The Great Train Wreck of 2011 

Junior Head Blog

Monday, February 6, 2012

Let me preface this post with the disclaimer that I consider myself to be a runner.  I realize that’s a very broad term which encompasses everything from, “I run occasionally”, to “I just qualified for the Boston Marathon”.
I’m somewhere in between those two extremes.
I say this because I don’t want to give the impression that I’m one of those “running deities” who can run 50+ mile trail races or sub-8-minute-pace marathons. I know people who can do those things, and they definitely inspire me to see how much more I can do.  But I’m not one of them.  Perhaps one day.
That said, I do run.  Quite a bit, to be honest.  Of course, that is subjective as well.  Compared to some of my running friends, not so much perhaps.  But I think it’s safe to say that, in general, I run a lot.
I have attempted to run 1 marathon (last year).  I say attempted because, even though I did complete it, and was not carried across the finish line by ambulance or piggyback, it was pretty bad.  Train Wreck is the term I tend to use.  As in, “I would have preferred to be involved in a train wreck”.  Also, I didn’t actually run it.  There was a fair amount of walking, staggering, and whimpering involved as well.

Hmmm… Originally, this post was supposed to be about trail running.  But, perhaps it would be best to get some perspective on why I would be out running through muddy, hilly, and wild-animal-infested woods (for hours), first.  So… more on the trail running later.


A few years back, my big running goal for the year was usually a local 10K race here in town (Cajun Cup, for those of you in the know).  At first, it was just to complete it.  Then, I wanted to beat my previous time. Then, I wanted to break an 8-minute pace.  Almost got it 2 years ago, when I averaged an 8:05 pace.  Anyway, that year I decided to see if I could go further.  My brother-in-law (read, “triathlete”) convinced me to sign up for a local half-marathon in December.  I did, and immediately started increasing my mileage.  Got to about 11 miles before the race.  I did it, but had some pretty serious knee-pain around mile 8 (read, “knee explosion”).

Took it easy for the next few months.  Tried some different things (foam rolling, shoes, etc.)  Eventually, I read, “Born to Run”.  No need to go into that here, but I’ll post the wiki link: Born to Run Wiki. Started working on my form, and things seemed to be improving.  My goal now was to run that same half-marathon with no injuries.  I didn’t care about the pace, or time, just wanted to run the whole thing and feel good at the end.
Mission accomplished.  A good 13.1 miles under my belt, and I was wanting more.  Asked my brother-in-law what to do next, and he convinced me to sign up for the full marathon in New Orleans that February.  Sense a pattern here?


This is what I looked like.

With only a few weeks (maybe 8) before the race, I immediately started joining my aforementioned brother-in-law on some of his long runs.  I didn’t finish many of them.  Apparently, I have a 2-hour-shutoff time.  After 2 hours of running, I started winding down.  After 2.5 hours, my legs were made of concrete and no amount of willpower (of which I had none anyway) could get them to keep moving.  I can only imagine what I looked like to passing cars once I’d crossed the 15 mile mark.
I can’t exaggerate this enough.  It was horrible.
Still 18 miles was more than I had ever done before, walking or not.  So the New Orleans marathon was still on.  I was just dreading it.

I don’t know who this woman is, by the way.  I’m sure that she is undoubtedly a better athlete than I am.  I just found the pic online, and felt that it closely captured my running form, once I was past the 2 hour mark.

The 1st half

So, race day appears out of nowhere, it seems.  I find myself in New Orleans, picking up my race packet and surrounded by people who can all apparently run 26.2 miles.  Can they tell I’m a poser?  I’m pretty sure they can.

You can’t see me in this pic.

The low on race morning was 37 degrees.  I know it had to be still close to 40 when I was huddled in my corral in my shorts & short sleeves, along with 100 or so other people who thought we could actually do this.  When you register, you have to give your predicted time, and they assign you a “corral”.  This way, the real runners can take off first, without having to deal with weaving around and passing up the rest of us. I am so far back, 30 minutes have passed after the gun has fired before I reach the starting line.

I start off slow.  Nice & easy.  Just trying to enjoy myself.  There are people all around me in costumes.  With boas.  And capes.  I hate them.
Here are some representative pics from the marathon.

Still, the first several miles were enjoyable.  I had brought headphones, but left them off because there was so much other, and better, stimulus.  A local band was set up every couple of miles or so, and there were plenty of people cheering, playing music, and holding up encouraging signs.  My favorite sign was one that said, “Chuck Norris never ran a marathon”.  That helped.  Some.
After a few more miles, we saw the signs for the split between the full-marathoners and the half-marathoners.  Up to that point, I’d forgotten that everybody wasn’t doing the full.  “Ah!  THAT explains all the costumes, and general revelry.  They’re only doing the half… that’s nice.  How cute.”  As the split approaches, everybody moves to one side of the road, depending on which race you are running.  There was a lot of cheering and waving.  Those of us doing the full waving goodbye to the halfers.  Them waving encouragement back to us.  That’s when I realized How Many People split off and went down the “Half” path.  Easily 80%, it seemed to me.  It was suddenly very quiet where I was.  “What do they know, that I don’t?”, was my first thought.  Followed quickly by, “What have I done?“.  Also: The few people remaining with me to do the full marathon… they’re still wearing costumes.
More running.
We ran through some neighborhoods.  A few times.  We went through a park.  It might have been pretty.  More neighborhoods.  Eventually, we hit the halfway point.  13 miles.  I was running nice & slow, though perhaps too slow.  I was over the 2-hour mark which, as you may recall, was very close to my “shutoff time”.  My watch had died a couple miles back, so I had to ask people around me what their pace was, or just try to stick with people who looked to be suffering about as much as me.

The 2nd half

I’m getting pretty sick of Gu at this point.
I’m eating them, because they are handing them out to me at the aid/water stations.  A quick note on fuel/hydration:  You can read REAMS of info on this online, but the the Cliff’s Notes version is this:  “It’s important.  You need it.”
Apparently, managing and controlling your fluid and nutrition intake is a Big Deal.  In shorter races, I would just “wing it” – taking water or gatorade if they offered, but basically just trying to finish before I tuckered out.  With longer runs, that’s really not an option.  You’re going to burn off your stores of energy before you finish, so you have to replenish.  I knew this, but didn’t really know it.  Figured there would be plenty available on the run, and that everything would be great.


First off, I’m an idiot.  Let’s get that out of the way now, shall we?  I’m getting water at the aid stations, and I’ve started walking the length of the tables & trashcans while I drink … very… slowly…

That’s me, realizing I may never walk again.

But that’s not fuel.  I never want to see another Gu again, however.  I am so sick of the chemically sweet taste of it that I stop taking any more of them.
This is the point at which, in my opinion, the wheels come off.  I am pretty tired, my legs are starting to cramp up, and overall, I am in a generally pissy mood.

Somewhere around mile 15, we turn onto Esplanade, which is pretty at least.  The half-marathoners have rejoined us.  We are on one side of the boulevard, and they are on the other.  I am still walking at the water stations, but trying to cheer up and enjoy the activity.  This is when I see a crowd of people in a huddle up ahead.  As I get closer, we realize that someone has collapsed.  As I pass, I see that someone is performing CPR on the collapsed runner.  There are at least 20 people (runners and bystanders) around him.  I don’t know what to do.  On one hand, it feels so callous to simply continue running, as if my pace & time were more important.  On the other hand, there are 20 people already stopped, and he’s getting CPR.  I could only serve to be in the way.  I look over at another guy who happens to be running next to me.  We come to the same conclusion, and keep running.  But no one says anything for a while.  It’s very depressing, and I am ready to be done.  Finally, I hear sirens, but it feels like it’s taking forever for the ambulance to navigate through the crowds and barricades.

Side Note:
I’m pretty sure he survived.  This is the only article I could find on the matter.
“Marathon runner collapses at Rock ‘n’ Roll Mardi Gras Marathon, revived by bystanders”

At mile 17 somebody hands me a tiny white packet.  They’re handing out cocaine now?  It’s About Bloody Time. When I asked what it was, they told me, “salt”.  Really?  Salt?  Like you get in a take-out bag to put on your french fries.  I can’t even imagine what it would be like to eat a spoonful of salt.  Bleh!  I tear it open, and tentatively sprinkle some on my tongue.
I swear to you that I could Actually Feel New Synapses Forming in my brain.  I don’t know if I’d every really had a visceral reaction to something before, but every cell in my body shouted, “You Need This” at that moment.  I poured the whole packet in my mouth and even looked back to see how far away the nice people with the salt were… but they were gone.
The supplies at the aid stations got more interesting, in general, after the 17-mile mark.  Cookies started showing up.  Crackers.  I saw beer at mile 20.
I guess this is as much to make up for the fact that we just watched the halfers head to the finish line, as it is about fuel needs.  I mean, really?  You actually show us the finish line, when we still have 9 miles to go?

Longest. Nine. Miles. Ever!

I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie, “The Joy Luck Club”, or not.  There is a scene in it where a young mother is fleeing the Japanese invasion (along with countless other Chinese), and must abandon her 2 children on the side of the road (she is certain she is about to die, and doesn’t think anyone will rescue her children if their dead mother is lying next to them).  It’s a very emotional scene, and a horrible choice for anyone to have to make.  If I were to use this as an analogy (which I will): My “spirit”, or “will to finish the race”, is the mother – certain of my imminent demise.  The rest of my body, is the children.  Desperately needing to be left at the side of the road, as that seems the best chance of survival.

Leave Me! (with some more salt, perhaps?)

To be honest, I don’t know why (or how) I am continuing to move forward at this point.  I think it’s simply because that’s what I’ve been doing for the last few hours.  It’s all I know how to do anymore.  Remember that 10K that used to be my yearly goal?  When I hit the 20-mile mark, I tell myself that all I have left is a 10K.  I seriously would have started crying if I’d had any fluids left in me.  Is there a dry-heave equivalent for sobbing?  It’s all walking now, with short bursts of sporadic hobbling.  I am stopping to stretch on the side of the road, which if I’m honest with myself, is really just an excuse to Stop for a minute.
I pass more beer.  I can’t stand beer, but I jokingly comment, “Where are the martinis”?  They point to the next table.  There are tiny martinis on it.  I do the math:  6 miles left, at a infant’s pace, with thighs made of concrete… I’ll be lucky to reach the finish line before nightfall.  No martini, thank you.  Not this year.
Wait a minute.  Did I just think, “Not this year?”  As in, “wait until next year?”  Am I seriously considering doing this again?  I bet that was cocaine and not salt.
Nonetheless, I realize that it’s true.  I am thinking about “next time”.  As soon as that happens, I decide to stop giving up and to get busy finishing.  With an audible grunt/groan (seriously) I start jogging again.

That lasts 5 minutes.

But, it was progress.  I am now alternating between a zombie jog and a zombie shuffle.  It isn’t pretty, I am fully aware of that fact, and I don’t care in the slightest.

Shortly before the 25 mile mark, I pull out my phone, and text a quick message to my friends waiting for me at the finish line.  I want them to know that I am alive, and will be done in the foreseeable future.  As “luck” would have it, the ONLY time I see someone I know during this entire race, is when I am texting on my phone.  Way to look like a real athlete.

25 miles down, and 1 to go.
I decide to give it my all, and attempt to run (jog) the whole final mile.  I actually succeed.  I cross the finish line at what I felt was a respectable trot… until I saw the footage of my finish.  My face is saying, “Chariots of Fire“, while the rest of my body is screaming, “My Dinner with Andre” (which, if you don’t know, is a very slow movie that takes a long time to end up not far from where it started).

Don’t believe me?

This is how I felt.


This is how I looked.


Post Race Twilight Zone

Why is it SO heavy?

As soon as you cross the finish line, things get weird.  The first thing that happens actually makes total sense, but it goes against everything you’ve been telling yourself for the last 26.2 miles.
They stop you.
That’s right.  “Sir, you can stop running now.”  I don’t understand this At All.  Part of me is still trying to push past the nice lady with the finisher’s medal, because she’s blocking me and I need to keep going.  Don’t you understand?  I have to Keep Going.  It’s all I have left.  It’s all I know how to do.

But, she persists, and hands me a medal.  Actually, she places it around your neck for you.  Presumably, because you lack the strength to do it yourself… which is true.  I cough out a hoarse, raspy, “thankyouiwanttodie”.  Which definitely sounds more like Chewbacca at the end of Star Wars, when he complains that he didn’t actually Get a medal.
Don’t believe me?

Seconds after finishing.

After that, you are immediately whisked to a photo-op in front of a big backdrop.  I am still not 100% sure why I am not still running when they take this photo.

I am then pushed further down the line.  Someone hands me a bottled water, which I am certain weighs more than I do.  Someone else thrusts a large sheet of what appears to be tinfoil at me.  Now, I’ve hardly used my vocal chords for the last 5 hours, let alone held an intelligent conversation with anyone, I can’t feel anything below the neck, exhausted doesn’t really cover how I’m “feeling”, and I’m still not sure where I actually am or why I am no longer running.  But, I do know better than to just blindly accept a sheet of tinfoil from a perfect stranger.

Me:  What is that?
Her: It’s a Mylar blanket.
Me:  Huh?
Her: It will keep you warm.
Me:  ?
Her: You wrap it around you.
Me:  . . .
Her: Here, like this.

She then wraps this sheet over my head & shoulders.  I have to clasp it under my chin to keep it on.  I look like Little-Red-Riding-Hood-the-Astronaut.  So now I’m lost, I don’t know where my friends & family are, my knees are buckling under the weight of the finisher’s medal and water bottle, and I am disguised as a sweaty bag of Jiffy Pop.  I wander, aimless and confused.  I catch a few people’s eyes, in hopes of them being able to point me in a useful direction, but all I see is their own confusion in them.

Scientology convention?

I don’t have a photo of me in the silver sheet, but I looked pretty much the same as these people, just more bedraggled and bewildered.  And smelly.  Definitely smellier than they look.

Run!  Acid rain!

The End

Eventually, I found everyone.  Got a ride back to the hotel.  Stood in line at Mother’s, and ate my weight in fried shrimp poboys.  Not lying.  Got cleaned up, and headed home.  Simple as that.  Except that for the next 2 weeks, I felt like this:


In Conclusion

So, what did I learn from this ordeal, if anything?  Looking back over the year that it’s been since this happened, and remembering all of the gory details while I wrote this post, I think I can sum it up in two points.  These are the same two thoughts I had immediately after realizing that I’d actually completed a full marathon.  And they are just as true now, as they were then.

1. Don’t listen to my brother-in-law again.  Ever.
2. I can definitely do better Next Time.
~John Robideaux 
 Junior Head Blog

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