Bad Races Are Best

What’s so memorable about running the perfect race? Sure you might set a personal best, but let’s face it, while you may have pulled off the best race of your life, it was pretty boring. You run at your aim pace or maybe a little better, you focus on your goal, focus on your form and execute. When the going gets tough you reach deep and keep going. You write the time on your bib or in your run journal and that’s it. Other than a celebratory meal or refreshment after, what’s to remember about that run? Nothing. It was boring, it went exactly as planned. Unless you are one of the front runners, your race was successful, but there is no gripping story to tell. The perfect race is a perfect bore.

Now, compare that to the races that aren’t so successful. There’s pain, anguish, disillusionment, disappointment, redemption, excitement and drama. On some occasions, there’s humour, adventure, the loss of toe nails, the discovery of new friends, chance encounters with animals (carnivorous and otherwise) and general silliness involved. All things considered, there is considerably more material to work with for that great race story that you can regale family, friends and acquaintances for years.

I still remember stories told to me by the Ultra runners, Henry and Les while running night sections of 100 milers in the woods. Sleep deprivation and following the narrow beam of a flash light for hours and you can start seeing and experiencing the strangest things. Henry has spoken of seeing Jeeps (as in four wheel drive kind) in branches of trees, their head lights shining in his eyes and Les has had to step off the single track he was running to let rumbling horse drawn stagecoaches pass him by.

My own experience for the worst race has given me the best story to tell.

It’s the 2004 Boston marathon, my second time at this prestigious race. Getting there was a struggle, I had targeted the Mississauga marathon as my very first marathon with Amanda and I was nursing a case of achilles tendonitis from Amanda’s first Around The Bay race. I even considered not making the pilgrimage to Bean Town, just so I wouldn’t jeopardize my race with favourite running partner, but in the end I decided to go and treat it as a fun training run. To protect my sore Achilles, I found an example online on how to tape my ankle, I had practiced applying it and ran with it a few times, so I knew it worked.

Once in Boston we did the usual things, we hit the race expo for race kit and goodies, booked tables for the ritual celebratory meal after, checked out a few sights in town and generally just took it easy. Everything was just about perfect from the timing of the trip, to meeting Team Hoyt for the first time and seeing all the people at Sunday morning’s Freedom run. Weather was cooperating, a mixture of sun and cloud, with temperatures in the mid 60’s F, perfect for marathoning. Heck, my ankle was even feeling pretty good. Things were looking good for a great race day on Monday.

Only if…

Monday’s temperature turned sunny and hot, very hot. Air temperature at noon was 85 degrees Fahrenheit, even hotter on the newly paved first five miles and as the day progressed, it just got hotter. Nasty weather to be running 26.2 miles, but even worse considering that very few of us were acclimated to that temperature.

The first four miles were great, it was warm but I was enjoying the day, but by mile five my right ankle was strangely itchy. But by mile six it was swollen and red, forcing me to stop at the first medical station I found. The paramedics took at look at my tape job and promptly cut it off. What I hadn’t figured on was the heat and how the adhesive would react on my skin. The paramedics ask what I wanted to do, and I ask if there’s something they think I can continue, if only to the next aid station. So, with a baggie of ice taped to my ankle, I did a walk-run for two miles to the next first aid tent.

And so it went, running and walking from aid tent to aid tent where I would replace the now thawed icepack. By mile ten, my ankle is feeling better but now I’m starting to be affected by the heat, feeling nauseous if I ran too long, classic signs of heat stress.

When I reach the big first aid tent at thirteen miles, I’m in a sorry state. I look at my watch and it reads 2:11 elapsed race time. I’m almost a half hour slower than where I should be and I knew if I keep going, I’m only going to get slower. I knew if I continue, I might blow the opportunity to run the first marathon with Amanda in about a month. I knew all these things and I was seriously considered dropping out of my first race ever. With all of this, who would blame me if I just called it a day?

It’s at this moment that I look at the four elite class runners laying on cots in the tent, under blankets, two of them with their eyes rolled back in their heads, obviously, in serious condition.

“Oh boy, I’m glad I’m not that bad,” I say to myself.

I check my watch again, 2:12. “I bet I can walk to the finish from here in under five hours,” I muttered.

To paraphrase John Stephen Akhwari, Olympic marathoner from Tanzania, I didn’t come to Boston to start a race, I came here to finish one. “You have to set a personal worst some place, right? So, why not here?” I say to the medic waiting for me to make my decision.

It’s at this moment that my race changes from a death march down the road to personal defeat into an occasion for fun and celebration.

I change my ice pack one more time and head off into the stream of runners heading toward downtown Boston. The med tent guy has one final word for me as I leave, “Runners!”

Now that I’ve decided that I’m going to set a marathon PW, all the pressure is off, and I’m going to have fun. I stop worrying about my performance and look for all the runners I know who started in corrals behind me. I want to make sure that they are going to make it. When the last running club member passes me near the firehouse at the bottom of the Newton hills and I breathe a sigh of relief. Now I can relax and just enjoy the event.

So, the rest of the race I run when I can and walk when I can’t. I slap the hand of every kid along the route, I thank all the volunteers, I chat with all the Canadians I see, and even help a couple of runners doing the bob and weave to the side of the road when it looks like they are going to fall.

However, the highlight of this race is a magic moment near mile seventeen.

While walking up Heart Break Hill in Hoppington, I spot a group people partying like there’s no tomorrow. They turn out to be a local chapter of the Hash House Harriers, an international running club, who’s motto is “A drinking club with a running problem.” Fortunately for me, I know the password. I hold up my fist like I’m hoisting a beer stein and I yell “ON-ON” and wave in their direction. One guy the size of a football player, jumps to attention, scrambles around, runs out on the course and hands me a big waxed paper cup full of beer. I’m completely surprised but, I thank him and think to myself, “Does it get any better than this?”

It was the worst of times (4:52:23), but it also was the best of times. To the end of my running career I will be able to retell the story of the day that I enjoyed an ice cold beer walking up Heart Break Hill, while setting a PW at one of the world’s most prestigious marathons.


By Mark G. Collis
March 12, 2007