Friday, April 13, 2012

The Runs (Part 1)

If you are overly imaginative or take offense
at candid discussions of fecal matter, stop
reading here. Don't say I didn't warn you.
The clutch in my 1994 BMW failed a few days before my very first Saturday morning outing with Runner's Edge. Fortunately, Dad came through with a free ride, the Jeep Wrangler he occasionally used to haul things and to drive when he wanted the whole "convertible experience." However, he warned me, the suspension was problematic (meaning occasional shuddering fits) and the brake rotors were warped (meaning no braking from speeds over 50mph). Plus, the brake lights were out and the turn signals didn't always work. "In other words," he said, "if you come to an intersection and there's a cop anywhere nearby, try to come to a stop with him in front of you instead of behind you." Good advice.

So the night before my run, I set out my clothes, looked up the "avoid highways" route to the start on Mapquest (Google Maps, obnoxiously, does not have an "avoid highways" feature), and set my alarm for an ungodly 4:30 AM to ensure myself enough time to get ready and make it there in time for the 6 AM start. Two pieces of toast, one small cup of coffee (to wake up), an espresso GU, and 40 minutes of driving (for only 19 miles - unreal) later, I was there...late for the 6 AM start, but very early for the 6:30. Having twenty minutes of down time before the run began was not doing my nerves any favors. I was not afraid of the distance - ten miles didn't scare me after surviving two half marathons on my (recently cured) shin splints, but looking awkward on the fringe of a huge group of people who all seemed to know each other, did. You don't have to know me for long to forget (like, memory dead, buried, and long rotted away) that I was ever ridiculously shy around new people, but...I'm ridiculously shy around new people. I think it's a confidence thing.

However, once the run started, I immediately fell in with a group of girls who welcomed me with open arms and were very encouraging about my aspirations towards a first marathon. The pace was easy for me and any faint worries I might have had about not being able to keep up immediately dissipated as I listened to their various conversations. I made it all the way to the 10 mile turnaround without even breathing hard before I was visited by what I've very appropriately dubbed...

The Ghost of Runs Yet to Come.

(Get it?)

In the interest of brevity, I'll say I went in twice and came out unsatisfied both times. My stomach was cramping like crazy and I was afraid of what bouncing would do to my insides. So I shut it down.

It was a very long walk back to the start as I tried to determine what it was that gave me the problem. Was it the coffee? The toast? The GU? The caffeine in either the coffee or the GU (or maybe the combination)? The nerves involved with driving an iffy car along an unfamiliar route and then having to stand around with a bunch of people I didn't know? Jenny (the pace group leader) kept me company and said she didn't mind walking, and she gave me the first three of what would eventually become hundreds of suggestions for curing stomach upset - no more pre-run coffee, no more GU, and no more Gatorade. I took her advice on the coffee and on the GU - I think it was the color and the consistency of the espresso flavor that permanently associated it with bowel movements in my mind - but kept taking the Gatorade after I realized water was just as potent in my stomach as sports drink. Jenny assured me it was a common problem for runners, and I was grateful she didn't flinch away from talking about it, like so many people do. But, driving the 50 minutes (thanks to increased traffic) home, I never in a million years thought that RUNNING was the problem.

Fast-forward to the present day. I'm about to begin my third year with the Runner's Edge program. I've learned so much about myself as a runner and as a human being since I began this journey, but two years of trial-and-error in the stomach department STILL has me baffled. It can strike whether I drink on the run, or don't drink. It can come during a 20 miler or a 3 miler...or sometimes it won't come at all. It's usually triggered by bad smells (like a cigar someone was puffing on near the finish line of the Kansas City Half-Marathon) but not enough to establish causation. My diet has little to no effect on it (though I've noticed grapefruit is a one-way ticket to browntown. Consumption has been restricted to post-run or non-running days). Pepto-Bismol has no effect on it, though I'll admit it makes the discomfort before the storm a tiny bit milder. I avoid gels of any sort in favor of electrolyte jellybeans (Sport Beans by JellyBelly) but I can't really say why - both of them mess with me. The faster I run, the worse it gets - it always seems to pop up on speed workouts - but running slower is not an option, as I have to make up for the time on the clock wasted sitting on my butt. The more water I drink, the more likely I am to be able to go prior to the run...but that doesn't always mean I'll be able to go then, and increases the likelihood I'll have to find a bathroom during. While the psychological aspect of knowing there are no bathrooms along the course will almost always guarantee I'll have to go, a peace-of-mind plethora of bathrooms does not mean the opposite.

The only thing I HAVEN'T tried (and won't) is Imodium. I had to take that once when I was a kid - I had some kind of stomach bug - and one dose corked me up for a week, straight. While that is a superpower I'd like to be able to activate, it's equally important for me to be able to DE-activate it. Not being able to - and knowing I might be creating some other kind of problem - makes me nervous.

In short, I have a huge list of half-baked theories and superstitions about the likes and dislikes of my jostled and hassled GI tract, but only three cold, hard facts, which I'll call (ba-dum ching!) Bowel's Three Laws of Motion:

(1) I cannot make myself go. Just because I have the opportunity during a run where I'm feeling discomfort does not mean I can actually make myself go. It's a process, and while I can usually delay the process in the beginning, if I'm not far enough along in that process, I can't go. Plain and simple. Trying too hard leads to other problems...and is very uncomfortable. I won't give specifics here but you get the idea.

(2) If I have to go, I cannot make myself stop having to go. Most runners that I've met can just will themselves to hold it until they get to a facility. I'm not that lucky. I can will it back once, maybe twice, but after that, sometimes walking is even too much and I'm reduced to standing there, clenching my eyes and my butt shut as tightly as I can, and praying that today won't be the day I sh*t my pants. Zero accidents (knock on wood)...and counting.

(3) "Runs" is plural for a reason. Going now does not always preclude going later. This was my problem in New York. I went before the race, and I felt WORLDS better after that because I figured I'd be okay for the rest of the day. But no...I had to stop again a few miles in...and again...and again...until I ran out of toilet paper and decided I was going to hold it no matter what. (And who are we kidding; I'd discounted psychological effects a long time ago. If I'd had to go, I would have stopped. Again. I just got lucky.) Besides, the last toilet seat was covered with feces and sweat and Body Glide and leg hair and I didn't have enough toilet paper to wipe it AND me I had to hover. And hovering on marathon-legs was tough.

But I'm nothing if not adaptive, and I've developed a whole litany of coping mechanisms to get me through my weekday and long runs. I try my best to go before I leave, or at least make sure I can't go. I never run a course without knowing where the bathrooms are. If there aren't any, I run my own course. There's something in my face that must convince people I'm about to make a mess on their floor, because I've never been denied by a convenience store clerk, a coffee shop, churches, even the security guards at an airport hangar. (Elementary schools are the exceptions...paranoid bastards. Just because I desperately want to enter a school on Saturday morning when no children are THERE does not make me a pedophile.) I always bring cash in case I have to buy something to gain access, but I've never had to use it. The waist-leash I received for my birthday means I can hook the dogs to almost anything within a matter of seconds (and they're usually very patient while they wait). My running buddies are incredibly understanding and patient and understand how frustrating it all is for me, and I don't have to use euphemisms or dance around the unpleasant parts - they've all been there at one time or another (or know they will be). Plus, an extra set of eyes to look out for restrooms (or, on one occasion, to let me into his house to use his) is always a good thing. Above all, they help me laugh and focus on something OTHER than the time bomb in my stomach, though, as Rachel pointed out, she can usually tell when I'm worried about it: "You go all quiet and get that look on your face." Ha!

Marathon running, however, adds an entirely different dimension to what's become a familiar problem...

(To be continued)