Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Runner’s Log #13 – Marathon Day: More, I’m Sure, Than You Want to Know

Last minute preparations before we head for the starting line downtown.

The weather people had forecast ‘some showers’ overnight and then sun by starting time at 8.  Of course I woke up at 5 with rain just bucketing down, which continued through 6 and as we were looking for parking in downtown Richmond at 7.  

As ready as we'll ever be!

My daughter’s half marathon got underway at 7:30.  Somehow, the rain stopped, except for the dripping from the trees.  And my son-in-law and I watched as wave after wave of half marathoners blasted off, and we cheered as my daughter bounded off into the gloom.

Ready!  Steady!...

At 8 there was no sun, but we started nonetheless.  I was fashionably dressed in my thrift store flannel shirt to keep me warm and my Hefty lawn and garden trash bag to keep me dry, because by this time it was misting, as well as sprinkling from the overhead trees.  I must have, by this time, descended into auto pilot.  I remember looking around me at the hundreds of other runners in my Wave 4, thinking that every single one of them has worked so hard to get to this place, and then also thinking that these are the people who keep all those running stores in business!  And then without fanfare the crowd began moving, then jogging up to the starting line and then through and we were off.  I remember saying to myself, ‘Thus it begins.’

The bag man to the left is me.

I had several fears as I thought about the race.  One is that I would aggravate my knee injury.  But that never happened.  I was also afraid that I would start too fast and pay later.  I didn’t think that was happening until we started passing mileage markers.  I thought I was in the middle of a group that was pacing itself to do 9 ½ minute miles, but we were doing 8 ½ minute miles, which was not a happy thing.  So I tried to slow down, which was very hard to do.  I succeeded in slowing down some, but I passed the half-marathon point at 2:02, which is about a 9:20 pace, which is faster than I run. I realized that could be trouble.

If that wasn't enough, between mile 2 and 3 it rained.  Enough to get me really wet.  More importantly, enough to get my shirt wet.  The problem here, of course, is chafing.  I’d not had an issue with chafing since my  disastrous long run in Minnesota, after which I had bought some sort of anti-chafing stuff to smear on my susceptible underarms.  I had put my normal dose on and made sure to smear some on my nipples as well (I had read horror stories of guys with bloody nipples…).  This, I am sure, would have gotten me through the race in normal conditions.  But at mile 3 I now had a wet shirt with 23 miles to go, which did not bode well.  Sure enough at mile 12, I began to feel the telltale sign that things were rubbing the wrong way under my right arm.  I still had a very long way to go.  I decided that if it got bad, I would just pretend it was summertime and take my shirt off and tuck it in my shorts and soldier on.

In the meantime, I had been impressed by how well-organized the whole event was.  The Richmond people had obviously done all this before, and knew what they were doing.  And the course was fantastic, with a great mix of urban, suburban and rural.  Many of the trees had cooperated and kept their beautiful leaves.  And there were lots of folks along the route to cheer the runners on, even if the damp weather had kept others at home.  I must have seen 10 signs with some variation of ‘You are running better than the government.’  But that's not saying much.  My favorite sign was, ‘Run faster, or the Kenyans will drink all the beer!’

I had a simple hydration strategy: ‘Drink everything they offer you.’ And so I did.  I had also packed enough ‘Chomps’ to have four ever 6 miles.  And then, as the miles piled up, there were ‘junk food stops’ where you could get gummy bears or pretzels or who knows what else.  I refused to look.  However, a local donut store was handing out donut holes at one point, and I was sorely tempted.  But I passed by.  Five miles later, there they were again and this time I caved.  Big mistake.  My mouth was dry and I had all these sugar crumbs in my mouth…   About mile 21 or so there was a beer stop.  This was welcome.  Evidently they were offering whiskey shots as well, which would have been even more welcome at this point.  But sadly I didn’t see any and it really wasn’t the time to rummage around under the tables.

I was doing ok, even pretty good through mile 16.  I had been looking forward to mile 16 for several reasons.  First of all, I would be finishing the longest hill of the day, the 1 ½  mile beast of an incline crossing the James River on the Robert E. Lee Bridge up and back into downtown Richmond after 3 miles of a beautiful run along the river and another 3 miles through rolling suburbia. I was glad to get that subtle monster behind me.  But most of all I was looking forward to seeing my family.  My wife and son-in-law had all cheered for my daughter at the half-marathon finish line, and then they were all going to walk the couple of blocks to the city side of the Lee bridge on cheer me on as I passed by.  And sure enough, they were there.  They were such a welcome sight.  My daughter, of the just completed half marathon, ran down the sidewalk to where I was and back up with me – where these young people get the energy I have no idea.  Anyway I got all teary and then had pull myself together with the reality of ten more miles ahead of me.

Getting rid of my rain-soaked hat.

Off he goes...  Just 10 more miles...

The tears took me by surprise.  At mile 8 I found myself daydreaming about finishing, and I teared up.  And I finally had to say to myself ‘STOP!  You can’t do this NOW!  You’ve got A LONG WAY TO GO!  Wait till you really finish and then you can cry all you want.’  This happened three or four more times during the race.  And since I didn’t have much else I was doing, I had plenty of time to ponder why.

After finishing the bridge and long incline, after the rush of seeing my family, my body decided that it wasn’t having fun anymore.  It wasn’t knees, it wasn’t recalcitrant poplitea, it wasn’t hydration or fuel, it was just a general rebellion.  And then out of the blue came cramps.  At which point I was most grateful for someone’s decision to place porta-potties just there.

After making strategic use of the facilities, I felt better, but I could tell that it was payback time for my earlier pace.  On all my long runs, mile 17 or 18 have always been really hard.  This time, mile 17 found me with the same issue, but with a lot further to go.

I decided that I would say my morning prayers, again.  This was actually an excellent choice because it got me thinking about something else besides myself and how bad I was feeling.  And having them memorized meant I didn’t have to expend energy generating dialogue, especially since the only dialogue I was capable of at the time was, ‘O God Help Me!’  I also decided that I would walk through every hydration spot, which occurred around every mile marker.  So I would give myself 30-45 seconds and then countdown to a ‘blast off’, such as it was.  This actually helped a lot.  The rest was just gutting it out.  One foot in front of the other.  My right under arm was badly chafed and hurting.  I felt like I was hardly creeping along.  I was being passed by different people, but I consoled myself with the thought that the vast majority of these people passing me could be my children!  And then I would daydream about finishing, tear up and have to say, ‘STOP! NOT YET, YOU FOOL!’  It was hard.

Marathon Training...for an academic

Having not found whiskey at mile 22, I carried on through 23.  At this point, as I somewhere passed 23.7, I entered into ‘Farthest I have ever run in my life’ territory.  And I was still running!  I was hoping that, with two miles to go, I would generate from somewhere deep within me some sort of adrenalin rush to carry me through the last bit in a burst of glory.  Nope.   No adrenalin, no dopamine, no runner’s high, no burst of energy, no glorious feeling.  However, there was gravity, and at this point it began working in my favor!  God bless the course makers! The last quarter mile was downhill from downtown to the finish line at the James River.  As I was running the last mile downtown, I kept looking for the last turn, hoping for the last downhill.  And it didn’t come and didn’t come. And then finally, around one more corner and there it was!  You have no idea the stunned relief!  A long slow curve.  Crowds were cheering along each side.  The announcer called out my name (how did he know my name?).  And there it was.  The finish line.  The end of the race.

And I promptly burst into tears and just wept.  And my daughter came running through the crowd and she was crying, too.  And we embraced and the world gyred around me.

Whence the tears?  This past year has, in many ways been the hardest year and the worst year of my life.  I have been stripped of so much.  Everything I had worked for, everything that I thought I was, identity, work, relationships – everything is changed.  But through it all, somehow I've managed to keep praying, and keep running.  

 I’ve always enjoyed running as a way to exercise, but I never dreamed of doing any kind of distance other than a 10k.  I felt it was beyond me.  A year ago, in the midst of a very bad time for me, I started adding a mile to my Saturday runs.  Slowly, I increased my distance to the point I was running a 10k every weekend in the late winter.  8 miles in the Spring.  By the time I came back to the States in May I was able to run 9 miles.  When my daughter invited me to do the Richmond Half Marathon with her, I thought that I might actually be able to pull it off.

But as the late Spring turned into hot and sweaty summer, I found  that I was adding mileage and staying healthy.  10 miles, 11 miles, 12 miles, 13 miles 14 miles.  I realized that I could do the Half Marathon, and that maybe the unthinkable was actually possible.  In August I was doing 17, 18 and 19 miles.  In September I ran 20 miles for the first time.  Part of me was concerned that I might be ‘peaking’ too soon, but then I decided that I would press on to work on my endurance.  And so there was a 5 week stretch when I had four 20+ mile runs.  And then came my injury and my week-long lay off, and another week of coming back very slowly, and that glorious and fun run in DC with my daughter, and then two 4 mile runs during the week before race day, and then the marathon. 

Running the marathon, and all that led up to it, is the most arduous physical thing I’ve ever attempted.  And starting from where I started, it is the equivalent of an academic PhD, at least in my book.  But most of all, it was something that I could control, more or less.  With everything else in my life seemingly out of my control, this was something that I could do.  I could set the goals and take the steps to meet them.  Nobody else could do it for me.  Nobody else could be blamed for me not getting it done.  And so to set finishing a marathon as a goal, and then months out work on getting myself in the kind of shape where such a thing might be possible, and then hoping that my body would tolerate the training and not fall apart.  And then just getting out and running. 4 mile runs, 6 miles, 10 miles, 14 miles, 20 miles, 23 miles, three and four times a week, racking up totals of 22 miles/week, 28 miles/week, 33 miles/week, 44 miles/week, and then that really stupid 52 miles/week when the muscle behind my right knee threw up the white flag.

It’s easy to get lost in all the details of training.  But behind it all, I think, was the drive to demonstrate to myself that I can do this, I can make it happen.  Sure there are things that are out of my control to effect.  And those are painful places to be.  But I do not need to let those painful places define me.  Because when push comes to shove, I can run a marathon.  I can take care of those things that are in my power to do, to change, to effect.  As the Apostle Paul says, ‘I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me.’  This is why I wept at the finish line, and why I’m weeping even now as I type this.  So much of life just sort of slides by without my being aware of it.  But this past Saturday, this race, this marathon, this was important.

The bigger race, however, doesn’t seem to be done just yet.  This past weekend has become one of those significant mileage markers along the way, for me at least.  And I’m finding that, as I’m daydreaming about finishing this real race that I’m in the midst of, of maybe having an unseen crowd cheering as I come down that last hill, as I hear the announcer calling out my name, as I make it over and see and embrace those so dear to me, I tear up (which is embarrassing right now because I am at work…).  But I’ve got to pull myself out of it, because I’ve still got a long way to go, and I’m not there yet. 

But somehow, someday, as I keep putting one foot in front of the next, that day will come.  I’ll round that last corner.  And whether I’ll be running, or walking, or crawling, or even if they have to fetch me on a stretcher, I’ll cross that finish line.  I’ll be home.

Thanks to my wife, son-in-law and daughter for all the great pictures!  And for being such a great support.

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