Everyone has those times, probably too often, where they were really, really tired. I recall working 36 hours straight for the final weekend of a data center migration, staying up all night with my girlfriend before taking a college entrance exam and trips to Europe that combine jet lag with serious sleep deprivation. I’m sure we’ve all had that Sunday afternoon where we plopped ourselves on a coach knowing a nap was a few seconds away. And then there is just about every Monday morning, prying ourselves out of bed to face the work week, already knowing we need at least two cups of coffee to cope.
But being “sleepy tired” doesn’t compare with the “totally exhausted” we get when we’ve pushed our bodies beyond the unreasonable, barely able to speak, much less move. The kind of special tired that physically lasts for days and mentally for months. Here’s my top three, in ascending order from “easiest” to “hardest”. Simple recalling these to write them down is mentally grueling. But I have time and a comfy couch, so here we go.
I attempted three marathons (26.2 miles) races in my 30’s, completing just one. A marathon is the only race where the question is “Will I finish?” instead of “How fast will I go today?”. Back in my 150 pound days, running 16 miles was a chore, but not the end of the day, and beyond 16 things became increasingly “not fun”. The marathon I finished was on a beautiful October day, getting up to 77 degrees under bright sunshine. That’s about 20 degrees warmer than a beautiful marathoning day. The pack started out from downtown Columbus, heading north toward The Ohio State University for the first of three loops. After a few miles I noticed that I was in a pack running 7 ½ minute miles, which I knew was too fast for me, but I was just floating along, so I went with it. At the thirteen mile mark I began to realize what a mistake that was and slowed down a bit. Then the thought entered my head that I was only halfway done and had an entire half-marathon ahead of me. I also realized I was feeling the symptoms of dehydration. We headed down the shortest loop, south through German Village. I really started to slow down and began to walk at the water stops, getting two cups of water and carefully drinking it all before running again. The stops were 1 ½ miles apart and I went from “starting to feel better” after drinking to “I can’t make it” before getting to the next one. That went on from 14 miles to the 20 mile mark, which included having to make the decision of entering the final loop, out to Bexley and back, the final “point of no easy return”. The exhaustion experienced when you’re not close to being done combined with not knowing if you will finish is as much mental as physical, and you’re hammered from both sides. To this day I don’t know how I made it through those six miles. But at the 20 mile mark I not only had “just” 6.2 miles to go, but at that point I knew I could make it. With the mental cloud out of the way, I just needed to make these last miles, and do so very carefully, as runners were off the side of the road, cramping or just “out of gas”, began to become all too common. I made those last miles at a slow but steady pace and crossed the finish line thinking to myself that it felt like I had been running my entire life and this was the first I had ever stopped. I walked, more like limped, back to my car and back to Dayton, used my arms to extract me out of the car, made it to the couch and sat there like I was in a coma while my son’s birthday party began, which I remember little of. I expected that I would not run for a couple days and then resume my usual routine. But the mental exhaustion lasted far further than the physical and it took weeks before I could back back out on a regular basis. That memory, that feeling, is still here to this day.
Next up is the weekend I helped put a new roof on my then mother-in-law’s house. As bad luck would have it, that weekend brought bright sunshine with the temperature in the 90’s, not really what you want when perched on black shingles. Five middle-aged guys attacked the job Saturday morning by taking off the old roof, which had already had been shingled over, so two layers would have to be removed. Until we got to another section that had three layers. Each shingle required pulling at least two, and often more, nails using the claw end of a hammer, then pitching the shingle off the roof. Over and over until our arms could hardly move. As the sun reached higher and hotter in the sky, we hydrated ourselves with large bottles of Gatorade, three an hour, with no need for a bathroom break. By dinner time we were all shot and came down from the roof even though some shingles still remained, which would just have to wait until Sunday morning. Not to mention we still had to put the new singles on. I wish I had a picture of how bad I looked as I tried to munch down some dinner. Sticky bits of black tar from the shingles covered all of us and we all were just beat down. Sunday morning came too soon and three of the guys physically couldn’t get themselves out of bed, leaving the daunting job to my brother-in-law and myself. Fortunately my brother-in-law worked for a roofing company and one of the real roofing guys helped out for a couple hours. This guy was amazing! Hammer flying, the remaining shingles literally flew off the roof in no time. He got us started on the new roof with the two of us barely able to keep up with feeding him shingles as he lined them up and popped them a few times with a power nailer. But that was a huge shot of adrenaline as progress was fast and furious. After he sadly had to leave, we finished the roof at our much slower pace. Going to work Monday morning felt so good, just to sit in front of my computer, in my air-conditioned office and not having to move muscles that wouldn’t have moved if I had asked them, nicely or not.
Now we come to the worst of the worst. Or the best of the worst. Whichever, I shiver every time I recall this one.
I signed up for a 14 mile trail run at Caesar Creek State Park, not an imposing amount of miles and I’ve run on trails many times. The course was a seven mile loop in one direction, returning back to the starting area before continuing on in a different direction with a second seven mile loop. Off we stormed into the woods where we quickly discovered these trails were never straight, were filled with roots and about wide enough for two people if they each turned sideways as they passed. And the promised loop was really an out and back, so after a few miles the leaders were flying back towards us on the too-narrow trail. Only once, as I had to look up to make sure I didn’t collide with an oncoming runner, did I lose focus on the path and its roots, resulting in a face first splat to the muddy ground. For the entire race I rarely got more than a few strides in rhythm, constantly changing direction to stay on the path, avoid the roots and dodge the runners. After the first seven miles I was pretty tired and gave a couple thoughts to calling it quits halfway. But I convinced myself that the second half couldn’t continue the same arduous course layout and I decided to make a go of it. This bad assumption led to a bad decision, and the second seven miles were every bit as bad. At the ten mile mark I was spent, exhausted with four miles to go. I don’t know how, and I just as soon not remember, I made it back. I do remember the feeling of panic and knowing I had to leave, get in my car and head home. I had to get out of there. Not sit and rest, not lay down and recover, no, I had to escape that place as if my life depended on it. Too tired to think. I stumbled to my car, got out of dodge and vowed never to run that race again.