Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Race Report: Pensacola Marathon

The cough started out in standard fashion. I managed to catch a minor end-of-summer cold that left me with the normal, lingering cough. It wasn't a bad cough. Nothing like the chest rattling, ab-ripping bronchitis coughs I've occasionally had in the past. More of a nagging, dry cough that would wax and wane and sometimes send me into an exhausting paroxysm that would make me wonder if it was something more than "just a cough." At one point, I looked up "walking pneumonia." But I wasn't feeling too bad, the cough, at that point, seemed to be on the mend, and the information on WebMD said that it can resolve itself. I really didn't think that's what I had, though, and I variously thought it was allergy related or an onset of exercise induced asthma, as the worst seemed to occur after I ran. And it didn't seem to affect my running. Sure, I was extra tired some days, but I figured that was because the cough was in one of its "active" phases and had kept me up basically all night. 


About a week and a half before the Pensacola Marathon, I decided that a cough that lasts nearly 3 months and doesn't actually get better was probably something more than just a "nagging" problem. The cough was definitely on an upward trend and getting worse. Plus, my back, under my shoulder blades, was really beginning to ache. Sleep was next to impossible, and none of the OTC cough meds did anything at all (except knock me out until I started coughing again).

Time to go to the doctor. Except. Except I had a marathon coming up, and I didn't want (1) the doctor to tell me not to run and/or (2) to be taking medication that might interfere with my performance.

(I still had myself convinced the cough wasn't affecting my performance. Funny how we can spin a little fairytale for ourselves if we think it's necessary and believe it. It's not like I'm stubborn...)

So, as I packed up for my trip to Pensacola, I told myself that I would go to the clinic when I got back.

I had been feeling good about this marathon...unlike the previous 2, I felt as if I had done a good job with my training, and while I didn't anticipate a PR performance, I was confident I could run faster than I had last year.

Any other day, maybe.

By the time I got to Pensacola, got checked in, and settled into my room, I was feeling pretty peaked. I had decided to eschew cough medicine and ended up suffering all night long. I woke up with a mild headache and a lot of fatigue. I was desperately hoping that, as I got ready, I would start waking up, find some energy, and just feel better. Mo and jo, where are you when I need you?

I wanted to cry at the start. I already knew that this wasn't the day for me to run a marathon.

It was a breezy day that started mild but promised to warm up to the 70s. There was on and off cloud cover; that, along with an early 6 a.m. start helped ensure most folks finished before it got too warm. For me, the temperature wasn't much of an issue, as long as I remembered to drink enough. I'm used to warmer weather and I actually like it.

The Pensacola Marathon course is surprisingly (to me) un-scenic and includes a good bit of climbing up a couple of long hills in the first several miles. After running the Double Bridge Run in February, I guess I expected a bit more of the course to be along the bay. And the city of Pensacola is really pretty, but only the last part went through the town...and really, at that point, whose looking at scenery? At one point, as we ran past a sign that said, "Pensacola Scenic Bluffs," someone said something about the scenery. I never saw it. Maybe if I had been feeling better, I would have noticed the more attractive aspects of the course. Not that it's a bad course. I think it's probably good for a fast marathon. For a small race, it's very well supported by both volunteers and spectators. Just don't go thinking you get to run along the beach.

In any case, I struggled in the first few miles to keep my heart rate down. Even though that's where the majority of the hills were, my heart rate was definitely higher than it should have been. After a bathroom break that took a few minutes, it was still way up. I finally had to take an extended walk break, which seemed to calm it down and keep it down for a while. But perceived effort did not equate to actual heart rate/pace. I felt as if I was working too hard. 

At mile 7, the marathoners and the half marathoners split, and the marathoners head out on an 8ish mile loop. I seriously considered just following the half marathon course. But I couldn't do it. That would be like quitting, right? 

(It seems I have spent a good part of the last 2 1/2 years trying very hard not to quit.)

So, I turned right and tried to convince myself that I was feeling better and could pick up the pace. And I did. For a little while. I lasted till about mile 12 or 13. The jig was up. I wasn't coughing, but my back ached something fierce, my feet hurt, and I just felt awful. By mile 16, I was coughing. I took off my heart rate monitor strap to try and ease some of the discomfort around my back. I stuck it in the back pocket of my running skirt and figured I would finally see my heart rate numbers go down. Hah. Apparently, I have a strong pulse in my ass. The average basically stayed the same for the rest of my run jog slog.

More than anything, I just wanted to stop. But, when you are out there solo, with no one expecting you to finish, it's hard to pull the plug. How was I going to get back? There wasn't anyone I could call to come get me. I'm sure race support would have come for me, but how long would I have to wait? I didn't want to hang out and get chilled in the wind for some indefinite amount of time.

Keep moving forward. Walk. Run 200 steps. Walk some more. Run 200 steps; keep running; get to the next mile marker. Walk. Play tag with two other runners. Run some more. Eight more miles; 10k to go; only 5 more miles. Four miles...less than most training runs. The wind, which had been a headwind at the beginning, changed directions, so it was also a headwind for the last couple of miles, as well. Sweet.

Finally, nearly 5 hours after I started, I was at the finish line. Happy to be there. Not crying. Too tired to even cough. Got some food. Got a beer. Copped a squat. Afraid if I were to lie down, I might not get up. Walked back to the hotel. Decided that it was really, really dumb to run that marathon.

After coughing all night again, I headed home, picked up the pup, and drove myself to the clinic. It was a holiday, so pretty busy, but the wait wasn't too bad. Had a nice visit with the doctor. He didn't chastise me for running the marathon, so I think I like him. Took 4 vials of blood. X-rayed my chest. I am exceptionally healthy. Except I have a stupid cough. When all the obvious gets ruled out, consider mycoplasma, or "walking pneumonia." I guess it's somewhat of a pain to actually test for this bacterial infection and easier to treat it with antibiotics. If it goes away, then probably that's what it was. I went back to WebMD to review the symptoms:

  • Cough that may come in violent spasms but produce very little mucus (check)
  • Mild flu-like symptoms like fever and chills (nope)
  • Sore throat (nope)
  • Headache (check)
  • Tiredness (check)
  • Lingering weakness that may persist after other symptoms go away (nope)
  • The entry also noted that OTC flu and cough medicines don't help much with the symptoms (no kidding)
Fifty percent chance, I guess. 

In addition to the antibiotic, the doctor prescribed a corticosteroid inhaler, just in case it was actually the result of some sort of extreme allergic reaction. Really, he was just trying to cover the bases and rule out the "easy" stuff before referring me to a pulmonologist.

Well, it took nearly the entire 5 days of the z-pack, but the cough finally subsided, and I started sleeping at night. I no longer feel as if I have to take a nap every afternoon, and I am waking up at a normal time, mostly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. 

I've enjoyed a rest after the marathon. A full week off, and very light, easy workouts these next weeks. I am enjoying being somewhat unstructured, but looking forward to getting back into a training cycle soon. My next marathon will come at the end of a 112-mile bike ride. I may try for that standalone PR again in the fall, but am reserving deciding on that until after July 28th.

So, marathon #19 ranks as one of my slowest and most painful. Each and every one is an experience...a learning experience. This lesson: don't ignore the cough.


  1. Karen... I have been there "There wasn't anyone I could call to come get me"

    your finish is a reflection of your tenacity...

    good luck with your next marathon and the little bike ride warm-up you have planned.

  2. Obviously, you're not counting the marathon you ran with me in your "slowest and most painful" list. I'm glad you're feeling better!