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Natalie's Story

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12/22/06

Many times over the last 10 years, I have seen true beginning runners come onto the Runner’s World Online (RWOL) Beginners and Marathon forums and quickly get caught up in the excitement surrounding marathon chatter, become enthused with the idea of being a marathoner, and launch straight into a marathon program. They might even have “caught the bug” someplace else and come to the forum seeking advice and guidance. They get lots of encouragement and cheerleading on the forums, and that is good. However, sometimes they get little, if any, input to give them a perspective of the risks of jumping into a marathon program prematurely.

I hoped that Lance's experience, despite being a world-class athlete, might provide a momentary dash of reality to today's beginners who happen to see it. More importantly, since it will quickly become buried on a fast moving forum, I hope it might encourage those who do see it and who will continue on this forum in future years to present both sides of the picture so the beginner can make an informed decision. It's easy to say, "I did it and so can you!" or “Go for it, we will help you!” It's much harder to play devil's advocate and present the potential downside. Often in the excitement of the moment, it’s viewed as a thankless and non-caring effort….I know, I have been there.

I’m not trying to be a curmudgeon on this subject. To explain my motivation....and at the risk of boring you....let me tell you a story about another forumite who had a similar, but much more extreme, experience like Lance’s.

The first ever RWOL FE (forum encounter) was held at the 1997 Marine Corps Marathon (MCM). We organized it months in advance so people who committed to it had time to train for it. One of our group of 25 was a young woman named Natalie who lives in the DC area. Like a few others in our FE group, she was relatively new to running and it was to be her first marathon.

Natalie is one of the most buoyant and outgoing persons I have ever known. She was a very “hefty” girl and a slow runner who had never run more than a few miles at a time or about 15 miles/week. But, she enthusiastically “signed up” for our FE group and undertook a marathon training program that took her to moderately high mileage in just a few weeks. She, as well as the others like her for whom the MCM was going to be their first marathon, received lots of encouragement and training advice from more experienced runners on the forums, including from me.

A few days before the marathon, Natalie felt a pain in a hip while on an easy run. It continued to bother her even while walking, so she stopped running for the rest of the week until marathon morning.

Natalie's hip bothered her throughout the marathon, but she was able to run through it for over 5 hours....until 200 yards from the finish where she went down in excruciating pain. She couldn't get up. Her sister, who was on the sidelines to cheer her finish, saw her fall and rushed onto the course to help her get up. Natalie hopped on one leg to the finish line while leaning on her sister's shoulder.

Immediately after crossing the finish line, the Marines put her on a stretcher and started to carry her to the field hospital tent located in the finish area. Natalie wouldn’t let them pick her up. She refused to let them move her from the finish line until one of the Marines got a finisher's medal for her.

Natalie was taken to a nearby Arlington hospital where it was determined that she had a compound fracture of the femur at the hip. A few days later, her doctor told her that she had experienced a stress fracture when she first felt pain during her run before the race, and the extreme stress of running the race caused it to develop into a complete fracture. He told her that it was due to ramping mileage up to train for a marathon too soon after beginning to run.

Natalie had an operation to reset the broken bone, followed by several months of healing and more months of rehab and physical therapy. But, the break didn’t mend properly. She then required a second operation to re-break and re-set the bone….then more healing, rehab and physical therapy. Finally, after about a year she was able to walk with just a slight limp, but was told that she would not be able to run again.

Natalie joined a cycling club and became a very active cyclist. She also remained active in the running community as a running club member, race volunteer and spectator. I saw her a few times in the next couple of years at various DC area races where she was either working as a volunteer or moving about the course on her bike to cheer runners along. We always had a post-race FE at the finish area. She remained one of the most positive and ebullient persons I have ever known. She never complained about her misfortune and always had one of the world’s greatest smiles on her face. She joined our subsequent 1998 and 1999 MCM RWOL FE’s as enthusiastically as she did the first one, even though she could just spectate and cheer.

I haven’t seen Natalie for the last several years because I haven’t been racing for over 5 years. But, I have no doubt that she is on the course of many DC races either calling out time splits or cheering runners along.

Natalie’s experience affected the way I view beginning runners “rushing” into a marathon program. I had been advising before then that beginning runners should take their time (a year or more of consistent running) to build to a marathon program. But, after observing what happened to her, I became more vociferous about it.

Experiences like Lance’s are exceptions, and those like Natalie’s are very rare. But they aren’t unheard of. If a beginner who wants to undertake a marathon program is aware of the risks, slight as they are, then I will support and assist in any way I can. I just want to ensure that they make a fully informed decision first.

 

Jim2