A Pressing Problem: Going to the Bathroom on the Run

In the last post, I wrote about 26 reasons why I had a great time at the Oakland Marathon. I’ll add Reason #27: I ran the entire way without experiencing the uncontrollable urge to go to the bathroom! The one time I needed to go, plenty of porta-potties with short lines stood ready, and I stopped to use one like a civilized person since I didn’t care much about my finishing time.

Normally, I have a different, more distressing story to tell. In long-distance races, I often scramble to find a place to relieve myself and stress about the lag it’ll have on my finishing time. I’m not alone. At the Runnersworld.com discussion forums, runners have posted scores of highly descriptive comments in more than a dozen discussion threads related to “bathroom issues,” GI troubles and the like. Many lament lost PRs due to 90 seconds or more spent taking a dump. Others describe suffering dehydration because they didn’t want to drink a lot if it meant having to pee.

I’ve spent years experimenting with what works (e.g. PB&Js) and what doesn’t (oatmeal) to minimize the runs on a run. If I’m racing and care about my time, I wear navy blue or black shorts that don’t show wet spots and go with the flow (i.e. pee while running). Runners are a supportive, empathetic group. I’m not embarrassed if they see me doing my thing by the side of the trail.

A more difficult, or shall I say “pressing” problem involves the need to go when alone and running in an unfamiliar place, especially in a foreign country where being modest and respectful takes on extra importance.

Running in Santiago and feeling "relieved."

It’s hard to find public restrooms in other countries, and who knows what might happen if someone sees you going behind a tree in public? While traveling abroad, I tried to time my runs with my meals to minimize the need to go, and I learned to carry toilet paper always and to try to map out public restrooms along my planned route. Nonetheless, I experienced some uncomfortably close calls.

One time in Santiago, for example, I ran to la cumbre, the summit of San Cristóbal, where a beatific, behemoth statue of the Virgin Mary watches over. Dios mios did I have to go, and I’m talking número dos! I spotted a bathroom, which sent a signal from brain to bottom that I could go soon, so then I really had to go—but then an attendant, aka una señora del bano, stopped me and demanded some pesos to use it. Of course, I had not a single peso on me.

I scanned the foliage at the Virgin’s feet while my mind raced with visions of jackbooted guards loyal to Pinochet catching me mid-squat. Seconds shy of exploding, I told the bathroom attendant, “No tengo dinero, pero estoy muy enfermada!” and I mimed vomiting as though I’d be sick. She let me in, just in time. (The next day, when I hiked back up there with the kids, I paid her the pesos plus a tip.)

Such experiences enhanced my appreciation for a list of tips published on a site I recommend, Blaze Travel Guides. Co-owner Taylor wrote the following, excerpted from the post “Going When You’re On the Go.”

GO BEFORE YOU GO! Don’t waste the opportunity to use a clean, familiar toilet when you’re traveling. Even if you don’t feel like you have to, stop by it on your way out the door.

COUNT YOUR PENNIES: In Europe many public toilets will cost a small chunk of change to enter. That chunk can range anywhere from 20 cents to 2 Euros. Try to wear clothes with a pocket or a pouch where you can slip a few coins.

FIND THE AMERICAN EMBASSIES: By “embassy,” we do not mean those stately Greek-columned mansions that house diplomats from the Department of State. We’re talking Starbucks, McDonald’s, Subway—those fast-food representatives of American culture. The WCs of these establishments remain free soil—or if they do charge entry, it is usually the lowest price in town. When you get to a new place, try to note the locations of these establishments, and swing by them if you need to stop while out on a walk or a run.

HIGHTAIL IT TO A HOTEL: Reception staff doesn’t look twice at travelers in hotels, and unless you look highly suspicious, probably won’t ask if you’re staying at that specific hotel. Just look casual as you saunter into the lobby, and they usually hide toilets somewhere in the back.

THE NATURAL URGE: Many forest parks are so vast that you can run for miles without seeing another person. Take advantage of one of those quiet stretches to duck behind a bush, a tree, a small hill, and do your thing. If you have to go #2, make sure you dig a hole and cover it up.

FREE ‘N EASY: In some countries, inhibitions are looked down upon as something so laughably American. Taking in and releasing nutrients is part of what connects us as human beings. There’s no need to be embarrassed if you gotta go, and if you’ve got a big run coming up, you should.

Male runners line up along the coast and pee into the Mediterranean before the start of the Maraton Alpes-Maritimes. (Photo from BlazeOn.org)

Thanks, Taylor, for these tips!

What advice do you have for going on the go? Or what story do you have to share about coping with nature’s call during a run? If I receive at least ten interesting comments below, I might describe the place I went during a run that haunts me still.

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6 Responses to A Pressing Problem: Going to the Bathroom on the Run

  1. Michael April 3, 2011 at 8:11 am #

    You’ve got a funny typo to start the 5th paragraph… slip of the tongue so to speak.

    I am always surprised by how squeamish a non-runner will get when I talk about bathroom problems. To runners, it really is just another part of the complicated logistical exercise of training and racing, a problem to be discussed, contemplated and solved.

    • Sarah April 3, 2011 at 8:28 am #

      Thanks, Michael! I fixed “pubic” to read “public” 🙂

  2. Martha April 3, 2011 at 12:50 pm #

    On top of old Smokey (or other named mountain)
    In a far off land
    I pooed while running
    And needed my hand….

  3. Paul April 5, 2011 at 12:31 am #

    My tip is to not over eat the night before.

  4. Cheryl April 5, 2011 at 6:53 am #

    The “Find a hotel” tip is a great one…and one that I use all the time. I’d add public-ish buildings like hospitals, museum lobbies, ect.

  5. Mark April 7, 2011 at 1:35 pm #

    too many stories or relieving myself in strange places at weird times. i’ll try to remember to post a link to my HURT report when i finally finish it. i figured the hotel and restaurant thing a while back (fast food places have also prevented me from getting dehydrated or hyponatremic).

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