To a Dark Space–and Back Again–in 13.1 Miles

Call me a drama queen, but around mile 8, the road in Nashville seemed this grim (image: chulii stock)

Dropping out of a race had never crossed my mind—until Saturday. Right around the middle of my half marathon this weekend, I was in a very dark place; I seriously considered calling it quits. The only things that kept me going were sheer logistics (e.g. “how would I find Dimity—or my way back to the hotel—if I stopped now?!”)—and salt.

Like black ice or a deer in the road, I never saw the rough patch before I hit it. My goals weren’t too lofty: I wanted to complete the half in under two hours as part of my lark to become a Half Fanatic. Given that my 13.1-mile PR is 1:46, I wasn’t too concerned about the time part of it. The only potential hiccup was a comment a friend had casually tossed my way, “Ya know, the heat and humidity could be tough.”

Race day dawned beautifully; at the start line, it was about 55 degrees and tufts of clouds dotted the sky. As the clouds burned off, the sun started feeling a bit too hot for this Pacific Northwesterner. By about mile four, I had a system in place for the water stops: one cup for drinking, one cup for dousing my face and chest. But I was cruising along, easily running sub-9:00 miles despite long, rolling hills. Around mile 6, I met up with Sarah Stanley, a Twitter pal. We chatted a bit as we trotted side by side. I didn’t feel 100% at this point—something just felt “off”—and I knew I was hurting when she started talking about other races. I had a flashback to my first marathon, when I was dragging my butt through the final miles and a friend had chatted about training runs. As I did then, I pleaded, “Please, let’s not talk about running!” On a long, sun-drenched climb near mile 7.5, the other Sarah chugged ahead of me, and it was like she took my race-mojo with her.

One of the mind monkeys burning up my brain

I didn’t hurt, but things just seemed really crappy. The finish line seemed too far off, and the start line seemed like a distant memory.  I downed a gel, which only made me realize I was nauseated. I drank and tossed some water and no improvement. Life still sucked. A few yards past the water station, though, some guys—or, perhaps angels—were holding up little paper packets, yelling out, “Salt! Salt!” Somewhere in the reaches of my addled brain, my friend’s comment about the heat and humidity popped up. I grabbed a packet and poured the white stuff onto my tongue. Yuck…but, ahhh. Within a few minutes, the gel and sodium started working their magic in my system, and my cylinders started firing again.

By mile 9 my pace no longer felt like a struggle, yet I still wrestled with mind-monkeys, debating, “Is this the new normal, or will I slip back into that dark space at any second?” It was like my iPod read my mind, and a song I had no memory of putting on my playlist started telling me, “Sometimes there’s going to be days like this/…/Sometimes you’re going to feel pain like this/Sometimes you gotta work hard for it/Because when you feeling low/And you can’t get no lower/That’s when you know you’re close…” (Turns out it was “Gotta Work” by Amerie, a random song I tossed in at the last minute. Cue “Twilight Zone” theme song.)
Just past mile 10, I downed a GU, and I knew I was in the clear. I started surging; by a steady climb after mile 12, I was passing scores of runners and feeling upbeat and light. (A rare feeling for this Athena!) I felt exuberant as I crossed the line just past 1:57—literally (and figuratively) miles away from that dark spot I’d passed through on my way to get there.


51 responses to “To a Dark Space–and Back Again–in 13.1 Miles

  1. oh wow, sarah!! this is awesome!! way to press through and resist the desire to become a part of the crowds cheering on the side and hope nobody notices!! …then to get that sub-2 on top of it?!!! So inspiring! Congrats.

  2. Yes! This post reminds me that transformations are possible even in a 2 hour span and grace happens (salt!). Good for you for not giving up and listening for those moments like your tunes to help propel you. When one sense/body part shuts down, the others are there to help us get through. Thanks for posting.

  3. Sarah, I had a very similar experience in my half marathon last weekend. I “lost” my running buddies at 6.5 miles as we started hitting the hilly area in our race. I did not feel like I could spend the extra energy to catch them. I tried a chocolate Gu and almost threw up. I kept it together and made it to the finish. Unfortunately, 5 steps from the finish line, as I was pouring it on, I tore my Achilles tendon! Bummer!! I had my best time by 6.5 minutes but will be in a rocker boot for the next 6 weeks recovering. I will remain another mother runner in spirit until then!

  4. Way to go Sarah! I’ll remember your story if I hit that dark space again myself. We are never truly alone after all.

  5. I was glad to read your post. I’ve been really down on myself ever since Nashville. I was so strong in my training runs – the one who was pulling my daughter along. Then, we had what I call a “Freaky Saturday” experience. We switched places as we stood in that corral. At mile 8 my calves started to seize up on me. I tried to stretch. Then it was my shins, hamstrings, ankles, it was moving up both legs. My daugher was strong, smiling, and waving at the crowd. If it wasn’t for her, I would still be at mile 8. I guess a bad day can happen to anyone. Thanks.

  6. So nice to read this! I just ran my first half last Sunday. It wasn’t physically painful it was emotionally painful for me. By mile 9 I felt emotionally beat up. The most difficult part of the race was fighting negativity in my head.

    My goal was 2:05 and I beat it with 2:04.01! I was thrilled. The lesson I learned…you can get beat up on the run, it can suck, you can feel awful, you can hate almost every second of it, but you can still finish strong and beat your goal!

    I’ve signed up for another half next month with a sub 2 goal. Not sure if it is too ambitious…we’ll see 🙂

  7. Way to fight through it!! Mile 8 is my nemesis–I’ve resorted to calling it out, telling I’m going to own it and making it mine on runs. Trash talk and setting my ipod to a couple of really sassy, funky, hip-hoppy tunes around that same time seem to help.

    Of course when I had just finished mile 8 during the RR Dallas in March, things went literally downhill. I started mile 10 and felt a pain in my foot. I ended up walking the rest..realizing later I fractured a bone in my foot–but that don’t quit attitude and encouraging runners that passed me saying it’s my race helped. Apparently mile 10 will need the trash talking next race..

  8. So proud of you for hanging in there! Those dark spots are part of the whole package of being a runner. Getting through them makes us stronger!

  9. Also… the hills here don’t stop. I used to run Terwilliger for my “hill challenge.” Ha! Never thought I’d live in a city where NOTHING was flat.

  10. Oh, Sarah. I can’t even tell you how much this post resonates with me. After 4 years of learning to run and then running in Portland, (and being back up to running 7 miles on the Springwater corridor with my jogger 4 months after Ev was born!) we moved here to Nashville and my mile times- that I had been working SO HARD on- dropped by over a minute per mile and I could BARELY run 2.5 miles without stopping and gasping for air. That was June. The heat only got worse and finally let up in October. I wasn’t sure if I could even keep running. I did, and I have learned how to deal, and my mile times picked back up after the weather cooled. (Which you had mentioned they would!)

    People say, “oh- yah, I bet that heat and humidity makes it tough.” the truth is that they have no idea. the truth is that it I’m convinced it makes running nearly impossible unless you were raised in it. the truth is that all of us runners, especially mother runners, are especially badass for running in the southeast.
    And this is Nashville! I can’t imagine Atlanta! Good Lord!!
    Thanks for posting.
    (PS- Again, this was only April… can you imagine this summer? I am supposed to train for NWM26.2 in October and I have no idea if I am going to make it!)

    1. Hang in there, Annie! It really does get better (and I’m one of those nutty Atlanta runners). I am thrilled not to have to run in Florida heat. ; ) Of course, I’d like to trade some of their flat routes for my insane ATL hills.

      I have a shirt with “Heat, Hills, and Humidity…welcome to Atlanta” on the back. It’s crazy hard but it’s home!

      Sarah, I ran Nashville last year…finished just as the tornado sirens went off. I think we had a cooler year due to the storms and it was still tough. Way to hang in there!

  11. I ran the 1/2 in Nashville also. Mile 8 is when I hit the wall too. Actually when we turned onto Wedgewood and I saw another hill, I started to cry. It was my first 1/2 marathon and it certainly won’t be my last. Congratulations on getting past your dark place and having a great finish.

  12. When I ran my first half marathon last October I remember seeing people passing out salt and I thought that was strange; but then at mile 10 all I could think about was getting ahold of some of that salt, not knowing if there was another “salt station” coming up, I thought about how salty my body was so as inconspicuously as I could I licked my arms and got a taste of that salt I was craving. Boy did it help.

  13. Nice job finishing within your goal, even with the rough start! but..YIKES..My first 1/2 is in 2 weeks..just read about the last 4 miles (aka *hospital hill* ) and now this post. What else do I need to know? Salt? Just normal to-go salt packets?

  14. Love this! Having a week in that dark space and trying to figure out what I can do to fix it. Not sure if it’s dietary, stress, exhaustion from marathon training… who knows. Wishing I could just take some salt packets to fix it 🙂 Glad you were able to finish strong! You are such an inspiration!

  15. I had a similar experience during my 1/2 last month. It was a friend that pulled me through but the heat and the hills on the course just knocked me for a big old loop and my running was a mess!
    I went and heard Scott Jurek speak a couple days ago and his topic was how he gets through the low points in a race and yes, even he has tough times! He said you should acknowledge your feelings, doubt, fear and then figure out how to solve the problem and move on! Most times we are all ok to finish, just need a mental boost , or some salt!!

  16. Way to go! I to struggled starting at mile 7………..unfortunately for me I had 19.2 miles ahead of me. I seriously considered turning off and just doing the half. I decided….it did not come this far to “skip out”. I endured the pain but was comforted by all those around me who were struggling as well with the heat and hills. When asked about the Nashville Marathon I tell them it was the closest thing to childbirth(both of mine no drugs). Just like childbirth pains…..they fade, as have the marathon pains and memories. 48hrs later……I am ready for that next challenge!!!!!!!

    1. nicely done, Jennifer! we thought about how appealing that half turn off would be for marathoners. glad you hung in there!

  17. Wow ~ what a recap. I can’t say “I know how you felt” because it was your own experience, but, I’ve had a race similar to that, a half marathon in the heat, where I really just thought, “I will never make it to the finish”. I’m glad you toughed it out, got your second wind, and finished strong, because I think that sometimes what’s important is not the way you run the race, but how you muscle through the “carp” and charge in for a strong finish. Congrats on being one step closer to being an official “Fanatic”!

  18. Oh man, sounds like we had some of the same feelings this weekend. I could have used some of that salt and a good song to pop up on my ipod at just the right time. Come to think of it, I don’t even know if that combo would have worked for me. It was just brutal. I have never felt that low during a run – ever. I was feeling off from the very start though. A more experienced runner would have probably known from mile 1 and taken it in stride. Oh well…you live and you learn, right? Thanks for this post. It is nice to know that you can pull yourself out from the dark place sometimes!

  19. Congrats on meeting your goal! I can empathize because it was around mile 8 of my first half marathon this past weekend that I almost gave up because I felt so sick. It was actually the shirt of another runner which kept me going. “Run, Walk, Crawl…Don’t Stop!…Just finish!”. That saying and some Beyonce kept me going until the finish line. I hope this doesn’t sound bad but it’s nice to know a much more experienced runner was in the same dark place. Kind of makes me feel like less of a novice. 🙂 Thank you for sharing. You ladies are awesome!

    1. How cool is that that another runner’s shirt helped you out?! Love it. And, no, doesn’t sound bad at all. We’re all cut from the same cloth and go thru the same struggles. Congratulations on conquering 13.1!!

  20. You did great Sarah! It’s a well know fact around here (Nashville) that you don’t race CMM to PR it’s just a have fun race! The humidity is crazy and Nashville is unbelievably HILLY!!

  21. I am a relatively new runner – I started about 1 1/2 yrs ago to lose weight…I lost 80 lbs, but I caught the running bug BAAAD! I ran my first half in March (and may I proudly say that I ran the S. CA Ragnar relay last month?!). I have been to a lot of dark places on my runs, but I have never heard of treating them with salt. Can you explain the science behind that, for this newbie runner? And is there a better way of eating it besides sprinkling it on your tongue? (I don’t think I could do that…GU makes me vomit; I shudder to think what I would do with pure salt)

  22. Nice post. Congrats on a great rebound! Digging deep through the dark spots of running makes digging deep through the dark spots of “real life” seem that much easier. And vice versa. Always good to be able to tap into those memories/feelings for later use.

  23. After hitting that dark spot, I’m so impressed that you bounced back so well. I heard many reports of the heat, humidity and hills, and am inspired by all who finished, regardless of their times. Great job, and thanks for sharing that experience.

  24. Congrats on your sub-2 finish! I am going to have to go find the half fanatics site. I am about to run my second half for the year but not sure if they are too far apart.

  25. Given your travel schedule, Sarah, I’m amazed and impressed you did so well! And I hate that I wasn’t with you at mile eight to talk about….books. Looking forward to more runs with you when you’re NOT across the country. (Hey – a girl can dream….) Great job!

  26. Sometimes it’s mental, sometimes it’s physical…but the dark places are there and miserable. Thanks for the great account!

  27. First, as someone who runs every run in the Southeast, the heat and humidity are bad enough for those of us who know nothing different, so I can only imagine how awful it is for someone not braced for it! Second, I have a good friend who ran Nashville last year. He usually does about a 3:30 (the full) and came in between 4:30 and 5:00 because of the heat, so I think you did GREAT coming back the way you did! Congrats on a good race. 🙂

    1. Wow, thanks for making me feel even better about my time. We’ve had a very chilly, wet spring here in Portland, so weather was bigger shift for me than I anticipated. Last half I ran (4/3/11), it was 38 degrees at start!

  28. Way to go! I am glad you finished. We all have moments like that and the inner strength that comes from being able to push through and finish anyway is priceless!

  29. When I read ‘salt’, ‘black ice’ and ‘deer,’ I thought for a second you were running the same race as me. We had a windy Spring snowstorm on Sunday, and a runner collided with a deer (really!) when both runner and deer lost footing on the ice. Rather different from what you actually described, but I also struggled midrace with wind and ice, and didn’t quite get in under the 2:00 mark that was my target. Kudos to you!

    1. That is CRAZY that a runner and deer collided!!! Wow, you were running in a totally different weather-universe than I was. Sorry you missed your goal, but sounds like you kept your sense of humor about it all.

  30. WOW! I know that feeling and I hate it, it drags me down and makes running not my favorite thing… good thing you DUG deep and pulled yourself out of it. And another sub-2, way to go Champy the fanatic!!!

    1. No, no, don’t let it stop you. In the scheme of life, I was only in the dark place for a short while and it wasn’t dark like “real” life can be. The pride I feel from pulling myself out of the dark place far overrides the negative feelings I had while I was there. I haven’t felt this proud of myself since crushing Big Sur Marathon a year ago.

  31. Congrats on a great finish! I am training for my first half (June 4th) and a lot of my runs have been taking me to that dark place! Thanks for all the great inspiration everyday! 🙂

  32. You will never know how important it is to me to hear an experienced runner who sometimes struggles. Thanks for making it real. I have my very first race (5K) on Sunday and I’m pretty much scared sh*tless.

    Congratulations on your big finish!

    1. You’re welcome, and thank you, The Mommy. You’ll have SO much fun in your 5K. Sure, it’ll be tough, but the excitement will fuel you. xo

  33. What a great post and AWESOME way to power through! I have races like that where just crossing the finish line was enough. Nice to know I am not alone.

  34. Congrats, Sarah! And you still had a great time despite all the heat and humidity. My first ever race was the Peachtree in Atlanta. I’ve never been so hot- ever!

  35. Yikes, you are scaring me…I plan to run my first half this year. 🙂 Way to finish though, I’m glad things turned around for you after that salt.

    1. Don’t fret: This was like my 17th half marathon and first time it ever happened. Your excitement and “this is finally it!” feeling will carry you a long way.

  36. I am starting to be able to relate – Now that my runs are nearing 8 miles I have to stay focused on mentally breaking up the mileage and working hard to stay focused on positive mantra’s and learning about fueling when running over 45-60minutes. I have been incorporating the Nuun tablets into my recovery water and I love it!

  37. great finish! you still got your sub-2! I also ran Nashville and also had a similar experience. The elevation chart did not prepare me for those hills. I’m recovering from a stress fracture so my main goal was just to finish, but I also had those doubts and dark moments throughout the race – probably also around that same point on the course. Congrats on pushing through!
    ps – I was hoping I might see you or Dimity on the course but you guys were probably ahead of me.

    1. I agree: The elevation course belied how MANY climbs there were. Nothing major…just a bit kick-in-the-teeth unrelenting, ya know!? Sorry our paths didn’t cross at race or at expo. Glad you know where to find us here, though. xo

  38. Thanks for that post, Sarah & congratulations on your race! It’s comforting to realize that Fanatics and Athenas have the same mind monkeys as the rest of us mortals. Next time I hit a dark place in a race, I’ll take my salt packet and imagine something along the lines of the Wicked Witch of the West (my new personification of race day struggle!) melting as the salt hits my tongue. Good for a giggle maybe, and don’t we need one at mile 9.

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