I don't remember exactly when it was, but sometime during my early twenties, I briefly had the foresight to start a mental list of things to do 'before I turn 30'.
Interestingly, depending on who was asking about it and my current mood, the name of the list often changed. It varied from 'a list of things to before I get tied down with a family' to simply 'things I've always wanted to do'. Still in the stage of life that precludes marriage and too much maturity (as some would contest), I figured now is the time to continually evaluate what remains on the list and finish everything I can, as quickly as I can. My reasoning; life could be completely different tomorrow. Armed with a propensity for doing all things odd and oft crazy, my list has recently shrunk.
With 28 years old now sneaking up on me, I look at all I have done and inventory what is left. Go skydiving: got the video. Earn my 4-year degree: still in the works. Visit all lower 48 states: been there, done that. Learn Latin: not yet. Visit the Middle East: thanks Uncle Sam, got the t-shirt. Pick a woman to settle down with: maybe on the horizon. Shark fishing: you should see the pictures! Travel across Europe: three times. Finish a marathon: no way! Not yet; that takes months and years of practice…well it does, doesn't it? Doesn't it?? I don't ever remember seeing that on the list!
You see, my history as a runner is limited, so this goal was usually relegated to the 'not so critical' part of my list (a.k.a. the bottom). Then, while stationed in Qatar in early 2004, I ran to 'the other side of the base' and back. Round trip mileage: about 13 miles. I only stopped running because after consuming 3 liters of water, I was out. "But you could have gone just a few more miles", you say. Well, I ran out of water before I got even half way. Did I feel I could keep going? Absolutely! Was I crazy enough to, in the midday sun, alone in a desolate area of the base? Thankfully, not that day.
In addition to my nomadic wanderings through the desert, I had participated in a relay version of the Air Force Marathon for the last two years. Three other friends and I created a team to run the entire 26.2 miles in Dayton, Ohio. For my portion, this never amounted to running more than 6.7 of them. Not too bad of an accomplishment one would think. However, when people ask what I did for the weekend and I mentioned my 'running for pleasure' trip to Ohio, it was always followed with a "Wow, you ran a marathon, I could never do that!" To have to correct someone after that and say I only ran 'my share of it' is akin to slapping that person in the face. I swear I could feel their disappointment every time!
As time went on, this started to frustrate me. It also prompted me to suggest to the other members of my Air Force running team that we should attempt the entire marathon. The senior runner is a veteran marathoner and reminded me of the strict training one should undergo to be competent for this type of undertaking. Like a barbershop ensemble in perfect harmony, the other two joined in and said that I was crazy. Indeed!
I began to search for an upcoming marathon in the Twin Cities because I do not like to wait for things. Like I said, I am still single and learning the art of patience. But I just wasn't motivated enough to go online and do my own research. That is, until one day in August, I spoke with a good friend of mine, Becky. Becky and I went to my high school Prom together in 1995, and have stayed friends throughout that time, even when I have lived outside of Minnesota or been sent overseas. I mentioned to Becky that I wanted to finish a marathon, and the Twin Cities Marathon came into our conversation. "But that is in less than two months, you haven't even started training", she directed. Perfect! She warned, "Plus, I think registration has filled up already". Even better, I thought!
After a quick search of the website, I made a call to Administrative Coordinator Kathy Pennington. All that was needed was my explanation of my displacement to the Middle East during the registration period, and dropping a check in the mail, and I was set. From that point, it became a thing of pride to tell people I was signed up for the marathon. Little did they know, I wondered whether or not I would even make it half-way. I called Becky to let her know I got in; she was less than thrilled, I couldn't figure out why. It turns out, she had wanted to run this particular Marathon too, but a combination of missing the registration deadline and recovering from an injury took her out of the bid. As time went on, I think she became more and more excited for me. Good for her. As time went on, I became more and more nervous. Not so good for me.
I ran a total of about 5 miles in preparation for the marathon. Not very much compared to the hundreds of miles run by marathoners during a typical training season. However, I wasn't motivated to do any more, plus with working full time and going to school full time, running was the last way I wanted to spend my free minutes every day.
Race day snuck up on me like winter in Minnesota; it was here well before due. All I could do was begin to mentally prepare. It would be simple, go to drill on Saturday, call Becky and make sure she still wanted to be my 'support person', and of course, run my heart out on Sunday. Becky was even kind enough to make a pasta dinner for me Saturday night consisting of wagon wheel pasta with a salsa, instead of marinara sauce.
On Sunday morning, I was a little bit tired from not being able to sleep through the night, but I got almost 6 hours. Good enough to get me started. As Becky got ready to drive us to her other friend's house, I got all of my things in order, and ran through contingency plans in my head (where was my bib, chip, warm clothes, aspirin, water supply, etc?). We left about 0545 and got to her friends' house about 0600. It was there that I first met two other runners that would be along side me that day, Stacey and Mike. Allowing them time to make their last minute checks, everyone piled into a minivan and we left from there.
We got to the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis about 0630 and had plenty of time to find out where we needed to be. We had a final chance to go inside the Metrodome and warm-up, stretch, use the bathroom, etc. Of course, the men's room line was way too long to even think about using. So much for that idea! Once 0730 came, we got to say farewell to our 'support crew' of Becky, Stacey's mom and Mike's girlfriend one last time. They took a photo of us and we shed our warm clothes in favor of less bulk. The extra clothing, of course, we left with them.
As we made our way over to the start line area, I was slightly intimidated by the sight of the Metrodome, the high rise buildings, and just the fact that I was going to run to the next major gathering of high rise buildings, over 26 miles away. This was quickly overruled in my mind by the feeling that the adrenaline was beginning to coarse through all of us! I started to verbally motivate everyone if I thought they needed it, but it was me who was in need! I made those I was running with aware that they could call me any name in the book to get me to finish. Thankfully, that tactic was not needed that October 3rd.
We could hear the announcer begin to countdown for the first wave of runners, and then, we were off! But wait, we weren't moving. It took us a full 8 minutes to make our way past the start line amidst the second wave of runners. Finally started, I stuck with Stacey because I knew we both had a similar pace, or at least that I could push myself to keep up with her 11 min/mile pace as time wore on. Fortunately, there was no contention between Stacey's and my pace; we seamlessly glided along side each other for the first half of the marathon. I was under the impression that to run a longer distance, you had to follow the Jeff Galloway mindset; that is you should walk and run in cycles. Stacey disagreed. She believed in just barely slowing down through the water stops/rest areas. So there was my dilemma, should I run at a pace I was comfortable with but had not trained for, or should I take walking breaks as needed and finish the whole ordeal at a comfortable pace and loose a running partner with an agreeable pace? For the first 13 miles, I sided with the former train of thought. After that, my confidence was growing all the while, and I started to feel as if I had what it took to at least get to mile 20. With this new development, I started to feel I could 'afford' to take breaks and enjoy the water and food stops by walking. In the long run, I think this was the right thing to do at this point in the race. At mile 9, we got the first glimpse of our esteemed support crew. I was glad to see them near Minnehaha Falls, I believe. I think they had mini Snickers at that point….what a treat, my body gobbled up the sugar as quick as it could. After a few words of encouragement in passing and telling us they would find us at around mile 15, we continued on at a rock solid pace!
From mile one to mile 13 to the finish line, there was an inconceivable amount of verbal and nutritional support from locals, political groups (I can't tell you how many Kerry/Edwards signs and stickers I saw that day), passersby, local bands, makeshift musical groups, etc. It was truly mind boggling!
I learned one way you can truly tell a vet from an amateur is whether or not they have their name or nickname somehow visible on their person. Those that did had way more support from the crowd at almost every turn, hill, etc. The most I ever got during a time of struggle was "Good job number 4099!" Hey, I took what I could get at that point.
For some last minute motivation, I skimmed one of Becky's Jeff Galloway books the night before the run. I won't forget what he said to repeat to yourself as you are running: Relax, Power, Glide…RPG, I can remember that, nothing fancy, easy to remember; it worked. Not that I ever got to the point where I needed just mental motivation to continue, but it was nice to repeat it every so often to keep the pace consistent. In addition to that technique, I did something that I noticed a few others had similarly done. The night before, I took a marker and wrote WWDIL on my left forearm and EIE on my right forearm. This is an acronym of Russell Crowe's line in The Gladiator when he says "What we do in life echoes in eternity." When I felt RPG wasn't working, or in times of raw boredom (of which there was very little), I would look down and read my forearms. A simple trick, but it too, worked.
Not to be made into liars, the support crew met us at about mile 16. Again, they re-supplied us with more food and verbal motivation. At this point, my confidence had continued to grow, knowing I had run farther at one time than ever in my life. The best part was I felt like I could keep going! Nice for me, I met Girardo, a 47 year old father of 2 from Argentina who was running his second marathon. We had a very similar pace (I had likely slightly slowed at this point) and I felt he was a good pace to keep up with. I remember turning a corner near approaching Saint Paul when we were about to hit mile 20. This is a significant landmark to a marathoner and is known as "The Wall". It is the point at which your body cannot process any more energy you have provided, and starts to burn fat only. It is a critical point for a marathoner, at which many begin to contemplate their ability to even finish. Interestingly enough, mile 20 for this marathon was land-marked by its namesake; a wall. I am not sure what it is there for, but the course leads you under this nice brick archway in the middle of a road. I told Girardo, "Let's break that wall down!" and we pushed right on by.
Here is where things start to get interesting. From about mile 3 or 4, I had a tingling in both of my arms. I thought at first it was due to my uncle's POW/MIA bracelet on one had and watch on the other restricting blood flow. Easy fix, just loosen both of them. Done. Didn't work. The tingling was still there for the rest of the race. I could live with it, I figured it might be caused by the constant ground pounding on my feet being sent up my nervous system and ending in each arm. Just speculation...but I would later find out more.
Still thankful to be able to keep up with Girardo, we were doing very consistently although he often talked of walking. We both seemed to know exactly when the other wanted to walk up hills, until one hill just after mile 20. Without warning, I stopped running, and started to walk up it. He said he needed to keep going. I wished him luck and enjoyed walking up that hill.
I enjoyed it, until about 5 minutes later something horrible happened; all at once, seemingly every muscle in my both legs instantly cramped up so bad I could no longer move. I don't mean just to run, I couldn't even walk. Like when Han Solo becomes frozen in Star Wars, I was cryogenically locked in time, unable to move. After arduously trying to get the cramping to go away, I realized I had to just get off the road and relax. As I attempted to navigate up the curb and stumbled onto the sidewalk, thoughts of being taken out of the race flooded my head. Not finishing was the worst thought you can have, especially after going that far. All of these thoughts were exacerbated when one of the course volunteers drove by on a golf cart. He asked if I was ok (I was squatting/hunched over at this point, in a futile attempt to loosen up my hamstrings, quads, calves, etc.). I told him I was fine and that I just needed to stretch out my muscles. I am not sure if he believed me, "Well I will be back through here in a few minutes, so if you need a ride, just wait here." As soon as was gone, I somehow forced my legs to unlock, just enough to start walking again as I did not want to be unwillingly taken off the course.
Within a few minutes, I found a guy who was also walking the rest of the way, although I think he had it in him to keep running a slow pace. I talked to him, and he said he had run a 20 mile race a few weeks prior, but other than that, he did little training as well. He also said the thought the 20 miler would have made him prepared for this, but he was very wrong! I don't quite remember why he was walking at that point (I think he was just taking it easy), but I do remember him asking me what time it was. After sorting through all the numbers in my head, I looked at my watch and told him it was just after noon. After doing some quick mental math calculations, he and I felt that even if we continued to walk, we had plenty of time to finish within the 6 hour course limit. Obviously, that made me happy. He eventually pulled away, but not before I asked him why he was running his first marathon. His reply, "Because I wanted to do one before I turned 40." I knew it! I wasn't the only crazy guy around!
Then, one of the most memorable musical events of the day happened, somebody was playing on a boom box the two songs I most needed right then. I think it was right in front of Saint Thomas Academy. What songs where they? None other than the theme songs to Rocky and Chariots of Fire. I couldn't believe the power two simple songs had at that point!
The next few events are fuzzy, but you will see why. Walking as quickly as I could and in a daze, I heard what may as well have been an angel yelling my name. Becky had found me at mile 22, Power Bar in tow and ready for my consumption. Talking with her later, she said I looked horrible. She could have told me then for all I knew, but at that point I was not much for conversation (as she quickly found out).
Beginning the fairly flat stretch onto Summit Avenue (I never knew it was so long!), we got into a groove (her walking alongside me), and she quickly let me know that she was there to help me finish. I even remember asking her not to leave so I could finish. Boy, I needed the help...
Eerily, every step felt like it could be my last. Especially since I feared that if just one impending cramp occurred, then I would be done for and would be forced to quit! It is funny how the mind works. I am positive that I would have been more comfortable physically if I had been more relaxed mentally, but I am not sure I was able to do that at that point in the race. I was starting to see where the required mental dedication came into play in such a straining endeavor. I was so worried about my legs cramping up in an instant, that all I could do was focus on the task at hand, and keep telling myself to not think about my legs. It was a vicious cycle.
Like a wife of 50 years, Becky picked up on this and tried to distract me with conversation. Most of my replies were limited, but that was as pleasant as I could muster at the time. Thoughtfully, she understood.
At this point, I started to feel what I thought was my nose becoming numb from running. Not abnormal I told myself, since it had been cold that morning. However, the numbness rapidly turned into tingling and spread up my entire nose. Within 20 or 30 seconds, it had consumed my entire face. I knew I was dehydrated, or had a severely low blood-sugar level, or both. Thankfully, Becky, at every chance she could, was getting me cups of water and Powerade. I even sent her to ask for water from spectators when I thought I needed it more often than the course provided for, which seemed to be very often. I also ate all of the candy and snacks we could find, consuming the sugar in seconds! Slowly but surely I began to feel healthy again.
As we approached mile 23, we came to an intersection where there were some volunteers. Apparently my facial color had not come back yet, as my body was still trying to catch up from its previous unsafe state. As such, one of the volunteers stated "You just missed the shuttle". I paused in my thoughts, was she talking to me? I didn't ask her for a shuttle! I thought it over briefly and replied with, "Shuttle be damned, I am finishing this!"…and she just stood there and murmured an "Oh." A few feet later, I mustered what energy I had left and issued a barely audible "But thanks anyway." Ah…'Minnesota Nice' at it's best.
Plodding down Summit Avenue with Becky, I kept checking my watch. At mile 23, I reviewed my goal of a sub 6 hour time. It was nice to reiterate to myself that I would likely finish. There was just one thing that was going to interfere with my remaining comfort; I had to urinate terribly. So bad that I didn't care if I had to go while running! I didn't want to stop and risk not being able to start again, but hygiene won out. I quickly located a building just past one of the schools on Summit Avenue. The buildings brick wall offered only silent protest as I relieved myself in semi-shrouded comfort.
All the while, a less critical course volunteer approached Becky who was waiting for me on the road, and asked if I was ok. "He just had to go to the bathroom really bad", she said. Cool. I was a newly charged man. I had only 3 miles to go, and then I would have finished a marathon!
We continued to pass all of the spectators at mile 24 and 25, still hydrating and feeding myself everywhere we could. Then the weird thing happened; things sped up. For a second, I thought maybe I was at my own funeral; I saw a man on the left side of Summit Avenue in Scottish attire playing bagpipes. Is that Amazing Grace? No. Good, I must still be alive and walking. You wouldn't believe how emotional something as simple as seeing someone playing bagpipes could be, but it is. Then it only got better because mile 26 was just up ahead…that meant only .2 miles to go and I was done. I remember hearing spectators say, "Come on, you have already done 26, keep it up!" Another method of motivation that I found worked wonders that day: focus not only on what is ahead, but how far you have come.
Very quickly, the end of the fencing approached Becky and I. She would soon have to leave me so that she wouldn't be accused of being a bandit (one who runs the course without registering). With a final hug of encouragement, she wished me luck, and went of to the Cathedral side of the fencing. As I made my way onto John Ireland Boulevard, I couldn't believe my eyes. Possibly the largest American flag I had ever seen (and I have seen some enormous ones) was hoisted between two Saint Paul Fire Department ladder trucks, becoming the most motivational and emotional point of the entire run. In addition, the breeze was blowing just so that the flag was beckoning runners to follow in its path; towards the finish line in front of the Capitol. I continued down the chute over the finish pads, heard my name called out by the announcer, followed by a "Congratulations!" After glancing at my time of 5:47:20, I quickly received my medal, heat blanket, food and water.
Then again, I heard my name, but this time it was not by the announcer, rather my mother. She was there with a camera to catch me crossing the finish line. Perfect! After getting a hug, briefly talking to her and telling her I would call her later, I found Becky and the others. Stacey had a great time in the 4 hour range. Due to a knee condition, Mike had trouble finishing before the 6 hour mark, but he was only 40 seconds past. Once we all traded stories, we headed back to our car, which happened to be parked in the St. Paul Sears parking lot. Not Minneapolis, Bloomington or Eden Prairie, but St. Paul! I can't believe I ran most of that distance!
Then again, with a bit of luck, good shoes, a handful of prayers, and the shortest training regimen allowed by law, anything is possible!
John Herrick 2004