Ever since I've been a marathoner, I've had a recurring nightmare that comes about once a year usually around the time I'm tapering for a big race. In it, I'm at the end or near the end of a big marathon, running well, feeling great, and heading towards a big PR when all of a sudden, a runner crashes to the ground right next to me and I find myself in an ethical bind. Do I stop and help my fellow runner, providing medical assistance where I can, knowing sometimes minutes or seconds can be the difference between life and death or do I keep running and trust that a volunteer and/or medical personnel will come to the rescue soon? What should I do? What is the right course of action to take as a runner and as a doctor? It's a split second decision, but in my dreams, it can last much longer. I always wake up before the decisive decision is ever made so I never quite figure out the right answer, but whether I'm asleep or awake, it is a scenario that haunts me constantly...
It's 3:45AM on a Saturday morning. Besides two overly excitable drunken couples staggering along on the opposite side of the street, the road I'm walking down is quiet and lonely. They must be having a laugh over why a funny looking Asian guy in a tech shirt and too short shorts would be up at this ungodly hour walking toward the train when the only people who are awake now are struggling to get home. To be honest, I'm kind of wondering the same thing. What was I thinking way back in March when I signed up for this half marathon in Prospect Park? Even worse, why am I following through with this even after figuring out that traveling to Brooklyn from Queens would require in excess of an hour and half for a race that starts at 7AM? Didn't we just make an official running rule the last time we made this trip and failed that I would never again travel to a NYC race that takes longer to get to by mass transit than time actually spent running the race? I struggled with the answers to these questions as I waited for the 4:06 LIRR train from Flushing into the city. All I could come up in my half-awaken state was a refrain from a poem I memorized as a kid which read - "...But I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep."
It's now 6AM, and although the darkness has disappeared, the air is still cool, misty and damp on this early race morning. I'm sitting along the side of the road in Prospect Park gathering my things and eagerly awaiting the arrival of a teammate, a friend, and my Ragnar Relay captain. A couple nights ago, DC asked for a volunteer to be a 1:30 pacer for this race. Since I knew I didn't want to race all-out but did want to know whether I was fit enough to carry a 3:00 marathon pace comfortably and consistently for the half, I eagerly accepted her invitation. This is not a new course to me, since I ran, died, and sprinted to a 1:26 at this place a year ago. To carry someone through this treachery successfully and effectively, however, will be an entirely different task altogether. I go the mental checklist of things to do and to avoid that I had compiled the last time I paced a friend at a half marathon and did my best to calm my nerves as I waited for the Flyer bus from Manhattan to arrive.
It's an hour later, 7AM, and we're moments away from the start of the race. I'm lined up with DC and another good friend JB in the second corral. DC is telling me that this was a big PR attempt for her (I had not known this prior) and that she wanted to start slow, warm up over the hills in Prospect Park and speed up on the straight away down to Coney Island. JB isn't sure what he wants to do but figures he'd start with us and drop back to a slower pace at some point during the race. I am processing all of this new information while making my own mental calculations on what a realistic "slow-start fast-finish strategy" pace should be for a 1:30. Everyone starts moving. We do the same. The race is ON!
I fully expected the first mile to be slow since avoiding the crowds at the start of a sold-out race is darn near impossible, especially from the second corral. I intended to lead my group of two over the first hill at a consistent 7:00 clip without too much weaving and swerving but people around us were moving just too slowly. I keep an eye on DC and JB who aree trailing about 15-20 feet behind me while finding as clear a path to run through as possible. We pass the first mile marker at 7:05, which is a little slower than I had wanted but figure we'd have plenty of time to make this back up. We are now cruising downhill a bit, or so I thought, when all of a sudden DC moves off the road, onto the grass by the side, holding her left side. I follow her and stop. She tells me she can't continue and to go on without her. I panic. "What? What do I do now?" I ask myself. She limps for a few steps, and stops. She is clearly in a lot more pain than I've ever seen her. This is a woman who's conquered a 50 miler a couple months prior, a 25K two weeks ago, and ran an "extra leg" as team captain a week prior. So to see her limping and grimacing in severe agony wasn't something I had prepared for. I badger her for more information. "It's my hip. My hip. It hurts. I can't move my hip." I ask her to stop limping and lay down on the ground. She reluctantly complies. I proceed to spend the next five or ten minutes stretching and massaging her leg, hoping against hope that it was all just a bad nasty cramp. But it seemed like the more I worked on her, the more I was hurting her. So I stopped after a good while and just asked her to lay flat on her back and hold tight. By now, a couple of volunteers had stopped by and were placing a call for a medical cart. All around us, the race is continuing uninterrupted. Friends and Flyers were asking every few seconds if everything is alright. I wave them by knowing there's not much more that can be done. I'm amazed by all the runners in the crowd that recognize us. I'm also surprised by those that don't but pretend to care anyway. After a few more minutes, DC acknowledges that the searing pain has been replaced by a dull numbness now. I tell her not to get up. She tells me that she this will be her first DNF race. We wait some more. JB sees us on his second lap around the park and runs towards us onto the grass. DC and I both tell him not to stop but to run hard and grab his PR instead (which he eventually did!) We watch more runners pass. Some people call out to me by the wrong name. For the last time, my name does NOT start with a B! DC and I share a laugh. The medical volunteer tells us that he's already placed two calls through his walkie talkie already. We surmise that they are probably waiting for the roadway to be cleared of runners before bringing over the cart knowing that this wasn't a critical situation. We go on to think that I'd probably would have to take the train to get my stuff at the finish all the way out in Coney Island. It probably would be much faster for me to run the course to get there instead of taking the train. DC tells me to run. I ask if she'll be okay. She assures me with a nod and a grin and I take off.
It's been about 35 or 40 minutes since the race began and somehow, for some reason, I'm back on the road again. I blend myself in with the moving crowd and slowly feel my legs moving faster with every stride. Mile 2 in 6:55. Mile 3 in 6:37. Not too bad. I make my way haphazardly through the sparse and sporadic crowd like a kid who's lost his mother in a marching street parade. Mile 4 - 6:40. Whoa, that last hill was a little tough. Suddenly the road splits off into one lane for the second lap and another for exiting the park. For a split second, I thought about cutting my losses and joining the crowd who were all done with mile 7 and moving on to Ocean Parkway. Who cares? My race is shot anyway. Who's gonna know if I skip a few miles and run with the masses instead? But I don't. I bid the runners adieu and go on to run my second loop around Prospect Park. Mile 5 - 7:03. Mile 6 - 7:03. I'm running by myself, way far out in the back of the pack now. I slowed down purposefully during the second loop around not so much because I was tiring, but more because I lost focus and interest in running fast. What's the point now that I lost DC? I'm going to finish with a horrific time anyway. Why shouldn't I just jog this in? Then I remembered why I was here, why I wanted to do this in the first place. I wanted to learn to run consistently and be better at pacing. I decide right there and then, somewhere in the 7th mile, to dedicate the rest of this race to DC and run if we're still on pace for 1:30. I invigorate myself at the next water stop with several cups of Gatorade and begin my assault against the course, the Garmin and my own imaginary clock.
Mile 7 - 6:45. Mile 8 - 6:47. Escaping the humidity of the park was a gossend although running along Ocean Parkway with no shade was still a bit tough. I fight my way back to the crowds now although the need to weave and dodge all the slower runners made the experience a bit unpleasant. I tried to be especially courteous and cautious around the water tables but the constant bump and grind of walkers there made the hydration trips always an adventure.
Mile 9 - 6:51. Mile 10 - 6:56. I was starting to tire noticeably as the miles dragged on. My legs which had been fresh and eager to run in the first miles of the park have been replaced by wooden pegs that winced and creaked with every footfall. I got noticeably annoyed by the constant parade of slower runners who always seemed to get in my way the harder I tried to avoid them. I finally took a GU at mile 10 and told myself not to whimper in the last 5K.
Mile 11 - 6:47, Mile 12 - 6:51, Mile 13 - 6:44, Last 0.1M - 0:41. The ending to the running saga was a little bit of a blur to me. I succinctly remember trying to rally my neighbors to blast through the last 5K. I also remember feeling as if I wasn't going to make my time. I don't remember though what I saw or how I exactly felt running the last few miles. By the time I reached the boardwalk for the last 0.1M, everyone was already there having a ball and enjoying the nice weather day. I remember crossing the finish line, knowing that I had made my time (officially 2:04:23; unofficially 1:29:52), yet feeling kind of sad that I lost my partner in the heat of battle. Most of all, I just missed my friend.
The after party at Beer Island with Flyers and friends was bittersweet as I had to regale the story of DC and me to all those who saw us laying there on the side of the road. Since she didn't have her phone, I wasn't even able to contact her until way after the fact. Still, everyone who's heard the story think I went above and beyond in helping her deal with her injuries right there on the spot. I don't really see it that way. To be honest, the decision to stop and help was purely instinctual, especially for me as a member of the medical profession. It never really cross my mind to do anything different. Correct me if I'm wrong, but would anyone really leave their injured buddy on the side of a road and not help? I seriously hope not. For as my running mentor (who is himself a doctor) once told me, "To be a runner, you must be the person first."
Heal well, DC. It was a complete honor to run with you.