When the Wheels Fall Off

posted Mar 22, 2016, 11:32 AM by Chris Compson

Runners have strange pre-race nightmares. We wake fitfully to quadruple check that we packed our shoes. We toss and turn over thoughts of body-chafing in unmentionable areas. We avoid fiber for weeks to quell the fever-inducing thought of race-day incontinence. We spend our taper weeks of relaxation wound tighter than the Gordian Knot imagining the million ways our race goals could become unraveled. It is the stuff of great psychological thrillers.

So what if? What if all those nightmares came to fruition on race day? What do you do? How do you respond to your running world collapsing around you? These are questions every runner must answer at some point, because I guarantee you will have a race where “the wheels fall off.”

For me, this race could not have come at a worse time, the 2014 Boston Marathon. Motivated to participate as part of the response to the tragedy of the 2013 marathon and to redeem myself from a poor showing in the record-setting heat of the 2012 marathon, I put together my best season of marathon preparation and felt primed to set a personal-best time at the world's greatest marathon. Pouring over the data from my training, including a personal-best half-marathon time and stellar long runs, I felt confident my 2:45 goal was all but certain. All I had to do now was run the race.

Through the first 13.1 miles, I felt great, fantastic, marvelous. Visions of the finishing clock danced in my head like pre-Christmas sugarplums. I “may” even have sacrificed a few seconds as I ran through the famous female scream-tunnel of Wellesley College and their clever and persuasive “kiss me” signs. I was running light, fast, and on perfect pace.

Then it happened. A small twinge just below my left rib cage; a warning shot fired at my bow. The first tremor announcing an oncoming earthquake. At the next aid station, I doubled-up on the fluids trying to stave off disaster. I alternated my breathing pattern and focused on dropping my shoulders. I cursed the running gods and tried to ignore the growing knot away. For a few miles, it worked, until it didn't.

After climbing the first of Newton's famous hills, the entire abdominal wall revolted. Crushed with cramps, the fluidity of the first half of my race became a staggering, halting, bent-over stumble onward. With each passing mile, my goal time drifted further away until it became certain I would not run a personal best, but a personal worst on running's biggest stage.

So what do you do when “the wheels fall off”? I am no Buddhist monk, nor peaceful saint. As I staggered through Heartbreak Hill, I wallowed in my own personal pity parade and sulked through my steps. But sulking for six miles grows tiresome. With my time irrelevant and my plans left scattered somewhere behind me, I slowed to a jog and looked around me. They reported that over 1 million people lined the streets of Boston this year. How could I drown out all that joy with my own despair?

When the wheels fall off, we have a choice to make, swim along the surface of the experience or drown. As my teammates, athletes, and family will attest, setting my competitive spirit on the back burner was a break from character. But it was the best decision I have ever made in a race. I slowed to take pictures with spectators, high-five kids cheering and jumping on the street corners. I danced with a brass band and happily accepted a freeze pop from a ringlet-headed five year old who could not have been happier to share. I lost over 20 minutes from my goal time when my wheels fell off, but those 20 minutes have become some of my fondest running memories.