Half-Marathon and an Ambulance Ride: A Day of Firsts

There’s really nothing like running a big race. You’ve got a goal in mind, you’ve trained for it, you’re ready, and you give it everything you’ve got. You get to the finish line, absolutely spent, and you remember that life isn’t always like the pain you just dealt with; now, you can enjoy food like you’ve never enjoyed it before. Intense, brutal pain turns into wondrous relief, marking the greatest and quickest mental turnaround anyone could imagine. Powerade soothes you like it’s liquid gold. You feel accomplished, proud, and ready to conquer the world.

For me, in what would be my first and only half-marathon, that moment would come with a price.

It was the perfect Sunday morning for a race. The air was cool and the sun was just coming up. Clouds were nowhere to be found. Cool air meandered through the race area, reminding runners, you’ve got this. Today is a good day.

The beginning of the race went well. I took it out nice and easy, listened to shuffled songs on my iPod and tried to relax as I began to truly enjoy the day. This was it! This was the moment I had trained for all summer! There was a bit of left knee pain, but by the time I hit the 5th kilometer, that was gone. There were people all around me; I wasn’t alone! There are other crazy people on this earth! People actually paid money to do this! We’d all be at the finish line in no time, then head off to the bi-annual beer festival and revel in our glory for the next few hours. It would be like a Tigers playoff game, a big group of strangers hugging and high-fiving each other. I almost wished it were longer!

They say, however, that it’s important to listen to your body when it’s hurting. Let’s suffice it to say I may have ignored that wisdom for a couple of hot seconds.

Not even two hours later, I find myself lying down in the medical tent with two people leaning over me. Do you know where you are? Yes, I’m in Budapest. I just finished the half-marathon. What day is it? Saturday—no, Sunday. How many fingers am I holding up? Is it ok if we take your wallet? Over and over, they’re checking to make sure I’m with it. The dizziness has caught up to me and, even though I finished the race, I had nearly collapsed. I’m desperately aware of my high and weak-sounding voice, though I’m happy to be off my feet and begin to feel a peace around me. Is this it? Is this what dying feels like? Is that Sarah McLachlan’s I Will Remember You I hear? Must—keep—eyes—open…

My senses remain heightened as I become insanely aware of everything happening around me. Two announcers, listing off names of finishers, take turns speaking in English and Hungarian. “Keep moving! Smile as you cross that finish line! Stretch out and celebrate later!” (They would later poll racers from the day’s “Fun Run” with questions like “Who runs every day of the week? Who runs twice every day? Who has serious mental issues???”) A man with bloody nipples under a white shirt meanders towards the medical center. I’m fed a small, white tablet and some sparkling water as I’m told to stay put. I’m truly aware how insignificant this moment is, being dizzy and dehydrated after a race, how it happens all the time to people, but something about it feels totally momentous.

Even though English seems to be as scarce as a solid banking system in Hungary, I hear someone say, “We need to move you to another bed.” Apparently someone with real issues is coming in. We got a VIP patient here! I need to contact Kendahl; I know she has no idea where I am and is probably worried, so, despite my lack of mental fortitude, I use all the Hungarian I can muster to ask a man for his phone; he pulls it out and tries to hand it to me. With utter reverence and honor, I try to convey that I’m sweaty, and he should just dial and hold it up to my ear so I don’t dirty up his phone. I may as well have been trying to explain the concept of relativity to him, because that didn’t work. In retrospect, I should have looked at him, made one of those hand-phone mime gestures, pointed to my wedding ring, and yelled, DUDE. I NEED TO CALL MY WIFE. YA DIG? But as you might remember, I had just run a half-marathon and was in pretty bad shape. Incredibly, he left and I never got a chance to use his phone. I can’t help but wonder what was going through his mind as he was leaving. Hmm, this gentleman seems to be in pretty bad shape. He obviously wants to get in touch with someone. Could my phone be of any use? Nahhhhh. I’m gonna go have a cigarette.

The ride to the hospital was chilly. My IV was tied to the roof and I remained horizontal as I looked out the window and tried to soak in some sunlight. The sirens were put on and everything. I had a travel companion, Péter, a Hungarian dude who seemed to be just like me: crazy. As we arrived, I was introduced to my doctor, who asked me some basic questions, and I could hear several nurses in my room swearing in both English and Hungarian. One of them, after I told her I was an English teacher, confessed, “I want an English teacher. My English is… Jesus Christ.” So, on a day of firsts, there I was, reassuring my Hungarian nurse in the emergency room that her English was just fine as I received approximately 37 injections in my arms. I was again moved to a different bed and dragged to a smaller room where 5 other patients lay in beds. Two older, despondent looking men lay still as I was rolled in. The woman next to me had also run the race, and collapsed after 15k. “There are six of us in here, from the race,” she told me, to which I could only respond, “cool.” The curtains didn’t exactly cover up each person, so I could see my doctor checking up on the older guys and I can’t unsee some of the things I saw and that’s all I’m going to say about that. As we were checked out, I saw Péter in the hallway and we shook hands. I’m telling you, there’s no bond like ambulance buddies. Péter and I are forever connected.

How do I feel now? Well, I’m proud of myself for finishing, even though I probably should have listened to my body and taken time to walk. I wasn’t mentally tough during the race; sometimes I have weird thoughts when I’m in physical pain, like there are lots of people in this world who have serious issues and are messed up. And I’m “normal.” Why, God? Why? I think about professional runners and how this isn’t a big deal for them, and how I can’t imagine this not being a big deal for someone. I think about how great a beer will taste after the race, and that spurs me on for a moment, but I reached a point in this race where nothing could cheer up my mind. During the final stretch, I heard people screaming and I knew I couldn’t walk because people would yell at me. The last 5 kilometers were absolute hell, and I seriously doubted I could finish. But I did, and thank God, I’m ok. I like doing hard things; I think they make me better. Some of the experiences I’ve had in the past few years have truly made me wiser, stronger, more humble, and closer to the Lord. But let me tell you, I’m never doing that again.

They say it’s important to listen to your body.

I know I’m late, but I’m listening.


14 Comments on “Half-Marathon and an Ambulance Ride: A Day of Firsts

  1. Glad your alive brotherman. I did miss holding your hand on the run. Next time I wont forget my bib!


    • Perfect! I think I’m going to start to try working it into conversation. “Hey, how you doing… Matt Cambridge, 13.1…” It’ll be like my verbal bumper sticker.


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