What would be the point of being human on this little earth unless we aspired to reach audacious goals from time to time? Of course, reaching for something far and high contains its risks. Sometimes the aspirations will not be realized.
I ran my second marathon on the morning of May 4th. It was the Wisconsin Marathon in Kenosha – official slogan: “The World’s Cheesiest Marathon.” The token meal at the end of the race includes beers and bratwurst. The race has a nice playful atmosphere. My first race had been the Chicago Marathon seven months earlier. Wisconsin had just under 3,400 participants. Chicago had just over 30,000. Both were a big party, but at a different scale. I liked them both.
I had been optimistic about this race and had compiled a special list of upbeat favorites designed to make the run more enjoyable by quickening the pace. The songs started with “Linus and Lucy” by Vince Guaraldi. I crossed mile 25 as the iPod played the last song in the compilation. It was Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” It made me smile. Though I did not need to quicken my pace at that point, I was rather content with the outcome, despite not realizing most of the goals. At least I had made a good spirited attempt trying.
There were six goals for this marathon, listed below in order of importance. These were:
1. Don’t die.
3. Don’t throw up.
4. Beat the time from the Chicago Marathon (i.e., faster than 3:40:19).
5. Don’t walk (except for water).
6. Qualify for the Boston Marathon (i.e., faster than 3:30).
As it turned out, I only achieved two of these goals. You can probably figure out which two (Obviously, this post is not written from the grave). But focusing solely on the outcome does not really tell the story of how the goals came to be unrealized just after Mile 24. That is an amusing story worth telling.
Goal #6 should not be dismissed out of hand as too audacious. It had something to do with my presence in this marathon. Running the Chicago Marathon was merely for the bucket-list. The training made it become something more. In my youth I had never run more than six miles at a stretch. Yet, a few half-marathons taught me that I was surprisingly good at long distance running. It is odd to discover an unrealized talent somewhat later in life, but in my case the joy of discovery transmuted into obsession. I involved my wife and kids, and kept them up to date on progress. They tolerated the workouts, and teased me .
As should be apparent from comparing goals #4 and #6, I did not qualify for Boston in my first marathon. That, by itself, is unremarkable, and quite common. The way I failed, however, cast a shadow on the strategy for the Wisconsin marathon.
There is nothing quite like the 23rd mile of a marathon. It can be mental torture, with the finish line still several miles off in the distance, while the legs are spent, rubbery, and numb. At the Chicago Marathon the bottom fell out for me on mile 23, and I never recovered. I gave in without much of a fight because I was not properly prepared for it. Giving up then made the rest of race a disaster. By the last mile I was shuffling, spent and exhausted, and, in retrospect, probably on the verge of physical collapse.
This time I vowed to do better.
More experienced marathoners helped me understand that I had made a rookie error in my first marathon, not reserving energy for the last few miles. I had paced myself poorly, expending all my strength going out too fast in the first few miles. Experienced marathoners advised me to make explicit time targets for the race and stick to them. That would discipline the pacing.
It worked too, at least at first. The 8 mile mark came in just under 1:01, as planned, and the 16 mile mark came in just over 2:05, just a tad slower than planned. The race had one interim reader at mile 19, and it recorded 2:28, also on target. I was not confident about qualifying for Boston when I came into mile 22 at 2:54, but I still felt good, since some of the prior mile had involved a hill. More to the point, there was gas in the tank.
Mile 23 – the place where it fell apart on the previous race – did not lead to collapse. There was a sense of triumph as I approached the sign for mile 23, even a little elation and adrenaline. I looked at my watch and saw 3:03. I was not optimistic about running 3.2 miles in 27 minutes, as it would require some eight-minute miles, and my legs did not seem capable of those any longer. But there still was a good chance to get a personal best. The legs began to move at a quickened pace.
I paid for that in short order.
I stopped for water just before the 24 mile sign. Only 2.2 miles to go. I can do this. I finished the water, and picked up the pace for the last stretch. It was time to give whatever was left. The end was close.
Not much more than a tenth of a mile past the 24 mile sign I felt a wave of nausea overtake my body. It happened so quickly there was nothing I could do but run to the side of the street. Fortunately, there were no bystanders there. Don’t ask me why, but at that moment I remembered the scene from the Matrix, when Neo gets nauseous when he first learns about the Matrix. One of the crew members shouts, “Look out, he’s gonna’ to pop!” Then Neo loses his lunch.
As it turned out, goal #5 also fell not long thereafter. Stopping for this purpose stopped all running. Maybe professional runners can keep going, but I could not. Standing there for an extended period, the endorphins stopped, and tightness seized my lower body – knees, ankles, thighs, calves, toes, and plenty of anatomy of the legs that only medical students memorize. I swore to myself. This hurt.
This had happened in practices, most recently three weeks earlier. Usually it took a few minutes for equilibrium to return. It had become such a source of jokes around the house that the kids treated it as routine. Last year, when it happened very frequently (before I discovered electrolyte pills) my youngest child, who was eight at the time, was once quoted as saying, “Daddy will come home from his run, throw up, and then he will be fine in five minutes.” It had become a routine joke. Once one of these episodes visited itself upon me long after a sixteen mile run. My oldest daughter still likes to point out the spot on Sheridan Road where we had to pull over.
Well, now what? I thought to myself, as I stood there wiping my mouth with my sleeve (what else would you do?). There is no point in holding on to dignity after throwing up at a marathon. I might as well walk.
I must have looked pathetic. A minute later I came to a corner, turned right to follow the course, and somebody with a kind face – one of the race volunteers? – came up to me, put his arm around me and asked me if I was ok, as if he was preparing to escort me to a medical tent. I looked at him, smiled, and said, “I’m ok. Thanks.” I broke from his gentle arms, waved at him, and kept walking.
Don’t get me wrong. I actually was not ok at that moment, but from prior experience I expected that equilibrium eventually would return. I just kept walking. Still, that incident entered a little mental balance sheet. If I actually do feel something else uncomfortable, I thought to myself, I better check myself into the medical tent.
After I got home I consulted my sports watch, which has a GPS tracker on it. I walked for approximately three quarters of a mile. But distance was not the relevant metric at that moment. I was just paying attention to whether my stomach and head felt settled. After a while it did. (My youngest son was optimistic. I had walked for more than five minutes.)
Look, call me crazy, but I thought about goal #5, not to walk. I was sorry to have not realized that goal. In the Chicago Marathon I never stopped and walked, despite running out of gas. I was proud of that. Call it silly pride, but I thought, The next best thing was to cross the finish line while running. Can I jog my way to the finish line? Will the tightness go away if I start running again? Goal #4 faded from view as I made the first few steps, and settled into a slow pace – something close to the pace for cooling down at the end of a workout. At a leisurely pace I ran with Bruce Springsteen’s serenade between the signs for mile 25 and mile 26.
“…The highways jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive
Everybodys out on the run tonight but there’s no place left to hide…”
And, finally, the finish line. After the race I picked up some water and a banana and began to walk off the tightness. My obsession already began to surface again. I have signed up for the Chicago Marathon this fall.
If only I can figure out how to get through mile 25 without popping…
My official time was 3:43:36. It really is not too shabby. It is just not what I had aspired to do. That’s the thing about aspiring to reach something audacious; sometimes it will stay out of reach.