The dilemma of what to do when you get in trouble mid-race – whether it’s injury, exhaustion or ‘other’ – and the thoughts that go through a runner’s head. John@RunBarca recounts his worst race…
My first race in Spain and I’m bent over double at the side of the road in pain. I’ve hit the stop button on my Garmin and dozens of runners are streaming past me about 9 miles (15km) into a half marathon. I’m done. It’s the second time in the race I’ve pulled over and started to walk back towards the start line, GPS watch turned off. But this time it really is over: I feel dizzy, faint and in pain. I’d trained hard, was in good shape, and the race conditions were good. So how did I get to this point? To answer that, we have to roll back the clock a few days… weeks… months… etc… etc…
Blessing in Disguise?
23 June 2016 was a significant date for me. It was the day on which a chain of events began that would see me completely changing my life, leaving London, my old job and friends, and winding up living and working in Spain as a running trainer. Some in the UK have called the 23 June 2016 ‘Independence Day’ but for me it was the date that would eventually lead to me becoming part of what has been termed the ‘Brexodus’. For this was the day the UK voted in a referendum to leave the European Union. This was particularly bad news for me as, at the time, I was working as a lawyer for the UK government meaning that, almost overnight, my job was affected by – and ultimately became – Brexit.
To cut a long story short, the turmoil in the UK made me think about what I wanted to do with my life, what my priorities were, and how and why I had got to where I had thus far. No longer content to sit in an office for hours on end, I began to take my hobby – distance running – more seriously and started taking coaching courses with England Athletics. My job made me acutely aware that UK nationals were likely to lose the rights that they enjoyed as EU citizens – including the right to live and work in other member states – once the UK left the EU and so I began to make plans to move abroad.
I eventually settled on Barcelona and what an amazing city this is. The culture, the architecture, the climate, the beach and, of course, the thriving running scene make Barcelona a fantastic place to live. Having left the UK to escape from the results of a populist referendum, the timing of my move (I arrived in Barcelona at the beginning of October 2017) was somewhat ironic with the city dealing with the fallout from Catalunya’s own vote, but that’s another story…
But enough with politics; let’s talk running! One of the first things on my agenda as a new arrival in Barcelona was to look up the local race calendar. I was delighted to see that there was a half marathon in nearby Castelldefels only two weeks after moving to my new city. I was already race fit, having run a half marathon just before I left London, so I signed up eagerly.
My preparation undone in one lunchtime
As the race date grew closer, so did my confidence. I was loving my new running city, regularly hitting the beachfront and getting in some hill work at Montjuic. I was getting fitter and was a little lighter than in my previous race too. All was going well, and then…
The Friday before the race my housemate suggested we try the menu del dia at a restaurant he’d walked past earlier that day. Fine, I said. The restaurant was pleasant enough and the food tasted good – particularly the prawn and escargot (that’s snails to the uninitiated) salad I had for starters. This was the first time I’d eaten snails. Let’s just say that I probably won’t be eating them again in a hurry… Because by mid afternoon I was throwing up, sweating, and spending an inordinate amount of time in the bathroom. There was no mistaking it: I had food poisoning two days out from race day.
Not wanting to give up the race for dead, I started popping the pills immediately and by the time I went to bed later that night, things were no longer desperate. I was, however, still sweating a lot – and I woke up on Saturday morning wet with the kind of cold sweat you only get when you’re feeling rough as old boots. Still, I thought to myself, better than yesterday!
I always find it funny how the mind operates in the days before a race. If you are anything like me, you’ll have experienced moments of quiet – sometimes even supreme – confidence followed almost immediately by waves of self-doubt about how the race will go. Any little ache or niggling pain suddenly becomes a subject to obsess over. Then you tell yourself that you’re in shape and start thinking back to that training run you did last week when you felt strong and quick and running felt effortless and start to believe again that you’ll put in a good performance. Well, my mind was firmly in this kind of flip-flop mode of thinking, fluctuating between definitely not going ahead with the race (you know, on account of the food poisoning and all) to feeling like I could brush of my illness on account of my fitness (and it was true, I was pretty damn fit at this point).
Race day rolls around and I’ve decided to run. I wake up in a sweat but, again, it’s nowhere near as bad as the day before. I’ve been drinking plenty of water on account of the dehydration that accompanies this kind of illness but I’m not so worried about being dehydrated. I’m much more concerned with my achy limbs and throbbing joints that were acting as a constant reminder that I was still recovering from a pretty rough bout of food poisoning. But by this point, I’m in the zone and the positive voices in my head have managed to drown out the negative ones. By the time I was warming up at the start line in Castelldefels, I had convinced myself I was going to have a good race.
Disaster in Castelldefels
And things really did feel like they were going alright for about the first three miles (5km). I’d maintained a steady but not fast pace from the off and had settled down into a relaxed rhythm. I kept my breathing deep and steady and the aching in my legs that I had felt earlier that morning was gone. Yeah, this race was going to be fine! And then it hit me. Around the four mile (6.5km) mark I felt all the energy start to drain out of me. You hear a lot of runners talking about hitting ‘The Wall’ – a feeling of deep fatigue experienced when the body depletes all its glycogen stores – around the 20 mile point in a marathon. Well I’d hit The Wall with 9 miles (15km) left in a half marathon. I knew that this was not gonna be fun from here on in.
How did I know? Well, believe it or not, this was not the first time I’d done a race recovering from food poisoning. A few years before, I’d got sick a couple of days before the Gran Canaria Half Marathon (I suppose I’m just unlucky!). I’d blocked the memories of this race from my mind but suddenly they all came flooding back. This kind of psychology is familiar to most runners. Even experienced marathon veterans tend to forget how bad the last few miles of a full marathon feel. It’s a bit like getting kicked in the balls, a retch-inducing whiff of dog dirt hitting your nostrils or (I imagine) going through childbirth. You remember it being bad – really bad – but until you experience it once again, you can’t truly grasp how absolutely awful it is. I was in this kind of place mentally.
Worse was that the course was a double loop starting and finishing at the Canal Olímpic de Catalunya – where the rowing events had been held during the 1992 Barcelona games – and the half marathon was running at the same time as 10k race. As I reached halfway – feeling by this point like I wanted to collapse – I had to fight soooooo hard not to jack the race in there and then as I was right back where I started. It would have been really – temptingly, conveniently – easy to stop at this point, pick up my bag, jump on a train and head home. These sort of thoughts were made all the more tempting by seeing runners in the 10k field cross their finish line, some with arms in the air, some with smiles on their faces, others grimacing – but all of them had finished. And this was what I most envied them for: they could stop running.
I didn’t stop at the halfway point. I kept running. About a mile further on I regretted this decision deeply. A short (and not particularly steep) incline completely broke me. It was only a few metres uphill but the way I was feeling it might as well have been Tibidabo. I was acutely aware that with every pace I ran on that second loop of the course, I was going further and further away from the start line. Every step I took was a step I would have to retrace when I inevitably – and it really did feel inevitable after that tiny hill – had to give up and walk back. These kind of thoughts got the better of me and I stopped running. Looking down at my watch, it read 7.36 miles. I pressed the stop button and started to stagger dejectedly back towards the start line.
But something made me turn around and start running again. There’s a strong chance that national pride could have come into play. This was my first race in Spain and I’d chosen to wear a Union Jack running vest that I tend to wheel out for international races. There were plenty of proud Spaniards and – given the heightened politics in the region – Catalunyans displaying colours of their own and, as I traipsed past them at the side of the road, I somehow felt I was letting the side down. Ridiculous, I know, but I really do think that if I was wearing a plain running top, I’d have kept on walking in the opposite direction.
So, I’m running again and feeling no better. By this point, I’d worked out that despite consciously trying to keep my water intake up even when I was feeling ill, I was horribly dehydrated. I’m not usually one for taking on lots of fluid during a race but on this occasion I was downing two bottles of water at every refreshment station I passed. I must have drunk three or four litres along the route. This was helping, but I was still feeling weak and faint. By the time I hit mile nine, I’m thinking that carrying on is just stupid, that I could do myself some serious damage and that I didn’t have to prove anything to anybody. I’d also started to get stomach cramps that were making me want to bend at the waist and my running form was all over the place. So I pulled up, hit stop on my watch again, put my hands on my knees and stood there staring down at the pavement.
“Don’t come back without the medal!”
I stayed like this for about a minute. I started to hobble back in the opposite direction to the rest of the field once again. The runners streaming past me couldn’t know it, but an internal struggle was going on inside my head. “Good decision,” one voice was saying. But another voice was telling me that this was a failure, this was giving up. I must have done about three or four 180 degree turns in the space of a minute as I flip-flopped between listening to the tough guy telling me not to quit and the sensible voice telling me that they’re be other races, that I should listen to my body and stop. The tough guy voice ended up winning out, and for the rest of the race it kept up a constant refrain: “Don’t come back without the medal!”
This became something of a mantra for me for the rest of this race. I decided that, even if I had to walk (and walk I did!), I was going to cross the finish line. It was a disappointing day all in all but I’m happy to report that I did eventually cross the finish line. Those last four miles were horrible but the mantra did its trick. My official time came in at 1:46:21 – nowhere near what I had been training and hoping for before I got sick – but it felt like a massive accomplishment considering how I felt.
So, I’d done it! My mantra had worked and, though exhausted, as I caught my breath and enjoyed the pure, unadulterated pleasure of not having to run any more, my thoughts began to turn to the medal which I had vowed not to come back without. As I milled along with other tired finishers, getting corralled through the finishing area by the marshals, I was handed various drinks, nourishments and leaflets by the race volunteers.
Before I knew it, I had been funnelled out of the finishing area and was back in the open amongst the general public, surrounded by other runners being hugged and congratulated by friends and family. Where were the usual volunteers presenting finishers with their medals? As I looked around at the other runners, none of whom had medals of their own, the realisation slowly dawned on me: there were no race medals. Constantly telling myself not to come back without “the medal” had got me through the race, but in a final ironic twist, I would come back without a medal regardless.
Oh, well… Rummaging through the race goodie bag I had been given after I had crossed the finish line, I found that all I had to show for my efforts was a couple of small bananas, an orange, a bottle of powerade, a packet of sliced chicken and a bag of nuts. Better than nothing; but the real reward was knowing that I had dug deep into my reserves of willpower and made it to the end. And there was always next year (snails firmly off the menu).