26 Strong: Too Much Of A Good Thing

Sarah Bowen Shea learned a tough lesson at the Bridge of the Gods Half Marathon in Oregon recently. Photo: Adam Lapierre

Anybody who tells you they’ve never made a mistake while running is lying. I’ve been a runner for more than 25 years; I’ve written about running for two decades; and I am co-founder of a business based on running—and I just made a major blunder on race weekend.

In preparation for not one, but two, fall marathons, I chose to run a local half marathon to gauge my current fitness and endurance. I knew the weather was going to be hot, so the day before the race, I hydrated really well—too well, it turns out. I swear by Nuun electrolyte tablets: I drink a bottle of Nuun-laced water before every run, for example. But the day before my recent half marathon, I drank eight or nine bottles of Nuun. It proved to be a case of too much of a good thing.

In the first half of the race, I felt good, even though the course was much hillier than I’d expected. My pace was slower than I had predicted it would be, but I was keeping up with runners who looked more fit and serious than I do, which made me feel proud. Just after mile 6, we were greeted by a particularly punishing climb: switchbacks in hot, exposed sunshine. It was a tough grind up, but thankfully the turnaround spot of the race was after it so we got to go right back down the switchbacks.

But instead of feeling downhill-wheeee! I felt all what-the-what? tingly. My arms and legs suddenly felt prickly. I immediately moved off the course so I could ingest a GU energy gel, which made the tingly feeling pass. But it was as if electrical currents had passed through me and fried my circuit board. Even going downhill felt like a major effort. I was confused: I had been nailing workouts for weeks, now running downhill seemed strenuous. Repeating, “Strong! Strong! Strong!” in my head didn’t work its usual mantra-magic.

The next few miles held a lot of long, steady climbs, and for the first time ever, I had to walk in a race. I couldn’t get control of my breathing—even when I was walking, it seemed like I was working a whole lot harder than I really was, and I sounded like a freight train. The final two miles were in direct sun, and I gutted them out as best I could. The final mile seemed endless. I was mad, dejected—and confused. I had been cruising along, then my plug had been inexplicably yanked. I was dizzy and weak limbed when I finally crossed the finish line.

Later, after talking to a doctor and a respected running coach, I decided I had taken in too many electrolytes prior to the race. It had caused my blood pressure to spike, so that my heart was working extra hard during the race. Lesson learned: Don’t do anything different in the days leading up to a race.

For more on the Saucony 26 Strong program, which pairs up 13 coaches with 13 marathon rookies, visit 26Strong.com.

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