“Do you want to run a marathon?”
I never thought I’d ask anyone this question. Certainly not with the intention of asking if that person would want to run a marathon while I also ran a marathon.
Last March, literally the weekend before everything shut down, I ran a half marathon with my running friend Katherine. We trained for a few weeks and ran it just to see if we could do it. It was difficult, though we did enjoy the eating part, and afterwards we didn’t want to talk about running anything again any time soon.
I’m not sure if the global pandemic messed up our brains, but this summer I got an email from The Charleston Marathon offering some kind of discount and I messaged my friend. “Do you want to run a marathon?” The answer came back quickly and simply read, “Yes!”.
I am a runner in that I run. I know almost nothing about running other than getting some good shoes and going outside to run. When we ran the half marathon, we didn’t do a lot of research, we just got up and ran. I knew enough this time to know we needed a training plan and those are easy to find on Google. My main concern with running a full marathon was that I had no intention of taking days off from running. All the training plans called for rest days, particularly the day after the marathon. I’m stubborn, so I took a training plan that looked good and I edited it to fill in all the low mileage days or no mileage days with “5K”. Maybe not smart, but now we had a plan.
This 18 week training schedule did its thing and started whipping us into long running shape. After several longer distance runs, it started to be comical how we’d start craving certain foods while we were running and even get a little dizzy or light-headed when we stopped. Lucky for us, one of G’s work friends is a real runner and they got to talking about my training one day at work. When the work friend found out we were doing long runs without eating anything and clearly not hydrating enough, we were given a list of products to research and buy. Oddly enough, once we were doing things correctly, the cravings and dizziness stopped. It’s amazing what your body can do when it has fuel.
Soon I was a regular at the running store, buying up packs of food gels, protein packed brownies, and these weird little tablets to dissolve in water for extra hydration. We both got new running shoes and started breaking them in. Our feet were happy, our legs were tired, and our appetites were growing. This was about the time we realized we were not going to be able to run this marathon in Charleston on a closed course and with cheering crowds. The pandemic forced the race to transform to virtual and our dreams of high fives from strangers vaporized. But we were committed to this training and we were starting to realize that we were probably capable of doing the distance. We adjusted our race-day plans and kept running.
We did some long runs together at a few local running trails. December gave us some cold runs and even a couple of rainy ones. I never before had to navigate what to wear while running. I sweat a lot and even on cold mornings, my 5K runs are always in shorts. When you’re going to be running for several hours, you have to plan a little better. I wore a rain jacket for the first time ever while running during this plan. I also wore more layers than ever before. On one particular run, we were soaked in cold rain the minute we stepped out to stretch and only got wetter and colder the rest of the day. It was miserable but we managed to laugh our way through double digit miles. Hot coffee helped.
Our runs started tapering down after we reached 20 miles. We were confident. So confident that we even started paying attention to our pace. We got faster near the end of the plan and we started doing some math to figure out how long the marathon would take us and thinking about how much faster we could push to bring our time down. We planned our start and finish line as best we could and informed our families of where they could see us. We were ready.
The week of a race is always a bit anxious for me. I often find a way to snag my leg or hit my knee on something metal in the days before a big 5K race. The week before the half marathon in March, my sick son coughed in my face and got me very sick for the morning of the race. I remember standing in the kitchen filling up water bottles, downing bananas, and popping ibuprofen before being dropped off at the starting line. The week before the marathon moved along fine until Thursday morning (the day before the marathon). I woke up Thursday, ran my 5K and noticed that my legs seemed very tired. As the day went on, the aching didn’t go away and I started to wonder if this was just tired legs or, heaven forbid, a symptom of something. When I got back home after school I checked my temperature just to be sure. No fever. I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Friday morning we followed all the regular long run day traditions. I got a good night’s sleep, a good coffee, and a healthy breakfast. All the running stuff was laid out and ready to go. Our respective families had maps and estimates of when we’d be where. We met at the starting point, hydrated, peed, and had a quick photo session. Then we were ready to go. I still felt a little sluggish but my legs seemed better.
There was no crowd and the few people around us had no idea what we were doing. After a good stretch, we went over the countdown, pressed our buttons at the same time and we were off. The first mile was great. We were fast. The next few miles were just as good and we were still fast. It was mile five that sort of stood up and slapped me in the face. My pace was dropping and my energy was fleeing. I wanted to ask if we could slow down but I resisted.
We ate on schedule and drank water on schedule. It was nice to have an extra pair of hands to help hold gloves and water bottles during eating sessions. The eating was a nice way of breaking up the time into smaller chunks. The conversation was lively for the first 10 miles or so. My energy kept draining and I was quietly having doubts about whether or not I could finish this thing. The whisper in the back of my head kept getting louder and louder with every mile. It said, “Dude, what if you have COVID?”.
We kept running. The way our route was planned along with the schedules of our families meant that we’d get an emotional lift at mile 20. I was struggling and my running friend knew I was struggling. I had asked to slow the pace a bit but we were still moving along pretty well. As we approached mile 20 I saw Katherine’s grandmother and I immediately smiled. She was so excited as she yelled for everyone else to get ready. We ran past her and then past the rest of our families. They shouted, held signs, took photos and videos and then we were on our own again with a little over 6 miles to go. We sped up more than 30 seconds during that 20th mile. The encouragement definitely helped.
After we passed our families I decided I needed more energy and opted to eat my brownie early. We were following our hydration plan but I couldn’t muster enough moisture in my mouth to chew the brownie. I kept having to toss water in my mouth just to get the bites down. This was also abnormal and I was more convinced than ever that something was wrong. Of course it couldn’t be COVID for real. There’s no way I could run a marathon with COVID. And I knew I didn’t have a fever or any other real symptoms. And we were a mere 6 miles away from finishing a freakin’ marathon. I wasn’t sick. I don’t even get sick. I was tired and we would trudge on.
The last 6 miles were through scenic downtown Greenville. We ran past people doing photo shoots and along a beautiful waterfall. The math was also keeping our brains engaged. We wanted to finish as close to a real finish line with our families as possible. We were dividing by 2, moving decimals, and double checking our work. Both of us remembered the training run where I missed the math by 2 miles and we ended up walking back to the cars in the frigid cold. Both of us remembered but thankfully neither of us brought it up. This time we agreed we were at the turn-around and we slowly made the turn with about 3 miles left to run.
We had not fully considered the amount of hills we had to run UP during those last 3 miles. At this point we were on auto-pilot. At a certain point in our long run training we learned that it hurts less to keep running than it does to stop. We charged up the hills and watched the total miles tick away. 24 miles buzzed my arm. Then 25. My barely functioning brain was confused by where we were. It didn’t look like the distance was matching what we had left. If we screwed up, we’d finish the 26.22 miles (you have to get the .22 for it to be a real, official marathon) before we reached our excited families. I think we may have discussed this briefly and Katherine suggested that we could just keep running. That was nonsense. At 26.22 I was stopping one way or another.
Katherine’s running app stayed just ahead of mine in mileage the whole run. This meant that hers would give us a warning saying we were finished about a quarter mile before my mileage clicked over. She could have stopped, but when hers clicked over, she kept running to make sure I didn’t die. She managed to get her phone out and call her mom to alert everyone that we were going to finish just shy of where we’d told them and for everyone to start walking towards us. We rounded a curve and I could see her mom running towards us. My running app rolled to 26.22 miles and I didn’t run another step. I wanted to run to my family but I had nothing left. I needed water and with no real finish line handing out medals, water, and bananas, we were going to have to limp to our cars to refill and refuel.
G and the kids ran to us with their signs. I’m sure they wondered why I couldn’t keep running a little further. I didn’t have words. My body was dry and I wanted water. Within a couple of steps I was also very, very cold. We had not thought to bring the shiny silver heat blankets that people throw over you at the end of a regular marathon. It took me way too long to fish my car key out of the running pocket because my fingers were numb. The key was so cold the remote wouldn’t work and I had to manually unlock the doors. We drank water while leaning against the car. We were functioning but not really thinking about what we had accomplished.
We made a lot of family photos. The sun was setting and our already cold bodies were getting colder by the second. At some point I realized the smile I was giving the camera was just my mouth frozen in a certain position. My lips were blue and my whole body was shaking. Katherine was also shivering.
On a long run your body sweats a lot and the sweat evaporates leaving these white salt deposits on your skin. Our clothes were wet with sweat and our skin looked like we had been properly salted as a main course. I tried to stretch in the parking lot but I couldn’t get my legs high enough to grab them. I couldn’t bend down and get back up. Stretching would have to wait a while. We had reservations to eat downtown so we slowly made our way over to the public bathrooms to change. I took a sink bath and somehow managed not to fall inside the bathroom as I changed clothes.
After a short car ride in clean clothes and explaining why I couldn’t do math and how sorry I was my family didn’t get to see me actually finish the marathon, I felt a little rejuvenated. I was walking with a distinct limp and very slowly, but I was walking. Violet was kind enough to take the elevator with me down the one flight of stairs. The food was great and it actually felt a little like we were celebrating, though we didn’t talk much about the run. I also couldn’t eat much.
I was now coughing. Coughing is normal for me after a run so I didn’t think much about it, but when you’re wearing a mask in a public place these days, the thought of sickness does cross your mind when you cough. I was more exhausted than I’d ever been but considering what we had just accomplished with our bodies, I figured what I was feeling was normal. G drove me back to my car and I was able to drive home with minimal effort.
It crossed my mind to research how to recover from running a marathon about an hour after I got back from running the marathon. I was in a hot bath and Google told me I should not be in a hot bath. Bummer. It seems I was supposed to take a cold bath and then a quick hot shower. A couple of articles said I might get a cold as my body struggled to recover. Some said I might have a weaker immune system immediately after the marathon. G and the kids had planned a weekend trip to the coast and I was looking forward to reclining on the couch and watching the ocean from inside. Whatever recovery I’d need could certainly be found in the salty air, or on the couch on the other side of the glass from the salty air.
The next day I could barely walk but I really didn’t need to walk as long as I could “run” my morning 5K. I hesitated a little extra before opening the door and pressing the start button on my running app. I’m not sure what I did would be considered running in many cultures, but I did loosen up after the first mile and I ran my 5K. This felt almost as big as running a marathon and at least as crazy.
G drove us the 4 hours to the beach and I rested, feeling mostly fine. We ate at our favorite restaurant when we arrived, walked on the cold, winter beach, and all was well. There was even an elevator to mercifully keep me off the stairs at the condo. I had the good sense to bring along this goofy, fuzzy blanket that Blue gave me for Christmas and I made my temporary home on the couch under that blanket as my body just couldn’t seem to get warm again after running. We went out to a few places. I walked around a couple of stores slowly. I started to get a little better at going down the stairs. We all came in Sunday afternoon from an outing and I jumped under my fuzzy blanket shivering. G sort of gave me a sideways look. A little while later she asked why I was so cold. Then she broke out the digital thermometer. I had a fever. She made an appointment for a rapid COVID-19 test.
The next day was a holiday and our travel-home day. We left in time to stop for my test. I was pretty sure I didn’t have COVID but understood that this was a necessary step in my returning to work on Tuesday. I had been family-quarantined the night before and everyone decided to wear masks around me. After my swab we all sat in the car wearing masks for about 10 minutes before I got a call from the nurse practitioner inside. She asked a series of questions that made me drop my guard before informing me that I had just tested positive for COVID-19.
The kids were instantly miserable. Not because of me being in any danger, but because they love school and they didn’t want to miss a day. Now they were both “close-contacts” and they’d have to report. I notified the people I was in contact with in the previous days, including Katherine who ran beside me for over 4 hours. Everyone around me tested negative which made me feel better and the kids only had to miss two days of school as long as they didn’t develop symptoms.
When we arrived home, I was ushered into the bedroom, the door was closed, and I’m pretty sure some bread and water was slid under the door for me. Life apparently went on as usual on the other side of the door, and I tried my best to keep my germs inside the bedroom. Each morning I sent a text telling people to hide while I put on an N-95 mask and made my way outside to run. Once back inside I made my coffee and some breakfast before going back in the bedroom and closing the door. I wiped everything down with a Clorox wipe as I retreated.
As far as quarantines go, I had it pretty good. Netflix and Disney Plus kept me entertained. I didn’t feel like reading but I did stay busy with some school work each day. I wanted students to keep moving forward in my absence from campus, so we kept in touch through text and email. After a couple of days of just feeling like I had a cold or the flu, I came in from my morning run and felt absolutely drained. My oxygen level was steadily dropping through the 90s and I actually started to worry. As people found out I was sick, they felt the need to tell me about all the people they knew who were my age who were in the hospital or now dead from COVID. They gave me every dire warning to monitor myself and go to the Emergency Room if anything got worse. In the worst of it I actually Googled my age to see if I was really “old”. Turns out I am. Who knew?
I’m not sure at this point but the days I felt the worst may have just been that I was bored to death. I started getting more energy and started wanting more and more to break out of that bedroom. I made the executive decision to cut my daily runs back to one mile streak savers until I felt I could run normally without dying. The fever stayed for over a week but once it was gone, I started feeling much more like myself. The lingering fever made me a day later than I had hoped in returning to school but I wanted to make sure I followed the guidelines so I didn’t get anyone else sick.
I was able to return to campus a few hours before my closing reception in the art gallery and while I’ve been moving a little slower and “woooo”-ing a little quieter, I’ve been back in action since. After 6 days of one mile streak saver runs, I felt good enough to run a full 5K. My body wanted to run. It felt so great!
Now that I’m well, I’m trying to remind myself that I ran a freakin’ marathon. I ran it in a respectable time and I ran it with COVID-19! And then I didn’t die from COVID-19! Even on these cold, rainy, gray winter days, that’s a lot to celebrate. I’m proud of our marathon time but now that little voice in my head keeps asking how much faster could I have done it if I had been healthy. Let’s just not talk about that right now.
But, I mean, it was kind of fun.