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The best way to get over failure at one race, is to sign up for another one.

By Alix J. Shutello

Until recently I’ve finished every race I’ve started, but yesterday, I was unable to complete the Marine Corps Marathon (MCM) because of injury.

I toed the line of the race, expecting a lot and feeling great. I had slept tons of hours, ate well, and hydrated myself. In looking at the time splits I would have needed to finish the race in 4 hours, I would tell you I’d probably come in around 4:07 or better.  But when you have an injury that’s been plaguing you, how you perform on race day is dependent on your frame of mind, the weather, and how your body will compete under these two conditions.

Mentally I was 100 percent rock stable. The cold temperatures, however, were a factor. I decided to run in shorts with compression socks over my calves. I felt that was effective, and I have no reason to believe otherwise.

What I do know is that I wish my training had been better. The plan I developed for myself was aggressive and I knew it but I my races times in the 10 miles and half marathon were solid.   I suppose I could have trained harder and longer, except, I know my body’s limitations. Those limitations came in the form of niggling aches and pains, and the problem, was that those aches and pains bothered me daily – so I knew come race day I’d be in pain, but I just wasn’t assuming I’d have any issues until mile 18 or so. Still even then, I never expected to be incapacitated.

The race started, and things were great. I popped into the 4 hour finishing corral with my music blaring. I had no idea that a mere 11 miles later, my life would change and many more miles later, decisions – hard decisions – would need to be made.

This probably wasn’t the best year to run a marathon now that I reflect back. I started a new job that required a lot of travel and my husband went through a period when he was very ill. There were tons of external pressures I had to deal with.  Still, I raced several middle distance races up to the half marathon, and raced well, finishing in the top third of all competitors and very high in my age group. If figured, why not do a marathon?  I’m faster and stronger than ever – but sometimes just because you are in good condition, doesn’t mean that you should try to too much. None-the-less, in the middle of the summer, I signed on to do the MCM.

How do you know when you may have a rough marathon? Well, there are signs. While I competed well this year, it came with a cost – a little tightness here, a little fatigue there, and soon, I had developed an issue with my right calf. Instead of really resting it, I threw in a half marathon one month before the MCM to test my speed. Bad mistake. I should not have raced one month before a marathon. It was a selfish, “look at me” moment I didn’t need.

So I’m motoring along during the most difficult part of the marathon (the first 8 miles), where the hills were just nasty but my pace was right between the 4 and 4:15 pace group time splits. I had family and friends positioned around the Washington Mall getting updates about my pace by text message. Things were going great.  I wasn’t tired. It was absolutely freezing outside, but we were all warmed by moving together in a pack.

I passed mile 6 at my “normal” race pace when I’m trying to keep things under control and I’m not running too fast, which meant that I ran about 6.5 instead of 7 miles in an hour. 10 miles came up in the same fashion. Even after I injured myself, I was at the 13 mile mark only slightly behind the 4 hour pace.

But at mile 13.5 things started to go wrong.

Back at mile 11 I got a little bored and wanted to get through Haines Point, a peninsula located south of the Lincoln Memorial which is endless when you are tired, but enjoyable when things are going well. I went into the top of Haines Point noting that my right calf was really stiff. By mile 13.5 I felt a sharp pain in my calf and I started to slow. It was really frustrating, because my calf got tighter and tighter – to the point where I stopped to change my shirt and tried to walk off the stiffness.  When I started up again, my pace was slower, but not so slow that my time would be off too much so I kept on, but I could feel something wasn’t right. The right ball of my foot was hurting and my calf was balling up.

By mile 15, a feeling of dread started as my pace continued to slow and by mile 16 I was so angry and in pain I didn’t know what to do. I simply couldn’t run anymore. My calf hurt so badly I even had trouble walking, and while I felt comforted that others were walking as well, I wasn’t shaking the pain enough so that I could continue on pace. As I rounded the Reflecting Pool and stared at the White House, however, I resolved to try to run so I could get to Christine, my running partner, who was going to join me at mile 20 and run with me to the end. All I had to do was get to the Smithsonian Castle but after I smiled and waved to the Marine Corps photographers who were sitting in the streets, by mile 18 I had to drop back and walk again, much to my dismay.

Soon, I came up on my husband and kids who already knew something was wrong because by then, they had seen a significant drop in my pace between text message on my pace at between the 20 and 30k mark. I hugged everyone and continued on. I could see my husband texting Christine, and my sister, Amy, letting them know I was coming. Christine, however, was worried. My pace had dropped by over a minute and a half per mile. She knew something was wrong when she saw the text after I passed the 30K mark. I remember I had purposely stamped on timing system that crossed the road to make some sort of point by Morris Code. Christine knew I was in pain.

When she appeared out of the crowd by the castle I was thankful.  We started to run and I told her what had happened. At mile19.5 I needed to pull back again and walk. Now, both calves were in excruciating pain – like nothing I’ve ever felt. I really wanted to rip my legs off, throw them out, and get new legs. I tried to move forward but after we humped past mile 20.25 I had to stop and message my calves.  Christine was trying to be helpful, but I couldn’t walk another step. Pain shot up both calves like someone was slicing them with ginzu knives.

I was sitting on a Jersey barrier, freezing and kneading my calves.  Time ticked on and each attempt to get up and walk failed. I figured I’d leave my ego at home and walk the rest of way and finish in 5 hours. The problem was, the pain was so excruciating I couldn’t put weight on either leg. My hands were tied, with no way to walk I was a sitting, freezing duck. Had it been warmer outside I could have maybe sat for 15 minutes and then hobbled on, but I was visibly shaking from the cold within minutes.

Normally I would have kept going but when you can’t walk, you can’t walk. I was frustrated but not as disappointed as I thought I would have been. I knew I had to pull the rip cord, even though I wonder today if I could have recovered. But for what? To save face over my calves? What’s it worth? It’s only a marathon.

Of course my ego’s bruised but frankly, who cares. You move on and race again.

My calves hurt today but what if I caused permanent damage?  I ran  for 9 miles in pain before stopping.  I can’t imagine what I’d feel like today if I didn’t stop.  I know that there are others who dropped out yesterday due to gastronomic disorders and other issues. Sometimes, it’s just not meant to be. The nice thing about marathons is that there’s no shortage of them. I’ll be back again, faster, and fitter.



8 thoughts on “The DNF

  1. Bummer. MCM is a particularly bad race to have problems because once you slow down, thousands of people stream by which makes it all seem pointless. See my 2007 race – I had calf cramps at about the same location, but further into the race since they’ve rearranged the course since I ran.

    Posted by Ray Charbonneau | November 1, 2011, 12:36 pm
  2. Your story tells us a lot about you and gives us an accurate depiction of what makes you a great person. It is not written as a “feel bad for me” portrayal of a day and a race gone bad. You worked hard for this. You trained hard for this. And, by all rights you deserved to finish well. But, after all if racing and competing on a high level were easy then anyone could do it. And, not everyone can do it. You can. And, will again soon.

    -Scott T

    Posted by Scott T | November 1, 2011, 1:48 pm
    • Scott, this is a very nice note from you. I did train hard but I made mistakes in my training – not on purpose, but I probably bit off more than I can chew. There is always next year.

      Posted by Alix Shutello | November 2, 2011, 3:57 pm
  3. Good luck to you in both the healing process and well as with your future races Alix.

    We always seem to think that it’s more mental. We know of others that have competed in pain and just sucked it up…well, sometimes we figure it out..if it hurts (bad), somethings wrong and the mind over matter concept should just be totally disregarded.

    Posted by John Tirotta | November 1, 2011, 5:29 pm

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