Marathon recovery: Let's talk about toenails.

At the risk of stepping on someone’s (um) toes, I’m gonna jump in here and just sock it to ya. Black and broken toenails are part and parcel of marathon running. They sort of go with the territory. In fact, some endurance runners claim black toenails as something of a badge of honor, proving they made the mileage.

A marathon runner can make every effort to get off on the right foot and still have a blackened toenail or two by the finish line. And for those of us who have two left feet (so to speak), it’s practically a given.

What causes post-marathon black toenails?

When long-distance runners pound the pavement for many miles, aiming to be fleet of foot, our feet must absorb lots of repetitive pressure and compression. Even if we try to step lightly, we’re hammering our sneakers all the way. Our toes tend to creep forward in our shoes (no matter how well the fit or how strategically they are tied), causing our toenails to slam and rub and bend and maybe even break. 

As miles increase, a toe may become bruised and swollen and bleed under the nail. Then the toenail becomes discolored. And it hurts!  The discoloring toenail usually looks worse each day (for several days), while the bleeding continues underneath it. The toenail may pull away from the nail bed, especially if there's any swelling. 

Often, the nail will fall off, leaving the toe bare until a new nail grows in.

Black toenails can also be caused by ongoing medical conditions (such as anemia, certain kinds of cancer, diabetes, or heart disease) or by foot injury. But those that appear immediately after a long race or run can usually be blamed on the miles.

I just dipped my toes into the water for the first time, completing my first full marathon. And I have a couple of technicolor toenails to prove it. I’m not a speedy runner, but I think could go toe-to-toe with anyone in the blackened toenail department.

Still, I’m glad to say I am not exactly dead on my feet. And it looks like I’m gonna be able to hang onto those darkened toenails after all.

What can be done for post-marathon black toenails?

Mostly, we pretty much have to cool our heels for a while and simply let those babies heal. Putting our feet up for a bit doesn’t hurt, either.

Easier said than done.

Going barefoot or wearing open-toed shoes can give sore and blackened toenails a break. So, although cold weather is now upon up, with nightly frosts, I’ll be the one darting in and out of my car in flipflops. Except when I’m actually running.

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Race Recap: Chicago Marathon run and done, but not done in.

My first marathon (and maybe my last) is in the bag. This is how my Chicago Marathon 2018 experience went, if any are willing to slog through the recap. I wanted to journal it for my own purposes, but others have asked for details about the day.

It was amazing. It was awful. It was wonderful. It was challenging and hard and exciting and remarkable. Want the details? I’ll give that a whirl.

The start

This was a soggy mob scene in Grant Park. More than 45,000 runners (from 100+ countries) jammed into start corrals and waited for the big moment. As I stood and shivered, I discovered that my music didn’t work. I couldn’t get a cell or wifi signal. I groaned to realize I should have loaded a playlist of songs directly to my phone. I shut down the music app and my headphones. At least my phone would save juice along the way. I’d need it to find my family afterwards.

I tried nibbling on a banana before the race, but somehow dropped half of it underfoot.

Pretty soon, the guy next to me introduced himself. We talked a bit. It turned out he was not just a four-time marathoner, but he was also a pastor. I bet he is a really good one. Talking with him (and even praying with him) made me forget to be nervous about starting my first full marathon. Plus he prayed down multiple sclerosis (which I battle every day), asking for my protection during the marathon. We actually ran together for several miles of the thing.

Finally, after nearly two hours of crowded standing in the cold rain, we moved forward and through the starting arch. The Chicago Marathon race clock was ticking!

The Northern section

Miles 1-3 – The first few miles were a blur: Jammed up in the crowd, we stomped through puddles in heavy, wet shoes. In a daze and filled with adrenaline, we ran block after block and bridge after bridge. It was chilly and damp and windy, so I had to remind myself to grab a Gatorade at the first aid station and to take occasional water sips from my sports bottle. Stepping over the 5K cable mat, I thought of those who were tracking me by the Chicago Marathon phone app – especially my mom, who wanted so badly to be on-site, but could not. She’ll cheer at home, every time another 5K portion is logged, I thought. 

Mile 4 – I lined up for a quick bathroom stop here. When I emerged, my pastor-friend was waiting for me. We picked up the pace again, passing Moody and Moody Church before ducking east to Lincoln Park and the zoo. There, the rain seemed to let up a bit. Volunteers were handing out Kleenex. Giant puddles were everywhere, and I stepped right into one in my already soaked sneakers.
Miles 5-6 – I was feeling pretty good at this point, racking up miles at a steady pace, but perhaps a bit faster than ideal for my first full marathon. My Garmin readouts were all over the map, indicating anything from 5-minute to 24-minute paces. (Neither is possible for me.) I’d heard this happens to everybody, so I resorted to watching the total time elapsed and doing my own calculations at each mile marker.
Mile 7 – If my math was right, we were going a little too fast for me to maintain long-term. I tapped the pastor on the back of his shoulder and urged him to go on ahead. (I didn’t see him again, but I hoped he finished as well as he wished to do.) I slowed to a walk for a block or two and chewed a couple of Honey Stinger energy chews.
Mile 8 – Feeling pumped again, I trotted on. I noticed a woman with a sign for my race charity, and I waved before rounding the corner and seeing the giant message board. A couple of friends had sent peppy messages for me. (Race organizers emailed the images afterwards, so runners didn’t miss ‘em.). Then I made my way on to Boystown, where runners found lots of singing and dancing in the street.
Mile 9 – I crossed the 15K mark and tried to run the math in my head. How many K’s in a marathon? It had to be more than 40, even though the cute Kenyan girl next to me in the start corral said that was it. It’s actually closer to 42.2. No matter. At this point in the race, my math skills were sketchy at best.
Mile 10 – Right about here, my left side cramped up something fierce, from my lower back to my knee. I hobbled along for a bit, until I spotted a medical tent. Volunteers had paper cups filled with BioFreeze gel. I smeared some right on top of my CW-X compression tights. Walking a few blocks, I munched a Rice Krispy treat, setting up my stomach for a couple of waterlogged Advil tablets I had zipped into my windbreaker pocket.
Mile 11 – I texted my brother/long-distance coach (in Utah), complaining about the leg cramp, even though I had warned everyone that I would be stowing my phone for the whole race. “Loosen up, and find your pace. This is where your endurance training pays off. Walk when you need to, or shuffle at a light jog,” he texted back. Jogging through Old Town, I spotted a big guy stretching by a light pole and wearing a Team RWB Eagle shirt. “Hey, fellow Eagle,” I said, nudging his arm. “We got this. What chapter are you?” He answered, “Florida,” and started jogging with me. I’m not sure how long he stuck with me.
Mile 12 – Heading down Wells Street, I saw tons of people with funny, crazy, and inspiring signs. “Worst parade ever,” said one. I chuckled and chomped a few more Honey Stingers.
Mile 13 – Half marathon down! By the halfway point, I was just a few minutes slower than my usual 13.1 time. At the aid station just before the westward turn on to Monroe Street in the West Loop, I held out my empty water bottle, and a volunteer filled it. A few minutes later, my guts began to cramp, and I prayed they’d settle for the duration.

The Western section

Mile 14 – Ramping up to cross over the highway, I spotted the Team RWB canopy tent. I traversed the running pack to run along the curb on that side, where a bunch of fellow Eagles (from the Chicago chapter) held out hands for high fives. At this point, the rain had stopped, and we had a solid cloud cover, just in time to head for the more exposed and usually stark sun part of the course.
Mile 15 – My stomach was queasy, probably from super-sweet energy chews, even though I only ate my own tried-and-true supply, declining offers of other brands. But thank God. Right up the road was the Charity Block Party. A guy at the MS Society tent held out a basket of snacks. I grabbed a little pouch of salty Goldfish crackers. That did the trick. Continuing, I caught up to a girl in a red Team RWB shirt and introduced myself. She was from the Chicago chapter. Together we passed a very pregnant runner in a St. Jude shirt. “How are you? You doing OK?” I asked her. She nodded and picked up speed, as we trotted past the United Center.
Mile 16 – The course turned a corner to double back. By this time, my clock-watching showed I’d banked enough time to finish well under the race time limit – no matter what happened. I saw a lady in a hijab, walking slowly by the curb. I grinned at her. “We can finish this thing within the race  window, even if we crawl from here,” I said. "But we won't crawl, will we?" She smiled and nodded and perked up.
Mile 17 – Not too long after that, a sturdy guy in neon bike shorts fell into run-step next to me for a couple miles. Within a mile, we passed his wife and sister, who called out and waved. I took in some of his cheer, as I needed it badly about then. My back was spasming. I blamed that on the hydration waist pack, bouncing along on the run.
Mile 18 – We entered Little Italy. Tons of strangers held out trays of various foods. I plodded on, leery of packing anything unfamiliar into my now-somersaulting gut.
Mile 19 – Grinding through a long tree-lined stretch, I caught up to a lady who said she was from Seattle. She had a Galloway app on her watch (for alternating two-minute runs with 30-second walks). “I like it,” I said. So we continued together, actually picking up the pace a bit as a duo. Soon we saw a table offering banana thirds! It was just what I needed.
Mile 20 – We hit mile 20, by Pilsen. “Where’s the wall?” my new friend asked. “I don’t know, but we’ll drag each other through it,” I replied.  We found banana thirds again, and a cheery woman refilled my water bottle.
Mile 21 – Whee. We found the Biofreeze Zone. I smeared the stuff on both my legs. The soles of my feet and a few toes were burning, but I left my shoes intact. I didn’t even want to think about what I’d find when I took off my shoes later.

The Southern section

Mile 22 – We found Chinatown! I didn’t see a single paper dragon or giant puppet, which disappointed me. But we made it through the dreaded “wall” stretch of the race. We high-fived total strangers with zest and hit one more table with banana thirds. After a long stretch, we crossed the highway for the last time. “We’re heading towards the lake. That’s homeward,” I told my Seattle friend, as we glanced at the Sunday traffic under the bridge.
Mile 23 – We saw a table laden with whole bananas. A lady on the sidewalk was carrying a couple of bunches away in her arms. I didn’t even want one now. “We can almost taste the finish line from here,” I gasped. (I know that’s a mixed metaphor, and it doesn’t make sense. Don’t judge.)
Mile 24 – Tick. Tick. Tick. I felt a squish in one shoe, and I knew a big blister had popped. A teen girl held out a giant bowl of loose pretzels. I smiled, but took a pass.
Mile 25 – The skyscrapers appeared ahead. My target pace crew caught up. It was the first time I had seen them all day. We played neck-and-neck with them to Roosevelt (the final upward slope).
Mile 26 – We trudged up the hill to the last turn. I scanned the crowd for my family, but I couldn’t spot them. We mustered a painful, but inspired jog to the finish. I missed my marathon goal time by about 10 minutes, but I was thrilled to cross that line. And we were way - way - way ahead of the race limit. So there's that.

The finish

In the post-finish chute, an athletic-looking 20-something kid placed a finisher’s medal around my neck. “Thanks,” I managed to say. “Now can you carry me to my car?’ He looked at me like I just fell from Mars. (I think he thought I was kidding, and maybe I was.)

I hugged my end-of-race new BFF, and she pushed through the crowd in the finish chute, hoping to make it to O’Hare in time for her flight home. Volunteers draped me with a space blanket, handed me a water bottle and a bag of munchies, tossed fruit in that bag, and stuck a cold beer in my hand. I don’t even like beer, but I swigged half of it. (Heck, it’s got grains in it. It’s practically cereal, but it was much easier to manage at that point.) A volunteer handing out ice packs offered to take my picture. I handed her my phone and tried to smile.

At last, I found an unoccupied nook at the edge of the action. I took off my hydration pack, dumped my sports bottle, and jammed those into the bag. I texted my family, and we picked a spot on the Michigan Avenue sidewalk to meet. We hugged and snapped another photo before making the half-mile (that felt like six miles) walk to the car. 

My kid and her friend took the train to the city, but through a mess of crazy circumstances, we were unable to meet up as planned on race day.

Climbing into the car seat, I slipped off my sneakers and audibly sighed in relief before tearing into a bag of pretzels, as my sister put the car in gear and piloted us through the city to drop her husband off at their car and sweep us homeward.

Thank you, Chicago. Your people and your neighborhoods and your world-class marathon are tremendous.

First marathon? Check.

Honestly, I feel vastly better than I had expected to feel, although I have done more than a couple internet searches on quirky and potentially scary health symptoms. They’ve all turned out to be fairly common among marathoners. And the worst have abated already. (Tell me again why we do this stuff.)

Will this be my last marathon? Probably. Ask me again in about six months.
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Feel free to follow Twitter. Please visit my Amazon author page as well. And I am happy to share my RUNDERDOG ambassador code for 10% off on Bondi Band Athletic Headbands, Accessories, and Fashions. (Simply enter the code at online checkout.).
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