91. The Broken Toe

91. The Broken Toe

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners

The Broken Toe

Giving up is your brain’s idea. Ask yourself, who’s in charge here?
 ~Phil Whyman

A week before traveling to Baffin Island in Canada’s Arctic in 1990 to run my twentieth marathon in a tiny mining village called Nanisivik, a race that I knew an ordinary runner like me had a chance of winning, I broke a toe. The first thing I thought was, “Oh good, I don’t have to race.”

After thinking long and hard about that I wondered if I had a fear of success and this was my way of dealing with it. And then I wondered how often I’d experienced this in my life.

I could have backed out but I would have lost most of my travel fee so I decided to go anyway and see how I felt. Twenty-six point two miles… what could go wrong? Several days of treatment and advice later, I wanted to give it the old college try. With the help of a small machine I borrowed that sent electrical currents through my throbbing toe and helped me deal with pain each day, I decided I could run with it bandaged.

The July Nanisivik Marathon was one of those races people said “You have to do” and that I should “Plan on adding on 20 or more minutes” to my best marathon time because of the terrain, the gravel road, the big hill at the end and the self-serve water stations. This event also had a 10K, 32K and double marathon, known as an “ultra-marathon” or “ultra.”

At the airport an “ultra” veteran asked me which race, the marathon or double marathon, I was going to run. I proudly replied, “the marathon,” to which he said, “oh, the wimp run.” My first introduction to ultramarathoners!

The flight over Baffin Island was stunning — rough coastline, hundreds of islands flanking it, snow in places and a few mountains. Between the geography and a broken toe this was going to be an adventure like no other marathon.

Our group of 120 runners was housed in miners’ homes and dorms for five days but ate and socialized at the community centre, the hub of mining life, where we gradually became a “family.” Even the ultramarathoners talked to us marathon wimps! In between the fun stuff I diligently tended to my toe three times a day.

The day before our race, organizers bused us all to a desolate point we’d be passing the next day where a huge mound of rocks, or a “cairn” was placed lovingly by locals in memory of Terry Fox. My inspirations to run years prior were Terry Fox, the one-legged Canadian who, in 1980, ran halfway across Canada before succumbing to the cancer he thought he had beaten, and my mother, who struggled with cancer that same year. Ten years later I was in the Arctic the day before a marathon thinking of them again. Needless to say, I was moved by the northern minister (himself one of the runners) who led us in prayer, meditation and “Godspeed” in our event the next day.

That evening was the 10K, one of the highlights of the year for the locals. We veteran runners cheered the loudest at the finish line as the “weekend warriors” gasped in victory across the finish line and dozens of little Inuit kids ran themselves ragged to finish. Everyone was a hero that night.

Our race day route started in Arctic Bay, an Inuit village at sea level 20 miles from Nanisivik, plodding along gravel roads that meandered through what I’d liken to “moonscape,” it was so bleak, rocky and lifeless. Our roads rose to altitudes of 1,000 feet above sea level in several places so it wasn’t easy. Lifeless it was, yet there was an ethereal beauty to it too. Now I understood how people could misjudge distance with no landmarks to gauge it by.

My broken toe ached throughout the race in spite of the aspirin I took halfway through. I planned to walk or stop if it got too painful, but until then I was in good enough shape to keep pace with the leader. How exciting was that — maybe I was going to throw off my “fear of success” mantle. I kept trying to psych out the leader by reminding him I was running with a broken toe. It didn’t work!

We runners are used to having water handed to us in races but “water stations” at this race (and ultramarathons in general) were a jug of water and stack of cups on the ground — we were to help ourselves at each stop. Needless to say this slowed us all down a bit but we found it helped to stop together and take turns serving each other.

Course elevation jumped up and down but close to the village of Nanisivik and the finish line, it was an up section, rising to 1000 feet above sea level. At the 20-mile mark (32K) we ran past the finish line (which was such a tease to be so close) to the infamous “crusher” downhill portion. We knew it was coming — five kilometers (three miles) downhill, around a massive storage facility at the shoreline and then back up five kilometers — but it didn’t mean we liked it. What twisted mind planned this route? What twisted minds were running it?

Oddly enough the long downhill that hurt my quad muscles and made the way back up really tough didn’t affect my toe any more than it was already throbbing. But it was heading uphill that my first-place running compadre and I parted ways since I couldn’t get anything else out of my legs. One more person passed me in that stretch and I finally hobbled to the finish line in third place overall to the cheers of hundreds of spectators. Talk about amazing hospitality — most of the spectators were local mine workers and Inuit residents and they all treated us like visiting dignitaries.

My broken toe was quite swelled and sore by the end of the race but ice packs, electric current and aspirin helped somewhat. I wasn’t in great shape to play baseball that night at 2 AM — we were, after all, in the land of the midnight sun — but did anyway just to see the sun at that time.

Did I learn anything from my “run a marathon with a broken toe” experience? Yes, I promised myself I’d never let fear of success get in my way again. I learned that I had a lot of determination, that I was “gutsy,” that I wouldn’t want to live on Baffin Island and that bacon for breakfast is good anytime but particularly in the Arctic after a marathon.

~Michael Brennan

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