by Laura Morgenthau
I have never looked worse. Clearly, it was the perfect time for a network news camera to be trained in on my miserable face. That warm April afternoon, I became the 6 o’clock news’s poster child of anguish and despair for the 105th running of the Boston Marathon—I was the leg-weary marathoner whose heart had been broken on Heartbreak Hill.
My misery began, innocently enough, exactly one year earlier. A recent
People run marathons for many reasons. Mostly, it is a challenge—a physical and mental achievement that many desire, but few attain. A common line item on life’s list of Things To Do Before I Die, many think of marathons as epic journeys, the pinnacle of physical fitness. But, marathons punish the human body in a myriad of ways. There is so much potential for injury, that it seems illogical to even think about running one. And yet, in 2002, 450,000 people completed marathons in the United States. We can’t all be crazy. Or can we?
Finished Before Starting
A 30% attrition rate is not surprising considering the physical, mental, and time demands of training for a marathon. A typical beginner training regime builds over a five month period, and requires running 4-5 days per week, with an additional day of cross training such as biking or swimming. Once a week, marathon trainees complete a long run that gradually builds from about 5 miles to somewhere in the 20-mile range. According to Christine Roy, a physical therapist at
Preparing for Pain
As it turns out, injury would mar my own training regime. On
Musculoskeletal injuries, like my injured hamstring, are common in marathon runners. The constant pounding of each stride, a force equal to about two or three times the runner’s body weight, can wear on a runner’s muscles and bones. In fact, at the Twin Cities marathon, which runs from Minneapolis to St. Paul, MN, 17% of medical visits during a 12-year time period, were due to musculoskeletal injuries.
In addition to muscle pulls, stress fractures sideline many prospective marathoners. These tiny cracks in a runner’s bones, most commonly in the lower legs and feet, are caused by the perpetual pounding of distance running. Distance running can also cause the kneecap to move incorrectly inside the knee, eventually wearing away at or irritating the knee’s cartilage. This condition, called runner’s knee, plagues many marathon runners. But runner’s knee isn’t the only marathon injury that causes knee pain—iliotibial band syndrome does as well. If a runner’s iliotibial band, a band that runs from the hip to the knee, is tight, the friction as it rubs against a bone projection on the outer knee can cause intense, burning pain.
But musculoskeletal problems such as these are just the meat and bones in a devil’s brew of marathoning injuries. Blisters, chafing, bloody nipples, dehydration, and exercise associated collapse are a few of the many other potential marathon ailments. And with a recipe for disaster like this one, running a marathon, from a health perspective starts to sound crazy.
Then again, marathoners are all a little insane. The last thing a marathoner wants to hear is someone telling her to stop running. Since some pain, such as muscle tightness, is a normal part of running, some runners have a difficult time differentiating between normal pain and injury, notes
Racing to the Infirmary?
My injury eventually healed, but my training regime suffered. So it was with a little trepidation that I showed up in Hopkinton on
Race day is a peculiar event for marathon runners. Months of mental and physical training boil down to a runner’s condition on that single day. Because of this, runners may ignore sub-optimal running conditions that can place their health in peril, such as hot weather that increases dehydration risks, or a dodgy muscle ache. “It’s one day of pain. You just kind of push through it,” says Lisa Murray, a Boston University Athletic Trainer who finished her second marathon this past April.
During or just after the race, 2–8% of marathoners receive medical help according to a 2006 review article in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine. This article also reports that as many as 81% of marathoners may complain of gastrointestinal issues, such as bloating, cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and fecal incontinence either during or training for the race.
My stomach of steel, thankfully, held out for me that day. I strode confidently through the first half, passing the 13-mile mark in under two hours. And then, at mile 15, I started to realize that I might have a problem. The weather was unusually warm, and I had not prepared for it. Dressed in my winter leggings, I was hot and couldn’t shed another layer. At mile 18, I hit the wall.
I can only describe hitting the wall in one way: pain, pain, and more pain. Every muscle in my body ached and was screaming at me to stop. I just could not, could not, take another stride forward. I started walking. I slogged my way through the rest of the course, dragging an ego as badly bruised as the rest of my body behind me. My cycle of misery was complete. Almost.
From the security of the sidelines this year, I once again watched thousands of runners proudly cross the finish line in