A common factor in my long runs over 18-20 miles seems to be a cramp in my calf. Never both, it's usually one or the other. I try to stay up on my sodium levels and well hydrated along with proper stretches before or during... but they always rear their ugly head late in the run.
Last weekend at Big Sur (4/26/09) I could feel my right calf begin to tighten up around 16 and sure enough, two miles later it jumped up and grabbed my calf muscle and wouldn't let go. So bad, it was to the point where I was on the ground in a push-up position trying to stretch it out. Worst cramp ever, hands down (no pun intended, but wish it was).
After getting it loose enough to continue to move forward, I could also feel a tightness on my quads. It is usually uncommon for that to happen to me, but due to the massive uphill sections and more importantly the following downhill portions, I can chalk the quad screams to those. When running downhill becarefull not to go too fast (or too slow). The latter I beleive to be my mis-step. Worried about aggrivating my previous IT band injury, I was most likely braking too much causing fatigue in my quads. (here is a great page on hill running; uphill and downhill)
With my lower body screaming, minus my left calf for some reason, my options were few for the remaining 8 miles: Walk it off and lose my time goal or do as much as possible to run through it. Stopping and posting a DNF (did not finish) wasn't an option.
Deciding to run through it is what I went with (of course). I had worked too hard to post my first sub-5 that I wasn't going to let my legs stop me. I could finih without them. First level of attack, absorb any sodium I had on me that I hadn't consumed along the way. That meant eating my GU and Sport Beans earlier than anticipated, continue hydration with sports drinks and stretching after any immediate tightness before it gets worse. And finally, mind over body.
Yes, I said it and I'll say it again: mind over body. Find that determination deep inside you. Ignore the pain and yell at your legs saying "You can rest and cramp all you want at mile 26.3!" For me, this was easier than it has been in other occasions (notably the Kaiser Half in January). I wanted that sub-5 finish so bad. It was all I was thinking about all weekend. I kept seeing the number 4 repeatedly as a sign that it was meant to be: 4th full marathon, April, the fourth month of the year, it was on the 26th (6-2=4), the Lakers won game 4 the night before, I was running it with 4 friends... I know, I know. It's getting a little obsurd, but anything that would keep me moving forward was the plan.
Over the next 8 miles I was able to find a smooth pace and rhythm to prevent future cramps from getting any worse. Yes, all my muscles were tight and screaming, but I was able to keep them from officially cramping on me by slowing my pace and moving consistently with a walk break occasionally. It actually hurt more when I was walking, but I needed to give my legs a rest from the constant pounding. In the end it paid off and I was able to put the pain in the back of my mind and fight through it... I know, it's very high school football coach of me, but I have a 26 min. PR on a tough course to hide my shame of using terms like: mind over body and fight through the pain. But I didn't say 110% so I can hold my head high.
If you have any tips on dealing with cramping during runs, I'd love for you to share in the comments for others that may have similar issues. Run strong everyone.