The Dirty Side of Distance Running

I ran my first marathon in the spring of 2024. There were medic tents located every few miles along the course. That made perfect sense to me however, I was utterly confused about the continuous offers of Vaseline on a stick. The medics had large tongue depressors with heaping dollops of petroleum jelly on the ends. As I passed the tents they held them out hollering, “Vaseline? Vaseline?”

My best guess was that runners must like to use Vaseline for lip balm to keep their lips from getting dry.

Somewhere around mile 13 all my curiosity was cured. I was passing yet another tent and ignoring the offer for jelly on a stick when I heard thundering steps behind me and a primal scream rang out, “VASELINE!!!!”

The male runner was doing some sort of bow-legged hop as he quickly grabbed the aid and proceeded to slather it all over his nether region.

All questions were then answered and I got my first glimpse into a dirtier side of running.

Flash forward four years and six marathons, I’ve learned quite a bit more about the sport. While many runners are viewed as elegant svelte gazelles, seamlessly flying towards a finish line, the truth is, that beautiful runner may have more than glistening sweat running down their legs. Bottom line, sometimes running gets real dirty, so prepare yourself.

Here are some of the most common surprises to new runners.

1. Black Toe Nails or Loss of Toenails

“Oh! There goes a toenail.” This is an unfortunate quote that my husband isn’t shaken by anymore. As I write this I actually only have seven nails on my little piggies. And if you spend time with other runners, chances are the conversation will eventually get around to how many of theirs are missing or are black.

It’s not pretty but it’s pretty common. The toes take a beating, especially in longer distances. Often blood blisters form under the nails and that is what causes the black color. Sometimes they heal, sometimes they grow out, and sometimes, they fall off.

I say, just own it. Wear it like a badge of glory. You earned those battle wounds. However, if going to a formal event, I do suggest wearing covered toe shoes. Runners can handle that mess, but bridesmaids? Not so much.

2. Bladder and Colon Issues

I was at mile 23 of a 24 mile training run. A certain rumble in my tummy was letting me know it was not pleased. I could not suppress the storm that was raging and I began to panic. I looked right, nothing but a closed bank, I looked left and saw a shining beacon on the hill. One lonely business was open and I ran like the wind. I tore open the door, managed to spot the bathroom, and, as I dashed across the store, I briefly let the owners know I’d be using it regardless of their opinion.

My story is tame. Unfortunately, others are not as lucky as I was. Sometimes all the motion of a run gets your insides jostled or the pressure is just too much for those muscles to handle. Again, it’s normal, but oh dear it is not pretty! All I can say is plan a route with bathrooms and ironically, stay hydrated. If you get dehydrated that can contribute to a whole other type of bowel problem. That type of issue probably won’t give you any fighting chance to find a toilet either.

3. Dehydration

Speaking of dehydration….

Beware of this sneaky enemy to all runners!

Regardless of the season, hydration is vital to all runners. Granted, warmer seasons lead to more sweat, which leads to higher dehydration risks.

As I nearly crawled to the car after a beautiful half marathon in the Rocky Mountains, I wondered what was happening to me. I was still a newbie and did not account for the high altitude and the extra need for replenishing my body with the electrolytes it had just lost. As I hung over the hotel toilet and begged for mercy, you better believe I learned a lesson that day.

However, I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve made that mistake a few times since. I’ve found myself retching in pain too many times simply because I didn’t hydrate and replenish properly. I’m also ashamed, on this 100 degree Kansas day, to admit I was caught off guard by the heat on this morning’s run. Once more I was begging for relief as my body took revenge on me. That sneaky booger tends to show itself once it’s too late. At the onset of discomfort, most runner’s have already passed the point of no return. Drink lots and drink often, friends!

Dehydration can be very serious- I’ve been lucky. While the side effects can be ugly, they can also be very dangerous. Do not take this issue lightly.

4. Chaffing

As I explained, it only took a moment to figure out that my run-in with the “Vaseline man” was due to chaffing: another less-than-glamorous side effect of the sport. Even with all the new improvements in running clothes and getting rid of cotton, chaffing is still a nasty reality for runners. Typically though, a runner only has to get a set of bloody nipples once before they learn how to handle it.

However, it’s a sad sight when you see a newbie plodding along trying to keep his shirt from touching his chest as the blood stains make their way down.

Chaffing is simply an issue of fabric and sweat rubbing over the skin repeatedly. No mystery in it’s cause, but it can be unattractive and painful.

As for me, thankfully this hasn’t ever been much of an issue.

There are many products that runners can rub on to prevent chaffing. There are even a plethora of nipple guards for the men who need more than trusty Vaseline can offer.

5. Other Uncontrollable “Rude” Bodily Functions

Everything I have worked so hard to teach my son about manners does not apply while on the run. There is no other arena where spitting, farting, burping, and even snot rockets are allowed in my life. However, I get surrounded by these displays on a weekly basis and apparently I have to act cool, like it’s normal thing for professional members of society to rip one in mid-conversation. As you can imagine, there’s a good reason for all these things to take place. Dry mouth, rumbling the insides (again), and a snot rocket is better than letting it run down your face. I have remained somewhat, and I stress somewhat, of a lady through my running years and I am happy to report that I have never participated in any of these activities. Well, not while in a group at least. So to all the newbies, if it must be done, just think about your aim, okay?

There are so many unimagined elements to running. The list could go on. I could tell of sweat in the eyes, frozen sweat, losing all inhibitions when those undies ride up, or the indelicate dance of trying to take a drink while running. I’ve experienced so many gross surprises throughout my journey, I’d like to think I’m mature enough now that I’ll never be caught off guard again. I don’t think I can count on that.

As my husband watched the top finishers come in at this year’s Boston Marathon, he witnessed those svelte gazelles soaring to victory. He also witnessed a really amazingly fast creature fly across the line with poo down her legs. I guess none of us, even the pros, are immune to the dirty side of running.

Try and stay clean, runners.

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