Completing My First Marathon

"There are three things extremely hard,
Steel, a Diamond, and to Know one's Self.'
Benjamin Franklin

The Trailbreaker Marathon.  Saturday morning April 6th at 8 am in Waukesha WI at the Schuetze Recreation Center.  It's overcast with temps in the 30's and a strong chance of rain with a mild breeze.  A small group, 184 strong, ran under the Start Banner.  Down the hill and across the bridge, winding our way along the Fox River, we made out way into the woods and onto the Glacial Drumlin Trail, where we would stay for the next 22 (or so) miles.  
Nothing but air under my feet.  Here we go!

I was standing a few rows down from the front in our small group.  I'd been dreading this moment for the last 3 days (and worrying over it for 3 months), but after the Star Spangled Banner's final refrain was met with cheers, there was a brief wind-up, and it was "Go!"  It all faded into my feet and I moved forward, a few steps and I found my stride.  I was determined not to run too hard too soon, but still found myself in a group of runners off the front.  

I wasn't pushing, just trying to flow along on my feet, being easy with those around me, and especially within myself.  

In time, I had separated with a young woman and another man, with the race leaders just ahead.  After a couple miles, we entered the woods and onto the Glacial Drumlin Trail.  This trail, contrary to what I had thought, was paved (similar to the North Branch Trail here).  We would never be on a dirt trail, or experience the 'rugged' section, where we were supposed to run up to Lapham's Tower at the Half-Way Point.  They'd cut it out of the course due to a 'late spring and icy conditions'.  

The woman remarked her watch read 2.17 at the 2 mile mark, as did mine. This was going to be a long Marathon.

The first 7 miles.  To my right, the woman in red - 'Sarah Hobbs' - who I paced with thru the first quarter.  She came in 2nd Women's Overall, only 12 seconds from 1st place.

We continued along.  We were caught by a guy running only on the side of the trail in the grass, and another one wearing a Kilt.  Bike racing is a prickly affair, but Marathons are a cast of characters.  

The pace, around the 7:30's, felt good.  Could I keep it up?  I was holding back, breathing easy, floating along. I could barely hear my own footfalls while others around me were more pronounced.

At the first Aid Station I grabbed some water, but had to slow down to do so, and then didn't get it all.  Drinking and eating while you run is a skill.  I lost contact with our little group, but maintained the speed and distance once I'd resumed.  I didn't want to speed up and waste energy, or run with anyone anyway, and found little benefit from drafting behind them.  So I kept my place, just a few strides behind them.

I did need a pee break at the Half-Marathon Turnaround.  The group got down the road, one young runner with a Camelback chased them down, but I still felt good, and kept them in my sights.  This feeling would only last a couple more miles.

Around mile 8 I began to slow. It wasn't that I couldn't go faster, I just felt it would be wise to let my body dictate the pace it wanted rather than working harder to stay where I had been.  I let it happen.  The little group, mostly with the woman leading, got out of sight.  

Running within myself...  and wishing it was faster.

The trail, even though we had been going at a very slight incline of 1-2%, began to pitch up a bit to around 3%.  Still not much of a climb.  All my hill training at home had been harder than anything I'd experience here.  All around us we had view of rolling hills now replaced with slopes of both pines and deciduous trees, rolling up the side of the hill we were skirting.

I was passed by a couple runners, one in a pair of 5 Fingered Toes, also wearing a Camelback.  He looked great, striding along on his forefeet just like you're supposed to, powerful calf muscles propelling him along, wearing shorts and a T-Shirt, much less than me in my vest, long sleeve T and tights.

No worries, I still felt alright, still felt optimistic.

At the 10 mile mark the trail reached the top of it's lazy climb, and the space opened up into a park area.  It was exciting to be getting closer to the Half-Way Point.  I was passed again by another young, muscular guy with a Camelback.  

As my GPS watch read 13.1 miles, I realized I was still a good mile from the Turnaround.  Rain started to fall.  As is often the case, this brought what felt like a slight dip in temps.  I kept running.

The leaders where coming back.  I waved at one of the front runners, a handsome man who looked Spanish and he gave me a warm smile.  Further back, one of my original group had broken ahead, followed by another who'd been ahead of us, then came the woman with some new companions.  

At the Turnaround my GPS read over 14.2 miles.  The lady in charge told me to ring the bell, which I did.  I stopped, took some time to drink and ingest some Hammer Sustained Energy goop, complained (yes, I complained!) to the lady in charge that the mileage didn't jive.  

Time to head back.

It became instantly harder.  It always hurts to start back up, the longer you go the worse this becomes.  As usual, at 15 miles my body was beginning to slow in it's ability to put out effort.  Up to this point I was still to the front of our 184 person group, and had been passed only by a handful of runners.  Now it was happening frequently.  A girl in pink who had been chasing me, the guy in the Kilt, an Asian elderly man in just running shorts sans shirt, a group of older men probably in their 60's, all left me behind.

I was beginning to suffer.  At the Bag Drop Aid Station around mile 17 I switched out my mostly used up Hammer Sustained Energy goop for a fresh one.  I continued on.  The rain, at least, had abated to just a drizzle.

I was on the descent, though it hardly mattered, and my biggest fears where trying to infect my mind and body with their poison.  'You're not going to make it', 'You'll cramp up and that will be you, Fella, limping like a spastic insect in your stupid outfit', 'What were you thinking?', You can't do this.'  My only answer was to tell myself I felt fine.  A key phrase that really worked was a mantra, 'It's OK to go slower, just go slower and you'll be OK'.  I kept repeating it, people kept passing me.  The important thing was it was calming me and keeping me going.

Who me, worry?  Still running...

My mouth was getting dry.  After the last Aid Station it seemed like an infinity to reach the Half-Marathon Turnaround again.  Another runner struggled by me, yet another young man, saying 'This is beginning to hurt'.  Beginning?

Keep going.

Where is it?  I was beginning to GPS clock watch, a bad habit when you're in distress. It takes away the calm you need to keep your body one step ahead of the ever encroaching pain, with the fear in tow, bearing down on you from behind.  

I'd passed back both the Man in the Kilt and the Lady in Pink, both suffering in their own torment.

Finally, I saw the Half-Marathon Turnaround in the distance, right by a country road.  There was Lisa taking pictures and yelling her encouragement, jumping up and down.  It can be a bit lonely out there, and to see someone who only wants the best for you cheering you on filled my heart up.

The last 10K and Lisa gets a real smile.

It's important to say now that the support of this Marathon was excellent.  There were groups of people waiting out in the cold air - for hours - just to cheer us on.  The police and race volunteers where at every single intersection directing traffic and encouraging us.  There was always plenty of water, Gatorade, orange slices, bananas, etc...  It was well over a mile longer than regulation.  But, we were well taken care of by the dedicated volunteers, and all the town and area Police, and the Park Rangers.

I had to make it 1 more 10K.  Lisa wished me well.  As I started up again, my legs were feeling a new intensity of fatigue and pain.  

Just keep going.

I struggled on. It seemed preposterous.  I had nothing left.  My biceps and forearms were cramping.  I had to swing them up and slap them down to stop them from seizing up.  My legs would be next, and if they went I'd be crawling into Waukesha on prayers and curses.

I slowed to a walk.  Fuck, I'm walking.  I didn't want to resort to this.  I'd started off fleet footed and light as an Elf with a pace in the 7:30's, now I felt like a Dwarf with too much chain mail on and dragging a heavy axe with a pace I didn't want to know about.

I made a deal with myself.  There was still a chance at breaking 4 hours.  I'd only walked a few yards, which seems incredibly pronounced after you've run almost 23 miles.  I began to run again.  The effort required to do this was considerable.  Give up.  No!  If I'd walked all the way in to the Finish that would've been surrender.  I would do little walks followed by longer runs, like a warped 1-4 ratio.  Each time it was harder and harder to begin again, my body screaming to quit. 

Pain is temporary.  It just feels like forever.

The last half mile to the Marathon distance wasn't some mythic experience where all the pain vanished and I floated to 26.2 miles on a carpet of Angels singing to me as I effortlessly coasted to it's completion.  More like, which hand do you want to use to smash your head in with?  The one with the Medieval Ball and Chain, or the one with the Louisville Slugger?

I did it.  26.21 miles, 3:57:58 at a 9:05 pace.  30 minutes longer than I'd hoped for after the promising start. 

GPS Marathon

I walked a little more.  I was still well over a mile from the finish line.  Each .10 of a mile felt like 1.  Gather your forces.  I'd be damned if I didn't run across that finish line.  I got to the bridge that took us back across the Fox River. I'm going to run all the way from here to the end come Hell or God's Death.  

I passed a kid who'd been playing tag with me, walking himself after blowing up.  He couldn't let me do that.  Off he went, struggling thru his own Inferno.  

I got closer.  Oh, man, make it end, make the pain end now!

Across the bridge, on a park walkway, I ran along the river.

Maybe I do hear Angels after all.  The last stretch.

I could see the banner.  They cheered the kid thru.  

Getting closer but so far away.  I kicked it in, somehow finding a bit of speed at the very end.  A woman cheered me on, 'Way to finish strong!'

I sprinted as best I could, my hamstrings cramping and about to cripple me as I crossed under the Finish Line Banner.  The man in charge took the sensor off my left ankle, being that I could hardly bend over and do it myself.  I walked away.  Lisa was there to hug and kiss me.  The sun had come out.  I carefully walked over to a rock, and sat down by the river.



I under-trained for it.  Another month's worth of long runs (19-23 milers) and only 1 day of rest per week instead of 2.  Along with the Hill Repeats, I should've included more Interval Speed work than I did.  My long times began to slow as my miles ramped up.  On the positive side, my training was sound, I had enough strength work to keep my suspension functional and my whole body strong and toned.  I had no foot, heel, ankle, shin, knee, calf, hamstring, hip, back, torso, neck, shoulder or even toenail issues.  No GI distress on either end.  My cardio was never in debt, it was just that my legs were gone too soon.

My eating was fairly solid throughout my training.  Hammer Nutrition was extremely helpful in supplying me with all the necessary vitamins, minerals, electrolytes, proteins and complex carbs.  The goal for me moving forward is to figure out what's my best post 2 hour fuel on a long run?  As geeky and ungainly as it seems, a Camelback would've been a really good thing to have on that Marathon.

Winter running is challenging, even fun at times, but I want to ski next year if the Gods will send more snow.  And, sometimes running in the cold wet ice and snow really sucks.

Then again, there's nothing else as 'No Fuss' as running.  On the worst of days it's just wearing the right stuff, no equipment (except shoes) other than your body.  When you travel there's little to pack.  Bicycling, skiing, scuba diving, surfboarding, almost anything else, requires that extra equipment burden that running is free of.

My body likes a sub-7 minute pace the best.  I can do a 10K in just over 41 minutes.  Why can't I sustain it?  It's not world beater by any stretch, but I'm happy with it and it feels right.  It's miserable for me to run at anything slower than 8.  A 9 minute pace is not something I want to experience again at a Marathon distance.  Perhaps a training run of 18-23 miles, but only to build myself stronger.  So the question of another Marathon remains:  Unknown.  More experiments ahead.  As a side note, 'The Woman' I mentioned keeping pace with for 7 miles ended up 2nd in the Women's overall, only 12 seconds behind the Women's leader.  Her time was 3:25:19.

How much suffering can you take?  How much should you?  Is enduring all that matters?  I've found out a little over the years about that.  The Marathon re-affirmed the one lesson that still holds - and held true - Saturday.  You must finish.  Rest if you need, but keep trying to run on to that end point.  Pain is temporary, giving up lasts forever.


The following is at best a partial and incomplete listing.

Books:  Bob Glover & Shelly-Lynn Florence Glover 'The Competitive Runner's Handbook'; Hammer Nutrition's publications; Timothy Ferriss 'The 4-Hour Body'; Pavel Tsatsouline 'Enter The Kettlebell!'; Neil Bascomb 'The Perfect Mile'; Christopher McDougall 'Born To Run'; Scott Jurek 'Eat & Run'. 

Adidas.  My favorite shoes and clothes.  

For inspiration:  Alberto Juantorena, Bruce Jenner, Sebastian Coe, Steve Prefontaine, Emil Zapotek, Roger Bannister along with John Landy and Wes Santee, Hicham El Guerrouj, Greg Lemond, Lon Haldeman, Cadel Evans, Eddie Merckx and David Rudisha.  And despite the bad press (and some naughtiness), Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton and yes, Lance Armstrong.  

Local Heroes:  The Runner's Edge in Wilmette, IL.  Always helpful, knowledgable and friendly.  Larry Faulkner at Green Bay Cycles in Winnetka, IL.   Thanks for sheltering me from the cold after I aborted a long run due to a rib injury.  

My Sligo Elementary Physical Education Teacher, Mr. Wayne Lemon.  Thanks for your belief, support and guidance.

My Mum.  On modest means, she shelled out for my first running shoes, which to her must have seemed like an un-Godly extravagance.  1976 Adidas 'Dragons'.  Blue, I think, with white stripes.  Or maybe yellow stripes.

All my clients and friends who supported me, wished me success, made me believe with their belief.  You are my heroes.

My wife Lisa.  My best friend, and the best support anyone could possibly hope for.  All my love forever.

Here's to you.