Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Burning Question

I remember when I was in eighth grade and just starting to fall in love with cross country running. I proudly ran for the blue and dirty-gold of Frederick Roehm Jr. High School. Just across town there was another junior high school, and another cross country team, and another runner who was also just starting to fall in love with cross country running. His name was also Mark. That’s where the similarities ended though. I could pound Mark at any distance, any time, anywhere. So could a lot of other guys. He was a nice guy and an OK runner but anyone could beat him if they tried hard enough…until he got hit by lightning and got fast.

That’s just the order in which it happened too. One day we were saying “Did you hear about Mark? He got hit by lightning!” and the next thing you know he was kicking the tar out of all of us.

In hindsight I can see that getting hit by lightning and getting fast are two separate events, but you couldn’t have convinced any of us of any such thing back then. We had read enough comic books to know darn well that getting hit by lightning gives you special powers. And if you needed to see any more proof then you better look fast because there it goes now, disappearing over yonder hill!

Even now if I’m out running and a thunder storm kicks up, the fear I feel is mixed with just a tiny trace of hope. I think of Mark every time I see lightning. But I think of lightning after every ultra I run and I’ll tell you why I do in just a bit.

Did you know that you can get hit by lightning and be walking around feeling just fine-and-dandy and bragging about it? You don’t have to believe me, just pay close attention the next time you get hit by lightning and you will see that I am correct. In fact, maybe you could even get a sympathy date. “Hey, I got hit by lightning and lived. You should date me because I am just that kind of man” you might say. But if you do get hit by lightning you should insist that the date happen pretty soon, because a day later you might be feeling queasy. Then a couple of days after that you might be dead. And no one wants to date a dead guy…not even Demi Moore.

That movie was awful.

See, what happens is that the lightning can travel along your nerve tracts. They are built to carry electricity so a little lightning isn’t such a huge deal to them. If you are really lucky the electricity can pass right on through and maybe just give you a little exit burn and leave a taste like old pennies in your mouth. I don’t know why it tastes like pennies so don’t interrupt me by asking. This I do know though; you really should get that copper taste out of your mouth before your big date. What you won’t discover for 24 hours or so, is that you may have killed one or more vital organs and not even know about it. You can live for a while without a functional liver, or kidneys, so the real symptoms don’t show up for a while. If you time it just right you can stick your date with the check at the fancy restaurant you take her to.

I’ve always felt that running an ultramarathon is a lot like getting hit by lightning. In an ultra your endocrine system, which is responsible for maintaining your body’s homeostasis, can take a real hit. Sometimes, if you haven’t beaten your legs up too badly, you can fool yourself into thinking that no damage has been done. This might happen after a race like Mohican. You feel great but then the mystery injury or illness arises…usually right in the middle of that charity 5K that your co-worker challenged you to. If you don’t plan your recovery properly you will have to suffer the effects of the injury and/or listen to that jerk bragging around the office for several months or more.

I felt good for a few days after Mohican this year. I had been here before though so I settled in and awaited the lethargy, moodiness, and sleep disorders. But they didn’t arrive. In fact I kept feeling good. I might be deeply tired and I suppose I must be. I did run 80 miles after all. But this has been weird. I did 50 miles last week and just ran a hard 10 miler and felt terrific. No cough, no weird odors, no mystery-rash. What gives? After all, if I had spewed just a few more times at Mohican I could have been offered an employment contract as a geyser at Yellowstone. Those are just the type of symptoms you’d expect from a flawed endocrine system. But those symptoms went right away and weren’t replaced by other mystery signs. No weird painless swelling, no breaking into profuse sweats for no reason, no crying while watching “You’ve got mail”.

That movie was awful too.

So anyhow I got to thinking which, for purposes of this conversation, we will not consider to be a weird symptom. Here’s what I was thinking: Once you screw up your endocrine system you can’t just unscrew it. It stays screwed up for a while. So, using the transitive property of ultragoggery, if I’m not screwed up, it can’t be the endocrine system. So then what in the heck happened at Mohican? I was all set to give up on ultras. I was going to switch to shorter distances and win 3rd place ribbons in my age group at 5K’s hosted by festivals that exist in order to honor vegetables. That was the plan…and now I just don’t know.

Could it be sodium? I was not drinking and yet managed to spew crazy amounts of …stuff. Where was it coming from? Maybe salt buildup was causing reverse osmosis …pulling liquid from my body into my stomach instead of vice-versa. That would explain the loaves-and-fishes quality of my stomach contents on the long crawl back to the bridge.

Then I heard from Ron Ross. Ron hooked me up with some studies on sodium and one day, instead of doing my job, I read all about salt. How much sodium do we need? How much do we use? How much is too much? Then I looked at the amount of sodium I took in during Mohican and I did some cyphering and learned that at about the time I was arriving at the Mill aid station on the night of Mohican I was one of the saltiest things on the planet. In fact, the exact order was:

1. The Dead Sea
2. Me
3. Gatorade
4. The Bonneville Salt Flats

So really there could be several different things at work. It could be that I just can’t do 100 milers any more. If that’s the case then so be it. It could be that I am a pansy, but I don’t think so. A pansy couldn’t handle the amount of heaving I did. I heaved so hard I strained an intercostal muscle (“I heaved so hard that I strained an intercostal muscle. You should date me because I am just that kind of man”).

Or it could be.
Yes it could be.
Something special.

That movie was awesome!

Or it could be salt. But I cannot train through sleet all next winter just to have another DNF. I am trained now and I need to know now. I’m going to do Burning River and if I monitor the salt and live then Mohican is on for next year. If I don’t then maybe its time to be the scourge of the West Jefferson Squash Festival 5K Run/Walk.

I’ll try to finish BR but mainly this is a science experiment. Data collection really. I'm going to check my ego and my Gatorade bottle at the door.

And if that doesn’t work I’ll just get myself a rainy day, a kite, and a key.

All my love, --Mark


  1. Go Mark! I'm glad to see you're doing Burning River, great conclusion to a very entertaining glimpse into your thoughts. I suffered a lot like you at Mohican and probably had too much salt as well...I was popping e-caps like they were M&M's. I'd love to read the info that Ron Ross sent you if you don't mind forwarding it along ( Maybe I'll see you at BR, I'm considering entering as well.

  2. You are hilarious.
    After I get done writing this comment, I am setting up a lighting rod that will be grounded to my office. I need speed and I'm willing to try anything.
    I hope to see you at Burning River.

  3. Michael, I read your accountof Mohican and loved it. Except for the part where you were just as sick as I was and finished. That part hurt my feelings a little bit. But overall a good read : )...Kidding of course. Congratulations. you are one tough dude. I hope that you run BR if you can. Check your e-mail I'll send you the link Ron sent me.

    Nick, Are you going to BR? Are you going to run? It would be terrific seeing you and even better if you were runnig it. What are your plans?