As I am typing this blog, a machine is taking and filtering the blood from my body non-stop. The machine resembling and looks like a computer from the late 70s. The equipment filters my blood and then pumps it back into my chest.
I am on dialysis.
From emergency rooms, hospital stays, and dialysis, the weeks following the race have been a roller coaster of the greatest sense of accomplishment to the fear of death. And here is where it all began.
The loose gravel ricocheted off my shins, feeling like a thousand ants migrating towards my knee caps. The rest of the front runners and I were separating ourselves from the pack about 2 miles into the grueling 100 mile footrace. The early stages of an endurance events at an elite level are some sort of enigma. You carry on small banter that swells to deep discussions and often culminates into lifelong friendships.
Yet, constantly clawing at the back of your mind, you know sooner or later it will be you versus them. Through the first aid station at roughly mile 5, things are pleasant. The sun has risen, spilling beautiful orange rays over the broad pastures we ran by, inhabited by confused cattle staring in our direction. I remind myself of my race strategy: “eat at every aid station”, a hard lesson I had to learn at previous races. Quickly, I grabbed a handful of cookies and a half a banana. I then rejoined the two other front runners, continuing our polite conversation of previous races and the occasional course observation of a breathtaking view.
Still, growing as each mile passes, the fatigue starts to slowly pulse through your legs. You begin the constant game of running an internal systems check. “How is my breathing”, “Maintain form”, “Don’t lose contact of the leaders”. This is all done while trying to analyze your fellow competitors’ every move. Through two more aid stations, around mile 14, the body and nerves begin to settle, and the task at-hand is apparent.
The race that you thought about constantly is here, and it’s time to go to work.
I slowly started increasing the pace by 5 seconds each mile. Just slow enough to not draw attention from the other two runners in my group. We were still talking nonchalantly and the mood was light. Yet, mile by mile, 5 seconds faster. By mile 18, I brought the pace down to 7:55. One of the runners was slowly drifting back. The other stuck beside me, seemingly unaware of my tactics. Through mile 20 the pace was now down to 7:40. The fellow runner was there but now the talking had subside and he had to make a choice that almost every runner has has to make. “Do I roll the dice in hopes I can sustain the pace or back off and run my own race?” By mile 21 it was apparent he chose the latter.
Still, I pushed on at 7:40 pace while trying to put in a little space between me and the others. By mile 24 the lead felt secure, yet my body couldn’t slow down. With each passing mile, I intentionally tried to slow myself. However, through each mile-marker, my watch read 7:50, significantly faster than my originally planned race pace. I felt great and was running with ease. Consequently, I figured I would ride the high until something changed.
Through mile 30, with my lead growing and body feeling great, I started to get zealous.
I quickly reminded myself of the inevitable reality that hits any runner running 100 miles. Yet, through each coming aid station, I maintained focus and pace. By mile 40, the sun began to hang at its highest, raising the temperatures significantly. I shed my top and refueled at the aid station, which offered some brevity. A quick kiss from my wife, and then back to the task at hand. I pressed on, waiting for the time bomb that is sure to come in every ultra. The moment where your body reaches its limit, the moment where the mind must take over and the will to take a single step becomes a war in itself. That moment came at mile 80, after miles of staring at the orange reflection off the river that ran beside me fade to dusk.
Mile 80 hit me like a dump truck. My legs wobbled beneath me screaming for relief; my head clouded with fatigue. However, I willed myself into the aid station, collapsing into a fold-out chair. The support from the volunteers and fellow runners gave me a shot of adrenaline. I peeled my sticky flesh from the plastic chair that felt like more like a lazyboy. By mile 85, the severity of the damage done to myself was obvious with each step. Lactic acid riddled my body with every stride. My quads felt like they were being beaten with a baseball bat.
I struggled to stay upright.
Yet, my pace still was still reputable, and with the last half marathon approaching, I could smell the finish line. I fumbled into the last aid station. My words and speech were as shaky as my knees. I hobbled out of the aid station in what only slightly resembled anything close to a “run”. With the cheers of the fellow runners and volunteers fading behind, the darkness swallowed me whole. Each step of those final 9 miles brought pain that started in my toes and radiated up to my head. Each stride felt like a punch from a heavyweight, struggling to stay upright.
In my mind I replayed months’ of training. The countless hill-repeats that left me breathless, the back-to-back long runs, the times you didn’t even second guess your plans, you just get out the door and put in another 25-mile run. The time away from friends and your wife. It all had to be for something and now you are living in that moment. Pain becomes irrelevant, it gets to a point that it hurts so bad that it can’t hurt anymore. Hence, you get to the point where the shakes of dehydration and the cramps leave you looking like a marionette.
However, nothing will keep you from that finish line.
So, begrudgingly you move forward with thoughts of every mile you have ever run, every person that helped you get here, and everyone you lost along the way. And when you cross that finish line, it is the sweetest, most amazing feeling you can have. Looking through the tears in my eyes, the clouded clock read 14:16:36.
It represents the 9th fastest 100-mile run this year and a 1st place finish.
The doctors diagnosed me with rhabdomyolysis. A serious syndrome due to a direct muscle injury. It results from the death of muscle fibers and the release of their contents into the bloodstream. Had I waited much longer to seek medical care, the outcome may have led to a transplant or even death. Fortunately, I was rushed to the hospital where the doctors placed a catheter in my chest and quickly put me on dialysis. As a result, I spent 4 days in the hospital and 2 and a half more weeks in outpatient dialysis. Thankfully, there should not be any long-term damage. Thankfully, the promise of years of competitive running are still ahead of me.
Still, the question asked most by the physicians and even friends alike is, “so was it worth it?”
As athletes, we dream of that one special race. The one we can look back on and know there was nothing to have done better. That there was no area to have pushed harder. No regrets or indecision. As the noise of my dialysis pumped quietly in the background, I can say through it all, I can look back on my running career and know deep down, I have at least one race where there was nothing more to be done.
I got the most out of my body, and as athletes, that’s what we all strive for.
Brad Popple is an Ultra-Distance Runner. Brad currently lives and trains in Pittsburgh, PA. He routinely competes in races ranging from 5K to 100 miles. Brad constantly pushes the limits of his body to areas he has not seen before. His determination for the sport and his love for running are shown by the joy of running he spreads with anyone who wants to learn.
When not tending to managerial duties at Fleet Feet Pittsburgh, Brad spends time coaching youth cross country and writing music and poetry.
All bloggers receive a small compensation for their contributions.*