this (KM 18) was as far as I wanted to get. Goal – check.
I also remember the disappointment I felt when the 5 hour pacers passed me and I realized there was no way I could keep up with them. I must have been so zoned out that I had missed the faster pacers passing me. Realizing that no, I would not finish in under 5 hours was devastating and gave me plenty to beat myself up over the next few kilometers. (I eventually snapped out of it and gave myself a stern look for directing so much anger at myself and my body. My body which was doing an amazing job holding it together when it really ought not. When I was really asking way too much of it. Old thinking habits die hard.)
I remember the relief of passing the half marathon mark and realizing that I was now closer to the finish line than the starting line. Nonetheless, I must have looked miserable. I remember being asked by some medical staff at KM 30 whether I needed to drop out. Nope, only 12 to go. The last few seemed to take forever. I had to take several walk breaks, stop by the medics to get my knee and calf iced, stretch out what I could and limp on. Also around KM 30, my thighs started hurting – good old lactate acid – and my hip flexors and hamstrings tighten up. I was almost glad for some good old muscle pain.
It had started pouring the minute the gun went off and continued raining for possibly 1.5 – 2 hours, lightning and thunder included. At some point it had stopped, but during the last hour of my race it started again. Not only did this make the course more difficult (cobblestones become so slippery and because I didn’t trust my legs to be able to balance out if I stumbled, I was super cautious), but it also was freezing cold.
I can’t remember much between crossing the finish line and making it back to the hotel. I received the medal, cried (can’t remember whether that was out of happiness and pride, or relief because it was finally over), received a thermo blanket and then somehow stumbled to the medical aid tent. I received a nice, free massage, cried some more, got some food and hot tea, then stumbled back to the hotel like a zombie.
So what now?
I’ve thought a lot about this race and where I’ve gone wrong. I overtrained. Badly. I ran faster than I needed to out of wrong ego. I increased the intensity too much too fast. I have not done any tempo work in between training cycles and then jumped into a weekly interval and tempo session.
I failed to listen to my body and even as it was giving me very clear signs that I’d overdone it, I put my mule face on and stubborned it out. (If I do have one characteristic, it’s being stubborn as a mule.) Was that a mistake? Possibly. Would I do the same next time? Probably.
Right now my body needs and deserves to heal. I currently have no desire whatsoever to train ambitiously. I like the idea of going for a run for the sake of being outside, but that’s not smart right now. My bones and joints need time.
I always said that I was going to get my PR in Rome and then I’d be done with running marathons. This was my third and hence more than most people do. I still like the idea of running a PR. I like the idea of running another marathon. I don’t know whether that’s the mule in me talking, the hidden disappointment of how this training cycle went or the fact that I currently don’t find any enjoyment at all in my alternative – Crossfit.
Thankfully, nothing needs to be decided now as my #1 priority is clear: rest.