"It's a little self indulgent..." - My mom
"After I read a sentence, I get mad at myself for caring what you're doing." -Karl Dusen

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

An athletic miscarriage - my Pittsburgh Half Marathon

It was pretty friggin' ugly.

Short story: I shelved the race about 4k in because things were looking increasingly bleak in terms of both hitting my time and remaining conscious while maintaining a competitive pace.

Long story: I spent the last few months preparing for a race- my first at the distance but one that was certainly within reach. My races prior to it trended toward me being able to meet my goal. The race, the Pittsburgh Half Marathon, was in my home town, where dozens of my friends and acquaintances would be watching and cheering. After seven months away, I wanted to demonstrate that I had made a significant jump in my fitness, able to keep a solid effort up over 13.1 miles. I wanted each of the cheers I heard from my friends to keep me speeding up as I charged for home, dipping under 5:20 as I covered the last 5k.

I woke up at 5:30 to prepare for my 6:00 shakeout run with Matt Ciccone around Chatham Village. I ran shirtless and sweat was rolling a half mile in. When we drove downhill to the Strip District, the air was even thicker. I warmed up along Liberty Avenue and trudged back to the starting line on Smallman Street and met up with a few familiar runners. Sheehan and Weiss warmed up with a little more focus, meanwhile I turned around and saw Chris Geddis charging toward me with a smile and a hearty handshake. Kristin and Kara Price were there, along with my Hound teammates- Brandon G, Jim Hommes, Eric Laughlin, Rirch Crowley, Greg Byrnes, Ryan Erdley, Timmy Wu!
We're all pressed back behind the line. It was getting awfully warm. Sweat poured off of my body. This is the most uncomfortable I have felt in a long time, and besides a few strides I hadn't made any strenuous movements. It wasn't blazingly hot, but it was so humid I am amazed the air could hold the moisture.
The gun goes off. Everyone charges ahead. I stay cool, glad to suddenly be out of a crowd of 98-degree bundles of muscle, respiration and perspiration.
Not a half mile in I come up on Andrew Sutherland's shoulder.
"What are you aiming for?"
"1:11, but starting out at 5:30."
"Well, we're not going to hit 5:30 this far back."
The Canadian made a point. I sped up a little, but carefully. I wanted to stay fresh...
Hallie is on the right side of the street, the same place as she was last year. I give her a thumbs up and a smile. I'm biding my time...
Eric Shafer limps off the course! What's going on? Jim runs over to him, grabs something and gets going. I pass him, Rich Crowley and a few other Hounds who I expect to be running in the 1:15-1:18 range.
One mile- 5:26 high. A little fast, but alright. The rest of the lead pack is far ahead, and a lot of the people I figured would be farther back are going out hard. I'm running close to even splits for a 1:11, I know they can't all be...

I catch up with Greg before the turns onto Butler Street and Penn Avenue. There's Matt Hannigan! 5:38? uh oh, I hadn't felt myself slip so much, but I guess I need to start pushing. About two and a half minutes later, I started to feel some numbness in the back of my neck. What???? Are you serious? Steve Strelick yells for me "COME ON CHARLIE, YOU CAN DO THIS!"

He's right. I can. We ran harder than that for our tempos last year on a hilly-as-hell course in Schenley Park. 5:20s after a 5:05 first mile uphill. I miss training with him, his self-deprecating humor matched mine pretty well. I remember that we ran those times in below-freezing temperatures. Big difference. Brian Quinn is on a bike, cheering. I start to look around and see black splotches in the bottom halves of my eyes. It reminded me of the Rock and Run 5k in 2004, which I decided to run eight hours before and nearly passed out at the end. I wasn't even 5k into this race. About three minutes later, I couldn't run any faster.

That was it.

I thought about what it would take to catch back up to my pace. I thought about what it would take to do the bare minimum to hit my goal. They were all too far for me. I cursed myself for not being able to push through it. Despite all my training, I wasn't prepared to do everything. I couldn't force it. At the very basic, I couldn't do it. I was incapable. My head had suddenly gotten very warm, too much to handle. I was getting dizzy, my scalp was itching from the inside out.

Bradon G passed me, told me to come on. No. I won't.

I saw Hallie, gave her a thumbs down. I dropped to a jog. I think I figured I might as well run the course, as long as I was there. Also, I wanted to make sure the results reflected the number of participants, so I was somewhat committed. Rachel Yacono was there on Penn Avenue, but I gave her a thumbs down, too. Paul McCaffery ran by. So did Mad Dog Jones. The Wildfires, such great supporters, were there right before the 16th Street Bridge. I talked to a blind veteran running the race with an attendant. As I hit the North Side, Ryan stopped for a few seconds so I caught up with him. Pat Fisher passed me some time around then. Then Kristin Price. Timmy Wu sometime around then. I caught up to Andrew Sutherland, and he started struggling at this point.
I saw Matt Meurer in West Park and I made some faces at him. He had guessed I would run 1:29:30 as a joke, but it was coming true. Doen't'at beat all?
Phoebe Ko got me coming back around the park. I saw Jeff Hains, not-so-fresh off of his race in Boston two weeks before, chasing me down... well, not really, but it was happening. There goes Dave Masse...
Javed Gangjee, the most mobile and enthusiastic road race cheerer, got me coming off of Allegheny Commons.
Not what I wanted to hear, but I can't fault him for trying. When you are running well, you want the entire world out there to see it. When your presence on the roads makes it smell like an open sewer in Bogota, then you want the roads likewise deserted from people trying to escape the stench. Despite the water falling from the sky, people were out there. It wasn't rain, it was more like the sky was just bleeding. Rain relieves the ambient humidity and cools you off. This wasn't rain...

I crossed the bridges to get to the North Shore and saw a digital display outside of a bank- 72 degrees. It was a little past 8:10 a.m. At this point I was regretting my choice to keep running. It was no longer even fun. I wanted to go home. As I passed the Hyde Park Steakhouse, on one of the stretches I thought would be fun and fast, I looked over and saw Michelle Corkum. Her pace was blowing me away. I tried to keep up to help keep her company, but I gave up on that and started cheering instead. Someone else passed me then. I can't remember who. As I climbed the West End bridge ramp, Jess Gangjee passed me., so did Carl Hubel. I cheered my lungs out for her as we crossed the bridge and she faded from my sight. A crowd lined Carson Street at the end of the bridge, and I thanked the West End for coming out. Brooke Smith saw me and yelled, though for a while I thought it was Beckie Hollerman. Some dude who was running without a shirt wished me luck and I said "Oh, I'm not racing, I'm just enjoying a run."

A total lie. I wasn't enjoying this. I was regretting it and hating myself with the same thoughts. The dumbest thing I did was keep going. Whoever said there was any kind of honor in finishing everything you start was a moron. Larry Quinn, his wife Liz and their dog, Little Donnie Iris, were at Station Square. Gillian Sowray was handing out water near the incline and for the second straight year, she saw the look of dejection on my face during this race. I saw Breen Masciotra a few blocks later, then Ed Koontz passed me. The last two miles were nothing but misery and more misery. I was tired, depressed, devastated and furious at the same time. I saw Javed once more as I was crossing the Smithfield Street Bridge. He had skillfully toned down his cheering, just letting me know I was close to the end.

Scores of cheerleaders from Plum lined the street in front of Kauffman's and I wanted to punch every one of them. Everyone who cheered for me was a total effing moron. They clearly didn't know good running if it kicked them in their moronic faces. I was fed up by the last turn, and then I saw Coach Wright and we made eye contact. He reached for me when I crossed the line and asked me if I was okay. All I could ask was if Ryan had won- he had! I let out a whoop and he told me to be serious- was I okay? Be honest... I tried to explain that 'it' wasn't happening and I just gave up on the race... He handed me off to a volunteer, saying "he doesn't usually finish back here, keep an eye on him." I led the volunteer around as I wandered the finish area. I saw Michelle and Heath. Jack Hartnell told me I'd be glad I did this someday. Someone gave me a medal. I tried to throw it into the Allegheny River in an act of defiance, but it hit a fence three feet ahead of me and fell to the ground. Dr. Eric Anish turned around and the volunteer told him I needed to go to "the tent." He led me in and a nice group of pediatric nurses took over. I begged them not to use a rectal thermometer and they had me lie down on a cot, packed my head and neck with ice and I watched and laughed as people tripped over the median in the road.

Coach Wright talking to me before I even cross the line. I'm going for my half marathon PR here! (sadly, that's true)
My splits:
78th place
64th man

My long run workout one Sunday afternoon in March, during when I averaged 6:00 pace for almost 15 miles, would have taken me through the half marathon point in 1:18:39, good for 21st place, and the day I ran that I stopped for traffic on the road!

There was no honor or character building in finishing the race as I did. My name is etched in results that I want to forget. I do feel smart that I didn't keep racing. I was so hyped for this race that if I had tried to race, balls out, with a hope for achieving my goal when the likelihood was so slim that I would achieve it, I would have been devastated. I would have probably hurt myself or exhausted myself in weather that was too much for me. What the day amounted to was a short tempo run and a long cooldown. Granted, it ended up being slower than a distance run on a normal day.

The part that hurts the most is that people, either not knowing any better or trying to be helpful, tell me good job. They're trying to help and be supportive, but it is depressing to hear that repeatedly when I know it was the slowest pace I have ever run for a race. My marathon, when I ran like a clown and started in the back, ended up 20 seconds per mile faster.

There ya' go...

Thank you to Javed Gangjee for documenting my agony in these photos and a sincere thanks to him and everyone else who was out on the course or sent their tidings. I do appreciate them.


  1. Charlie-I'm sorry you had an off day. It was just another training run, nothing more. I can't tell you how similar that story sounded. For me, and particularly it seems to happen in my event(the marathon), I have bonked a few times and had terrible races...and still I finished-and will debate in my head over and over, what's the point? But seriously, it doesn't matter...you run it as a training run and nothing more when this happens...and it is frustrating being at an event you want to shine at and run your fastest when it counts...not just another stupid training run you could do any day of the week. But it happens for a good reason, to all of us. I know what you're feeling man. I know people who drop out of races and have to be perfect. But you know what? You got in your 13.1 miles for the day(or 16 including warmup I suppose). For me, personally, I'll finish the race whether I have to walk or jog or whatever...because it becomes just another run. It's either a race or it's not...sometimes it's a hard workout, but it's also running...and running feels terrible sometimes...you get those struggling runs where you're just like uhh, I just don't feel normal at all...and shit, everyone has them. You've had a great spring and that Cherry Blossom race was one kick ass run. Keep that race in your mind.

  2. Hey Charlie- Im not a runner but I can imagine how you feel- I have felt it too. This kind of personal defeat is some of the worst kind and people telling you you are great or did a great job only makes it feel shittier. Your friend above said it well- it was just another run and there will be others, and everyday that passes will help that thought sink in, and youll pack it with you along with all the great runs and the shitty ass runs you've had, and youll carry them all with you and they can each help you in their own way. So sorry, man, I know you were really looking forward to this.
    Hope to see you in DC in a few weeks
    love a

  3. I felt very sad when I was coming up behind you, squinting my eyes trying to figure out if what i was seeing was for real :( but at the same time it was SO nice to run with someone i knew for a few moments, i shoulda told you to stay with me longer.

  4. & i agree with the comment above; non-runners are of course only trying to be nice and comparing it to their world/their times but let's face it there's no point in telling someone they did well at something if they don't feel the same. however, i do give you all the credit in the world for finishing it up. you LOVE/(hate) Pittsburgh and so you got to sight see/cheer at a pace you're not used to viewing the world at. i hope that much was at least somewhat enjoyable!

    p.s. i was so f-ing beat too but kinda tempoing it as well, although not the same extent as you. i went out at 6 min pace, little faster than goal pace, started to drop off, passed two chicks around mile 2-3, and then after that didn't even have sight of another chick again, so i was just running for my spot. so when i saw you, i was kinda in a rut and totally understood instantly why you were there.

  5. Ugh. We've all been there before. I know exactly what you mean when you talked about wanting to hit people who were cheering and saying good job! HAHA!! But I did want to say that I do think there is honor in finishing, even if it is your slowest time and way off your goal. In my life I've dropped out of 2 races and I regretted those two races FAR, FAR more than those races where I ran or swam/biked/ran poorly, but still at least finished. I've always held the notion that once you start dropping out of races, it's way too easy to do it in the future.

    Anyway - you've lived to fight another day and when you do get that 1:10:xx it will be all the more sweeter!

  6. I had a similar experience at the Frederick Half on Sunday. At least you have a good sense of humor about it. The only spectators we had were a handful of rednecks in the Wal-Mart parking lot who yelled things like "Run, runner, run!" from their lawn chairs.

  7. Charlie - no matter what you think I still think it's impressive to finish. If anything, I think it shows more character to finish on a bad day than to run a "good" race. The easy thing would have been to drop out. Keep up the hard work and I'm sure you'll get right back to your peak form the next time out.