Ah, bless her.
I was 14, a gangly cross country runner in high school, the first time I heard of someone pooping themselves in a race. Coach DeLong was consumed by full-blown marathon fever at that time, chasing a sub 3:00 and Boston qualifier, and Uta Pippig won with diarrhea all down her legs. He made sure to tell us about it. It was Uta’s third consecutive Boston win. “That’s what wanting it bad enough looks like,” he said.
I was horrified. Already in the year since becoming a runner my ideas of pain and commitment had been completely redefined. Anything was possible! But this, this was incomprehensible. When I told my parents about Uta Pippig, my dad, a pot-bellied man of the colorful language variety, actually stopped the football game he was watching. “She shit herself just to win? F#% that. You people are crazy.” Nobody wants to shit themselves, but I’ve since learned that my father was particularly against it. He literally emerged from a coma on his deathbed to avoid it a decade later.
Run a Marathon.
Gone from the life goals list, just like that. I didn’t consider it again for 15 years.
Convinced it would help me be stronger on the track and excited about the potential for a payday, I signed up for New York in 2011. I completely caught the bug and loved the training. When I cranked a 16 miler at 5:45 pace, suddenly I felt like I had a real chance at hitting my dream goal of sub 2:30. That would put me in the prize money. There could be significant bonuses on the line. Shit got real. I wanted it. Bad. But how bad? Shit myself bad?
During my training block there had been several runs that required an unplanned trailside turd burial. What if this happened with only three miles to go? What if I was neck and neck with a rival? On the verge of a massive PR? What if the finish line was in sight? What if stopping to poop (assuming there was a well-timed toilet) resulted in me missing my time goal by a matter of seconds? What if that poop stop cost me a fortune?
I made some calls to marathoner friends and asked for advice on how to avoid it. Kara Goucher. Paula Radcliffe. Stephanie Bruce. I got tips on how to minimize the risk (watch your fiber, easy on the coffee). But from talking to them I gathered that it’s bound to happen at some point in your life. And there are scenarios where it’s worth it. I attempted to bend my mind around it. A part of me was curious…would I have it in me to let it out of me? Would I be able to see past the conditioned shame response to experience pure, uninhibited drive? Isn’t that the magic of pushing your limits? Could pooping yourself be a badge of honor?
In the end, I had a poop free experience. It’s a shame really.
Here are the top 3 First Time Marathon Fears from my Strava community, and how to overcome them.
1. The aforementioned fear of pooping oneself.
Should you be so lucky as to feel the urge to poop in your first marathon, look for a bathroom. You’ll probably find one. Go ahead and use the toilet. It is not a reflection on you as a person or as an athlete if you stop to poo. You can say you did it out of courtesy for those around you. But if you can’t find a bathroom anywhere and things get dire, and you pass the point of no return, this is your chance! Forge ahead! Let your enthusiasm runneth over! You’ll be an inspiration! We’ll know just how bad you want it! As Strava athlete Mairead Drain put it,
“I’m a huge Uta Pippig fan!!! So ya…fear of pooping my pants was high, but I’d be in fabulous company!”
2. Fear of Hitting the Wall
When the media asked me how I felt about very publicly hitting the wall in my first marathon, I meant what I said. Hitting the wall is a privilege. The pain of hitting the wall pales in comparison to childbirth, or chronic illness, or war, or about a million other things. To choose your method of suffering is a privilege. To have a body that allows you to push itself hard enough to turn into a bumbling blob of slop in the final miles of a MARATHON you were brave enough to sign up for, committed enough to prepare (at least partially) for, that is a privilege. Hitting the wall may show that you suck at pacing yourself, or blew your nutrition, sure! But it also shows you have the guts to try hard things, and aren’t afraid to take risks. Go forth! Hit that wall!
3. Fear of Failing
This showed up in so many different ways in people’s responses. Failing to finish. Failing to reach a time goal. Failing to qualify for Boston. Failing to get the nutrition right. Failing to make it worth it for all the sacrifice made by you or others who supported you. All we can do is the best we can on the day, with the day that we get. A moment considering failure is guaranteed to be a moment without joy. Marianne Elliott put it brilliantly, “I was afraid I’d fail, afraid that I just couldn’t do it. I ran with my doubt and fear for way too many of those miles and sucked most of the joy out of the race. I finished, learned my lesson and the next race…took Devon Yanko’s advice, lined up at the start confident I’d finish, never let that confidence go and enjoyed every mile. Massive mindset lesson for me.”
In conclusion, humans are not incredibly gifted when it comes to running marathons without incident. The undesirable will happen. Fears will be realized. You know what humans are incredibly gifted at? Creating a narrative to suit our situation. So here’s my recommendation for first time marathoners:
Make yourself the hero in multiple storylines in the choose-your-own-adventure novel that is your running. We don’t sign up for our first marathon because it is a guaranteed good time. We sign up to be challenged.
In the words of Sean Schmidt: “I used to enter endurance or ultra-endurance events with so much nervous energy…about what might happen. I’ve found that just going in grateful to be there, soaking in the experience, regardless of what I encounter good or bad, usually dissipates the fears. The BEST part of these challenges is overcoming the obstacles we face, whatever they may be, during the race. I’ve found that is often what I’m most proud of rather than my finish time or placing.”
There are countless other things to be fearful of, many of which might sound a bit silly after the fact. See what other athletes have feared and add your own to the list.
Fear of bears
Fear of dying (literally)
Fear of faulty racing chip
Fear of sleeping through four alarms
Fear of missing my family along the route