Clearwater Beach, Florida, February 2003. Seven days to go to my marathon debut. I've been here for a week. Visited some friends in Daytona Beach, followed by two days in Disneyworld with Sarah, a British friend I hadn't seen in six years and who flew in from Houston just to see me.
It had been a strange week. For months I had felt the marathon fever rising. It was just about the only thing I talked about, and I could imagine the rising level of annoyance in friends and collegues. And now, this first week in Florida, I was losing that focus. Why? The war talk on the radio, on TV, in the papers. When I had chosen the Florida Gulf Beaches Marathon for my debut I could not foresee that the American government and the majority of American media so desperately needed a war. These past few days I have heard and seen, day in day out, how the average American citizen is being brainwashed into thinking that Iraq and North Korea are about to annihilate the whole world.
Meanwhile, Americans have also convinced themselves that Europeans, especially the French, Germans and Belgians, are nothing but a bunch of pussies. I've been advised by television reports to buy duct tape to seal off my windows, doors and fans in preparation for an inevitable chemical attack. And several media keep insisting that I stock water, medication and food for three days. Am I really in the "land of the free?" I'm beginning to wonder why I couldn't have picked a marthon in Iceland, Fiji or New Zealand. For years now I've been spending my vacations in the US. I can understand the country's fervent patriotism. I love American classic rock, the country music, the cruise control on long stretches of desert road, ESPN, comedy clubs and chocolate chip cookies. But when this country starts bombing Iraq, I don't want to be here.
But I'm here, so I might as well try to make the best of it. I moved to Clearwater Beach today, a coastal town on the Gulf of Mexico, half an hour's drive from Tampa. The weather is pleasant and sunny. If I try to ignore the papers and TV, I might just manage to regain my focus for next Sunday. I've really come too far, both in determination and air miles, to fail now. But I'm still getting my return flight changed to the day after the marathon, three days earlied than I had intended.
Before 1999 I was well en route to becoming a chainsmoking zombie. I worked sixty to seventy hours a week on the sports desk of a newpaper. I was underpaid, often got home after midnight, and worked three out of four weekends, either in the office or yawning in the press stands watching another boring soccer game writing a story that was already obsolete before it hit the newstand. I had given that newspaper thirteen years of my life, I had neglected my marriage, and I was burnt out.
The burnout turned into a severe depression, because a handful of childhood traumas took advantage of my severely weakened defenses. I had reached the point where I had just about enough energy to crawl out of bed, crawl into my bathrobe, and hit the sofa and the remote. I now weighed 130 pounds, not exactly the ideal weight if you're six foot one inch.
The next 18 months I spent trying to clear up the chaos in my head, sometimes temporarily resulting in an even bigger chaos. The shrink and the pills became my crutches. I had also changed jobs, now working for a weekly magazine, where it sometimes cost me one hell of an effort to get to the end of the day. Often I would hide in the bathroom for a while, trying to calm my nerves, and to avoid having to talk or even look at people. If I even got to the office that is. Apparently I was now susceptible to panic attacks on the highway.
It was during this period that Karen and I decided to put an end to our relationship. The last two years, maybe even longer, she hadn't really had a partner. She'd had a mentally ill roommate. She was tired, empty, alone, and she saw no future for us. I was too busy working on myself to be able to help her or help us. And most of her friends seemed more concerned about me than her. I knew I was on the right track, but at what cost? I still ask myself that question at least once a day.
Recovery was slow. The odd yoga session, my weekly visits to the turkish baths, a bit of swimming, being on stage with my band Zep Zupiler, shiploads of philosophical and spiritual literature, the therapeutic effect of British rockband Status Quo, my cats, and and working conditions that were a thousand times more pleasant than before. Month after month, I felt a little better. But there were still some pieces of the puzzle missing. And then came the terrible allergy season of the summer of 2001.
Outside, I could barely survive twenty minutes. There was no way I was going to be able to do that 2 hour bicycle ride I had planned. Well, why don't you run for fifteen minutes, I said to myself. So I did. After about two thirds of a mile every joint and every fiber squeaked and cracked and ached. But I guess I enjoyed it, because I did it again the next day.
One week later, I was hooked. And I figured I might as well adopt a more sensible and professional approach. I made an appointment at the sports facility at the local University Hospital, bought the right running shoes at a specialty store, and threw away the remainder of what to this day is still my last pack of cigarettes.
On September 25, 2001 I took the first step of a training schedule. My diary reads: "2 minutes of walking, 10 minutes of running at 135-155, (x3), pain on the right side of my right knee during the run, pain lasted a day and a half."
Five months later I ran my first road race, from Ostend to Bruges, ten miles, in just under 90 minutes. I think that's when I first thought I might be able to run a marathon some day. In May last year I ran the 20k in Brussels in two hours, no pain, no nothing. I had made my decision: I would run a marathon. But which one? And when? I wanted the first to be a flat course, a touch exotic, and not too crowded. I wanted to run in nice weather, preferably alongside an ocean somewhere, and definitely at a time and a place that was free of grass pollen. And I didn't want it to be too hot. A couple of hours on the Internet gave me the answer. One day after the Brussels 20k I had registered for the 2003 Florida Gulf Beaches Marathon in and around Clearwater.
Sunday, February 16, 2003, Indian Rocks, about 5:30 in the morning. I didn't get much sleep. I'm nervous, and a little scared. There's something wrong with my right hamstring. I don't think I overdid it these last two weeks, or did I? And the weather is a major bummer. Normally around this time of year this part of Florida should be pretty cool early in the morning, as it was the past two weeks. But of course, today, it's already over 75° and the sun hasn't even come up yet. And there's heavy cloud cover, probably about 100 percent humidity. And strong, warm gusts of wind. Bugger! There goes my 4 hour goal. Think I better just think about getting to the finish, however long it takes.
But am I really ready for this? The right half of my brain says I am. Didn't I run that half marathon in Nottingham, England, last September in two hours, with just the one blister that even slowed me down quite a bit? But what about that recurring inflamed nerve between those little bones in the middle of my foot? Hasn't bothered me for weeks, why should it today? So, why don't I just stick to the plan: runwalk, nine minute runs, one minute walks.
It's amazing how many Americans use Jeff Galloway's method. When you walk for a minute, you lose 20 to 30 seconds each time, depending on your running speed. But because your heartrate goes down and you give your legs and feet a bit of a rest, you win back the time you lose and you lower the risk of an injury. And if you feel good towards the end, you just skip the walking breaks. That's the theory.
The theory works. For me anyway. I've been doing it for half a year now. In that half marathon in Nottingham I covered the first six miles in one hour, including walking breaks, and covered the last seven miles in one hour, no breaks. I have no intention whatsover to break any world records for 38 year old men. I just want to run decent times and not be dead for weeks afterwards. Besides, today nobody's going to break any record. One day later the local papers would talk about a heavy summer's day in winter, and I guess in Florida that's a statement not made lightly. So, when the starting gun blasts at 7:05 am, I take it really, really slow.
I've done nine miles, and I'm running past my hotel, a one hundred year old boathouse that has survived a couple of hurricanes and has been converted to a cozy appartment. I have never read Hemingway's 'The Old Man and the Sea,' but that phrase immediately flashed into my head the second I met George, the owner. Crooked legs, a long grayish white beard, a straw hat, and a joy for living that's become rare.
I'm not even halfway, and I'm in pain. My right leg. Haven't had any serious complaints in months and today of all days I hurt after a distance that would otherwise be a walk in the park. Did I train too hard? I doubt it. Or is American asphalt and concrete harder than Belgian asphalt and concrete? Who knows. I try to concentrate, to make sure I eat and drink. Fortunately there are plenty of waterstations along the route. Water and Gatorade all over the place, plenty of oranges in the second half of the course, and at two locations we get those horrible carbohydrate boom gels. The wrapper said orange vanilla, but all I tasted was goo. Don't think I ever poured more water over my head. Don't think I ever drank more in my entire life. Probably drank too much. But in this weather, having to pee ten times is probably a lot healthier than dehydration.
And then there's Jacquelyn, who has walked into my life at just the right time. Just like me, she's running her first marathon, together with her friend Moira. Her speed matches mine today. From beginning to end she's near me, constantly urging spectators to cheer us on - us being me and DeeJay, an older gentleman from New York. A couple of years ago doctors told him he'd never run again. Every time DeeJay and I struggle to keep up with Jacquelyn and Moira, she turns to the crowd and gets them to shout 'Go Team Belgium! Go DeeJay!' Ab-so-lu-te-ly mag-ni-fi-cent woman. About halfway I ask her where she gets the energy. 'A guy told me I'd never make it', she says. It would be the only time today that I would see a grimace on her face.
Ten miles to go. The main riff and the choruses of 'Blues & Rhythm', the opening track of Status Quo's latest album 'Heavy Traffic' are pushing me on. Fitting song title, I grin to myself. It's not the only Quo song playing in my head, helping me to push ahead my pain barrier, yard after yard. 'Feel like screaming, nothing's gonna stop me dreaming, all stand up let me hear you say never say never,' that one's good for a mile or two. As is 'I can't live without the rain, that's falling on my head'. After a couple of choruses I replace 'rain' with 'pain.' And then there's 'Down down, deeper and down.' I can also hear fragments of Iron Maiden's 'Loneliness of the Long
Disance Runner' and I recite Springsteen's 'Born to Run.' I think it's bloody marvelous that my first great passion in life, music, seems to get along pretty well with my second great passion, running for hours and hours.
I never train with headphones, and apparently I don't need to. There's a jukebox where my brain is supposed to be. And today that jukebox is loaded with songs, a reminder my ex, who shares my love for and obsession with Status Quo. Funny enough, it motivates me. Maybe I want to believe that if I finish this marathon, nothing is impossible.
The last 6 miles, my whole right leg is on fire. The first three hours my heartrate hadn't gone over 150, and after that it went up a little, but it never got to 170, a level I can take for quite a few miles. That had been my strategy: a slow start, and give it all I got the last ten miles. My lungs and heart want to, but my right leg is the weak link today. The last two or three miles I can only run for three hundred yards at a time, and then walk for fifty. The last mile is ten miles long. And then there it is, the last bend. A biker starts shouting at me. '666! The Number of the Beast!' He's referring to my bib number and the song from Iron Maiden. I guess I have some juice left somewhere, because I start belting out the song. 'I have the fire! I have the force!'
The guy with the microphone at the finish line is drowning my singing. 'Number 666, Patrick Kjoooooooohs, from Belgium, finishing his first marathon', I hear him shout. I am being applauded by a couple of dozen spectators. Their applause is accompanied by that wooooooow thing only Americans know how to do properly. I throw my arms up in the air. Only later do I realise I haven't looked at the clock and I haven't hit the button on my Polar. Five hours, five and five, five and ten, who cares. I look for Jacquelyn, find her, and we embrace. Two bananas and a PowerBar later I see Moira, slightly dehydrated but happy. And I find DeeJay on a park bench, exhausted but happy. We smile at each other. Over the course of five hours three total strangers have become faces I will never ever forget.
My list has just gotten a little longer. I can now most definitely add running to the yoga, cats, Quo and the job, even if I can't truthfully describe what I did those last couple of miles as proper running. Am I now the happiest man on earth? Absolutely not, but I do feel fine, thank you very much. These last few months I have discovered that running is just like all the other pieces of the puzzle: all by itself, it is neither the answer nor the cure to life's bumps in the road. But running, combined with all the other stuff, has definitely played a major role in my recovery from depression. Only one piece of the puzzle missing, but today I've also learned a lot about patience. And I'll be perfectly honest, I'm already thinking about the next marathon.
It's Monday, the day after, can’t get out of Tampa. My connecting flight to Washington D.C. has been cancelled because of a snowstorm. They can't help me tomorrow either, so I'm flying out on Wednesday. Guess I'm stuck here after all. The newspapers have pushed their 'Showdown with Iraq' and 'War on Terror' to the inside pages, and the news on TV has relegated Saddam to a spot after the fourth commercial break. All the media attention has switched to one of the worst snow storms in history. But here in Indian Rocks, with a hundred feet of sand the only thing seperating my boathouse apartment from the Gulf of Mexico, the clouds are gone, the sun is back, and I spot a couple of dolphins. And apart from a couple of blisters, there's no real damage. Life is good.