WHEN WORST IS BEST

doug 2

I  just ran my fifth half marathon and my time was my worst ever. By a lot. So why am I so happy?

The race I ran was the Mad Marathon (madmarathon.com) in Waitsfield, Vermont. The route is gorgeous—mooing cows and clucking chickens everywhere, two covered bridges, views of the Green Mountains! It is also brutally hilly, with over 1,200 feet of elevation gain, pretty much all in the first few miles. People run this race for a lot of reasons, but to PR isn’t one of them. I spend summers in Waitsfield and runners in this race go by my house in Mile 2. How could I not participate?

To prepare, I signed up for an intense online training program that gave me a personalized day-by-day plan on what to do and I got started. I was doing this and I was going to nail it.

Now let’s back up for a minute. Let me tell you that I am not a naturally athletic person, nor am I a talented runner. I used to love to smoke cigarettes. I will always choose a gin and tonic over a glass of water. I always order dessert and say I’m going to share it but then don’t. I am slow. But I am also very stubborn and I love a good challenge. I am also super goal-oriented, so I love training for races and trying to improve on my previous times. I am very competitive, but only with myself.

I ran my first half marathon back in 2006. My time was 2:19. I ran another one later that year and did a little better, and then I was hooked. I signed up for the New York Marathon for 2007, and I ran two more halfs while I trained. The time for my fourth half was 2:05. I was in the best shape of my life and I was doing things I never thought possible. I was wearing tank-tops in public! I was eating like a pig and I was skinny! I was saying things like, “Oh … only a short run today, just eight miles.” Everyone hated me and I loved it!

My marathon was tough. I’m glad I did it, but I sort of loathed every minute of it. When I saw my cheering family along the route somewhere in Mile 22, I ran up to my partner Jason and grabbed the collar of his down vest, looked him in the eye and said, “DON’T EVER LET ME DO THIS AGAIN.” And I meant it. Marathons suck. (The next day I was trolling Google for a new marathon to sign up for.)

So all this was great! Until about a month later. It was the day before Thanksgiving and I was having some really uncomfortable pain in my chest. After being stubborn about it for three whole days (“It doesn’t hurt if I don’t move, so I’m sure it’s fine!”), I went to the emergency room where I quickly ended up in a hospital bed with a chest tube rammed through my ribcage into my chest cavity. My left lung was 100% collapsed. I was in the hospital for eight days, just sitting there eating Percocet and getting X-rayed about 7,000 times per day, waiting for my lung to re-inflate itself. Eight days! People were coming in and having major heart surgeries and leaving within 24 hours, but there I sat.

Doctors insisted that this had nothing to do with my distance running despite the timing, and I believe them. I had what’s called a spontaneous pneumothorax, which basically means that my lung collapsed for no reason. It’s something that happens most often to tall skinny men between the ages of 20 and 40. I’m tall. I’m skinny. I was in my 30s. Bingo! Hospital staff were tickled that I was so textbook! When I finally was discharged from the hospital, I asked when I could run again. The doctor said, “Right now. It’s like nothing happened to you.” My discharge paperwork said: “Avoid scuba-diving and tuba-playing for at least three months.” I’m not kidding. It really said that.

My discharge paperwork said: “Avoid scuba-diving and tuba-playing for at least three months.” I’m not kidding. It really said that.

Despite being told that it was like nothing had happened to me, it sure felt like something major had happened. I was traumatized. And I was scared to run at all, forget about long distances. I eventually started running again, but the longest I’d run since the hospital stay almost eight years ago was six miles, and I only did that once. So while it’s always fun to joke about my lung collapse, it’s actually not that funny. (And if you want to see something really unfunny, google “chest tube insertion.”)

So this year I was finally ready. I had signed up for the training plan and my online coaches thought that if I followed it to a tee then I could achieve a time of under 2 hours, even with the hilly course. So … I was all in! I was doing great both physically and mentally. I had my mileage up to 30 miles during one week! I was BACK!

And then I got a head cold and I didn’t run for a week. Then I got a terrible case of the flu (the kind where I crumpled into a heap on the floor and couldn’t get up because I was so weak, not the kind where I’m like, “Yay I can make someone serve me soup and ginger ale while I binge on Netflix under a blanket!). Then I got another cold. Then I had some allergy issues. Then I hurt my knee. There was also a week in Vegas where I did nothing but play poker and didn’t exercise at all. So how much training did I do over the past four months?

Surprisingly a lot given what I just told you. But I was in no way ready to run this race as a race, and certainly I wasn’t going to run it in the original goal time of under two hours.

doug 4
A Gatorade toast with friends mid-race

So what did I do? I did it anyway. My race plan was simply to try to enjoy it. I stopped at water stations and chatted with neighbors who were volunteering there. I stopped and walked with other struggling runners along the course. I had my picture taken with my partner Jason in Mile 11 and talked to him for a little bit before soldiering on. Yes, of course I ran too, but I took all the pressure off myself and just finished. My time was 2:34, which comes to an average mile time of 11:47. But I actually had fun. I felt great at the finish line. And I know I can do this again. This race was a huge win for me, even though it was a PW (personal worst). I really am back, and I’m loving running again.

Victory.
Victory.

I’ve already signed up for another race in October, and guess what? I know I can beat my last time. I can’t wait.

Douglas Stewart is a literary agent, runner and poker enthusiast who divides his time between New York City and Waitsfield, Vermont.