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When the Running Gets Tough, the Tough Go Running!

Date: 
05/30/2018 - 11:26

By Lena Hollmann
Where would you rather have been on the morning of April 16? On the Boston Marathon course, or in a dentist’s chair? I was in the latter, and I consider myself lucky! But I got back from the dentist in time to watch the second half of the race unfold on my TV. I saw elite athletes running in raincoats, many of them dropping out. And I saw Des Linden taking charge in the women’s race somewhere on Heartbreak Hill, becoming the first American woman to win Boston in over thirty years.

It was a race for the record books, for sure. But not for any record times! Linden’s time of 2:39:54 was at least 15 minutes slower than she is capable of under normal circumstances. She was the only woman to break 2:40, and her winning time was the slowest recorded since 1978, when Gayle Barron took home the women’s division in 2:44:52. In last year’s race, her time wouldn’t even have placed her among the top 20 female finishers.

So conditions were brutal, to say the least. Pouring rain, cold temperatures, and a gusty wind that blew right into the runners’ faces. Still, about 95% of those who started the race made it to the finish. The dropout rate was higher among the elites than the non-elites, and slightly higher among men than women. And the numbers say it all – We runners are tough, and we won’t give up easily!

Although there are exceptions. At the 1984 Boston Marathon a couple of my buddies made a last minute decision not to run because of downpours in the morning. 1984 was one of two times that I ran Boston (the other was 1979). I remember that the rain stopped right before the start, and during the race we only had light and intermittent rain. I ended up finishing as 10th woman, in the second fastest time of my career.

But would I have finished if it continued to pour throughout the race? That’s a good question. I have only dropped out of a race once, due to a hamstring injury. However I have been a no-show a few times, for reasons other than illness or injury. At least twice have I opted not to run a race I was signed up for due to excessive heat, and once I stayed home because a nearby wildfire had filled the air with smoke. But the races were held on those days, and people were running!

So Boston is not the only race that has been run in adverse conditions. And rain, cold and high winds are not the only kinds of miserable weather that runners could face on race day. There could be heat, ice, snow, even thunder. Occasionally race directors are forced to cancel their events due to weather, as was the case for several December races in the south and mid-west a few years ago when those areas were hit with ice storms. Then there was the 2007 Chicago Marathon, which had to be interrupted mid-race because of unseasonal heat. And I remember a 5K on an extremely windy day in Fuquay-Varina, NC, about 10 years ago, when the whole finish line, timing equipment and all, blew down about 32 minutes into the race. So, runners who had not finished by then did not get a recorded time.

I was curious what adverse conditions - weather related or otherwise - my friends might have run into during their racing careers. So I asked them, and got quite a collection of stories!

Mostly, the adversities were due to cold and rain. Susan Wingate of Fanwood, NJ, and her husband Carl, ran the Napa Valley Marathon in California one year. That year the conditions were similar to this year’s Boston Marathon. Cold, windswept rain from start to finish. The weather got worse as the race progressed. It got so bad that volunteers were handing out small plastic bags to runners to cover their torsos, and that’s probably what saved the Wingates. But their fingers were frozen, and Susan remembers having trouble opening her Gel packs at the aid stations. It wasn’t until after they got back to their hotel room that they finally “thawed out”!

Diane McManus of Upper Darby, PA, faced similar conditions during the Mount Washington Road Race in 2002. There were cold, windswept rains, hitting the runners sideways. And since this race goes up a mountain it got colder as they ran, with a 16 degree wind chill at the top! There was ice on the road in some places, and generally very miserable. So the organizers decided to re-set the finish at 3.8 miles, in a race that normally is 7.6 miles.

Sometimes pure cold, with no precipitation, can also be a troublemaker. At the Asheville Marathon, in North Carolina, it was so cold one year that the water and Gatorade on the course froze in their cups. And while living in New Jersey I heard a similar story from a volunteer at a local 10 mile race. New Jersey can have “real” winters, and sometimes they start as early as December which was when this 10 miler was held. The volunteer held a cup of water in his gloved hand, and was reaching his arm out so that a passing runner could grab the watyer. Not only did the runner grab the water cup, but also the glove, which was frozen onto the cup!

But no story that I’ve heard so far can top this one, from Rietta Couper of Chapel Hill, NC. She lived in Tasmania (an island on the south side of Australia) for a few years during the 1990’s. While living there she ran a marathon with only 11 participants. The course went through some rural areas with farmland, and about 10 kilometers into the race she came face to face with a bull! The bull was standing in the middle of the road, and there were no other runners nearby. When he started tapping one of his hoofs, Couper sprinted towards a fence, jumped over, took a detour across some farmland, and eventually got back on the course. In spite of this detour Couper was the first woman, out of two.

We never know what the weather will be like on race day, at least not when we sign up in advance for an event. Most of us prefer to compete on a cool, dry day with little or no wind. But maybe you are an adventure seeker, looking for adversity because it makes you stronger. Then let me recommend the North Pole Marathon, also known as the “World’s Coolest Marathon.” This year’s race was held on the same day as Boston, with temperatures in the minus 20’s, and attracting about 60 participants. Winner in the men’s division was a Greek with a very long name, Argyrious Papathanasopoulos, in 4:34:36. Gouping Xie of China was the first woman to finish, in a time slightly over six hours. All competitors were covered from head to toe in layers of clothing to protect them from the elements. If this sounds like something you would like to try, you may want to know that the next event is scheduled for April 9, 2019!

I will stick to more temperate events. Due to fairly recent knee surgery I don’t know exactly when I will run my next race, but most likely it will be a local 5K sometime this fall.

Lena Holllmann is a certified personal trainer with American Council on Exercise (ACE). She lives and runs in Naples, FL, and can be reached at lenahollmann@gmail.com.

This article appeared in the June issue of Running Journal.

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