The Eugene Marathon
Sunday, May 4, 2008
I was a decent 800 meter man in high school, but struggled in cross-country. Typically, the longer the race, the further back I was from the leaders. Even then, nine years ago, I felt like something beyond my control was holding me back from achieving my potential. I was correct.
Unfortunately, I was not good enough to compete at the next level, and my injuries worsened in college. Attempts to increase my mileage were usually counterproductive. Although I never had to stop running for more than a few months, the volume and intensity varied. Most years my weekly mileage was in the 15-20 range, with a regular long run of about 6 miles, topping out at 8-9. On my best days, I could still run a 5K in 20-21 minutes.
Then, in the summer of 2005, I experienced a sudden and unexplained energy crash. Standard diagnostic tests showed nothing wrong. Only on my "good days" was I able to jog a couple of miles at a slow pace. This 12-month period was the worst time of my life - not because I could not run much, but because I was fresh out of school, with no experience, and visibly depressed on job interviews. Take a guess how those went.
Finally, after anti-depressants were ineffective, a "top doc" referred me for a tissue mineral analysis (hair test). Those results explained a lot. I was perilously close to developing diabetes. I was also hyperthyroid and in a state of full-blown adrenal exhaustion. Two months of inactivity followed as I began an aggressive natural approach to treat the disease. When a retest showed substantial improvement, I began a walking program in which I incorporated a few short spurts of jogging.
Despite my competitive background, I had to start over from scratch. Gradually, the amount of jogging increased, while the effort was kept to a minimum. By the end of October 2006, I was finally able to jog a few miles with minimal discomfort. When I timed myself for 3 miles, the result was well over 26 minutes. I continued to gradually increase the intensity, and figured that as long as my times were improving and I continued to feel better, I would continue training. If not, I would back off.
My first road race came in November, and I finished a 5K in about 24:50. I was significantly faster as a 7th grader, but I didn't care. I was just glad to be back, and motivated to train a bit harder. December saw swift improvement and I was able to finish a 10 mile run in less than 90 minutes, and a 5 miler in less than 40. Soon, I would set my sights on a half-marathon, a distance that I had endured only once before, in practice.
For my first half-marathon, I chose Seaside, Florida, in the first week of March 2007. Training went well early, but I hit a plateau in February; overall, I averaged about 20 miles a week during the training cycle, with a couple of 10 milers and one 12 miler. I had hopes of finishing at a sub-9:00 minute pace. I passed 10 miles in 87:30 (8:45 pace), but then hit the wall hard and had to walk-jog the final 5K. Still, I had enough left in the tank to limp to a finish time of 1:59:37 (9:08 pace).
I struck up a conversation with another participant who asked me if I would ever consider a full marathon. Without hesitation, I responded, "Not a chance." He continued to encourage me and said that once you can go beyond 13 miles, you can run 26 miles. Just keep the pace slow and increase your long run by 1-2 miles per week.
Soon after I arrived back home in Alabama, I learned that my treatment plan would have to go in another direction because of numerous deficiencies such as low GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid), serotonin, dopamine and adrenaline, in addition to some other unresolved issues in my body chemistry. If I took no action to solve these issues, I would plateau at about 90% of my former level, and eventually be at risk for another energy crash. Still, I was amazed that I was able to run so well in spite of all these issues, and I knew that I would show tremendous improvement when I was in balance. The rest of 2007 would be filled with ups and downs because of a frequent need to adjust my formula. At my best, I was 50-60 seconds better per mile than the previous year at every distance from 5K to half-marathon. I broke 21:00 for 5K, 35:00 for 5 miles and 80:00 for 10 miles but struggled with inconsistency.
I'm not sure exactly when I decided to attempt the marathon, but after I got a lot of encouragement from some of my workout partners, most of whom were much slower than I, it gradually began to seem possible. I briefly considered one of two marathons in December 2007, but decided against it because I was not consistently healthy enough to handle the necessary mileage in training. Instead, I ran the St. Jude half-marathon in Memphis, where I set a new PR of 1:48:17, beating my goal time of 1:50. In early 2008, I balanced a full time job with six semester hours of course work and 40 miles of training per week. I still had to make a few adjustments with my dosage, but training went about as well as I could have hoped. I completed two runs of 20 miles or longer, several in the 16-18 mile range, and plenty of threshold 5-6 milers at 7:30-7:45 pace.
My first effort at the 26.2 mile distance was May 4th in Eugene, Oregon. The Eugene Marathon follows a beautiful course along the Willamette River and through parts of the University of Oregon. There's only one significant hill, around 7.5 miles into the race, so it's a good race for a PR. I flew into Portland and got to see both the Pacific coast and the Cascades, both of which were amazing.
On race day, because of a nerve-wracking traffic jam, I arrived at the starting line with only 5 minutes to spare. My plan was to go out no faster than a 9:00 pace, then run the final 10K as fast as I could, which would bring me to the finish line in less than 4 hours. I had about 98% of my best stuff and took off slightly faster than I planned (8:45 pace), but I was actually holding back much of the time. Normally, I can tell very early in a run whether it will be a good one or not. Today was a good day. Even though I had never gone nonstop for more than 22 miles, I was sure that I could finish and almost sure that I could break 4 hours. I let out a yell and raised my arms whenever someone cheered for me. This was fun.
I came through the halfway mark in around 1:55 and actually was thinking about a sub-3:50. I still felt like the tank was about three quarters full at the time. If I had raced a half-marathon instead, I think I would have PRed. Miles 14-16 still were all near 8:45, and I talked with another runner who was also shooting for a sub-4 hour time and had just missed on his first try.
With 10 miles to go, the effort began to take its toll. My pace slowed to near 9:00/mile from miles 16-20. I could have maintained the 8:45, but wanted to remain fairly comfortable. It was the right decision. I focused on getting to that dreaded 20 mile marker in less than 2:58 (last 6.2 in 62 minutes) and according to my GPS, I was at 2:56 and change, still ahead of schedule. Barring disaster, I would break 4 hours with time to spare but the tank was now only a little more than a quarter full. 3:50 had slipped away but maybe I could still make 3:55. I took my last power gel and opened a bag of caffeinated jelly beans. Although I did not hit the wall all of a sudden, it was much harder by the 21st mile. I was now running the best I could and it was only good enough for a 9:10-9:15 pace for the next 2.5 miles. Still, most runners on the course seemed to be in worse shape than I was. I probably passed about 3 runners for every one that passed me during this time.
The cheering fans continued to give me a boost. By mile 22.5, my body was screaming at me to STOP and my pace dramatically slowed to the 9:50 range. I would have to run the final 4 miles in less than 44 minutes, so I could not afford to slow down much beyond this pace. I started taking caffeinated jelly beans, which seemed to help a bit. At each mile marker, I looked down at my GPS and found to my relief that my pace was still fairly steady and below 10:00. The final 2 miles in 24 minutes seemed a lot more manageable than 4 miles in 44 minutes. By mile 25, I started getting occasional stabbing pain in my calf. PLEASE don't lock up on me now when I am so close. I heard a few people cuss when they literally could not run any more and had to walk it in. Volunteers were making their way onto the course, presumably to pull people off that appeared to be disoriented. They looked at me and said, "That's a good pace. Keep it up." The stabbing pains in my calf continued to come but abated within a few steps.
I thought about how far I had come and that I had overcome too much to quit now. I had developed a website, and knew that it would be much more inspiring to title it "Chronic Fatigue to Marathon Finish" rather than "Marathon Attempt". I am proud to say that except for the water stations, I did not walk at all and managed to hold onto that 9:50-10:00 pace through mile 26. My GPS had just turned 3:54 at the 26 mile marker, so I could afford to walk it in and still make my goal. Pride swelled when I knew that I had a sub-4:00 in the bag and nothing could stop me now. A sub 3:55 was out of reach, and I was running on fumes; another mile beyond this and I would have bonked for sure. I did not push too hard in the last .2 miles, and about five runners passed me, but I just focused on maintaining the pace to the finish line. One final turn and the FINISH banner was at last within view. I did make a weak effort to kick in the last 100 meters and thought I had a shot at finishing under 3:56. The camera caught me checking my GPS as I crossed the line to find that I came up short, but I didn't care. My official chip time was 3:56:03.
Will I do this again? I'm not going to say never, but "not for a long time." I will focus on shorter races for the remainder of the year.
to the First Marathons page