Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Against All Odds

The Xterra race season has been one largely free of illness and injury. Sure, there have been ups and downs along the way, with occasional setbacks and challenges. But for the most part, I've been blessed with good health that has kept me racing strong straight through the end of the season. For the last few weeks leading up to nationals, though, it feels as though I've been negotiating a gauntlet of setbacks that threatened to derail my performance (or possibly, even my presence) at the championships.

First, there was life in general. No race season happens in a vacuum. Racing takes place in the context of life, and life means, friends, work. For me, it has been an especially busy period of major deadlines for magazine articles coupled with business travel to research stories for other upcoming story deadlines. As a result, I barely managed to squeeze in training. Just five days or so - 3 trail runs, 1 mountain bike ride, 1 day in the lap pool at our local community rec center (the reservoir, where I like to do my open water swim training, recently closed the swim beach for the season...grr). It wasn't much training, barely enough to sustain fitness, and so I knew I'd be depending on the foundation I'd built over the course of the season.

One of my business trips was a four day jaunt to SW New Mexico, where I spent my time touring different parts of the Gila River watershed for a story for Defenders Magazine. On Day Three, I completed a 17 mile trek through the Gila Wilderness. It was a route that required nearly 60 river crossings, mostly on the Middle Fork of the Gila River. The scenery was spectacular, but all those river crossings meant bad things for my feet - each time I waded into the river, the cool, mountain waters were soothing and refreshing on the feet, but they also flushed sand and gravel into my trail running sneakers. Then I'd hike on dry land for a stretch, with the sand and gravel grinding away, until the next crossing, where my feet would be temporarily cooled and soothed, but my sneakers would also be renewed with more sand and gravel. By the time I finished the trek, I had open, bloody wounds on both feet. With less than two weeks to go before Xterra nationals, I needed them to heal up. They wouldn't prevent me from competing - the wounds resulted in nuisance pain more than anything else, but I'd prefer not to have to deal with it. Second Skin and Neosporin combined to work miracles, and thankfully the wounds healed enough to be a non-issue by race day.

Then came the training injury. It happened last Tuesday, just four days before the race. I was out for a 10k trail run...literally my last planned day of training before resting for a few days to be fresh for the race. I was turning from one trail onto another, beginning a steep, rocky descent with a full head of steam. I quickly glanced at my watch to check my pace, and in that split second that I took my eyes off the trail, I failed to see a rock jutting up out of the middle of the trail. I clipped the rock with my right foot. My upper body lurched forward. My legs tried to keep up and catch my balance, but it was no use. I was going down, headed for a face plant into a pile of rocks. I did the only thing I could think of in the heat of the moment...I tucked my head and went into a semi-controlled dive/roll off the side of the trail. I hit the ground hard, and after taking a moment to figure out that I hadn't broken anything, I stood up. My left hand was bleeding, my left knee was bleeding, my right lower leg was bleeding, and my right arm was numb from my elbow down. I was still two miles from the house, and so I had no choice but to resume my run. It took a full mile for the feeling to return to my right arm (I had apparently dinged a nerve pretty well). A shower at home took care of the blood and the cuts and bruises. But the biggest problem was my right calf - I didn't notice it when it happened, but back at the house, my calf and the back of my right knee hurt badly, enough for me to limp around the house. Great, just great, I thought.

I thought things couldn't get any worse, and then they did. That same night I started running a fever, which quickly progressed to what seemed like full blown flu symptoms: painful swollen glands, aching joints, muscle fatigue, chills, sore throat, headache. The fever persisted, and by Thursday afternoon, my health was taking a nose dive. My fever started climbing about a degree an hour. At 5pm it measured 103.4 and still climbing. Just 36 hours before the race, I sat in an urgent care facility in Boulder needing answers. We were due to leave for Utah in the morning. The strep and flu cultures both came back negative, and the doc diagnosed me with an acute viral infection. He gave me a sheet of paper with four medicines listed - one for sore throat, one for sinus pressure, and two to control the fever. "And rest," he said.

I looked at the doc. "I understand what you're saying, but my most important race of the year is on Saturday. Can I compete?"

"I wouldn't," he replied.

"I didn't ask whether you would or not. I asked if I can."

"You're going to be weak. I wouldn't expect you to do well. And you might make yourself sicker."

"I'm not worried about that. I'm prepared to just finish the race, even if I'm not at 100%."

"Well then yes, you can race. You can make a morning of decision and see how you feel."

That's all I needed to hear. Friday morning we loaded Marin into the car seat and charted a course for Ogden, Utah. I wanted to be there for the race...I needed to be there for the race, even if I just ended up being a spectator. I had worked too hard for too long to withdraw at the last moment. And I knew that once we arrived in Utah, my inner drive would take over. I'd either be in an Ogden hospital, or on the starting line.

We arrived in Ogden Friday afternoon and headed to Amphitheater Park in Historic Downtown for racer check-in. I picked up my bib and got body marked - #133. Then we headed to Union Station for the Night of Champions dinner. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the caterers offered a gluten-free option - GF pasta with zucchini ratatouille. We sat at the end of a long table of racers and their families, and had just started eating dinner when one final crisis reared its ugly head. Marin started choking.

Her lightning fast hands had swiped a large piece of zucchini off my plate - neither Kelli nor I saw it happen. She coughed it back up, and pulling it from her mouth, I noticed that she also had a large shiny plastic star in her mouth...kind of a piece of confetti that was sprinkled on all the tables. Then Marin started vomitting, repeatedly, and crying bloody murder. We couldn't calm her down, and the intensity of the crying sounded like she was in pain. Kelli and I left our dinners on the table and walked the four blocks back to the hotel, preparing to take Marin to the emergency room. We were worried she might still have something lodged in her another star. Our intuition proved prophetic. Marin vomitted one last time - right onto the white linen sheets of the hotel bed - and out came another plastic star. She quieted right down, as if the problem was suddenly resolved, took a short nap, and woke a short time later all smiles and ready to play.

Drama right down to the last hours before the race. I was physically exhausted from the viral infection, emotionally exhausted from the scare with Marin, and hungry from our abandoned dinner. I took a double dose of ibuprofen, gobbled down a little bit of chocolate, and tried to fall asleep...still running nearly a 102 fever, even with the medicine. It was a fitful night, and I vascillated between shivering and sweating through my clothes and the covers. Then the alarm went off at 5:15am on Saturday morning, and it was time to get ready to race... (coming in tomorrow's post)

- Pete


Erin said...

What a story! Truly captures the athlete's mindset and determination. I'm glad your daughter is feeling better!

gfe--gluten free easily said...

Wow, I think you could pursue another career in writing thrillers, Pete! So glad Marin is okay (I think every parent can share at least one choking story--always the scariest) and glad you are feeling better, too ... I think. Can't wait to hear the rest of the story!


Rebecca said...

Yikes, Pete! Hope you are well and recovering. Esteban has a concussion, so those two would be quite a pair together. Heard your interview on CO matters this morning--good for you! Linking to you today.

peterbronski said...

Thanks everyone for your concern, words of understandinig, and support! I initially debated with how much detail to share, but in the end concluded that these struggles were as much a part of the race (and an important preceder to the nationals) as the races themselves. Marin is doing great (though recovering from croup and para-influenza...).

Cheers, Pete