Your brain on DOMS 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY SEAN ST. DENIS/COURTESY OF WHISTLER HALF MARATHON - RUNNING IT OUT Runners set out on the Whistler Half Marathon course, unaware that for some DOMS lies ahead.
  • PHOTO by Sean ST. Denis/courtesy of Whistler Half Marathon
  • RUNNING IT OUT Runners set out on the Whistler Half Marathon course, unaware that for some DOMS lies ahead.

It's the middle of the night and I have to pee. As in I really have to pee. Because I've been putting it off. I've been lying here for hours thinking about putting it off because I can't sleep. And I can't sleep for the same reason that I don't want to pee — there is no position that I can lie in that isn't painful. And not just a little pain. I mean an Advil-bottle's worth. But I'm allergic to drugs like Advil so I have to deal with it. But I still have to pee. It's an endless thought loop with only one way out.

I manoeuver to the edge of the bed and, physically lifting my legs with one arm, manage to sit up. Awful. I try to stand. I can't. Again. I can't. A third time and I manage to stay upright, swaying back and forth on my heels, some tiny muscle deep inside my pelvis that's probably never been used before helping hold up what now seems an incredible bulk.

I try taking a step and nothing happens. No response from hips, knees, quads or calves. The signals aren't down, they're just saying no. Shit. I try again and manage to swing a leg about 20 centimetres forward in a weird duckwalk. Excruciating. This isn't going well. I briefly consider crawling across the floor to the bathroom: my arms could then take most of my weight while I dragged the rest — the dysfunctional mass of muscle from my belly-button on down — behind me. But then I'd have to pull myself up again. Damn. I'll have to walk. At 20 cm a step it's going to take a while.

Ten minutes later, the operation complete, I collapse back onto the bed, and curl into a fetal position, so far the least-painful repose I've been able to find. Running a half-marathon after not having run any further than eight kilometres in a go over the past three years was probably a bad idea. Going for a hike afterward was definitely a bad idea.

Fortunately — if you can even use that term — I'm the sort whose Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) descends quickly, so I didn't hike too far. God knows what I'd feel like now if I had. Everyone has experienced DOMS — which sets in 12 to 72 hours after over-exertion — but physiologists have yet to come up with an explanation of what exactly it is (other than painful). Given this, as most authorities caution, no one knows how to cure it. You can flirt with cold or heat or herbal creams or massage or voodoo or self-medication (beer is my favourite) but none has been empirically shown to work, so you pretty much have to ride it out. I got used to living with DOMS for the years I played high-level Ultimate, a sport of essentially endurance sprinting whose physically abusive tournaments could not be trained for. DOMS and I never became friends, but we understood each other. So this feels like a betrayal.

I did a half-marathon a few years ago and it was the same sort of trauma. Then, we were staying in a place on Haida Gwaii with a lot of steps. The sight of them after the race made me want to cry.

Of course, you can track every single post-race malaise while you're actually running. When you first start out you're full of nervous energy, adrenaline, and whatever breakfast concoction you've convinced yourself will yield maximum glycemic afterburners. I didn't worry about people streaming past me at the outset, sticking to the tortoise-like pace I usually run at until I warmed up. After that, I got frisky, running up hills, while many around me wisely walked them. I was unaware of the benefits of this change of muscular pace until those same folks passed me later. Around seven kilometres, a distance I typically run, I thought I detected a slight protest in my calves. It lasted about 10 minutes then went away. I didn't know it, but that was my calf muscles passing off the main responsibility for lifting my legs to the quads and hamstrings. By 10 km, while I was downing Gatorade by the timblefull and sucking space food out of gelpacks, I was passed by people wearing Batman belts filled with bottles of secret potions. My cheerleader Asta brought me new socks at 12 km, taking my mind off the fact that I would soon be into double-my-regular-distance territory. That passed without incident but about the 17 km mark, various phantom leg pains were fully eclipsed by an odd sensation — a higgly-jiggly feeling around my middle signaling that the main muscles now driving me forward were not in my legs (which were some form of toast), but in my lower abdomen and inside my pelvis, and they could not keep it up for long.

I crossed the finish line knowing that each muscle group left behind would cry out in anguish at some point... but not that I might have to get down on my knees and beg them to let me pee.

Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like (unless he was running up it in a half marathon).

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