I am obsessive compulsive by nature, which unfortunately only exacerbates the ‘fear-of-getting-sick-before-a-big-event’ condition that I and many fellow athletes suffer. Let’s call it pre-race-paranoia (the acronym PRP is much easier to handle than FOGSBABE).
I do console myself somewhat by the fact that pre-race paranoia seems to be universally felt among competitors undertaking similarly big challenges. The very thought of missing out on an event one has spent hours, days, months training for is too terrible to bear.And so the athlete is forced to behave in a manner that seems strange at best,pathetic at worst.
The 2 weeks leading up to this year’s Comrades (2 June 2013) were particularly torturous. My nose ran a few times –probably a result of the cold Joey’s weather. At one stage I had what I could only describe (to a GP) as a weird feeling when I breathed for which I was given anti-allergens and an asthma pump with a steroid. Which of these afflictions were actual issues and which were mere tricks of the mind – I’ll never know.
The Saturday in Durban the day before the race I felt really strange. My head felt completely clogged up and unclear. I could not identify any symptoms that would suggest it was anything nasty that might preclude me from running the next day, but I did know that if I woke up the next day feeling the same, I would be super-anxious to run, lest it manifested into something nasty during the race. As a result the whole day was a nightmare. Being unable to assign it to anything, I figured it could only be nerves but wondered if the feeling could be so pronounced. I had felt odd before other races, but not to that extent and the feeling for Comrades the year before was more an excited energy then a sickly feeling coupled with a palpable fear. I couldn’t remember feeling like that before a previous race,but memory is sometimes such a fickle thing and I couldn’t be certain. It herefore took to noting down exactly how I felt, reasoning that if it was just pre-race anxiety, I needed to understand it so that if I felt it again in future, I could just fob it off as nerves and deal with it.
The good news was that I woke up on the Sunday feeling clear headed and ready to run. So for a second year in a row I thankfully managed to arrive at the start line injury and illness free something that one can feel very blessed to be. I do like to think that my ridiculously cautious and odd behaviour might help matters. Most athletes behave unusually to avoid getting ill close to race-day. As a slightly OCD individual, my behaviour is the source of much mirth amongst my good mates and family.
Hygiene is a big thing for me anyway(regardless of PRP) and these are just a few examples of a couple of general rules I follow. I wash my hands significantly more than your average Joe, never eat bar peanuts, and don’t open toilet doors with my newly washed hands – if I can help it. I have spent many amusing times trying to open the door with my foot, using a few paper hand towels to cover my hand, or lurking in the bathroom pretending to style my hair / rub something off my cheek until the other occupant of the bathroom is ready to leave, at which point I trail them very closely without having to touch the door myself. If none of the above work, I have very very strong baby fingers that I have trained to open most doors and therefore limit the ‘dirtiness’ to that one tiny part of my hand. If it’s a twist handle – I’m basically screwed.
Now that I’ve given you some insight into my mental fragility, imagine how torturous it is trying to apply the same paranoid thought processes to daily life in the weeks and days preceding Comrades. Incredibly – I can assure you.
I am privileged enough to work with my Mum and over the last few weeks leading up to June 2 she told me countless times that I was ‘being pathetic’. I didn’t think I was and please feel free to correct me if you disagree. I have postulated a theory that she and her family obviously used to find tissues hard to come by.How may you ask did I arrive at this theory? After seeing my Grandmother, my Mum and her sister all use a tissue, and then roll the used item up under their sleeve, just above their wrist for use again later on. Apparently I am ‘being pathetic’ when not allowing my Dear Mother to use the same hands that blew the nose and stored the tissue to take chips out of my chip packet before washing them. That is common hygiene to me. It’s not even a question.
Anyway – that’s a pretty clear-cut example and something I don’t feel the need to justify my behaviour for, even outside of the dreaded PRP period. What I will however admit is pretty weird behaviour on my part and which even I as a logical, sane person can’t always reconcile is:
1.)Taking my own knife and fork into the office from home.
2.)Squirrelling away my own crockery inside my locked office credenza so that I don’t have to get one from the communal office kitchen over which many possibly sick hands may have passed.
3.)Moving from the open-plan office into my own office (Thank God I even have the ability to do that) to avoid sitting amongst sick colleagues
I suppose everything is relative. I thought I was pretty bad until I spoke to a fellow running club member, who works for a big corporate, who confessed to buying a box of those paper surgical masks and wearing one at the office each day for the week or two before Race day
So what are some of the more sane and normal behaviours I partake in to try and avoid getting sick? Here is a list of things I do sometimes accompanied by my rationale behind them. Not all are based on scientific fact but they help me to make it through.
1.) Avoid touching your nose and mouth AT ALL COSTS. Most people unconsciously touch their nose and face thousands of times a day and this is without fail the biggest way germs are transferred.
2.) Avoid shaking hands with or kissing friends / family / colleagues who show signs of being sick. Be transparent and forthright. Tell them it’s nothing personal and that you are running Comrades and that you can’t afford to fall ill. People that matter understand. People that don’t understand – generally don’t matter. In a business context it’s very often impossible without being considered rude. In this case – move directly on to point 3 below.
3.) Carry anti-bacterial handgel and handwipes with you at all times. I carry one in my laptop bag, one in my car door and one in desk drawer. That way I can apply it immediately after I’ve been required to shake hands, or after I’ve had to handle some money or other‘dirty’ thing over which many hands may have passed.
4.) Don’t sit among sick colleagues if you can avoid it. We thankfully had a vacant office and I was able to move there temporarily.
5.)I absolutely hate this one but so far (2xComrades) am convinced it could help you avoid getting sick if you have little kids. Mind you, medical data about transferal of germs validates my theory to some extent too. Don’t kiss your kiddies on the face. Kids are little germ factories. FACT. I have a 6 year-old and 1 year old. I told my eldest that I didn’t love her any less but would reserve my kisses for an avalanche of them post-Comrades. She thought the idea fun. My littley doesn’t understand. No harm done. Sickness averted.
Other tips and tricks and possible things that may help:
VITAMINS – I take Zinc and Vitamin C every single day. Zinc is thought by many nutritionists to be the most important mineral supplement because it is commonly deficient in the diet and is believed to be directly involved in antibody production to help the body fight infection. Mine comes courtesy of a single tablet each day called Zincplex Triple – recommended to me by a fellow athlete. The jury is still out in some quarters on Vitamin C,but supplementation of vitamin C has been found to improve components of the human immune system and many see it as the most important weapon in maintaining a healthy immune system. I take a 1000mg tab every day. I usually use a great vitamin brand called Solgar when I can find it, but recently have used what appears to be an identical and slightly cheaper product from a chain of Gym supplements tores called Optimum Nutrition – (www.optimumnutrition.co.za).There’s one in Sunninghill and one in Morningside.
VIRAL CHOICE – I have used it in the past during periods just before a race or when I felt I was coming down with something. It’s largely a homeopathic product with its main ingredient being Echinacea. I have no idea whether it works or not, but seems widely heralded as a good immune booster. I didn’t use it this year and am not quite sure why.
THROAT GARGLE – I used to use Betadine,until my doctor informed me that Betadine kills the good bacteria in our throat as well as the bad. She prescribed for me a magic formula that is made up as follows.
2.5mls salt MIXED with 1.25mls Bicarbonate of Soda
You mix this with 250mls of warm water and then gargle with a few mouthfuls until the water is finished.
I made up a little Tupperware full of the mixture which I carry around and as soon my throat tickles, I klap it hard.
FLU VACCINE – I had a Flu Vaccine after last year’s Two Oceans. Having had a sick-free ride last year, I decided I should repeat the process and thought the earlier the better. When calling my GP’s rooms immediately after the Om-Die-Dam Ultra, way back in March, I felt I’d lucked out when they confirmed the 2013 vaccines had arrived that week. So in I trotted, bared my muscly arm and took my shot like a man. There is a lot of proof that flu vaccinations work. Even if they lessen the severity of a bout of flu, they are worth far more than what you may have paid.
VITAMIN B / Neurobion – when I called my GP’s rooms to discuss why I was feeling poorly one week, a fantastic nurse at the practice who has her green number for both Comrades and Two Oceans suggested I have an injection which would give both my immune and my energy levels a boost. I did run it by a well-known SA Sport Physician who told me he is “not a great believer in Vitamin injections except in the case of a proven deficiency”, adding further that“There is little or no evidence of their efficacy.” But my thinking was that “who in their right mind would say no to the possibility of the purported effect?”In fact I went one further – see IV Bomb below.
IV BOMB / JET FUEL – a girl friend who was competing in her first Iron Man in PE in April this year was staying and training at the High Performance Centre at Tuks Uni. A Doctor Human there has developed a special blend of Vitamins and other goodies that gives athletes training hard a boost that helps their immune and energy levels. The friend said she felt the positive effects and who was I to argue so found myself driving out to Pretoria 2 weeks before race day for my fix. Did it help? I can’t say definitively nor am I sure I would ever really know. Psychologically though, I did feel that I was probably stronger for my efforts.
BETADINE UP THE NOSE – The same Mum who thinks my efforts to avoid illness pathetic, was the same Mum that told me about sticking Betadine up your nose on long-distance flights. Apparently its antibacterial qualities kill any threatening bacteria that get pumped through the plane’s internal ventilation system, before they enter the nasal passages.OR something to that effect. With no apparent side-effects, why wouldn’t anyone do it? And so I boarded a flight from London to New York City in 2010 for the NYC Marathon, with a glob of Betadine up each nostril. Thank goodness I did,because no sooner was I seated before the gentleman next to me proceeded to start coughing as if he had the whooping cough. I was about to get up and move to what appeared to be a vacant seat between 2 women in the row behind me, when one of them started coughing in a similar vein. I was stuck and had to endure the 8 hour flight with my torso completely twisted so as to offer my neighbor nothing but my back. But I didn’t get sick. Was it the Betadine – I don’t know– and have subsequently been told by someone in the medical fraternity that the Betadine can kill the good Bacteria as well as the bad and so wasn’t necessarily the best idea. I must research that one further.
So such is the joy of Ultra distance participation. You train your butt off for month after month to get into the type of condition that will you hope will allow you to complete the event whereafter you endure a torturous taper period during which you become paranoid to the point of distraction.
I suppose it’s all part and parcel of the sporting pursuit and learning to deal with it is just part of the experience. With each passing event you learn more and more about your body, how to keep it fit and healthy, how to look out for and deal with sickness and injury, when to treat something and when to rest.
I struggle to do it, but suppose the learning is try not to stress and enjoy the ride.
I am glad I now know how debilitating Pre-race nerves can be and having tried to take as clear and conscious a memory of the feeling as possible, I’ll hopefully be able to relax more next time around.