Nothing will bring down a running high like a mid-race detour. From knocking out miles and building momentum to frustration and helplessness. One wrong turn can completely change mood and motivation. I know many runners who have taken a wrong turn in a race — some make getting lost a habit. But I avoided such mistakes. Until Sunday, as I attempted to knock out a marathon in my 34th state.
I lined up in Huntington, West Virginia, not knowing how well I would be able to run. The Marshall University Marathon would have been my third 26.2 race in 21 days. The first two — Detroit and Marine Corps — weren’t my best. I ran through foot and knee pain and a giant bonk in Washington D.C. But constant strength work and stretching for two weeks made me feel positive about my chances Sunday.
Early on I felt like I had rediscovered my groove. Scenic miles were clicking by. The race starts and ends at the Marshall University football stadium. The flat, double-loop course winds through Huntington with views of the Ohio river and surrounding fall foliage on hillsides lining the town. Even though the weather warmed up, I was holding pace.
I was under 1:24 for the first half and didn’t feel like I was pushing hard. Even with an epic blowup, I knew I had a sub-3-hour marathon well within my grasp.
Then came fateful miles 17-18. Because the course is two loops, I started running against the flow of half-marathon traffic starting around mile 14. Several times between miles 14 and 17 I felt like I wasn’t in the right place, but I kept seeing the correct mile markers. So I pushed ahead.
Shortly after the 17 banner, I was supposed to stay straight to continue on the loop I had run earlier. But I was carried away with running against the flow of half marathoners. There were no signs telling me to go straight, and the volunteers in the area said nothing. I hugged the turn to cut the tangent and ruined my entire race.
For more than two miles, I ran the wrong direction. Four times I asked volunteers at street crossings if I was doing the wrong thing. None of them could answer me. If I had known exactly where I got off course, I would have retraced my steps and corrected. Because no one could direct me, I kept going straight, against the flow of runners.
I stopped when I hit a dead end (as my watch hit mile 19). Holding back tears of frustration, I asked multiple people if they could help me figure out what to do. The consensus was for me to loop the park and head back. That put me back running the correct direction, but I was two miles off. My watch dinged for mile 20 at the 22 banner.
I gave up in frustration at that point. If I backtracked and ran the correct course, I would end up with 30-31 total miles. The sun was beating down by that point. I started thinking about my race next weekend in North Carolina. Instead of running myself into the ground, I decided to treat my West Virginia trip like an expensive, out-of-town long run.
So I ran until I hit mile 22 and stopped my watch (still on pace for a 2:51, even with all of the stopping to ask directions). Then I walked and sulked a bit. Then I decided to run the final 1.5 miles.
What a disappointing day.
The Marshall University Marathon is truly amazing. The other runners were supportive all day long; I’ve never had so many people encourage me specifically. The course is beautiful, and it is fast. On a good weather day, it would be the perfect place to BQ or chase an elusive PR. Volunteers toss footballs to participants (which we got to keep) as they enter the stadium. The event is a great small-town race with charm and a unique feel.
Sadly, one wrong turn can ruin all of the positives.
I’m frustrated with the outcome. I’m still at 33 overall in my quest to run a marathon in each state. I still haven’t hit a Boston qualifier for 2019 (I have time, but I want to run a solid fall race for the first time).
I didn’t accept a medal, and I self reported my disqualification immediately after finishing.
But I will build on Sunday’s failure. On a warm and humid day, I felt strong and would have surely hit my goal.
I have bounced back before.
Now it’s time to make my wrong turn a turning point.
Great breakthroughs often follow great disappointments.