On September 4th, 2000, my life changed in ways that I cannot even begin to describe. Until that day, I was drinking at least a gallon of wine a day (sometimes more) in order to maintain what I have come to learn was an alcoholic addiction. Moreover I was smoking like a chimney, and it wasn't only cigarettes that I was smoking. Between the alcohol, the pot, cocaine, and other drugs, my life was headed in a downward spiral and fast.
September 4th of that year was a Labor Day, and it was the last day that I ever took a drink of alcohol or ingested drugs of any kind. I had very little to do with this miracle happening in my life - it was definitely the work of a Power much greater than me. But, that is an entirely different discussion.
Over the next two years, I still continued to smoke cigarettes. I had worked my way up to smoking two packs a day of Marlboro Reds - a true yellow-fingered smoker. On September 14th, 2002, I smoked my last cigarette and began running almost immediately in order to curb any cravings to pick it up again.
For the next year, I built a solid base of running of about 25-30 miles a week, and I loved every bit of how it made me feel. My older sister, who had never run a lick in her life, decided to train for and run a marathon in 2003. She completed it, and I was officially inspired.
I put a training calendar on paper sticking to it religiously, and I entered the Adidas Vancouver Marathon in British Columbia. The race was May 2nd, 2004. Vancouver had always been one of my favorite cities, so why not see 26.2 miles of it up close?
Race day finally arrived, and the wake up call came in at 4:30 AM, but I was so very anxious and nervous that the early hour didn't phase me a bit. I couldn't wait to get down there. The start area was buzzing with energy, and I couldn't believe all the people that were there - it was like no feeling I had ever known before. I was nervous, anxious, excited, and I had no idea how this day would turn out. I wondered if I had what it took to see it through.
After doing some stretching, I made my way over to the long lines at the bathrooms, but my timing was a little off! I had taken in lots of water that morning, and with the excitement of the big event, I had to go again. So, I jumped back in line. The lines were so long though that I realized just before getting to the front that I would never make it before the start. I ducked out of line and headed to the start area just in time for final good byes to the parents, my girlfriend, and a childhood buddy that had made the trip. Man, I had to pee, but I figured I could stop at the first Porta-Potty along the way. Little did I know that everyone would have the same idea. The lines for those things were crazy, and there was no way I was going to jeopardize my goal of less than 4 hours. I knew I would be cutting it close as it was. So, I started looking for places along the way. The crowds and the excitement helped take my mind off of it, and the miles started to pass one by one. Everything was going smoothly, but I realized that I was already at mile 12 and I still had to pee. Thankfully, we made our way into Stanley Park which is lined with trees, so I found a suitable location. Now, THAT is how I spell relief!
That being taken care of, I finally felt like I could get on with this race. The halfway point came and went, and I was just slightly below my goal pace - 1:59:00 at midway. At this point, I felt good, but I knew there was still a long way to go. About four times in the race, I passed by my family and friends, and I cannot even begin to tell you how much this meant to me. The support they gave me was amazing, and I could have never done it without them. The high fives from my dad meant more to me than he will ever know. You see, he had run several marathons way back when, and even as an adult I want to be just like him. In just over a week from writing this, he and I will run the marathon together in Victoria, and I couldn't be more proud of him after all this time off from the long run. At mile 16 or so, I sparked up a conversation with a guy that seemed to be running my pace, so we talked about everything we could think of. That kept our minds off the run for the next several miles until we lost each other around mile 20. Now, the real fun begins!!!
I had never run more than 20 miles in my training, and now I know why. If a first-time marathoner ever ran more than 20-22 miles on a long run in training, they might find out how painful it actually is and might never run the marathon itself! As if the 20-mile mark is not hard enough on its own, someone slipped a gradual, steady incline that lasted for the next 2 miles. At this point, doubt began to settle in, and I started asking myself the inevitable question that most first-timers encounter - why??? This is absolutely crazy. Most people don't even like DRIVING 26 miles let alone RUNNING it!!! Why am I here, and what do I hope to prove? Little did I know that I would soon find out.
On the way up this long hill between miles 20-22, I began to see fellow racers struggling. Some of them began to stumble and fall back while others had to drop out completely. I remember passing one gentleman lying on a stretcher next to an ambulance. He had an oxygen mask on his face and seemed to be doing okay, and I couldn't help but think how comfortable that gurney looked!
Soon after, the sweat in my ears had created this constant hollow sound that seemed to drown out everything else. I could hear every single step on the pavement, and each of them felt like a mile. I was starting to feel not only physical fatigue, but I was starting to grind mentally as well. I had never hit the "wall" before, but I had no doubt that I had found it. What was going to get me through those last 4.2 miles?
The group just ahead of me singing Kenny Rogers' songs definitely helped. The memory of the guy running past me in full-football gear - pads and helmet and all - made me laugh and took my mind off the grueling task even if just for a minute. In the end though, it was the people that had lined the sides of the road cheering for complete strangers with an enthusiasm that I will never forget so long as I live. These people that I had never met before saw the despair on my face, and they called out the number on my bib assuring me that I would make it and egging me on for one more step, one more km, one more mile. Because of them I found the strength to push through the mental and physical anguish that would ensue. You see, the sadist that created the end of this course with its hill between miles 20-22 made sure there was another between miles 23-25 just in case the 26.2 miles wasn't punishing enough on its own merits.
For this stretch of the race, I lost complete orientation of time and space, and I had no idea where I was in terms of mileage. Somehow, my mind was still stuck on the 22-mile marker that I saw, and I was certain I could never make it 4 more miles. This is what my mind was telling me until a spectator yelled out four of the most beautiful words my ears have ever heard. He said, "Only two miles left!" I have no idea how I lost the memory of miles 22-24. All I know is that man saved my life that day - I am sure of it. For the first time in the race, I finally knew I was going to finish. Until that point, I wasn't sure if I could do it or not. But, at that moment, I knew, and I was filled with a calm and a joy that only those that have been there can possibly understand. I was going to finish a marathon, and there was absolutely nothing that could stand in my way.
When the hill finally crested at mile 25, I was filled with a sense of satisfaction and determination like none I had ever known. My legs wanted to walk so badly, but I would have none of it - I was going to run to the finish line. We turned the final corner to run the last 385 yards with the crowds lined on both sides of the street and on the overpass above and it was truly awesome. There are not words in the English language that can possibly describe the feeling I had as I ran those last steps and crossed the finish line in 3:55:51. I did it.
So, how do you go from being a down and out alcoholic, drug addict, and smoker to being a marathoner?
One step at a time…