Walk into any running store and tell the employees you will run a marathon or half-marathon. Inevitably that employee, who is usually a runner too, will respond in a hushed tone with a measured statement, like they are imparting a truism, but afraid of offending your religious sensibility. They say, “I prefer the distance of a half-marathon. That is a good distance.”
I think I finally understand that statement, and why everyone says it with such reverence. It is a lesson that can only be learned the hard way. I learned it this morning running the Chicago Marathon.
I ran the Chicago Marathon last year. It was my first marathon. The bucket list figured prominently in the motivation for trying that race.
The bucket list does not explain why I ran the Wisconsin Marathon last spring, nor why I ran this morning. The motivation remained difficult to articulate. I will get to that momentarily. I mostly wanted to satisfy my curiosity.
Today’s blog provides a discourse on the motivation for running marathons. Oh, it also has details about how today’s went.
Why run a marathon at all?
Plenty of people run marathons once and only once, just to try it. Usually they do this at half my present age, in the twenties. Plenty of friends did this when I was in my twenties. I did not. Despite running 4 to 6 miles regularly in in my late twenties, I passed.
It seems naively pessimistic in retrospect, but it had never occurred to me that I had the physical gifts to run a decent marathon. Other priorities – girlfriends and then wife, household and then kids, dissertation and then university jobs, that sort of thing – always found a way to get in front of testing that naive assumption.
What happened? The kids got older, tenure made the job more secure, and I learned that my wife would tolerate some obsessive exercise if it made me healthy. Moreover, after enjoying the curiosities of a standard mid-life crisis, I had a near-death experience, and developed an almost cavalier attitude towards trying experiences I had previously shunned.
Not long after the episode in the hospital, I said “Why not?” and ran my first 10k race in thirty years. It went surprisingly well (I was in the top ten in my age group). That was in October, three years ago. Appetite whetted, I tried a couple half-marathons in the next year, in April and then November.
The second one – in November, two years ago – went surprisingly well (I placed fifth in my age group). After those experiences I decided to try the big enchilada. My curiosity was piqued. Anyway, why not? It was something new.
The first marathon went reasonably well, but during the run I hit the wall due to rookie errors, and that got in the way of doing the best I could do. Though the incident differed (I threw up at the 24 mile point from drinking too much water), a similar description applies to the second marathon. I made errors. As it turns out, something also went wrong with today’s marathon. Details to follow.
That is the generality about marathons. They require tremendous planning, and hard work, and quite a lot of attention to detail. Then you have to actually run the distance. Plenty of people manage to plan marathons and execute their plans. I have many friends who can do that. Some people can do this as a matter of routine. I know several people who have run over a dozen marathons. In the line for the port-a-potty this morning I had a conversation with a woman who had run 64 marathons prior to this one. (That is not a misprint. She is trying to do one in every state). In short, it is not unusual.
But that does not describe everyone. If you have a personality like mine, execution is a challenge. I habitually push the envelope, and almost by definition, the plans are ambitious. I run with adrenaline, and the excitement of the moment fuels me forward. I get excited and enthusiastic, but I lose my head level-headedness. That leads to incidents, and that fouls up all the planning.
Let me say that another way. I am just not satisfied with a safe plan, and I am not good at executing an ambitious one. I foul up every plan. Blame me. I am the problem.
Let me summarize. I have a running style and attitude that works well in 5Ks, 10K, and half-marathons, just not marathons.
What went wrong today?
My plan was simple enough. I wanted to average an 8 minute mile. I wanted to start slower than 7:30 per mile, and keep it faster than 7:45 for as long as I could, then come in the last few miles at 9 minute per mile. To keep my discipline I intended to follow some pacers through 16 miles or so, and maybe twenty if I could manage it, then pick up some slower pacers and follow them.
Pacers are runners (hired by Nike) in the Chicago Marathon, who run at a predetermined pace aimed at finishing at a specific time. They carry signs, and collect lots of people behind them.
At first this plan seemed to work just fine. I was cooking until Mile 17 or so, following the 3:20 pacers. They did their job, running at about a 7:37 minutes per mile. I run half-marathons between a 7:15 and a 7:20 per mile (including one in June this year), so I did not expect to maintain the 7:37 pace for the whole marathon, but it was not a problem taking it to the 16th mile. I felt good and relaxed at that point.
I lost them just prior to the mile 18 marker and once I lost them I did not have a good sense of pace. I did not slow gradually to an 8 minute mile pace, as planned, and as I usually do in practice. Fatigue set in quickly. There are many things I could blame, but there is no way to know why I fatigued so quickly, and, anyway, it does not really matter for this story. The speed just dropped, and by the 21 mile I was in pain. My quads were on fire, building up lactic acid.
There was an emotional side to this too. I lost a bit of my spirit when the 3:25 pacers passed me at the 21 mile mark, and I could not keep up. I just had no kick.
I still had a good overall time at the 22 mile mark. I passed that mile marker at 2:53, which is still a wicked fast time and had me headed to a personal best. I kept telling myself to take it one mile at a time, but that mantra did not last long. Prior to the 23 marker I was getting cramps in my quads like somebody sticking a knife in my legs, and the pain kept getting sharper with each step. It was getting warm in the sun, and I had started passing walkers who had cramped. They limped down the street. I had never had this particular malady and it scared me. I was psychologically prepared to gut out lots of things I had experienced in the past, but something sharp in my quads was new and unexpected and really painful.
I was not sure what to do. I could have kept going, or try to walk it off. I just made a decision not to risk a full cramp, so I stopped running and walked to get the pain out, hoping I would be able to start up again. I walked for a few minutes, then started running again. It did not work. After a mile or so I had to stop again and walk. At 25 miles I started up again and high-fived my family (in the stands) between 25 and 26, and went into the finish with nothing left in my legs except rubber. By then I knew the pace had collapsed. The rhythm in my running never returned after I started walking. In retrospect I made the wrong decision.
It also surprised me how emotional I got on this one. Phil and Yael came out with their daughter Tali, and they had a sign! They were at about the seven mile marker. I was really touched. My wife and kids came out and cheered for me at a three spots, at 13.5 miles, at 16.5 miles, and at 25.5 miles. At every place I put out my hand and they did too and we slapped hands. The crowds were awesome and very supportive, but having my family there really meant a lot to me, and lifted my spirits when I was doing well, as well as when I was not doing so well.
Every marathon has not been perfect in one way or another. Defying the best laid plans just seems to be inevitable when I run these races.
Don’t misinterpret that statement. I am glad I ran this morning. Maybe it is just endorphins speaking, but it does not bother me that things fell apart at the end. I finished. I did not die. And I did not throw up. Those are some impressive accomplishments. I was also among the top 9,000 runners (out of 40,000. Look, that is in the top 20%. It is still the case that I am still surprisingly good at this.)
More to the point, I got illumination. I think I now have a way to understand why this seems to always happens.
I also have reached a conclusion: I prefer the distance of a half-marathon. That is a good distance.
When my wife and I and the kids got home I took a very long shower. Afterwards I just ate anything I could find – an apple, M&Ms, cranapple juice, grapes, trail mix, and a ton of other stuff. I sat at the kitchen table and told my wife that during the shower I had decided that this was the last marathon. She just scoffed, “You said that last year.”
It is time for an ice cream sundae.