Running into Trouble

The humid air carries a buzz of excitement as 4,585 people packed in the early morning shade of Navy Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on August 29 stretch their limbs in anticipation of the impending race. This 10-mile run is the culmination of my weeks of training through another hot, humid Annapolis summer. It’s also the fulfillment of a goal I’ve had for years of watching the race from the sidelines — to be running on the other side of the fence.

“It’s an adventure, a challenge,” says 50-year old Robert Biddle, a tall, lean Annapolitan. An avid runner since the seventh grade, Biddle has competed in most Annapolis 10-mile runs since 1985. “It’s something to focus on in summer training,” says the lawyer by trade.

For others, it’s a challenge to overcome, and a test of self.

“I run because I want to finish and do the best that I can,” says Annapolitan Nina Fisher, a first-time runner in the race. “The A10 is known as such a hard race. You know you’ve accomplished 10 miles when you’re done.”

These rolling hills and the coastal humidity are a test for me, too, as I force myself, in my 25th summer, to take a leap toward my goal of running a marathon. On my first day of high school cross country practice, the idea of running one mile was daunting. But I did it. Now, three or four miles is an easy day.

Ten miles is still ominous. I’ve run that far only three times in practice. Never have I run so far in a race. I prod myself with words I learned by heart as a high schooler.

Never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in. Prime Minister Winston Churchill said these words in 1941, as England toiled through the dark days of World War II. I’ve never fought a war, but I’ve made his words my inspiration.

At the starting line with race winner Keith Matiskella (#3139).

Up to the Gun

The Annapolis 10-miler is the most profitable event organized by The Annapolis Striders, a loose athletic club of some 1,400 that promotes healthy lifestyles through long-distance running. The competition energizes runners, supports nonprofits and unites the people of Annapolis in a concerted effort.

That effort is about to begin.

Crammed among fellow-runners, I give myself a last silent pep talk. You’ve done it before, you can do it again. You’ve run 10 miles. You can race 10 miles. 

For two months, I’ve been up and running with the Annapolis Striders nearly every Sunday at 7am. That’s reduced my sleep-ins to once a week. For the last few weeks, these runs have stretched up to 10 miles, eliciting chafing and blisters galore.

Between the group runs were countless other workouts demanded by the race training schedule. My few hours of free time after work each evening were consumed by runs of various distances and speeds, whether the temperature was 89 degrees or 98 degrees. More often than not, I ran these training sessions alone. Forcing myself not to ponder whether I could skip a day, I just went out and did it.

Motivating me beyond this physical preparation is my desire to run with a purpose — and to show myself I can discipline my body to race this far. More than achieving general fitness, I want to accomplish something, if only the feeling of pride that comes with crossing the finish line of a great race.

Yet at the starting line, my stomach flips for the umpteenth time.

Then the starting shot sounds, and I am swept up in the 35th Annapolis 10-Mile Run.

Mile One: Running Easy

Four years on St. Mary’s High School cross country team trained me to pace myself to run a 3.1-mile race. For a 10-mile run, however, the speed is slower because there’s much more distance to cover. I heedlessly start these 10 miles on the track I’m used to: fast.

“It’s very easy to start fast to the one-mile point,” says Biddle, who’s my voice of experience. “You start going downhill, and there are so many people. Everyone goes out pretty quickly.”

He’s right. I’m running easily, smiling and waving to my cheering brigade as I trot the loop around the stadium and down Rowe Boulevard, past mile two and toward the State House. As I circle St. Anne’s Church in a loose cluster of striders, an eight-man band serenades us past a water stop as we continue down the middle of Main Street, empty of cars for once. I round City Dock, then make my way up Randall Street and King George.

I’m sailing — until the distinct scent of cooking bacon wafts from some early breakfaster’s kitchen, unsettling my stomach. To block the smell, I focus on breathing through my mouth.

Mile Three: From Two to All Fours

Supporters have regathered at the corner of King George Street and Rowe Boulevard, and I smile at familiar faces. But my smile is slightly less enthusiastic than it was two miles ago. As the Severn River Bridge comes into view, the relief of a water stop is just a few hundred meters farther. I gratefully swallow a couple mouthfuls and pour the rest over my head, preparing for the bridge’s unrelenting incline.

“The first four miles are faster than the last six,” says Annapolitan Tom DeKornfeld, who ran his 10th Annapolis 10-Miler this year. He has prepared dozens of Annapolis Striders for this race, leading the weekly runs since early July. He’s been a knowledgeable source of information for me throughout training, happily answering my questions.

To reach his goal of running seven-minute miles, DeKornfeld used the first four easier miles to gain a lead. “I figured at the end of four miles, I’d need to be one minute faster than my desired race pace if I was to have hope of reaching my goal,” he explained.

I’ve used this strategy for tests in school, whipping through the multiple-choice questions to give myself more time on tough essays. But in this race, it’s backfired on me.

The mile four marker — when a runner’s energy should still be high — is halfway up the bridge. I pass it, feet dragging, sometime after DeKornfeld. As my gusto fades, the morning temperature rises. There is no shade on the half-mile over the Severn River. By the time I make it to the top, I have to walk. I never walk when I’m running. Then again, I’ve never raced this far.

Suddenly, a sick feeling washes over me. I lean against the side of the bridge to calm myself. Instead, I gag as the water I’ve just drunk comes back up, splattering on the cement sidewalk between my feet. 

I stand up in misery in time to see the man who is about to finish first, Keith Matiskella, sprinting up the bridge in the opposite direction. He’s going strong at a five-minute-30-second-mile pace.

“Two things keep me going,” says 38-year-old Army major Matiskella, reflecting on his win from Germany, where he is stationed. “In the first place, you can’t quit. It’s motivating being up front. And every single person you pass is very encouraging. Running across the bridge, everyone coming on the other side is cheering.”

This is Matiskella’s third time running the Annapolis 10-Miler and his second victory at the race.

My awe for this powerhouse is mixed with frustration. Matiskella has almost reached mile nine while I’m vomiting at mile four.

I walk a few meters farther as the second- and third-place runners chase Matiskella. Then I decide that his resolve should be an inspiration and pick up my feet once again in a slow descent off the bridge. 

This won’t be the last time I pass this point, I think. If I make it that far.

Mile 6: Pumped Up

After the Severn River Bridge, the course leads uphill to the beautiful leafy neighborhoods of Ferry Farms, where residents young and old are out cheering the deluge of runners onward and upward.

“It’s a civic event, a celebration with a lot of city pride,” says DeKornfeld. “People come from all over to our city. There’s nothing like the A10 in the annual lifecycle of Annapolis.”

This year’s race included runners from 34 states as well as from the United Kingdom and Canada. It has been named one of the top six 10-milers in the country by Runner’s World magazine.

The support from the community is motivating and refreshing.

“Little islands of people come out with sprinklers or water, which is really nice,” says Biddle.

Pump-up music blasts from a few houses, and one family offers orange slices to give slowing runners a boost.

Mile Seven: Running on Sheer Resolve

As the route winds through tree-lined roads, cones mark the way. A few of the over 800 volunteers have taped inspirational quotes on them. As I plod by, I read There are no failures — only experiences and our reactions to them. This becomes my mantra. I repeat it as I slow to a walk and keel over in round two of expelling my liquids.

Throwing up from running is not a rare occurrence. For it to happen repeatedly during a run is much less common. Runners of long-distance races have usually trained enough to avoid such an extreme reaction. As I watch hundreds of people pass me, I wonder what has gone so wrong.

“You learn pretty quickly that there are few miracles in races,” Biddle told me. “It’s pretty predictable. Very rarely can you run a race at a pace way faster than you’ve run in practice. It’s humbling.”

My practices have been at a slow, steady pace, nothing like the ambitious start with which I began this race. The adrenaline I was counting on to push me ahead is gone.

I remind myself that I’m more than halfway to the finish. After months of training, quitting is not an option. I’ve never given up in the middle of a race.

I move on, refusing to surrender to my physical weakness, and I imagine my old cross country coach beside me yelling open your stride! I cross the Naval Academy Bridge and continue down Old Sawmill Lane to the World War II Memorial overlooking the river. I’m nearing the home stretch now as the Caribbean tunes of Orlando Phillips carry me downhill — back to the bridge.

“I count lampposts along the bridge,” Biddle says. “I’ll run out to the next one and then the next. It’s a really good way to trick yourself. If you keep counting, you’ll get to the top of the hill. You’re constantly making deals with yourself.”

There are no deals in my head, though — only refusal to stop.

Even Matiskella rues that bridge. “The bridge gets higher every time I do it,” he says.

The concrete swell looms ahead of me. I wonder if I can make it over the top. Perhaps I should heed the advice I’ve received from so many to listen to my body. But I cannot imagine walking back to the finish. The only thing I’ve ever quit in my life is violin lessons — and that was before I even started.

I begin my ascent, and I nearly make it up before I’m downed by round three of ejecting fluids. The race has turned into a how-long-until-she-drops competition: mind versus body. My mind wins this bout, and I force my feet to move once again.

Mile Nine: The Final Stretch

Training coordinator DeKornfeld advises “a goal per mile.”

“The race is too big to think of it all together. A mile at a time makes it more manageable. Say to yourself, I’m not going to look at my watch until I get to that tree. Make it into achievable blocks. Get each of those pieces, and the whole thing will take care of itself.”

I hoped the last mile would take care of itself, but it was as much an effort as the rest. Crossing the finish line, I stumble into an ice-cold towel that feels like heaven.

Collapsed in accomplishment, I am sore but relieved to be lying on the ground, careless of the damage I’m doing to my muscles by stopping so suddenly. Thirty minutes later, I am still not keeping anything in my stomach. I think it will pass, but the worry of going into shock makes me call a medic. One of many floating around to help, he quizzes me — what’s your name? where are you? — and decides that although I’m cognizant, I need liquids fast.

“I’ve just been on duty on puke row,” my medic says, assuring me that I’m not alone in my struggle.

As he sticks an IV into my arm, I shiver from the chill of dried sweat and my fear of needles. Once it’s in place, I lie on a stretcher, relaxing under a blanket. It feels wonderful to be still. Two liters of fluid later, I am vertical and well hydrated.

Despite getting laid-up in the first aid tent, Dodd, above center, finished the A10 and looks forward to her next race.

Ready to Go Again

“You learn more from the tough races than from the ones that go well,” says veteran runner Biddle. 

I know what he means.

I’ve completed one of the most difficult feats in my life, both physically and mentally. When I joined the swim team as a 10-year-old, I thought I was going to drop dead in the first practice. I returned the next day and persevered, despite the difficulty — as I’ve done now, except without the throwing up.

Despite intense training, my body struggled when it came to the day that mattered most. I can still say that I finished. I now know to better pace myself for running 10 miles. And that eating Old Bay-coated hard crabs the day before is not the best pre-race energizer.

I don’t think I’ll ever feel the way race-winner Matiskella does about running. 

“I’m an addict,” he told me. “People run to work out, but I’m not working out. I get a thrill from it as a hobby. Twenty-four years I’ve been running. It’s almost like brushing my teeth. It’s my happy place.”

Still, the activity has become part of my life. It creates a discipline that carries into everything I do, professional or personal.

This experience has taught me to follow through on my objectives, no matter what difficulties I may encounter along the way. I still hope to run a marathon in the spring — but I now have a new appreciation for the months of preparation that will go into it. I’m confident that I can be ready.

A few days after the race, I lace up my Nikes and hit the road. It feels great, heat and all.