The Day I Learned to Drink Twice as Much Water Before Running When You Have Your Period
We don't know our own bodies until large parts of it rebel.
Such was the case last Sunday. I was in Del Mar, just north of San Diego, running the inaugural UT-California 10/20 race -- 10 miles, 20 bands. Weather-wise, it was a perfect day -- heavy fog which slowly burned off to a cozy cloud cover, out of the direct sun. The track wound through the Del Mar Fairgrounds, past empty horse stables and along Pacific Coast Highway, through Solana Beach with a turnaround in Encinitas. As promised, we enjoyed a different live band at nearly every mile marker as we took in the quaint shops, the San Elijo Lagoon and the rolling waves of the Pacific Ocean. Lovely.
Visually, that is. Physically, it was tough. Though I'd recently run as far as 5 miles in my desert training, I was not prepared for double that distance. My running coach and friend, Jaime, (who has a foot injury) had come along for support with her sister, Lisa, (who drove) and Lisa's daughter, Andrea. My pick-up time in Long Beach was 4:45 a.m.; the race began at 7:30 a.m. My attitude was pure zen. "I'll just do my best," I said.
I am no athlete, my body is more writer-shaped. I have zero competitive drive on the physical front; my ego lies somewhere in the arts. Tell me I am slow and uncoordinated (the truth, as such), and I will shrug. Tell me that I lack wit or intelligence, and I will eviscerate you with my sharp tongue.
Hence, my simple goal was to beat the garbage sweeper and to not die. In that sense, I 'won' the race at 2:30 hrs.
I ran most of the distance, about 7 miles, before switching to a walk/run approach. I had begun my menstrual cycle the day before and thought nothing of its effect on my performance. Other than keeping giant horsepills of ibuprofen on my person (600 mg. each), I made no allowances. About Mile 8, my uterus began to complain, so I downed a pill, with one of the many cups of water and/or Gatorade offered by volunteers. Mile 9 brought no change, so I took another. I had now taken 2400 mg. of ibuprofen since waking at 4:15 a.m., which, based on previous experience, should have done the trick. Turns out, I had still had a few things to learn about body chemistry.
Crossing the finish line was joyous, except that I was now in significant pain. Reuniting with my crew, I took in their congratulations, weakly showed off my new medal ("1/3 of a pound!") and quickly found a porta-potty, where I began to moan aloud. I then found a wood palette and laid across that, while my friends stood over me, concerned.
Next, I tried -- unsuccessfully -- to throw up, while my friends stood nearby, more concerned. We made our way over to the beer garden to watch the award ceremony where, instead, I laid in a garden bed, behind a sign. The abdominal pain intensified and I had to marvel at how violent just one organ can be - she was REALLY expressing herself. I then moved indoors, laid in the corner of a large conference room and tried to die in peace, like an old wounded she-bear.
Physical pain is a form of transport and the most evil of meditational states. When a body is in searing pain, nothing else matters -- not how you look, not the argument you had last night, not your financial status, not your social standing -- nothing. All that matters is that your body is very angry and, like all acts of Nature, has no regard for your petty human concerns.
Pain is the power of Right Fucking N-O-W.
The first thing to go is ego. Initially, I was terribly embarrassed that my friends were seeing me writhing around in public so soon after witnessing my so-called victory. Quickly, I nearly forgot they were there. The second thing to go is sight; when the pain is so bad, we tend to shut our eyes. I did this. Not happening, not happening, not happening.
Next to go is hearing. Though I faintly heard exclamations all around me, "Heather! Are you okay?", "Lady, what's wrong?" and "Someone call the paramedics!", I could barely respond. I have 36 years of menstrual cramp experience but this… this was like birthing an enraged demon. If a red-eyed baby gargoyle had popped out, I would have been relieved -- at least there would be evidence.
Next thing I know, an army of cute paramedic dudes are asking me things like, "What is your name?" and "Where are you?" and "What year is it?" And the big one: "On a scale of 1 to 10, ma'am, what pain level are you experiencing?"
"9!" I barked.
"Is there any chance you could be pregnant?"
Oh god. I did the math. "Yes!" I heard a gasp, likely my own. Please Lordy of all Lords, don't let me have a miscarriage. Not like this. Not ever, in fact.
Of course, the "Where do you live?" question throws me even when I am fully cognizant and pain-free so I'm not sure I ever answered that one.
At this point, my moaning filled the cavernous room, and I was vaguely aware of a crowd forming. They moved me to a chair though I was unable to fully sit up, the pain kept curling up my body like a pill bug. My face dropped down on to the arm of a paramedic. "That's… a… very… fancy… watch," I observed, between lava bursts of searing pain. It was too, some big silver Omega number with a burnt orange face.
"Thanks! I got it for my birthday." My friends laughed at this exchange.
As the pain escalated, I began to hyper-ventilate. Omega Man tells me they are going to set up an IV and I freak out further. He searches for a suitable vein but fails so he enlists the help of his co-worker. "Hey buddy, can you try her other arm?"
Welcome to my personal nightmare. After 25+ facial surgeries growing up, I have a deep fear of needles, hence, no tattoos or heroin habits for me, thanks. There were some unfortunate blood-drawing incidents in my youth and young adulthood that left me crying or passed out and at least one nurse so traumatized, she left the profession. Even the words "Blood Drive" cause me to feel faint. So now, I'm writhing in pain on the floor after running 10 miles and I have two big men wrestling and slapping my twitching, rubber-tied arms trying to open my veins and my head is rolling side to side in protest. Evidently, (I was told later), I yelled, "Noooooo! Stop it!!! STOP IT!!" but it was all in… er, vain. This exact scenario was as close to sheer torture as I ever hope to get.
After a hideous amount of time (5 minutes? 15? No idea), somebody found a vein and the IV was in place. They brought a gurney, and I must have protested because I recall the paramedic saying, "Trust me, lady. I've been doing this 20 years. You NEED a gurney." I handed my phone, sunglasses and the precious medal I'd earned all of 20 minutes ago over to Jaime.
Loading me onto the ambulance, I made a warbly, weepy deal with Omega Man. "Okay, but NO LIGHTS. I'm not gonna die or anything." Even then, I knew I would live to screw up another day.
"Okay. No lights."
Once in the ambulance, the pain worsened and my breathing became more shallow. My hands and feet were numb, and I was shivering so hard, my teeth were chattering. My cute paramedic (aren't they all?) was a dark-haired hero named Tirq, pronounced "Turk." Even as he fussed over me with tubes and machines, he asked my name again and again. I didn't know if he had a bad memory or if was trying to keep me in the moment.
"So, here's what I think happened," he said. "Your body is dehydrated, low on electrolytes, which induces muscle cramping. Since you were already having menstrual cramps, it just escalated. Now the pain has a hold on you, it's put you into shock. One bad thing triggering another bad thing."
"MMMMMMM-HMMMMMM," I moaned.
Tirq then put me on oxygen and hooked me up to another fancy machine.
"Okay, Heather, you are now breathing 37 times a minute. We need to cut that in half. That's why you are so cold and feeling numb."
"Ohhhhh-kkkkkkk-aaaaaay," I chattered.
"Take in a small breath and hold it for 20 seconds… That's good, keep doing that," he said.
After a long, painful ride, we arrived at Scripps Hospital in La Jolla, where my nephew, Robbie, was born 10 years earlier. I was wheeled in and the sight of a rolling fluorescent hospital ceiling brought instant flashbacks. I was still in a netherworld of pain and could hear professionals discussing my factual person. I was no longer fun-loving Heather, I was a 48-year-old female of a certain height and weight who was experiencing severe cramping, dehydration and a mild state of shock. Pain or no pain, part of me felt sheepish that my diagnosis didn't sound more life threatening but holy shit, did it hurt.
Initially, I was fussed over by doctors and nurses, all men, which normally would not be an issue, but I was hoping for at least one woman who could sympathize. Eventually, a nurse named Elizabeth showed up with heated blankets and an even warmer smile. She also put some painkillers in my IV bag until eventually, the fog of pain lifted and I started to feel human.
Lying there, wrapped up in those blankets, watching the emergency room staff run around, talking and laughing with one another, just going about their day jobs, I got that all-too-familiar recovery room feeling; there but not there. I thought about my mother and how I wished she were there like when I was a child, and then I sobbed like a baby, while everyone bustled around me. I may have crossed a finish line but at that moment, I felt deeply, deeply beat.
Eventually, my crew was allowed to visit me bedside, and I cracked some weak jokes. I looked straight at Jaime and Lisa and commended them on their birthing of four children. "If the pain of childbirth was anything like that, I am deeply impressed," I said. They smiled and Lisa shrugged, "Eh. You forget about it."
After an hour or so, I was allowed to leave. "See ya next year!" I said to the staff. Someone handed me my race bib and only then did I notice that it now featured a smear of my own blood from a blood sugar test the paramedics had given me. I had to admit, it looked pretty bad ass. You hear the phrase "blood, sweat and tears" now and again, but I know now the full depth and breadth of that term.
Texting later with my buddy, Laurianna, an EMT in Albuquerque, I learned an interesting fact. "Actually, you were dehydrated the day before the race. On your period, you need to drink twice as much for race-prep because you are losing fluids." How can I be this old and not know this? How is this possible? Why is this information not in Runner's World magazine?
My next race is a 10K on March 8th, menses and other vexed organs notwithstanding.