Pain or Pride?

Posted on January 8th, 2010

Which is the stronger feeling: pain or pride?

Yesterday I completed the Tiveria Marathon for the second time.

It was a day that I will never forget.

And you know what? I’ll wait until the end of this post to determine if that is a good thing.

It has been said that trying to describe a marathon to one who has not completed it is like describing color to someone blind from birth. But I will try.

Finishing itself is a victory

The marathon is 42.2 kilometers or 26 miles. That’s far. Really far. After about 25 kilometers, your body does not react as it usually does. Without drinking and eating special glucose “gels” you will simply collapse. The reason is that you have used up all the sugars in your muscles and they start to digest themselves as your body continues to call for more energy.

While this is occurring, your mind can also break down. You can find yourself talking to yourself and even fighting with your own thoughts which can cry out for you to stop.

Having run the marathon last year I knew all this and had prepared for it. What I did not contemplate – especially considering that this is January – is that brutal heat can take all your carefully laid plans and chuck them in the garbage. It turns a race for a personal best time into a race for survival. You stop running to achieve a fast time, you run to end the agony as quickly as possible.

Training with the Bet Shemesh Running Club had improved my running enormously. I learned pacing, nutrition, and recovery and made some great friends — compatriots in suffering. My speed was way up, and when I finished the Bet Shean Half Marathon a few weeks ago in an hour and thirty-two minutes, I felt I was on track for an amazing time in Tiveria.

In the morning at the hotel, as my roommate and I prepared for the race by smearing Vaseline on our toes, sun block on our noses, and surgical tape on our nipples (yes, that’s right), I laughed and remarked that this is not what a normal person would do on a Friday morning (or any other time for that matter).

Standing at the starting line, I did not even realize how hot it was, I was too excited. I looked around at the crowd of spectators and thought about how much better it is to be a player than a watcher. (One of the reasons I made aliyah as a matter of fact, but that’s another story).

The starting gun went off and the moment I had been waiting for since the race ended last year was finally upon us. We ran packed together for the first few kilometers until the crowd thinned out as everyone settled into their own pace.

The first 21 kilometers was fun. Eight of us from the club ran together, our white, orange and black uniforms forming a solid block. We kept to a great pace (4:45 per kilometer). I had planned to run this pace for half the marathon, and then see if I could kick it up for the second half.

At kilometer 15, there was a crocodile in the road. I really don’t know why he was there but the police made all the runners give it a wide birth. From now on I know that seeing a crocodile is a really bad omen for a runner.

I was grabbing bottles of water along the way and eating my gels. Everything was going completely according to plan. I was happy as the kilometers clicked by and thought about how amazing it would be if I could finish in three hours and twenty minutes.

You know, sometimes not everything goes according to your plans. That’s just life. There is nothing you can do about it except try and adapt and keep moving ahead.

As I reached the halfway point something happened, something bad. I felt like I was running backwards. One by one the guys who I had been running with passed me. Then others runners passed me. I tried to keep up the pace but my legs would not obey. I started feeling dizzy and had no idea what was going on.

The real danger of dehydration is once it hits, it is very hard to do anything about it. At the next water stop I drank a whole bottle and poured another one on my head. It didn’t help. Several kilometers later I couldn’t run any more and started to walk. The 3:30 pacer passed me, and I readjusted my goal to beating last year’s time of 3:50.

I started running again but slowly. I took my headphones off as the music was making me sicker. A race medic came by on a bike and gave me a water bottle. I started running one kilometer segments and then walking for about 30 seconds. Then I was walking for a minute.

I tried focusing on the quote that

pain is temporary, pride last forever

but as I tried to focus on the temporary nature of pain, from somewhere deep inside, I heard my body yell “FU!”

So instead I came up with a better quote for the circumstance, from Dean Karnazes, a well known ultra-marathoner.

Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must.

Just never give up.

All I wanted during those last few kilometers was to finish. At around the thirty-fifth kilometer, I saw a guy being loaded into an ambulance. Later I was to find out that it was one of the fastest runners from our team who had collapsed. He would be joined by dozens of other runners who passed out from the heat.

I hadn’t realized what a toll the sun had taken on everyone. Hundreds of runners dropped out. Our club had many members who didn’t come close to their goals. I didn’t know any of this. All I knew, all I could focus on, was that I wanted to cross that finish line.

Around the fortieth kilometer I started dancing. It wasn’t on purpose. My legs simply could not keep moving, and I was having trouble controlling the muscles. I started walking again slowly and tried to get them back.

There were no thoughts left in my head except reaching the finish line and ending the agony. Thankfully, I realized that at this point, I would be finishing the race. Even if I had to crawl, I was going to finish.
Finally, I crossed the line in three hours, forty-four minutes and seven seconds. I was upright and even managed to put my arms in the air and smile.

Then I collapsed.

I ended up laying on the ground while my teammates tried to get me to drink. I was pale, encrusted with salt, and had very vague recollection of what was going on.

Over the next few hours I felt even worse. It seemed clear that the pain I experienced was much stronger than the pride of finishing the marathon. Lying on the floor of my hotel room, I looked over at my running shoes and said “I hate you. I hate both of you.” My feet were in such bad shape I went home barefoot.

Yeah. That's right.

But you know, today is a new day. Memories of pain fade. And although I came up short of my goals in the marathon, I feel an amazing sense of pride. Right now, as bad as the feeling of pain had been, the feeling of pride is that much more.

I may forget the details of the run, but I will never forget the details on how I feel right now. Which somehow, despite the above description [originally I was going to call this post “A Day in Hell“], makes it all worth it.

We only live once. Don’t keep putting off your dreams. Whether it is finishing a marathon or something else that you have always wanted to do, now is the time to start.

Our boundaries are not caused by the difficulty of our task, they come from within.

See what you are capable of.

All it takes is will.

Shabbat Shalom from a tired but proud runner in our blessed nation.

With great appreciation for Chaim Wizman and the rest of my teammates in the Bet Shemesh Running Club. We’ll get ’em next year.

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  1. Jon Kowal says:

    I empathize with your story. For me I had a great 1st half at 1:52 but when I hit Kilometer 34 I hit the wall big time. Kilometer 38 took me 16 minutes to cover a Kilometer. So eventhough I came in 59 minutes slower then my best Marathon 2 years ago (in Tiberias at 3:43), I was just glad to have crossed the finish line with my hands up though I spent the next 3 hours in the Magen David Adom station getting fluids.

    Kol Hakavod and Shabbat Shalom


  2. Cindy says:

    That was very interesting to read. I cannot fathom continuing on when in such pain and agony.

    One thing I am struck by is the how different the quit/continue consideration was for you versus how it is with me for mountain hiking. (I started doing a lot of hiking, mostly in the mountains of NH) about 15 years ago. (Please don’t read any of this as criticism – I’m just reflecting on the comparison and contrast.)

    For mountain hiking, in addition to evaluating your own physical state, you have to keep an eye on the weather conditions. Conditions can change quickly. I use weather forecasts to prepare as best I can, but I have hit conditions a few times where I decided the wiser course was to turn back, rather than continue. This mentality is encouraged in the hiking classes I’ve taken – I remember lines such as “The mountain will still be there another day”.

    Now, one big difference between hiking and marathon running is the proximity to help. Ambulances are nearby for those running on streets. For hiking on remote trails, help can be hours away. Weather and terrain can make helicopter rescues difficult and/or impossible (and they’re always expensive). And most importantly, most rescue operations usually involve multiple people who themselves may be put at risk. So, if I hike on into a big storm and end up needing help, a lot of people (many of them volunteers) could end up putting themselves at risk for my sake.

    The net result, is that I am quite proud of the times I’ve turned back when the conditions warranted it. I’ve read multiple accounts of hikes that ended very, very badly, and I can see that it is easy to let pride and focus on the goal get in the way the decision process.

    As I said before – I don’t intend for this to sound like criticism. (I hate the loss of tone of voice for written communication.) Just observing how the decision differs for the two activities.

    Looking back, do you think you were at any serious physical risk at any point? Can heat stroke (and other heat problems) lead to permanent damage (via stroke?) or serious heat complications? Did any of the runners in the race have problems that will not go away in matter of days?

    Congratulations on finishing the race, and I’m glad you be able to recover from the ordeal relatively quickly. Thanks so much for writing about the experience – it is very interesting to get an insider’s view on something very different.

    Best wishes,

  3. Bill Landau says:

    Yarden –

    Yasher Koach! What an accomplishment!

    Humans apparently have a limited ability to remember pain – otherwise there wouldn’t be very many families with more than one child!! The pride will remain.

    Although it is not yet Shabbat here, you won’t read this until after Havdalah, so I’ll wish you Shavua Tov, there in our blessed nation.


  4. yarden says:

    When things got really bad I realized that there were medics all over and should I collapse I would get treatment fast. They also had medics on bikes checking people out and handing out water. So I was not thinking about killing myself.

    Hiking is a very different ball game. I used to hike quite a bit in the desert. When there was a chance of bad weather, we would cancel. No medic on a bike is going to help you out in the middle of the desert.

    I think the race organizers were watching closely and if they felt there was danger to life, they would have cancelled it — the Chicago marathon was cancelled after 3 hours I believe.

  5. HI Yarden,
    kol hakavod on enduring and finishing. Running a marathon in the heat can be a grueling experience, but it’s worth it for the exhiliration and euphoria you get when you look back upon completion.

    We all know that to try and avoid dehydration, especially in hot humid weather, we need to drink lots of water during long distance running, triathlons, etc. At the same time,it is important to be aware of the dangers of overhydraton leading to hyponatremia (low serum sodium). Hyponatremia usually happens when the athlete drink lots of water without taking in enough electrolytes. Electroles are found in energy drinks, goos, gels,etc. The excessive water intake without the electrolytes dilutes the blood causing the life threatening condition of hyponatremia In fact, hyponatremia, or overhydration, and not dehydration is the most common cause of collapse and even death after or during a long race. So always remember to take your electrolyes as well as water during a race, especially on a hot day.

    Also ,keep in mind that if you have bad diarrhea during a race, you should STOP RACING. This is because with diarrhea, as you lose both water and electrolytes, , you will lose the electrolytes even more than water. Thus you can end up with hyponatremia even as you keep consuming water and electroltyes to compensate for the heat and the diarrhea.
    As a physician I sould know better, but i did develop a dangerous case of hyponatremia (sodium of 118!) due to diarhhea, during a hot seven and one half hour triathlon in NY in 2007. This race, called the SOS, involves 8 stages with a total of 18.7 miles of hilly running, 30 miles of hilly biking, and 2.1 miles of swimming in three different lakes. i crossed the finish line with my arms up in the air, but i ended spending the night in the hospital getting my sodium back to normal. after the race, but before the hospital, i was advised incorrectly but with good intentions by the race director (an ER physician) to drink water. this would have been the worst thing i could have done, since it would have worsened the hyponatremia. as a doctor, i know to sometimes not listen to my doctor’s advice.
    i write this because i don’t want anyone reading this to make the same potentially fatal mistake that i made.
    To Yarden and everyone else in the Beit Shemesh Running Club, keep on truckin’ and don’t give up.
    Steven Wolinsky MD.
    p.s. i did complete the SOS triathlon in 2008 and 2009, being faster in 2009 than in 2007 and 2008. i also did the tverya marathon in 2009. so one does recover fully from hyponatremia if it is caught in time and treated correctly.

  6. libby anfinsen says:

    Dear Yarden. ….. As usual, your accomplishments overwhelm, and we are all so proud of you…….but not at the expense of you being hurt….better that we have your sweet comments on the pleasure of loving and surviving the reality challenges of life in Israel, than your Superman heroics during the race….Please take care…..libby anfinsen

  7. iris says:

    congrats on finishing. Stella- you’re a saint for letting him do this.

  8. Richard says:

    I kind of disagee. Our bodies are temples that can be broken and sometimes very difficult to fix, and sometimes not at all. We were given these vessels to house our souls, we should learn how to respect hem. When we are kids we were able to get away with a lot and we could heal quickly. (I pushed my body to the limit and won numerous tennis tournaments. I also ran extremely fast and paid the price a few times, all to test my limits, massage my ego and obtain an adrenaline rush. As we grow older, our bodies don’t heal so fast and we have new responsibilities (mainly families and dommunities). They shouldn’t be left to pick up the pieces if we make a mistake in our endeauvour to satisfy our ego and attain an adrenaline rush.

  9. yarden says:

    Richard makes a good point. But its not about ego or adrenaline. For me, there is a very spiritual component to the endurance stuff. Its hard to explain.

    Now in this race, I made a big mistake, a dumb mistake. But for me, the lesson is how to learn from this mistake. rather than focusing on a specific time, my real goal next year is to run the whole race and enjoy it all.

    I think Richard’s comment also is very appropriate to those who smoke, eat badly, and don’t get some exercise.

    “We were given these vessels to house our souls, we should learn how to respect them.”

    Its got me thinking now, perhaps this concept will be its own post next week.

    Thanks Richard — and everyone else who commented.

  10. […] feel at all that my activities abuse my body, I feel quite the opposite. Richard is right (see last post’s comments). Our bodies are temples. That’s actually why I do what I […]