Wednesday, February 26, 2014

8 Tuff Miles

As small as they are, our little islands don’t have many road races for those of us that are island runners.  However, once a year in St. John there is a race called 8 Tuff Miles that is well known for being one of the toughest runs you can do down here.  The first 5 miles of the run include an incline that is the equivalent of climbing to the top of the Empire State Building.  Then, the last 3 miles are all downhill.  Basically, you’re running from one bay, up across the island, down to another bay.  It’s a popular run and a huge community affair.  Since I knew I’d be ‘on-island’ for it this year, I committed to training for it. 

I have to say that training for this run was no easy task.  I’ve been running for 20 years, so I’d like to consider myself an experienced runner.  “It’s only 8 miles” I told myself.  "How bad could it be?" However, running long distances in the islands can pose for quite the challenge. 

First you have the issue of where to run.  St. Thomas isn’t exactly ‘runner friendly’.  There are no evenly paved sidewalks (or, roads for that matter), or nicely wooded suburban trails.  In fact, there aren’t even shoulders on the road that you can run on.  So, you have to run on the actual road.  This would be safer if the road was nice and straight, but the roads down here are about as straight as Ricky Martin, so safety is out the window. 

Then, there’s the issue of which side of the road you should run on.  Of course, the rule is to run against traffic, which down here would be on the right side since we drive on the left.  However, when you’re running in the road, up a hill, approaching a 90 degree turn you don’t want to be on the inside of the hill/turn – that’s called having a death wish because the one thing that the islanders do fast (the only thing as far as I can tell) is driving.  So, this is the exception to the rule.  Except, some of the roads are so curvy that you can’t avoid this issue.  This is when you have to get creative.  Upon approaching a sharp, blind turn, on a very curvy road I tend to run out in the road more and sometimes even flail my arms out in a semi-panicky state with the hopes that the oncoming driver will see me.  So far, this has worked. 

Then you have the issue of stray dogs.  I’m a huge dog lover, and I’ve never been afraid of dogs, but the locals here don’t necessarily have the same affection for dogs that I do.  Unfortunately, this means that dogs here live a bit more on the wild side.  So, recently I’ve developed this fear of being attacked by a dog while out on a run.  I should probably carry mace or something, because at different moments throughout my runs I often find myself coming up with a ‘back-up’ plan for what I would do if an island dog attacked me.  Seriously, I look around for parked cars I could hop up on, or utility poles I may be able to climb.  In addition, I periodically look behind me to be sure I’m not being chased.  It’s not good, but it does distract me from the pain I’m typically feeling at the time.

Let’s talk more about the pain because running to me is on par with pain.  After all the years I’ve been running, I’d like to think that if I ever got kidnapped and tortured, I’d be able to dig into my ‘bag of running tricks' to deal with the pain because I have a whole slew of them.  I’ve ran through broken toes, shin splints, countless (and I mean countless) side stitches.  I’ve ran with colds, with the flu, while hyperventilating (usually from crying), and - the best one to date - with a fractured femur (yes, Kevin, I’m still milking that one).  As a side, I didn’t know I had a fractured femur at the time.  However, I’ve never in my life experienced the types of challenges I now face, running in the tropics.  It’s intense.  The heat is intense.  The hills are intense.  The humidity is intense.  The good news is that I’m typically so concerned about getting hit by a car, or bit by a dog that I don’t really notice the heat or hills much anymore.  In fact, running in fear is a phenomenon that I think should be studied at length.  It’s worked well for me.

Anyway, for the last couple of months I’ve been sticking to my training plan, and all things considered the training went pretty well.  I felt myself getting stronger and stronger, and even did a few runs over in St. John to prepare.  Considering that the Midwest, where I come from, is flat as a board, I can honestly say that after training for this run I’m in the best shape of my life.  I was psyched.

Until, I got the flu. 

I didn’t have the type of flu that could potentially be confused with a bad cold.  No, this flu came out and told me loud and clear "I'M THE FLU".  This was the type of flu where you turn on the TV and stare blankly at it without any sound coming out for hours.  The type that you wear an eye shade over your eyes while lying in bed during the day because you just want it to be dark.  The kind where going to the doctor proves to take all of your allotted energy for the day.  I can honestly say that I have never felt body aches like that.  At one point it was so bad that I thought I had dengue fever, which is like malaria in the Caribbean.  I was a pathetic mess. 

I will say that being sick this time of year in the Caribbean isn’t like being sick in the winter in Chicago.  When you’re sick during the dead of winter in Chicago, it kind of makes sense.  It’s cold, damp, grey and miserable, so when you get sick there, it goes along with the general theme of gloom you’re already experiencing.  However, when you’re sick in the Caribbean the warm tropical sun still comes out as if to say, ‘What’s your problem?’  So, it’s harder to feel sorry for yourself when you’re sick in the Caribbean, which is probably a good thing.   

Anyway, I went to the doctor and got on some meds.  She cleared me to run on Saturday if I felt up for it, which I translated to mean that I had no excuse not to run this race.  So, I got up early on Saturday morning, hopped on the ferry from St. Thomas to St. John and took off on my ascent up to the top of the island with about 1,100 other people.  As I climbed up the hills of St. John, the cold medicine I was taking kicked in heavily and my mind removed itself from my body.  I now understand this to be called disassociation.  It was weird, but there seemed to be a disconnect between what I was doing physically and where I was mentally.  This is how I coped with getting up the first big hill, which was about 1.5 miles long.  It wasn’t until the torrential downpours came at Miles 2 and 3 that my mind and body came back together, and I started focusing on the fact that I was destined to get mononucleosis. 

I have to confess that I did have to walk a few times uphill, which is every runners most demoralizing moment, but I always picked it back up as soon as I could.  I pushed as much as I could.  Finally, I reached the damn summit and started on my decline, I was on my way to the end.  Thank God.  Then, I got a raging side-stitch on my way down, and I’m now certain that I know what it’s like to get stabbed.  Yes, I was reaching hard to keep with this run, but I finally made it towards the last mile of the race and felt that I may be able to pick it up some to finish strong.  However, all the rain had made things really muddy.  So, as a final slap in the face, the last 100 meters of the run to the finish line was a complete mudslide.  I was lucky that I didn’t fall on my face at the end, but alas I had completed my run and all the pain I had just experience subsided. 

I’m not sure why I put myself through all of this, but I guess it’s kind of like childbirth.  I’ve never had a child, so maybe this isn’t a fair comparison.  However, it seems the same in that you go through so much for this special accomplishment, then you achieve it, and all that pain and time and effort are totally forgotten.  Then you think to yourself, ‘I can do that again’ or ‘I want to try that again’.  It’s demented, but these are the things we do for glory.

So after taking some time to reflect, here is what I learned from 8 Tuff Miles this year…when running try to distract yourself with as much as possible including, wild dogs, fear of head-on collision with car, cold medicine, extreme weather, the flu, a stabbing feeling in your side and trying not to slip in the mud.  If you can do this, then you can make it through this run – no problem.

I’m going do it again next year. 

Me, finishing 8 Tuff Miles.  Please make note of that giant hill behind me.