DNF might be the toughest words for any runner to bear. When you pour your heart and soul into a training cycle: modify nutrition, beg your family to understand why you must run 10 miles on the weekend, and then get up at the ass crack of dawn for the event, it can be a huge letdown when the race doesn’t go as planned.
Heat exhaustion is defined as “…a condition whose symptoms may include heavy sweating and a rapid pulse, a result of your body overheating. It’s one of three heat-related syndromes, with heat cramps being the mildest and heatstroke being the most severe.” Complications of heat exhaustion include nausea, vomiting, dehydration, and muscle weakness. Or you could just pass the f*** out. I’ll take option E for $500, Alex! Better yet, I’d like to double my money and add the first 4 to it, as well!
Allow me to paint a pretty picture for you. There I was, valiantly running along when all of a sudden I was struck with muscle cramps, passed out, and came to in a medical tent. Not exactly. The warning signs had been with me since mile 1 of the 13.1 mile race. Running in the humid environment of Virginia Beach, VA on Labor Day weekend already had its challenges but I had trained for the heat and humidity. Really. I had! Alas, it wasn’t my day.
Mile 1 included “side stitches” aka muscle cramps. Honestly, probably every runner has experienced these during training so it wasn’t a big deal to me. When I had to walk at Mile 2, I knew something was off but I told myself it was just nerves. I had run this event at VA Beach the year prior so I knew the course, but I get nervous about nothing sometimes. I continued to drink Gatorade and water at each water stop (approx every 1.5 miles). The cramps weren’t dissipating but I would run until it became unbearable then walk until the cramps subsided. Mile 3 began an incredible headache. Literally. My head felt like it was exploding with every step. I remembered at this time that my dad had experienced a heatstroke many years ago and he kept mentioning how his head hurt so bad. So what did I do? Shrug it off and keep going.
Miles 4-8 are a blur. I can’t recall much of them except stopping to get a drink and soaking wet towels to wrap around my neck. It felt incredible – the cold water dripping down my back. My clothes were a wet mess, but I realized I wasn’t sweating at all. Hello, dangerous! I was vaguely aware at this moment that something was very wrong but I told myself once I reached the finish line I would seek medical attention. But the finish line never arrived. There’s a photo of me walking extremely slowly between Mile 11 and Mile 12. It’s an overhead shot where runners are about to enter the VA Beach Boardwalk. I have no recollection of this part of the race. At approximately Mile 12, I remember sitting down on the boardwalk and a woman approaching me to ask if I needed help. I suppose I said yes, maybe I didn’t answer at all, but I came to with a nice medical support officer leaning over me and asking if I could stand. I realized I was laying on the bricks of the boardwalk, confused and shivering. The paramedics picked me up, laid me on the gurney, and put me in an ambulance.
I’d never ridden in an ambulance before. Quite possibly I’d never even seen inside an ambulance. You could say I’m fortunate. During the ride to the medical pavilion, the paramedic asked me a bunch of questions I don’t remember answering and he attempted, unsuccessfully, to start an IV. I recall apologizing profusely for shaking so badly I was trying to grasp his leg in an effort to hold my arm still for the IV insertion. The joke is I’d be a terrible drug user, but maybe it won’t be received well – so I’m sorry. Some hours later, after being pumped full of fluids, both via IV and drinking 2 huge bottles of Gatorade, the decision was made to release me with instructions to follow up with my own doctor ASAP.
In all this, I have beaten myself up for allowing the heat to get the best of me, both emotionally and physically. Statistically, those who have suffered from heat exhaustion and heatstroke are at a much higher risk of experiencing these events again. With my own history of health issues, it’s agreed I no longer run in the heat. Over 80 degrees outside? No thank you, I’ll pass. Obviously humidity plays a large role in the real feel temperature so that’s accounted for when making a decision to train outdoors. I lost about 8 lbs of fluid that day; insane, right? Recovery was an uphill battle.
Even crazier, I had scheduled VA Beach as the first half marathon in my line of 3 subsequent halfs: Sep – VA Beach; Oct – Crawlin’ Crab; and Nov – Norfolk Harbor Half. I knew I had only a few weeks between VA Beach and the next race. Emotionally, the race in October was a test. I was figuratively running scared; afraid the heat (still hot but had cooled down some) would force me to cancel or not finish the race. I hadn’t trained much since VA Beach because I needed to focus on re-gaining the weight I had lost and maintain hydration. Crawlin’ Crab went well and in November I hit the PR I had been working so hard to attain. Did it all end well? Yes. But it was certainly a rocky road getting there!
Moral of the story: keep pushing unless it’s a battle of your health and your ability to finish an event. Know the signs of heat exhaustion and get help early. Please don’t wait until it’s too late…and you never know when late is too late. I knew all the markers, but kept pushing and stubbornness is not always a virtue. I’m thankful to the lady whom I’ve never met who recognized my silent distress, as well as the medical personnel for their efforts. We pay a lot of money to run races – some of it goes to the emergency warriors who help those of us in need. In my opinion, they deserve more because you just don’t know when you’ll be in need of their expertise.
I ask you –
Have you had a scary experience during a race?
Tips on staying hydrated?
What was the last event you completed?