Sunday, September 13, 2009
Wow. I did it. I have always seen running a marathon as an impossibility. It was like climbing Mount Everest: Something only nearly imaginary, super humans did. It was never me, not even anyone I personally knew.
Twenty-four hours ago, I was almost to Mile 11 of the Erie Marathon at Presque Isle. I am still amazed and basking in the glow of it now. I worked so hard and now I am a marathoner.
What is most pleasing to look back on is how I got here. I was not a born runner and had, honestly, let myself go physically over the years. Throughout my twenties and the first half of my thirties, I had done little regular exercise and had gained 80 or 90 pounds since high school. I had also probably lost and re-gained that amount three times over during that time period. The more my weight yo-yoed, the less faith I had that I would ever be in shape again. I had given up on the idea that I would ever weigh less than 200 lbs again.
Last year, however, after overeating and over-drinking my way through the 4th of July weekend, something clicked in my mind. I decided with a clear determination to stop treating my body so badly. I had so much to do better for. I was five years into a happy marriage. I had a beautiful one-year old daughter and was watching my older sons turn into young men.
In July of 2008, my family and I spent a week on vacation on Cape Cod. During that trip, I began going for long walks each morning and paying attention to what I was eating. I also returned to a meditation practice that I had let slide. With these changes and the break from the usual daily stresses, I began to feel healthier and happier than I had in years. When I saw my doctor for a physical a couple of months later, I asked the nurse not to tell me my weight. I was afraid that if I had lost a lot, I would slack off and if I had lost little, I would despair and give up. When she told me the news was good, I gave in and found I had lost 28 pounds since I was last at the office.
In the fall of 2008, I began cycling about 10 miles almost every evening and stuck with the healthier diet I had adopted. As winter approached, however, I knew that I would need to find another form of regular exercise- cycling in snow and ice is not for me. I thought, perhaps, I should try jogging. I had run regularly for about 6 months, 12 years earlier but never really enjoyed it and was painfully slow. Furthermore, I had tried jogging again about 6 months earlier only to find, I couldn't run a half mile without stopping.
In November of 2008, with fear and trepidation, I went out to see what I could do. Much to my surprise, I ran a little over 2 miles without stopping. Apparently, the cycling and now 55 pound weight loss had helped immensely. A few days later, I made it 3 miles. From there a regular routine was born.
Throughout the winter of 2008-2009, I stuck with running, getting faster and running further while watching my weight dip comfortably below the 200 pound mark that I had thought I would never see again. Even in single digit temperatures, I was out there 4-6 days a week with pounds of clothes on to fight the cold. I was amazed with my progress, reaching 5, 6 or even 7 miles at a time. Running became my therapy, my ego boost, my stress reliever. I ran through cold, stress, anger, sorrow and joy. Whatever came along I worked through it running.
Once early spring came, I dared a greater feat and signed up for my first race, an 8k. I actually feared failing to finish, although, I trained by running 7 or 8 miles a couple times a week. When I ran the race, I fell in love with the crowds and the cheering of complete strangers. I even loved the sound of all those footfalls around me. Consequently, I finished far faster than more than half the other runners. Wow, I never saw that coming. I realized, maybe, not only did I love running, I wasn't awful at it.
As I progressed with running, I had made a plan to run a half-marathon in 2010 and full marathon in 2011, the last season before I would turn 40. This plan sounded good but deep inside, I feared it was just another phony, pie-in-the-sky dream. Then, however, my wife, Missy, brought a flyer home from the gym. It was for the Buffalo Marathon and Half-marathon. When she gave it to me, I dismissed it immediately with a laugh and the knowledge that I could never do even a half-marathon yet. I didn't throw that flyer away though and, as it sat on the breakfast bar at home, it called to me. One day, I took it with me to work and read it thoroughly. With the encouragement of some co-workers, I made the insane move of registering for the half-marathon. I had a about 6 weeks to train and did so eagerly, making sure I was ready by working up to 15 mile runs. I had to know that I could finish.
By the end of May and the half-marathon, I was ready. I had hoped to finish by 2:10 but did so in only 1:53. I was almost in the top quarter. I couldn't believe it.
After doing the half-marathon so much faster than I had even imagined, I decided that I would do the full marathon the next year. I even got my father, an experienced runner, to make it his first full marathon as well. Soon, however, I began thinking that waiting another year was too long. I thought of how hard keeping my edge over winter would be and, furthermore, Missy was pregnant with a baby due in late December. How could I justify all those training hours while she was left with a toddler and a new baby at home?
I searched the internet for another, sooner marathon and found the Erie Marathon at Presque Isle. At only about a hundred miles from home, it was reasonable. It was also three and a half months away. That would be a good time frame for training. Since, I had some fear of copping out, I signed up right away and paid my entry fee. I am a tightwad by nature and knew if I paid early, it would motivate me to be ready.
After researching various marathon training regimens, I came up with a hybrid plan that seemed to fit my current level, time frame and goals. It worked great for the first month until suddenly one day, five and a half miles into a 7 mile run, it felt like my right knee was coming apart. I hobbled the rest of the way serious discouraged and sure my dream was over. The next day, I could hardly walk but as the pain lingered beyond that, I refused to go to the doctor. I was afraid to hear what he would have to say about continuing to run. I decided to rest my knee and play it by ear. Running had become too important to risk being told I could not do it anymore.
I took nearly two weeks off from running, evening cancelling a race I had planned to run during a family vacation to Alaska. While in the Last Frontier, however, I couldn't completely pass up the draw of running in such a beautiful place. One afternoon, I ran almost 6 miles, nearly colliding with a moose in the process. Running on the knee was painful yet it was possible and I was encouraged.
After coming home, I ran about once a week for several weeks and the knee slowly improved. Then only 7 weeks before the marathon, I began to ramp up the miles again. I ran slower than before but got my weekly mileage back in to the thirties. Over those last few weeks, I did a couple of long runs of 21 and 22 miles. The last of these was just a week and a half before the marathon. These runs were slower than I had hoped but I did them successfully.
The day before the race, my wife daughter and I drove to Erie. We met up with my mother and her boyfriend who were already there and making a long weekend out of it. After picking up my race packet, we spent the day relaxing at the local water park with our two year old. Then after a final carbo-loading dinner, I managed to get a good night's sleep, interrupted only when our daughter fell out of the unfamiliar hotel bed at midnight.
By the time I reached the starting line, I was amazed that I was finally there and reminded myself to enjoy the race. I had already done all the real work. The early mornings, the guilt about running when I should have been at home, the pain, the miles all led to this moment. What was another 26.2 miles after all of that?
I had brought my iPod with a specially designed running play list designed to power me through the race. In the end, I never even turned it on. I talked with other runners early on. I listened to the surf when I ran near the beaches. I communed with all the other pumping hearts and legs along the way.
The first 10 miles were easy and I felt such joy seeing my family along the course, cheering me on. By the midpoint, then the half-marathoners left us and crossed their own finish line, I felt nervous but strong. A photograph Missy took at this point shows me smiling and in good form. I whipped through and got a high five from my daughter. I felt such a love for my family who had come out to cheer me on.
I still felt strong through mile 15 and into 16. Only between miles 16 and 17 did I notice that it seems the mile markers were further apart than those earlier in the race. By mile 18, I started to lose a little steam but reminded myself, "hey, the wall is supposed to be at 20 miles so pick it up." That mind trick worked for awhile.
Miles 20-22 weren't that bad but then my mind started playing tricks on me. Just after the 22 mile mark, I heard a voice saying, "You've gone this far. There's no shame in stopping now," and, "You've done enough to be proud of." Despite that voice, I didn't stop. I slowed to a walk only through the last few water stops and then right back to a run. I don't think I could have quit even if I wanted to. Nothing was going to make me stop or even slow to a walk.
The last few miles truly hurt. A joint in my right foot hurt with every step. My lower calves ached and I couldn't feel the asphalt any more. Even my shoulders were tight and sore. My mind started to lose clarity and, at times, I began to doubt my memory of what mile marker was coming next. I ignored all this and kicked on. I remembered something that I had read and made sure I smiled and looked strong at every photo-op.
Finally, ahead, I saw the water station just before the 26 mile marker. I tested my shoulders to make sure I'd be able to raise them as I crossed the finish line. I told the volunteers at that last water stop, "I think I'll make it," and passed up their offered cups with a weak smile. Then there it was, that blue "FINISH" sign and the clock. Best of all were all the people cheering for me. It wasn't just my little four person cheering section but so many people. Those who didn't know me cheered my by my bib number.
As I reached the last few hundred feet, I could see Missy raising the camera and I got my arms up for the photo. My face shows my exhaustion but the hands are over my head. As I approached where my wife stood, she called out that my daughter wanted to run with me. I scooped her up and we crossed the finish line. My wife got a great shot of us reaching the finish together. I hope that my daughter will always cherish this photograph. I know I will.
Ultimately, I didn't beat four hours like I had wanted to but I did beat my predicted 4:30. I nearly made the top 50%. Today, I am a little sore, a little tired and a lot proud and a lot grateful to everyone who helped and supported me. I love you all. I couldn't have become a marathoner without you.
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