The Wrong Run

On March 17, in Sanibel, Florida, I made wrong decisions and I may pay for it on marathon day.

I thought my week of vacation a month ahead the Boston Marathon was perfect timing to log in a couple of long runs before starting to taper my weekly mileage. My initial plan was to run about 18 miles (29 km) in Sanibel, and another 20 miles two or three days after that in the Florida Keys. First mistake: given that I had run about 19 miles at home on March 14, the day before leaving, the plan was unrealistic. The most strenuous marathon plans for advanced runners — the type I can’t even follow entirely because it’s too much mileage — don’t recommend three long runs within a week.

I found a run in Sanibel on that looked scenic; it included a path in a wildlife reserve. I started at 9 a.m. Too late. The weather was sunny and hot for the season, even for Florida, and the temperature was already in the 80s (more than 27 degrees Celsius). I wore a baseball hat and carried water, which proved insufficient to protect from the heat a body that had trained in the harsh winter of Pennsylvania.

After about 4 miles, I took a right on a road I mistook for the wildlife drive. A few minutes later, I arrived at a dead end: a leisure center. I was already dripping in sweat. I asked a barman about the wildlife drive — resisting an urge to order a beer and sit down in the shade. “Go back on the main road, after about 2 miles, it will be on your right.” My heart sank: 2 miles before even starting on the path. I could have run back home for an 8 miler and cooled off by the pool for the rest of the day. I didn’t. I wanted to see the wildlife drive…

So I was back on the straight bike path along the main road, with very little shade. After 2 miles that seemed like 5, I found the drive: it was $1 for pedestrians. I was over-heating but still lucid. I would not spend half of my cash to gain access to a path, no matter how wild. Here was another mistake: I usually carry at least $10 during long runs, in case of emergency. I stayed on the sunny bike path.

After 7 or 8 miles — at this stage of my training it is called a “short” run — I was miserable. I knew my pace was slow. I just kept going, hydrating more and more frequently, with my mind fixed on the place where the fancy wildlife drive — I wonder what kind of wilderness I missed for $1 — meets the free bike path again. I thought if I could reach that place, I could still accomplish roughly what I was set to do that day. I saw a few cyclists and then a runner! Tanned, no hat, no water. How did she do it? A few minutes later, I saw a water fountain and a little wooden shelter providing shade. I drank, soaked my hat and ran water through my hair and on my neck.

I decided to come back and was now facing the sun. I wasn’t sure where I would find the courage and felt like a failure. On my iPod, Richard Thompson’s “You Can’t Win.” The song has a powerful pull on me: it’s 9 minutes 13 seconds, the second half only instrumental, mind-blowing. I played the song again and again, and again and again: almost four times. That led me back to the place where I had taken the wrong turn. By now I was well aware that “you can’t win.”

Inexplicably, instead of going home via the straight road (4 miles), I took another one that probably added close to a mile to my ordeal. I can’t remember what the thought process was: perhaps there was none and that’s the problem. The last 4 miles were excruciating. I tried to remember other times when I suffered and made it through. I recalled words from the trainer Bob Glover, who said in “The Competitive Runner’s Handbook” that difficult runs can be used on race day or during though times in life. I remember thinking: “Here’s one I’ll be able to use!” I had difficulty breathing, a sign of sheer exhaustion. I listened “You can’t win” a couple more times and then I was too distressed to even hit the playback button. The next song says “Waltzing’s for dreamers and the losers in life.” Very uplifting. About a mile away from the end, there was a big patch of shade. I stopped. My head started spinning and I felt even worse than while running, so I started running again. I was now in a wealthy residential area with a golf course. It was after 11 a.m. and there were a few runners: tanned, no hat, no water. How did they do it? The final mistake was to keep on running the last mile. I could have walked.

The wrong run: 16.4 miles in 2h25, at a pace of 8 min 49 sec/mile (about 10.9 km/h).
The run on the day after the wrong run: 4 miles in 40 minutes, at a pace of 10 min/mile (9.7 km/h).

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