This is how I woke up on my 38th birthday, the day before the Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon. My throat! My nose! My head.
I felt awful. A massive cold had come to wish me the happiest of days. Just in the nick of time.
I spent the day sulking around, wrapped in blankets, bingeing on cold meds, vitamin C, trying to nap, and even letting my husband hook me up to a terrible little machine that sucked out all the boogers and flushed my sinuses with saline. Disgusting.
There was no relief. I was miserable.
I cried. After all the marathon training I did all summer! Why?! Why was I getting sick THAT DAY? My husband told me that no one would think any less of me if I didn’t run the race. I thought about it, and really couldn’t imagine not running, no matter the cost. I had worked too hard.
I went to bed as early as I could, but was kept up by various things—the fact that I couldn’t breathe whenever I sat or laid down, children, etc. I moved restlessly from the couch to my bed, trying to clear at least one nostril. I finally took some Sudafed, despite the fact that during a frantic google search of, “can I run a marathon with a bad cold?” I’d read that Sudafed could make me have a heart attack during the race. Screw it.
I finally slept.
When my alarm went off at 5 a.m. I was already awake. Plugged nostril and postnasal drip insomnia trumped Sudafed at some point.
I dressed in layers, made a pot of coffee, and groggily left for the Italian Community Center in the Third Ward of Milwaukee.
The ICC was already packed at 5:45 a.m., the parking lot filled with runners making their way to stand in line for the shuttles to the starting line, a long row of yellow school buses. We waited in the rain to board, everyone clutching race-issue clear plastic gear bags (security measure?), for about 15-20 minutes. I’m not sure why they didn’t board more than one bus at a time. I thought maybe they were searching gear bags, but this was not the case.
I was too tired to be nervous, a small blessing.
I was finally on a hot, stuffy school bus heading slowly towards Grafton High School around 6 a.m., trying not to mouth breathe on the female runner next to me, her head nodding as she struggled to stay awake, both of us silently watching the windshield wipers push rain in the dark. I started to sweat from being sick, the stale bus air, and drinking coffee.
I prayed for the rain to stop. The forecast for race day had been clear all week, until the night before. Maybe we’d still get lucky. We did not.
At 6:30 I got off the bus at GHS, and surveyed the port-a-potty lines. They were at least 5 miles long. Inside the high school was worse. A race official yelled to go outside—we were about to run 26.2 miles in the rain, so what did a little rain now matter, he said. Good point.
I went outside and only had time to use the restroom once before we had to head a block away to the starting line. I did not have time to meet up with the Concordia team for a photo. Along the way was a semi where one could drop their gear bag. This was spectacularly convenient.
I walked to the starting line and stood near a pace group. The race began.
The first few miles I felt underwater. Normally I feel GREAT at the start of a race and have to hold myself back to avoid starting too quickly. In this case, I struggled to get moving at all, trying to shake off the sedative effects of Sudafed. The feeling persisted for about 3 miles when a bag of sport beans finally woke me up.
Miles 3 through 8 were probably the most comfortable for me. I maintained a steady and restrained pace, per my race plan. I waved hello to the Rick Riehl Press Box as I ran through Concordia University, saw my mom cheering for me, and a man playing the accordion in front of his farm. Only in WI—he was really good, too. There were more spectators than I’ve ever seen at a race in WI, and even makeshift fuel stations in front of people’s homes. I didn’t partake because of the germs on my hands from wiping my nose constantly.
The rain kept coming. Eventually around mile 9 or 10, my Running for Rick (it said so on the back, with a picture of me and my Dad) tank top got so soggy it gaped uncomfortably, showing most of my sports bra. I heard a spectator comment he felt sorry for the women running in all this rain. I must have looked dejected, my shorts clinging to my thighs like Saran Wrap.
And then my legs started to cramp. I don’t know if it was the distance, or the cold medicine the night before, or the cold rain, but the cramps started early and lasted most of the second half of the race. I had to will myself to focus on my stride, and try to ignore the pain. Breathe, stride, relax, I told myself. Look like a runner, and you’ll feel like a runner.
I spoke to my Dad in my head, and asked him if he remembered when his restless legs were bothering him in the hospice, and how I would rub them until he relaxed.
“You look so strong! Look at those legs!” someone shouted at me.
Yeah, because every muscle is firing/cramping. I’m sure that results in some fantastic muscle definition. I remember that happening to my Dad’s legs; as they withered, they looked so muscular.
I kept going. I stopped to use the restroom, and wanted to sit there forever. I didn’t. I got up, and started running again.
And just kept running. And running. An older man with a white beard approached and said he’d like to Run for Rick for the next mile. I thanked him. But I was going too slow, even for him, and he moved on.
A younger man passed and said, “Running for Rick. Rick Riehl???!”
“Yes!!!” I smiled. He nodded, and kept going. No further explanation. It’s ok, dude. I didn’t feel like talking, either. How did you know my Dad, though?
Miles 18-19-20-21-22-23 were each small eternities. I saw Wiz and my family. I gave my husband a look that said, “Please help me! I want to get in the car with you guys and leave!” Instead they yelled like crazy, cheered, and drove away.
“NO! Come back! Take me!! “ I thought.
My husband captured the look on camera.
I told myself that seeing them should give me a boost. I tried to boost. Nothing happened.
My knee gave out a few times, and I nearly fell.
Dad, is this what it felt like when you began struggling to walk? I remember how frustrated you were. How your knees would buckle.
My legs stopped cramping at mile 24 and I could run again. I focused on the finish, and ran as strong as I could, passing many broken people and finishing in just under 4 hours.
For the love of pete, that was hard.
After the finish, I could barely walk, talk, or move. I couldn’t think. I hobbled around, looking for my family. Someone put a tinfoil blanket on me, and I wriggled out of it. Too hot, too hot.
I saw Steve and Wiz. They were beaming proudly. I saw my mom. She was beside herself, because she doesn’t like me running marathons.
I needed to sit down but didn’t dare.
I retrieved my gear bag (again, spectacularly convenient), and attempted to undress in the women’s changing tent. Not an easy feat. As the women around me recounted the race, I shook like a leaf and tried to get a shoe off. I wanted to sit in the wet grass, but I didn’t think I’d ever get up if I did. I almost texted Steve that I was in the tent and couldn’t come out. Instead I texted him I’d be right there.
I remember when Mom had to help you get dressed, Dad.
We didn’t stick around to eat or enjoy post-race festivities; I could not. I had to get out of there. Instead we embarked on what felt like my second marathon of the day—crossing a muddy field in flip flops. I started to hyperventilate, clutching Steve’s arm, my face stark white with pain. We made our way across the field so slowly, I thought we’d never get to his car. I saw other runners moving around normally, and wondered how that was possible. I was utterly broken. I had to sit and rest.
Dad, was this how humiliating it felt when you needed help to walk? I would have taken that wheelchair you always refused.
Finally we were to the car, and I literally had to lift my leg up to get in. Dad, I remember you doing this too.
The pain started to pass.
I am still sick as I write this, and disappointed by what a wretched experience the marathon was for me, but the lessons are starting to emerge from the haze of my cold.
I trained through an extremely hot and humid summer, and completed the race while sick on a rainy, yucky day. I just kept going, Dad, because a Riehl does not stop. I felt your pain, and I kept going. I am so sorry for what you went through before you died. I am so glad I am still alive, and able to run.
But I don’t think you would have liked doing marathons very much.