This is the recap of Cara Rabin, another Whippet who Boston Qualified on running her first marathon—The TCS NYC Marathon. This entry isn’t quite like our previous recaps, it’s quite personal. Thanks so much Cara for sharing such a touching story and your journey.
—- Cara Rabin —-
On November 1, 2015 I ran my first marathon.
On November 1, 2010, I was sitting in a wheelchair on “cart restriction” at a hospital outside Chicago, having taken a medical leave from medical school to get treatment for Anorexia Nervosa.
I suffered with anorexia for eight years, starting as a college freshman and subsequently spent 18 months of that period in either hospitals or residential treatment centers. In the summer of 2010 I was not starting marathon training; I was making the difficult decision to take a medical leave following my first year of medical school to get healthy. But eating disorders are stubborn illnesses. Even after surviving months of cart restriction, of gas-inducing Ensure plus shakes, and of being told I was really “stupid” for someone who went to an Ivy League school because I cried the first time I was forced to eat pizza, I did not maintain my recovery upon returning to NYC the following spring.
Not ready to return to medical school within a year, I lost my spot in the medical school class. I felt isolated and depressed. Most of my friends who (understandably) could not handle being friends with a walking skeleton abandoned me. I got a good job and survived but dreaded each day. Then came September 30, 2012, my 28th birthday. I made the decision that I did not want to spend another birthday wishing I were dead. I was going to do get healthy and get a life.
It is not enough to want to get better. One has to be willing to do the work to make it happen. We all know this with running. Wanting to run a marathon, obtain a PR, or qualify for Boston is not enough. We have to put in the hours, the miles, the early mornings, and the dark, cold runs to make it happen. So it is for recovery. To get better I had to be “comfortable being uncomfortable.” This became my mantra. Beginning on my birthday, I followed my meal plan like the perfectionist, “Ivy league” student I am. I put myself on exercise restriction (I had never been a runner during my illness, but was a gym rat) for 6 months. Just as we can’t become great runners without dedication and practice, I couldn’t recover from this deadly disease without doing what I feared the most: gaining weight. I don’t know how much I weigh now, though I’m about 30-40 pounds heavier than I was at my sickest.
Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable gave me my life back. I took the MCAT again (because evil medical schools only keep scores for three years) and reapplied to medical school (it took me two cycles to be reaccepted). I met the man, John, who will become my husband. I ate pizza without crying. It was John who inspired me to start running after completing his first Ironman, the nerdy girl who couldn’t even run a mile in high school. I got permission from my physicians and my nutritionist to start running with an adjusted meal plan and a Couch to 5K Program. I joined the Dashing Whippets two months later and was welcomed with open arms despite feeling as though I was too slow and too fat for the team. Running with better, more experienced runners quickly made me better. Most importantly, I felt the companionship again that I had thrown away with my illness.
Eating disorders are not a joke. Like addictions, I think of myself as always in recovery, rather than cured. I lost two good friends to the disease. The first thing I think when I look at race photos is “I look so fat,” usually followed by “my hair is frizzy.” Since 2009 I have had 12 stress fractures, some running related, some not. I will never be able regain bone mass lost by eight years of amenorrhea. My digestive system does not absorb iron efficiently, so I often become dangerously anemic, including in this training cycle. The permanent damage I’ve done to my body means I may never reach my absolute peak as a runner, but it doesn’t keep me from trying.
My training for NYC was far from perfect – it was ugly, uncomfortable, fun, and exciting all at the same time. I read Pftizinger’s Advanced Marathoning over Spring Break (really much more interesting than the Pathology of Chronic Disease) and devised a revised training plan from his 18-week 70-85 mile plan. I made the following adjustments: 1) knowing my body and bone mass, I have noticed I am more likely to get injured by speedwork rather than volume, so I was extremely limited in my official “speedwork,” generally performing only one tempo run a week, 2) I took advice from the work of Camille Herron, an elite marathoner and fellow-science nerd who researches stress fractures and bone formation, 3) Despite my never-ending exam schedule, I made it a priority to fit in a mid-week long run of 12-13 miles by waking up really early, 5) I did a lot of long runs, up to 24 miles, with many in the 22-23 mile range, 6) I mainly ran a lot of slow, easy miles.
Unfortunately a month into training, I developed a femoral shaft stress fracture. At this point, I know how they feel, that they suck, and I have a 100% correct self-diagnosis rate (who needs 250,000 dollars for medical school, right!?) I didn’t run completely for 6 weeks, then started running again middle of August. I ramped up miles quickly, but I was coming from two-month base of 60-mile weeks, so I felt okay. I started to feel more hopeful about NYC 2015. Then about 3 weeks after I was running normally again, I developed a corneal infection that ulcerated the cornea and affected the vision in that eye for about a week. Running without depth perception is as challenging as it sounds! Because my body did not think that was enough, I dabbled in some anemia and developed horrible seasonal allergies for the first time in 30 years. I guess my body was determined to get me really comfortable with being uncomfortable. Luckily, I have the most amazing group of teammates who paced me, ran on multiple bridges with me, and sang off-key songs in the Bronx with me (to Daniela, Francesca, Martina, Cait, Lara, Eileen, Perry, Kaccie, Zain, Dennis, thank you always and forever).
I got to the starting line on Sunday with a nervous excitement feeling as though I was like humpty-dumpty put back together again. I decided, like I had for the four halves I ran this year, to not look at my watch and run by effort. A risky move for a first marathon, but I really wanted to enjoy the experience. When the race started, everything hurt. My previously injured femur and my proximal hamstring (sequelae of a previous pubic stress fracture aggravated by a PR at the Rock and Roll Brooklyn Half) were angrily yelling at me in pain. I thought, “Wow, this is going to be a long day.” By mile 4, the pain started to go away and I felt more settled. My thoughts were, “Wow, this is going to be so much fun!” And it was. I hate parties. I don’t drink and I have social anxiety. I once had a panic attack at a bar filled with bankers at happy hour. But Brooklyn was my kind of party! I had to force myself to slow down a couple of times because it was so hard not to get caught up in the excitement. Looking back, after a first 5K of exactly 25 minutes, my Brooklyn miles were in the 7:47-8:00 range. I started to feel tired around mile 12, but knew I would see my fiancé right before the Queensborough Bridge. I stopped to kiss him and he was holding a sign saying, “If you win, you can keep the ring!”… So I guess Mary Keitany is getting my ring (but then do I get Meb!?) The Queensborough was tough. It felt longer and steeper than it had on training runs. I did get a little boost when I ran past the Eiffel tower, but mostly I was just waiting for it to end.
Then came First Avenue. It actually was a little less exciting than I expected. I thought, “Well, I guess I understand why Brooklyn is the place to be now!” It seemed to drag on forever. Approaching the Willis Avenue Bridge, I saw a good friend and training partner of mine up ahead and my heart sunk. She started in Wave 1 and is a much better runner than I am, so I knew she must have been struggling. I slowed for a minute to check in and wanted to run with her for a bit. God bless her heart, she literally pushed me away and said “go!” The Jewish mother in me would not get her day. So go I did. I was really hot at that point, my hamstring was aching again, and they only thing propelling me forward was the Whippets cheering station. Dashing Whippets, you are the heroes of the marathon (well aside from the guy with crutches and one leg and the firefighter in full gear). Thank you from the bottom of my heart for pushing me forward. The Bronx was truly the best! Once I passed them I thought, “Okay, all I need to do is get to mile 22 and I will allow myself water with Martina! Unfortunately I didn’t see Martina, but I got water for the last time. The sun had come out and I was extremely hot.
Then my amazing fiancé surprised me somewhere along the 5th avenue climb and yelled my name! By the time I was back into Manhattan I got quite frustrated by the course crowding. I put in an expected finish time of 3:55 and was seated in Wave 2, so now Wave 1 runners mostly surrounded me. Many people were walking and I was dodging a lot of people; the congestion I was worried about at the beginning was actually much worse the last five miles of the course. But there was no time to worry about that because I had to finish. I had a test on Monday to study for! I have never been so excited to see Engineer’s gate. I pushed up that horribly “placed” hill to the finish and I was done! Immediately after stopping everything started to hurt again. I almost started crying because it was such a long walk to get water. Then I ran into my second favorite Ironman, wearing his Ironman outfit, in obvious pain after a tough but amazingly fought race. I hobbled to 81st and Columbus to meet John. He asked if I knew my time and I said I wasn’t sure because I only looked at my watch at the end and honestly couldn’t really focus, aka I was delirious. He said I finished in 3:29:23 and I qualified for Boston! I had exactly a one-minute positive split with a lot of water breaks the last 10 miles and two kissing stops, but my last 5K, including that hill, were the fastest of the race (7:51, 7:37, 7:41)! I may not have won, but he is letting me keep the ring ☺
So much of running is a mental game. Recovering from anorexia is the hardest thing I have ever done. It meant I had to get comfortable being uncomfortable. This has been my mantra for the last three years and it was my mantra for 26.2 miles on Sunday. Following a broken femur, a corneal ulceration, a diagnosis of anemia, and $1000 in non-insured medical bills from said setbacks, many have said I am unlucky. Unlucky? I am back in medical school working to achieve my dream of becoming a doctor. I am going to marry my best friend next June. My dad passed the one-year survival mark with pancreatic cancer and is training with the enthusiasm of a marathon runner to walk me down the aisle. And I am a proud member of the best running team in NYC. I think I am the luckiest girl in the world!
Thank you to the incredible teammates who make running and training NOT so uncomfortable.