Why I ran a marathon
Looking back, the reasons I finally decided to 'take the plunge' and run a marathon are somewhat fuzzy. In some ways it was a snap decision. I did not spend a lot of time thinking about it or debating pros and cons. It was a crystallization of many factors into a sudden decision.
I ran track in high school - a 'sprinter,' covering distances up to the quarter-mile. I hated those times the coach made us 'sprinters' run two miles. In later years I had some interest in running as a way to stay in shape, but every time I did too much too soon, injured myself, and did not get enough positive feedback from the experience to want to continue.
Then in my mid-40s I had my mid-life crisis. This prompted me to get my act together in many ways - mentally, spiritually, and physically. I started out walking, then inserted running intervals of a few hundred yards, then gradually extended the runs and reduced the walks until I was running 2-3 miles. I found this healthy and therapeutic, and I found it something I was fairly good at. I extended distances gradually. The big local running event is the Peachtree Road Race (10k) on July 4, so in early 1999, about a year into running, I took up the challenge of training for a 10k. That was a fun experience, and so I continued to increase distance. At each new distance, I set goals for distance and pace, and met or exceeded them - so why not continue? From 10k, the next goal was 10 miles. I trained for and ran a 10 miler in September 1999. That worked out well, so on to the half-marathon (13.1 miles) at Thanksgiving. That too went well, and the increased distance helped my speed on shorter distances. My 10k times came down in early 2000. This was fun! I still wasn't thinking marathon, though. I was mainly running to stay in shape.
In the fall of 2000, while training for another Thanksgiving half-marathon, I turned my ankle while running and broke the tip of a tibia. That laid me up for eight weeks and broke my rhythm of increased distances. I worked hard the following spring and summer to get back to where I had been. I began running on Tuesday nights and Saturday mornings with some dedicated distance runners who trained for, ran in, and talked a lot about marathons. So I began to give it some half-hearted thought, never thinking I would dedicate the time. By running with 'better runners' (those running faster and farther than I), I continued to extend my training distances during 2001. I began to question myself - why I am doing all this running? What am I trying to accomplish? Staying in shape is a good thing, but running 10-12-14 miles on Saturdays - why? Half-marathons weren't going to cut it anymore. The full marathon became a serious consideration.
I researched how to prepare and train for a marathon. I discovered the many ways that people do this. I'd always thought I'd need to work up to 50+ miles a week. But I discovered that some people train for marathons by maintaining their weekday distances, and adding a long training run every other week. I had a solid 10+ mile base, so in a four month period I could extend my distance a mile or two at a time, every other week or so, until I was at marathon distance. I could manage the time this would take. So the real question was, am I ready to accept the challenge?
I had to decide whether to commit myself publicly to something so concrete and tangible. My previous running goals had been within my margins, and I could have backed out at any time. A marathon is something different. You train to a level of conditioning that requires a serious time commitment. Deciding to postpone the race for a month or two has serious implications. And I would be 'public' about it due to my running group. So this was a real challenge for me. Once I accepted, it would be difficult to turn back.
Does all of this really answer the question of why I ran a marathon? I'm not sure, but the reasons include a desire to challenge myself, to do something out of the ordinary, and to find out whether I had the courage and stamina (both physical and mental) to accomplish it. I also wanted one of those cool oval 26.2 bumper stickers! From all I read, and what I knew of my body, the physical aspects should have been be manageable. But did I have the mental fortitude to run a marathon? I ran to find out.
Training - getting through the long workouts - alone or with a partner
I trained 'alone' (more on that later). During my training period of less than four months, I did a number of group runs on Tuesday nights and Saturday mornings, but the 'group' aspect for me was before and after the run - not during. Even in a fairly large group, I didn't find anyone who was training at my pace and distance, or even someone planning to run in the same marathon as me.
I do not need to run with someone for companionship during the long training runs. I generally wear a headset and listen to music. I do a lot of thinking during my long runs. A lot of thought goes into monitoring the workout - pace, distance traveled, distance remaining, heart rate, physical condition, path condition, weather condition, progress along the course, and so on. Some of the thought process is maintaining control of the workout - dealing with fatigue, the ever-present desire to cut it short, the discipline of staying on pace. But there is a lot of time to meditate, to take in the surroundings, to think about the past week and coming week, to let my mind wander 'wherever.' With lots of mental activity on many levels, the time goes quickly.
This description of my mental process during a long run sounds very logical, but leaves out some things. First, I 'hit the wall' during my marathon training. When I started to extend my training runs in preparation for the marathon, I simply ran farther at nearly the same pace. All the reading and advice I'd gathered said to slow substantially - 2 minutes per mile slower than race pace, whatever that was. I honestly felt I was running as slow as I could, at a pace about 30 seconds/mile slower than what I considered normal for me. This worked for 15 miles, 17 miles, 19 miles - but when I attempted a 21-mile run, I 'died' around mile 19. So I had to re-assess my program and overcome my 'inability' to run slower. Getting past this training 'failure', learning from it, compensating and adjusting - in retrospect, this was where I achieved victory. My 23-mile run, two weeks after the failed 21-miler, was the equivalent of getting back on the horse after being thrown.
Secondly, the description of my mental processes leaves out a certain degree of insanity, or at least a degree of 'out of body' experience. Once I exceeded 19 miles, I wasn't all there mentally. I felt like a detached operator of my body, telling it what to do, pulling control levers, but disconnected at some root level. I knew my body hurt, I knew my body was exhausted - but I kept telling it to put one foot in front of the other. There was no option other than to keep going. The only time I quit early was the 21-mile run where I hit the wall around mile 19. I managed 20.3 miles, and the last mile was on sheer willpower with no physical basis to keep moving.
But I did have a companion on the long training runs - my wife Mikki. She is my coach, trainer, cheerleader, support team, medical team (she's a nurse), and lover. For my weekday runs she was there to send me off and welcome me home. For my long training runs she knew my route and would be ahead of me along the course at agreed-upon stations every 4 miles or so, for water and gelpacks. Towards the end of the longest runs (20+ miles), she'd go ahead perhaps two miles. Instead of having to think about the remaining twelve or eight or six or four miles, I'd only have to focus on running to Mikki. So while no one ran with me, I really did have a training partner, in all the best senses of the word.
Dealing with burnout
I didn't experience burnout because I kept the training cycle short. I trained from October 22 to February 10 - less than four months. For this period I actually reduced the number of days that I ran, replacing at least one running day with one to two days of cross-training (swimming, in my case). My weekday runs emphasized specific training aspects (speed, stamina, and normal conditioning), but in general, my weekday distances weren't much different than before. The big difference was the longer weekend runs, and that to me was manageable. I think I'd have experienced burnout if I'd greatly pumped up my weekly mileage (if physical problems didn't get me first!).
Mine were minor, thankfully. When I started training I already had a couple of bruised toenails from running so I switched to a new pair of shoes. This helped my toes, but the shoes were too tight across the bridge of my feet (see 'the equipment'). This new pair of shoes was a brand I hadn't tried before and I didn't like them. Luckily (since I am cheap and hate to throw anything away before getting full use), I put enough miles on that pair of shoes in three months to justify a new pair of shoes for the marathon. So that was the extent of my injuries.
One word - SHOES. If these aren't right, nothing else will work. I got a new pair of shoes a month ahead and broke them in so there was nothing left to chance on marathon day. No other equipment needs come close. Managing clothing for weather during training and for the race is something you can screw up but survive. The shoes have to be right.
A speed-distance monitor was very useful for tracking mileage and in pacing. But in the end, it's all about the shoes.
Food and other fuels
I made few changes in my regular diet during training. My dietary preparation for training was mostly focused on before, during and after my workouts. My training runs are mostly early morning, so I usually had a banana, bagel and lots of water before starting out. In my long training runs I used gelpacks for electrolytes and energy. One of the mind-over-matter experiences of the marathon was convincing myself that gelpacks taste good! It's hard to make goo into something tasty.
During a long training run, water is essential. For anything longer than about six miles, I made sure I got water every four miles or so beyond that distance. Sometimes that meant driving the course in advance to stash water along the way. Usually, my coach/trainer/wife Mikki preceded me along the course and met me at arranged locations with water. I'd do water and gelpacks at these stops.
Drinking enough water throughout the day is another essential. Most of us don't drink enough water anyway. For distance/endurance events, its even more essential to drink water constantly - staying hydrated, even over-hydrated, all day, every day.
I emphasized carbs somewhat in my diet, especially towards the end, and did the traditional carb-loading dinner the night before the race. I also consumed energy bars the last 48 hours before the race. That was a mistake - my system wasn't used to them and I didn't sleep as well as I would have liked that last night.
During the actual marathon, there were water stations every mile beginning with mile 2, and gelpacks every four miles or so in the later stages. Both suited my race plan, so the race went well nutritionally and hydratically (I think I just invented a word!).
Is it in you? The mental race
For me, the marathon is much more than a physical challenge. The marathon is a total effort mentally, spiritually, and physically. It requires study, planning, execution, and adjustment to actual conditions along the way. Diet, rest, physical training, mental preparation and overall execution must be integrated into a single purpose and process. Mental toughness starts with developing a plan, executing the plan, assessing results along the way, and adjusting when necessary. I trained my mind as much as my body - perhaps even more so. Part of mental preparation is dealing with fear of the unknown. Am I really capable of doing this? Is it possible for me to handle the longer distance? I had several solid years of increasing accomplishment under my belt, but there was still that nagging worry. Where are my limits? What if I simply cannot endure that distance and amount of time? My training plan addressed those fears as much as it did the physical preparation.
My last long training run, three weeks before the marathon, was 25 miles. So I had very little doubt on marathon day that I could handle 26.2. Many people train to 18 or 20 miles, so the gap between what they have done and what they are attempting to do is much greater. That can lead to increased mental anxiety during the race, which in turn contributes to hitting the wall. For me it was necessary to understand the full scope of the challenge well in advance, and prepare for it in all aspects. I stepped up to the starting line with confidence. And when I faced the unexpected during the race, I had the resources to deal with it.
The wall (and how to get over it, under it, or through it)
I planned 'the wall' into my training, hit the wall in training, and overcame it in training - so no wall in the actual race! Seriously, I didn't plan to hit the wall in training, but I did encounter it. By having a training plan that included almost the complete marathon distance, I avoided the wall in the actual race itself. Some people train up to 18-20 miles, then plan to 'gut it out' for the distance they haven't trained for. If I had taken that approach, I would not have completed the race. My training included runs of 19, 21, 23, and 25 miles. As I described earlier, I hit the wall on my 21-mile run. I still had over six weeks to go, so I was able to assess the problem, make adjustments, and have two great training runs of 23 and 25 miles to compensate and build confidence.
The main event - the race
I could write a book about it. I made lots of notes in the days that followed so I would not forget anything. But most of it is still fresh. My race was February 10, 2002, in Birmingham, the first Mercedes Marathon. The organizers did a great job, and the town turned out all over the course. Bands, cheerleaders, bagpipes, college dorms, neighborhood block parties - spectators everywhere. And so many volunteers that the water stops were almost claustrophobic!
I changed my running strategy in the week prior to the race. I decided to use Jeff Galloway's technique of walking a minute per mile. I debated this long and hard, but after seeing the course, and all of its hills (more on that later), I decided I needed the rest along the way. Since there were water stations at every mile marker, I simply ran to the next water station, grabbed water, and walked for 45-60 seconds before starting up again. My goal was a 4-hour marathon, a pace of a little more than 9 minutes per mile. My last long training run had covered 25 miles in almost exactly 4 hours. I hoped that race-day adrenalin and a training program that focused on reaching my peak conditioning that day would allow me to add the extra 1.2 miles in no extra time.
The weather was a bit too warm for me, though about perfect for most. I would have preferred something in the 30's. It was cloudy and around 50 degrees. At about 15 miles, the sun came out for around 15 minutes and I thought I was in trouble. But the clouds returned. Later (around miles 22-24) it drizzled. By that time I was too far gone to care.
There are a series of northeast-to-southwest ridges in Birmingham. The Mercedes course in 2002 had a severe incline in the 11th mile (I understand they have since changed it) to reach the top of the highest ridge. The course rose about 250 feet in half a mile - roughly a 10% grade. That doesn't sound like much, but try walking it sometime, much less running it, much less running it with 10 miles already behind you! I tried to maintain a slower but still-healthy pace on that hill. In retrospect I should have been much slower, even to the point of walking some of it. On the incline I somehow managed to alter my stride to something I'd not done in training. So I accomplished the hill in good time, only to pay for it later in the race.
After topping the ridge, the course wanders southward downhill and works its way west. Around mile 20, it starts back north, back across the ridge. At this point the ridge is much lower than farther east, so the inclines aren't anywhere near as severe. But with 20 miles already on my legs, and the ill effects of the hard hill in mile 11, the fronts of my thighs started to cramp. I had never ever experienced thigh cramps during a run - a few minor calf cramps, but never my thighs. It felt as though someone was stabbing my thighs with long knives. I struggled with the cramps for a couple of minutes, but the hill was long, and there was no way I was going to make it while running.
My next walking break was more than half a mile away. I decided to walk for a couple of minutes to relieve the cramps. That got me going again, and I was able to adjust the next couple of walking breaks to keep my overall strategy of walking a minute per mile. I continued to have cramping episodes through the last five miles. A few times I attempted to pick up the pace, trying to maintain my target pace per mile. But each time I did, the cramps returned. So I accepted that I would not hit my 4-hour target, and simply concentrated on finishing.
Even more so than my long training runs, the last three miles were an out-of-body experience for me. Mikki drove all over Birmingham to get ahead of me and cheer me on from various locations. The last time I saw her was at a fire station around mile 23. I was pretty far gone mentally by then. From that point on, things were a blur. Cramps, pain, near-hallucinations at some points. The last mile or so is a straight shot to the finish line. Once I made the turn onto that final straight, and could see the end in the distance, I knew I could finish (doubt was a constant companion throughout this, my first marathon). I had a wave of euphoria just before mile 26, so I picked up the pace. It felt like I was sprinting, though I'm sure reality was nothing near that. I came close enough to the finish line to see the finish clock, hear the finisher names being called, and hear the enthusiasm of the crowd as each one crossed. Perhaps 200 yards from the line, the back of my left thigh knotted up completely. I looked like the sprinter in the Olympics who pulled a hamstring at the top of the home stretch of the 200 meters - I jerked straight up, and hopped on my right foot for 20 or 30 yards while grabbing my left thigh. Ultimately I got the cramp under control and slowly jogged the last few yards. At last! I finished the race! I completed the marathon!
There was no time to think just yet at the finish. It empties into a chute where someone throws a silver space blanket around your shoulder, someone removes the timing clip from your shoe, someone hands you a bottle of water and a banana, someone gently leads you forward into a park square. I hobbled forth looking for Mikki. She'd been unable to reach the finish line in time to see me come across. That was a good thing because she'd have bolted out on the course when I cramped up and I might have been disqualified for receiving assistance! But as I wandered around the fountain in the square in downtown Birmingham, she soon ran up, and then my race was complete. I could start to recover and recoup - lots of water, lot of electrolytes, rest, massage, and a hot shower. It would be much later before I could even begin to figure out what I had accomplished, what it cost, and what it meant. In some ways I'm still trying to figure that out!
Now for the numbers - I completed the course in 4 hours, 12 minutes. My goal was 4 hours. I was very happy with the result - my real goal was to finish, while the four-hour target was a tactic for accomplishing the real goal. I made a tactical error on the steep hill that caused me to miss my pacing target, but that doesn't keep me from being satisfied with my effort and the result. At age 48, I ran 26.2! Not many can say that. The Mercedes Marathon provides a medal to each finisher - the three-point Mercedes star. I am proud to have the medal and ribbon mounted on the wall in my study. I never did get one of the cool oval 26.2 bumper stickers, though!
What (if anything) makes it all worthwhile
There is a deep satisfaction in setting a stretch goal, figuring out how to accomplish it, challenging myself to dig deep within, then going about the business of making it happen. I learned a lot about perseverance, and I learned to be flexible. Completing a marathon is a confidence-builder for all of life. I found out something of what I am made of, and the result is comforting. The finisher medal is a worthy reminder of achieving something difficult, something that few people try and fewer complete. Now if I could only find one of the cool oval 26.2 bumper stickers...