DNS: 2019 NYC Marathon

After weeks of stalling and procrastinating, I’ve finally cancelled my entry in the 2019 New York City Marathon. I’m heartbroken, and have been since I started thinking seriously about deferring my entry to next year. I’m sad I’m going to miss the race, and all the power and ambition and fun that it brings along, and I’m sad because dropping out of the marathon feels like giving up on myself. Not even reaching the start line feels like weakness — even though I’ve run two marathons, not being able to prepare for a third feels like a catastrophic failure. Whatever I was capable of in the past feels like a long-gone lucky break, and I’m overwhelmed with an unhealthy amount of guilt and shame that when I needed to train hard and buckle down in the present, I couldn’t.

I’m not running because I’ve been facing mystery back pain for the past few months — sharp, persistent, and so far, invisible to doctors, scans, tests. What started as a stiff and achy back in early summer turned into near-constant pain that would flare up during runs of all sorts. Long runs, short runs, fast, slow, up or down hills, by mid-July and August most of my runs ended with me hobbling and walking home. I’d wake up in the morning with too much stiffness and pain to run, and wouldn’t improve over the course of the day — or I’d head out for an evening run only to find my symptoms popping up after a few miles. Every run on my schedule felt like a gamble, and every aborted run felt like a failure due to my own weakness. But I’ve dealt with enough injuries and pain to know when things are getting serious, and when they shouldn’t be ignored, and despite the desire to keep pushing, I reached a point where I knew I needed to take some time off to recover.

At first, I thought I might be able to return to my training in time to race in November, but when my symptoms worsened even with rest, I had to admit that wouldn’t be possible. For most of July, I continued to hope I could get back on track. I bought a new running vest, replaced my old shoes, and hoped I’d see my doctor, get a diagnosis, heal, and return to training with a vengeance. But that didn’t happen. I visited my primary care provider, had an MRI, returned to my PCP, went for a CT scan, returned for a second because the techs didn’t do everything my doctor ordered, went to a spine specialist and — nothing. I was running around the city like a chicken with my head cut off but so far I haven’t accomplished anything.

I have some avenues left to try. I traveled a lot in August and wasn’t able to battle my way through the healthcare system; now that I’m home, I can continue looking for answers. My instinct is to look for a doctor who can see what’s wrong with me on some sort of test or scan or qualitative measure, but I’m losing hope that’ll be the case. Even without a clear diagnosis, it looks like I’ll have to try other routes. I need to try a sports doctor, and physical therapy, if I can find someone in-network to see me; out-of-pocket acupuncture and massages have been recommended to me; the spinal doctor thinks a cortisone-like shot will reduce my symptoms but we don’t know for sure, since we don’t really know what’s wrong. All I know is that I wake up in pain and go to sleep in pain, and everyday tasks like tying my shoes or taking bread out of the oven are difficult and often excruciating. I can’t do yoga, ab exercises, and often struggle to bike for more than 10 minutes or with any effort at all. Running, again, makes my back seize up and my gait slows to a crawl. I panic, and have to stop. I’m not paralyzed, thank goodness, but losing the ability to run while I’m literally doing it is the closest I’ve ever come, and it’s terrifying and exhausting.

So, I’m deferring. I need to. At first I decided to drop out because I knew I wasn’t prepared to chase my performance-oriented goals, but now I also have to admit I couldn’t even complete the marathon, not in any time frame. In a way, I would have thought that would make me feel better — I’m not just dropping out because I’m afraid I won’t PR, I’m dropping out because I’m injured. But I just feel more broken. I’m not chasing my goals, or working towards anything at all. I’m just stagnating, or when it comes to my health and fitness, regressing. The few days I have run recently, for 3 or 4 miles, roughly once a week, I’ve felt horrendously out of shape. My first mile is usually exhilarating and I take off too fast for my current fitness; miles 2, 3, and 4 are progressively slower and more painful, both for my lungs and legs and for my back, which quickly catches on to the fact that I’m exercising again. In that first happy mile my legs and my emotions remember what I used to be capable of, but reality quickly sets in. I’m not training or running consistently now, and I wouldn’t be able to hold those aggressive paces on such inconsistent training no matter what, but with my back in the mix, my run comes crashing down even more forcefully.

I’m grateful I’m still walking and moving through everyday life, albeit in pain, and that I have the clarity to see I need to drop out of the race and not push myself to run just for the sake of the medal. I never wanted to race this year for completion: I wanted to better my time from last year. “Take my revenge on the course,” I’d been joking. I know I’ll need to be in good physical shape to do that — better than last year — and when I started running into these symptoms earlier this summer I was concerned that I’d have to take a week or two off of training to heal, or that a few botched workouts were going to set me back so far I’d never make my goal. But then I started missing more runs, feeling worse every day, and I had to admit to myself there was no way I’d catch up. Having run two marathons, I’ve seen how different levels of fitness are reflected in my training and on race day, and that I can’t grit my way through severe under-training to an unrealistic goal.If I want to race at my best, I need to be honest with myself about my abilities and my fitness, and my overall health, through the entire training cycle.

I’m also grateful I can register again in 2020. I completed the NYRR 9+1 path to qualifying, and that hard work will still be valid for an entry next year — any runner who cancels their participation can re-register the following year. I’m sure signing up and training will be intensely emotional for me — assuming I’ll get back into fighting shape. But the past few times I’ve sat down to write about running, I’ve concluded on this note. I’ve spent a year, maybe more, slipping. I’ve been consistently disappointed in myself, and I’m not sure how many times I can dredge up optimism about the future. I’m actually quite scared, right now, worrying this is my new normal.

I do have a silver lining, though. My partner is running the NYC marathon for the first time this fall, and since I won’t be on the racecourse, I’m free to support him from the sidelines. He’s been my cheer squad since my very first race and saved me with sunglasses, water, and moral support during last year’s marathon (to say nothing of the many race signs he’s hauled around the city these past few years, just so I might see them for a moment). I’ll admit I’m not really excited at the idea of him blasting past my marathon PR, because I think that’ll feel like another reminder of how incapable I’m feeling right now – but I can’t wait to see him set his own. Watching someone else tackle the challenge that I’m reluctantly passing on has some complicated emotional fallout, but I don’t want that to take center stage. I want to focus on the upside: I get to cheer, I get to be his ground crew, I get to repay the support he’s given me in the past, and ironically, since I definitely won’t be accomplishing any of my goals this November, I can wholeheartedly and singlemindedly celebrate his win, just like he’s celebrated mine in the past. And hopefully by the end of the year, I’ll be back in action, and in 2020 I’ll ready and able to celebrate myself again.