On Sunday I ran 26.2 miles through the streets of New York City. I giggled deliriously as I crossed the finish line. And then I held my medal aloft and beamed for the cameras. But long-distance running isn’t all glamour and glory. There’s a price to be paid, and I’m not talking about the entrance fee. Marathoners pay this toll in toenails. I lost the little nail on my right foot weeks ago, and two of the remaining nine seem to be coming unmoored too.
I am not alone. Most long-distance runners have lost toenails. Marathons require months of training, and all that running can be hard on the feet. Rubbing begets blisters, which turn into calluses. But the toenails bear the brunt of the abuse. They bang against shoes and turn red or purple or black. Sometimes a blister forms underneath the nail, heaving the horny plate up off the nail bed. And just when you think that perhaps the nail has recovered, you roll over in bed, catch it on a blanket, and the whole thing goes flying off.
Non-runners seem not to know about this side effect of distance running. They generally react with horror or disgust. And it is nasty. I won’t deny that. But it’s also a source of pride. My gnarled toenails are my marathon membership card.
Endurance athlete and trainer Joe Decker offers this advice: “Rather than be embarrassed the next time you develop this sometimes unsightly occurrence, show your feet off with pride. Your fellow endurance athletes will greet you with a friendly smile and a nod, then ask what crazy event you did last weekend. If you do happen to come across haters who find your feet offensive and can’t stop staring, wiggle and wave your black toe.”
My toenails (or lack thereof) may be a badge of honor, but I’m happy to keep that badge private. I’m not ready to wave and wiggle them in people’s faces. I’m also not ready to have my toenails permanently removed like some ultra runners have done. Because if I didn’t have toenails to lose, I wouldn’t have this wonderful reminder that I am part of a running community. I can go the distance. I belong.
And luckily they’ll keep growing back.
Image credits: S. Wheeler and E. Dahlen