My First Marathon DNF: A Terrifying Experience with Hyperthermia and Delirium.

Having previously completed the Melbourne marathon in 2010, I knew what it was like to run a marathon. Tough. Bloody tough. However, some things changed in my quest to complete another marathon (eight years later!), and ultimately, the pressure I put on myself, resulted in my downfall.

Here’s My Story:

The year was 2007. We had lots going on. Life was busy (or so I thought). We had a new baby and we had just set up our first business. We were living in Central Queensland and had no family support (at the time). We had a baby that never slept. Ever. Day or night. He came out crying and cried for 10 months straight. I’m not even joking. Just ask the other Mums from my Mother’s group! My husband Pete was also suffering from complete exhaustion - working long hours in the business, getting up to a crying baby at night and also suffering from Glandular Fever and Ross River fever - at the same time! We don’t like to do things by halves. You’ll learn that about us! 😂

I started running in an attempt to get myself outside and do something for me. That was once our baby could be entertained in the pram. Any attempt to put him in the pram in the early months were totally disastrous. He was a nightmare in the pram, but I persevered. I decided I was going to run a half marathon and I had to do the training. A few short months later, I completed my first half marathon in 2008. Tick.

A New Challenge

After the birth of my second child in 2009, I decided that I needed a new challenge. However, any plans I had for “me” were put on the back burner, the moment she arrived. Unlike our first child, this baby fed and slept like a dream. Amazing! However, we had our own issues with her. A simple diagnosis of “clicky hips” turned out to be much more and we had different challenges to overcome with her. After a tumultuous couple of years including two hip surgeries, hip spicas and various splints, I decided I now had the time to think about me. Having already completed a half marathon, I decided that I now wanted to do a full marathon. I signed myself up. I had no idea what I was in for, and that was probably a good thing!

I roughly followed a training schedule in preparation for the Melbourne marathon. Let me assure you though, that running extended periods with a double pram in Central Queensland while keeping a toddler and baby entertained was no mean feat. It also kind of defeated the purpose (when I took the kids with me), as running was supposed to be “my” time!? However, sometimes there were no options. If I had to run pushing a pram in the middle of the day, doing loops to collect containers and socks that were lost overboard, and stop to deal with tears and tantrums, then I did it. I was willing to do whatever it took.

When I did escape child free, my training was often fraught with pangs of “Mummy guilt”. I needed to do something for me, but I felt guilty (and selfish!) spending time away from the family to get my training done. Silly but real.

Just to complicate things, Pete decided that he too wanted to do his first marathon. Of course he did. This made training more difficult. We both had to somehow schedule in up to six hours of running on a Sunday with two small kids. It wasn’t fun. Or easy. I trained where and when I could and set myself a goal of finishing the marathon in less than five hours.

The Big Day

I was very relaxed heading into the Melbourne marathon (not once thinking about all of the “what ifs” that my worry wart brain can sometimes throw at me). No pressure. I just wanted to finish. I ran and felt great (well, until I hit some hills in the Botanic Gardens a few short KMs from the finish line where I cramped up and had to start walking). I sprinted around the MCG track to the finish line, feeling my calves getting tighter and tighter with each step until BANG, the calves went and I seized up literally ON the finish line. I checked my watch. 4hrs 12min. Not too shabby. I cried. Mostly because I was so happy (well under my scheduled five hours - yay!), but also because there was another uphill section I had to traverse with two cramped-up calves to get my finishers medal! How mean!

I remember thinking to myself that I never wanted to do another marathon in my life, and would happily tick “complete a marathon” off my bucket list! Great. Now fast forward eight years to 2018...

Now What?

As we know, the brain is pretty good at downplaying painful experiences...like childbirth and running 42.2km for example. It’s called the “Halo” effect, and the reason that, eight years later, I found myself lining up for another marathon. Yes, I’m mad.

Also of mention, is that in those eight years, aside from NOT getting any younger, we’d doubled our offspring and our businesses (yep, so that’s now four kids and two businesses, and me, errr...on the slippery side of 35...). Life with kids also got ridiculously more hectic (...and here I was thinking that life with babies and toddlers was hard 🙄)!!

After the birth of my fourth child, running was harder and less enjoyable than I remembered. I now had less time on my hands and my Mummy guilt had increased to epic proportions, as I tried to be everything to everyone, with my needs always coming last.

The Training Begins

I started training for the marathon, just so I could follow a program to give me some direction with my running. Things were going well. I started enjoying my running and keeping up with my training. However, a few weeks from the event, I was in at work when the call came and I was put the spot: “It’s Asics. They want to know if you want an entry to the Gold Coast Marathon”. What do I say? I nodded reluctantly. “Umm...yes please”. Then the question “the half or full”? Eek. “The full, I guess”. “Yep, she’s doing the full”. It was out there. The cat was out of the bag.

From that moment on, I unnecessarily put myself under a lot of pressure to perform. To not disappoint. To successfully reach my goal. Truth be told, no one probably even cared, but I felt like they did! I set myself a goal and put it out there. I wanted to keep myself accountable. I wanted to do a sub-four hour marathon. Surely taking 13 mins off my old time isn’t too unreasonable? Or was it?

So the weeks ticked by and things were going well. I started to despise my long runs and even loathe them, feeling disgruntled at the fact that it was eating into our already limited family time. I would start getting moody about midweek and then feel an instant relief as soon as I literally ticked off the long Sunday run on my training schedule. I tried moving my long runs to mid week to avoid missing out on family time and to prevent the mid week blues, but nothing helped. The long runs were hard and they just needed to be done. No excuses. End of story.

I got up early and ran in the dark. I ran after school pickup into the darkness of night (neither of which were ideal), but sometimes my options were limited. I even used to run for two hours on a treadmill at the gym. Yep, that’s taking boring to a whole new level. I did all it took to get it done.

Out Of The Blue

Three weeks before GCM18, I started to feel a dull pain in my right hip. I hadn’t run for two days. It was odd. My last run was an 8km run, with my son, pushing a pram on my right side. Did I tweak something? Surely not, as I’d done plenty of my runs (reluctantly 🙄) pushing a small child in a pram. I didn’t feel anything at the time. What was this?

The pain continued to intensify and Pete took great pleasure (or so it seemed) in rolling his eyes and saying “I told you that you needed to be stretching and seeing a Physio with all these big KMs that you’ve been running”. I cried. I wasn’t even going to get to the start line after all of this training!

However, lucky my Pete’s a good bloke, and he massaged my tight ITB, adductors and glutes over the weekend until I was able to get in to see a physio on the Monday. He got me walking again, but I was still tentative to go running...just in case.

I decided to listen to Pete's advice (for once), when he suggested that it would be a good idea for me to try running on an Alter-G (anti-gravity) running machine to test out how my sore adductors and hip flexors felt when I started running.

He arranged for me to use the facilities at XPhysiotherapy at Toowong and even came with me (mostly because he knows I’m a sook and wouldn’t try anything new if left to my own devices 😂)! I ran on about 60% (which meant that I was running with 60% impact through my joints). I could feel a slight tightness, but it was ok. I could adjust the gravity (the percentage body weight load I wanted to put through my body) as I went, depending on how I felt. It was awesome. I ran for 45 minutes before Pete almost died of boredom and our poor youngest child decided she’d had enough. Mission accomplished. I could run. Sort of. Aside from another run closer to the event, this was the only running I did in the last three weeks. I was well and truly tapered!

Sick And Injured!

About this time, I started getting paranoid about getting sick...and guess what? I got sick. 🙄 Not flu-sick, just a massive head cold which kept me awake all night coughing. Enough to make me feel flat enough to not want to exercise. I annoyed myself with how much I coughed. I can only imagine how annoying it was for everyone around me. The cough lingered for a good couple of weeks and I was still coughing right up until the night before the event. Not the best preparation I was hoping for, coming into GCM18. Sickness and injury. My two worst fears were realised.

We headed down to the GC in preparation for my marathon (and for Pete to work at the Expo). By this stage, my hip was feeling fine but I was still a bit under the weather. Nothing major, but still not 100% well.

Race Ready

On the morning of the event, I was eerily calm. I didn’t manage to catch a wink of sleep though. Does anyone ever sleep before these events? I woke up, got dressed, had some breakfast, packed my Camelbak and was away. A tram arrived within a few minutes, I grabbed a seat and made small talk with the people next to me on the journey. I arrived at the venue, checked my bag in, went to the start line and waited. No problems. No fuss. I read a few text messages, started my Garmin, checked my music worked and waited patiently for the start. Before long, I was off! I’d made it! I was running. Happy days!

I started with the 3h50 pace group but the crowd was so thick, I found it frustrating (as I have personal space issues)! I was feeling great. At 8km, I saw Pete and the kids cheering me on. I smiled and high fived them. Things were going well. Before long, I’d unintentionally caught the 3h40 pace group. I checked my watch. I was consistently running 5.05-5.15 min/KM and feeling totally fine. I got to the turnaround point at Burleigh and was still cruising. I got to halfway before two hours. No sweat. I was on track.

At about 26km, I realised I was probably pushing a bit hard. I hadn’t drunk much, but I wasn’t feeling particularly thirsty. I’d gone through three gels and literally only had sips of water to wash that down. On my training runs, I would have emptied my Camelbak by this stage, but mine was still full. For some reason, I just didn't feel thirsty. I felt a bit hot, but otherwise ok. I pushed on, but pulled back on the pace a bit; still tracking on time for a sub four hour marathon.

I remember a number of people telling me that the bit of the marathon from the start line (after you've been to Burleigh and back) when you're heading north is tough. I kept telling myself that. "This is the tough bit. Just dig deep. One foot in front of the other". I felt like I was getting slower and slower. I felt the sub-four hour dream slipping away. I had more and more people over taking me. It was soul destroying. I just needed to get to 36km, the turnaround point. "Why was my Garmin taking so long for the KMs to tick over"? I thought. I was starting to feel a bit mentally defeated, but not finishing didn’t even register on my radar.

Things Start Going Pear Shaped

I made it to the turnaround point. Thank goodness. "This is it" I thought. "The last 5km". I knew I could do it. I looked at my Garmin again. "Hang on...I must have misread it before...I can do this! Even if I walk...I’ll still make it". I looked again. I tried re-doing the math. My brain was fuzzy. I couldn’t work it out. I was starting to wobble all over the place, but I put that down to tiredness. I told myself that I had to keep running and that I couldn’t walk because I wanted to be able to say that I ran the whole way! Say what? I blame my fuzzy logic on my fuzzy brain.

The next thing I know, I have a stranger guiding me by my left arm. I couldn’t see him, but I could feel him and hear him. I heard a wheelchair being rattled behind me. I could hear people talking but couldn’t make out what they were saying. "What are they doing? Surely that’s not for me"? I told the stranger to "let go of me" as I didn’t want to be disqualified (😂😂). He politely let go, but unbeknownst to me, was right there behind me, following me. Ready to catch me...because a few short metres later, I collapsed on the curb.

So Close But So Far

I could hear the announcer. I was almost there. I looked up. "Where was I? What had happened"? I had a lolly put in my mouth. “You need to eat this”. I looked up. Ambulance offices swarming, the stranger next to me, still supporting me. Holding me. Then a huge wave of nausea hit me.

The ambulance officers drew up some anti-emetics. Too late. I was vomiting. Vomiting and vomiting. So much vomit. I came to a bit. I was joking with the stranger (who I now know was called Luke), and convinced the ambos that I was fine to go on. I joked about no one pausing my Garmin. Apparently we’d already had that discussion. Oops. I had no recollection of that. I then asked for a selfie. How embarrassing, I’d never do that. I didn't even take one on the start line because I was too self conscious. Now I didn't care. I got one anyway. With complete strangers in it, no less.

I thought I’d be fine. I convinced the paramedics that I was fine. They cancelled the ambulance that was on the way. I needed to get to that finish line. I needed to collect my medal and my t-shirt and my checked in luggage. This wasn’t how it was supposed to end. I was all good. Wasn't I?

I went to sit up. Bad idea. They weren't joking about my low blood pressure. Down I went. Things started to deteriorate. They were asking my name. I couldn’t remember. They asked for the pin code on my phone. I couldn’t remember. What was my husband’s name? I couldn’t remember. I was looking at the buildings thinking “where on earth am I”? What was wrong with me? My brain wasn’t working. It was seriously scary.

Terrifying Delirium

I had this horrible feeling that something wasn’t right with my body. I started screaming for help. Screaming at the top of my voice in some kind of delirium brought on by my hyperthermia. “I’m going to die. You need to help me. Something is really wrong. I don’t know what it is. Heeeeeeeelp meeee”. Then I passed out again. I was briefly lucid again. I apologised. “I’m so sorry. I have no idea what that was”. I was told I had a panic attack. Did I suffer from anxiety? A little. Had I had an anxiety attack before? No. I knew this wasn’t anxiety. Something was wrong.

By this stage, I had a number of paramedics hovering over me. A short time before, in a moment of lucidity, I’d managed to call Pete and tell him what had happened. He was tracking me doing the marathon on "Find My iPhone" and had seen my dot stop, but just presumed I’d cramped up and had stopped to stretch. Little did he know what was unfolding.

When Pete arrived, I’d been hooked up to fluids and the ambulance transport had been called. My blood pressure was low. My heart was racing. I was severely dehydrated. They also realised that my temperature was almost 40 degrees and I was suffering from the effects of hyperthermia. I needed to be cooled down stat.

I can’t remember much of the bit from being taken from the course to the ambulance. I tried keeping my eyes open but all I could see was black. I could hear people’s voices (but they were incoherent), and the rattling of the trolley, but I couldn’t see anything. "What was wrong with me"? My limbs were contracting involuntarily. “Just stop it” I was telling myself. I couldn’t. I was screaming at the top of my lungs (apologies to all of those people who saw me being wheeled along the course to the ambulance and were traumatised by my screaming)! Again, I tried convincing myself that this was ridiculous and that I needed to calm down. I just couldn’t. The delirium and paranoia was punctuated by brief moments of lucidity. My brain wasn’t working properly. I couldn’t see anything. I was scared. Really scared. It was a truly traumatic experience.

Arriving At The Hospital

Once inside the ambulance, the paramedics were able to cool me down. I arrived at The Gold Coast University Hospital some time later. The paramedic said that I was starting to look much better. I was feeling much less delirious, but my brain was still fuzzy. I just felt indescribably "yuck". I was still vomiting too. More anti-emetics, but alas, more vomiting. 

Just as an aside - big props to the paramedics who did an amazing job (and dealt with my delirium and vomit - sorry). Thanks Jeremy and the other two paramedics (who I didn’t get selfies with...sorry...I was a little more ill by this stage), for taking such good care of me. You guys are amazing, selfless beings. Thank you!

Now in the hospital, I started to come-to again. I was asked my name again. I remembered Rachel but couldn’t remember Charles. I was asked where I lived. I couldn’t remember. The suburb? I was pulling blanks. I wanted to cry. I started crying, but there were no tears. I was too dehydrated. I was asked what year it was. I couldn’t even remember that! 2017 or 2018? I couldn’t be sure. "What was wrong with my brain"?!

I looked down on myself on the trolley. My legs looked swollen and felt like jelly. I asked "what's wrong with my legs"? in a slurred voice. The paramedic reassured me that nothing was wrong with them. I wasn't convinced. I lifted my hand and it was white. Paper white. I hardly looked alive. "Was it even mine"? Clearly my blood flow had more important places to be!

I tried to pick up my phone to try to work out what was happening or where I lived. The buttons looked wrong. The screen looked wrong. "Who has changed all the icons? Why did they all look different"? This was all really weird. I was given more anti-emetic medication, yes more, but it too was useless. The nausea and vomiting continued.

Support Crew Arrives

Some time later (who knows how long it was!), Pete and the kids arrived at the hospital. I started to feel a bit more normal. I remembered where I was. I remembered my name. I was still confused about the year but at least I could now remember my kids' names!

The vomiting continued. The kids were horrified. “Yuck...are you contagious Mum”! 😂 They were relieved to hear that I wasn’t. Their faces were a mixture of relief and concern. They were also disappointed for me. “Are you ok Mum”? “I’m ok”, I reassured them.

I was finally discharged from hospital late in the afternoon. I let everyone know what had happened with a post on FB. I know many of my friends and family were waiting all day for my victorious post, medal in hand saying “I did it”. What a disappointment to post a photo of me from my hospital bed saying that I didn’t actually even finish.

What Went Wrong?

I was fitter this time around. I was running on track. I never give up. Why did my body fail me? I’m not really sure, but we have some ideas about things I did differently this time that might have contributed. I’m still ruminating on all the "what ifs" and processing the disappointment. I'll get there.

My recovery has been slower than I would have liked. We headed away for the week so I could do nothing. Literally nothing. I’m not very good at sitting still, so being away from home fixed that! I was a bit stiff for two days, but miraculously no ITB/adductor issues. The one thing I’d worried about wasn’t even a problem! I had a few battle scars, despite the liberal application of Body Glide (as instructed!) before the race. Nothing a few bandaids couldn’t fix.

I’ve physically felt under the weather but that’s probably to be expected given what I’ve been through. I also haven’t been able to shake this Winter lurgie that has been troubling me for weeks. I’m still driving myself mad with my coughing. 🙄

Aside from the measurable physical ailments, the last week has been a roller coaster, mentally. I oscillate from moments of “you did your best”, “lucky you’re still alive” to moments of “that was a bit stupid”, “why didn’t you drink more”, “why didn’t you just walk a bit” or “why did you put so much pressure on yourself”?

Lessons Learnt

Right now, I’m thinking it would have been a whole lot smarter and less disappointing to have just listened to my body, slowed down and at least finished the marathon. Isn't hindsight a wonderful thing? But, I’m an all or nothing kinda girl, and this was just a (much needed!) lesson in finding moderation and learning that you don’t always get what you want, even when you have all your ducks in a row.

I’ve learnt that putting pressure on myself isn’t helpful. I’ve learnt that I need to listen to my body. I’ve learnt that I definitely need to stay hydrated on a marathon! I’ve learnt that it's ok to stop and take a breather or even walk for a little bit of the marathon. I've learnt that the bigger picture is more important than the little details.

You know what though? I’m glad I went through this. I’m glad my kids were here to see the highs and the lows too. Even though I came home without the medal that I desperately wanted and worked so hard for, I’ve had the chance to show them what disappointment looks and feels like; and the fact that we can learn and grow from these experiences, even as adults.

Best of all, I’m still a winner to them. The kids knew how desperately I wanted to complete that marathon in less than four hours. My two youngest even made me paper medals to compensate. I'm also the proud owner of a fourth ribbon that my six year old donated to me (that she won at her athletics carnival last week). Her card reads: "To Mum, you did so well in your race. I want you to feel better. I love you forever. Great stuff"! Well, if that's not enough motivation to get up, dust myself off and try again, then I don't know what is!

What Next?

I’m not sure where to from here. Do I feel like I have some unfinished business? Yep. Do I want to run another marathon. Not at this stage. However, being the perfectionist I am, I will most likely have another shot. Sometime. Maybe. I’ll just wait for that Halo effect to kick in and let you know later! Probably after I’ve done it. 😉

One Last Thing...

If anyone recognises Luke from my photo, please tell him to get in touch with us!! I owe him at least a new wrap for his daughter (after I vomited all over one of hers 😩😩).

Seriously though, this guy and his wife are possibly the most selfless, kind-hearted people ever. They were just out walking on the weekend of the marathon and Luke happened to notice me wobbling all over the road. Despite my protests (sorry Luke!), he perservered. He caught me. He held me up. He wiped my face. He held my head when I vomited. He held my arm when I was going delirious. He looked me in the eyes and said “you are not going to die, you’re ok”. Anyone would do this for a loved one...but for someone to do this for a complete stranger? What a guy! Thank you from the bottom of my heart Luke!

His wife helped recognise and find Pete and the kids. She looked out for the kids and kept them away as I’d requested. She even looked after them in the playground while Pete was with me. The whole time she had a baby on her hip (who was amazing and so, so patient). Yep, and she was a complete stranger too. I am just so grateful to Luke and his wife, two complete strangers who were there for me on this day. It certainly restored my faith in humanity. Thank you both so, so much. 💗

Comments

3 comments

Sandra Pugh

Sandra Pugh

Written for the heart Rachel, let the lessons learned make you a stronger person, to be able to listen to your body. Yoga sounds like a great start to your next goal.

Alicia

Alicia

Hi Rachel,

I’ve just read your story and I couldn’t put it down. I can relate to it so much. Like you, I have 3 small children. I also love to run. It’s my escape. Some like yoga, I love running! I’ve done quite a few half marathons. I’m a part of a running club so we train 3 times per week. My big bucket list goal is the full. But after having 3 children in quick succession pushing the body that far is tough. I’ve had lots of long runs when one minute I think it’s all going to plan and the next it’s not! I have no doubt you’ll bounce back from this and perhaps I’ll even see you out there one day. I can appreciate the disappointment you must feel but if it’s any consolation, think about the Scot who fell at the 40km mark in the Comm Games recently. Heartbreaking. I literally cried whilst watching it on TV. He was in gold medal position. Thank goodness for the innocent love of our children to boost us back up. As you say they admire and look up tonus regardless. Enjoy the recovery. Your body needs you to.

Jody Warwick

Jody Warwick

Thanks for telling your story Rachael, it really shows the highs and lows of running a marathon. Not to mention all the training involved to get you to the start line. You probably wouldn’t remember but we have met, I used to be a patient of Peter in the early days at Gladstone. Your story is written beautifully from the heart. Good luck with whatever you decide to do next. But first take time to recover properly xx

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