So you have fair warning, I haven’t even begun this yet and I have a feeling it’s going to be quite long. So if long reports aren’t for you, here’s the precap: it was awesome.
For the rest of you, here we go:
Late last summer, partway through my training for my first (and only to date) half-marathon, I scheduled a trip to Nashville to run in Percy Warner Park with the race director for the Harpeth Hills Flying Monkey Marathon. As an aspiring runner, I felt it would be criminal to be on vacation two hours away and not run in the park that he won’t stop talking about. So I dragged my buddy Jerry to Nashville on a hot Saturday morning, and Trent took us around the park loop for a nice 11.8 mile jog. That having been the longest run of my life, and I’d never really run on hills (I live in central Ohio): I was physically destroyed after that run. I couldn’t eat for hours after the run due to a lingering feeling of nausea and my legs were sore for at least a few days. But something in my brain clicked after running that course. Trent will tell you it was the “Idiot Switch”, and while I can’t say for certain what it was, I knew I’d have to run that race. For a slowly developing (read: uhh… lazy) flatland runner, this was going to be interesting.
I read as much running material as I could get in my hands. I checked books out of the library, read running magazines of all types, and did my best to absorb the advice of the more accomplished and experienced runners I “knew” online at RunningAhead.com. I was going to be properly trained for this marathon, and make a nice debut. To make the rest of the training story short, I play a lot of softball and this (the excuse) along with a chronic case of laziness (the truth) kept me from training as I had intended. To what extent? I had planned on steadily increasing weekly mileage to a peak in the mid-30’s, getting my long run out to 20 miles at least once, and running regularly 4-5 times per week. This ended up being realized as two weeks in the mid-30’s, with surrounding weeks of less than 10 total miles. My longest two runs prior to the start line were 17.5 and 18 miles. And while some weeks I ran four or five days, other weeks it was two runs.
I was consistently inconsistent, to the point that I could sense the slight apprehension others who knew the situation had in asking me, “are you ready?” In fact, that exact question was thrown around in a little bit of jest by some of my fellow Monkey runners at the pre-race dinner. My answer: yes. My lone goal from the beginning had been to finish the race. To some with more talent or dedication to make their first marathon as competitive as possible, I’m sure this sort of statement is anathema to them. But to me, that’s what it was, and I knew it was attainable. There was something else lurking in regards to this race (no, not flying monkeys, Trent), but I wasn’t sure what it was or if I would figure it out.
Fast forward to race morning. First lesson learned: when looking at the temperature forecast for the day, remember that the high temperature won’t occur until mid-afternoon. At 7:15 AM when I stepped out of my truck, it was simply damn cold. I walked to the tent to pick up my packet containing my bib number and other goodies, and was freezing by the time I got back to my truck to affix my bib and decide how many layers I would leave on my body for the start.
Everyone had said how personalized this marathon was, and when I pulled out my packet, I knew this to be true. The front of my packet had my number and name on it, and on the back of the envelope was carefully scribed: Undertrained. LAME. Personalized, indeed. I suppose if it bothered me, I would have not made my log public. But I was fully exposed to ridicule, and have to admit I laughed a very chilly laugh when I saw those words.
Apparel choices made, I delivered my brownies to the baked goods table, and hid myself in the crowd to await the start. After getting a hug from my mom (special thanks go out to all those that made the trip to watch and support: Cheryl, Mom, Mike, Sandy, Jerry, and Misty. You were more than awesome) I found the crew I knew I would be running with at the start (Pam, Cheryl, and Mike from RunningAhead), and it seemed like in no time we were off (finally, after only about 800 words… sheesh).
Since I knew I was undertrained, and wanted to finish, I figured I’d start slow and go from there. An uphill first mile of 10:05 (I think without any walk breaks) was a little faster than it felt, but not uncomfortable at all. It was quickly tempered by a 12:12 mile two. This felt a little slow, but Mike and I fell into a pretty good rhythm towards the end of this mile and miles three and four averaged just over 11:00 per.
Towards the end of mile four, we embarked on what felt like the first nasty climb. I don’t remember exactly what happened, but the next thing I knew Mike wasn’t beside or behind me any more. I couldn’t see him. We hadn’t signed a pact to stick together or anything, but I felt a little bad about it, especially when Pam jokingly chided me for leaving a man behind when I told her a few minutes later that I’d “lost” Mike. Nonetheless, I had decided late the night before that I was in this for me. I was sure Mike would understand. I had to find out what that lurking question and answer was.
I caught up with Cheryl and Pam in the downhill mile seven. My crew was waiting near the water station just after mile seven, and even though I was still feeling fine it was nice to see familiar faces. I hope I smiled and said the appropriate thanks, but I was just trying to not look too pained each time they saw me. We all grabbed something at the aid station, and I resumed my trek up the hill and back into the heart of the park. Cheryl and Pam took a walk break, and I turned around to yell at them, “I’ll see you when you catch up.” I heard Cheryl say to Pam, “he’s looking good, I don’t think we’re going to catch him.” My spirits boosted by those words, I hoofed it up the hill and ran most of the next ten miles on my own.
As I was going through miles seven through ten, I was trying to remember what was coming up next from my prior experience in the park. I forgot how brutal “Three Mile Hill” is. But I made it up, and as I was scaling the rise (mile 10 or so) the leaders were coming down the hill already finishing their 14th mile. The perfect antidote to having the life sucked out of you on that hill was having three of the guys who were booking down say, “Drew, you’re looking good. Keep working hard.” I hope they know how awesome that can make someone feel, and as a first timer at this distance it was a much needed lift. Thanks, Jeff, Mikey, and Andrew. Around mile 11 I saw the crew again, and ditched my gloves and hat as I was getting a bit warm. Jerry ran the next quarter mile or so with me, and I was on my way. I don’t remember much of the next three miles, but I know saw everyone again just past mile 14 as I rejoined the main drive. I “found” Mike at this intersection, he was with everyone else, taking pictures and wishing good luck. With a few words of encouragement, I was back off again.
Miles 14-18 are mostly a blur to me. I know that sometime in this stretch, I started to feel a slight bit of soreness in my hips and could tell that my hamstrings were not as loose as they were at the start. But no major problems, and I kept on trucking. Up and down the rolling hills I went. The funny thing about every mile (except for the first two or three) to this point was that I was recording the splits on my watch as I always do, but wasn’t even looking down to see what they were. I was impressed with myself that I could eliminate the need to be tied to that data. I’m glad I didn’t in this race, or I might have talked myself into doing something stupid (okay… stupider), like going faster.
At mile 17, I spied Michelle and Eric in my sights. Finally, some folks I knew! Over the course of this mile, I slowly began to reel them in. Step by step, breath by breath, they drew closer. Nearing the end of mile 17, Jerry was awaiting to run down to the stone gates with me. I told him I was a little cold and my fingers felt fat and stiff. He told me, “maybe it’s time for you to HTFU.” Slightly taken aback by his lack of empathy, I glanced down to my right wrist, where my black wristband told me the same thing. Stupid wristband. I sucked it up and kept going. As we neared the bottom of the hill, Michelle caught up with us but Eric was still behind, working out some issues in his quads. The crew was there to cheer me on, and they again provided a much needed lift. I took some peanut butter crackers and turned back to the trees to what I knew was ahead.
Michelle and I talked for a minute or so while we walked, and discussed how things were going to this point. Mile 18 was uphill, turn, uphill, turn, uphill, turn, rinse and repeat. That hill would not die. I finally achieved the sensation of an elephant sitting on my chest somewhere during this climb. And here I was thinking it would never hit me. We finally hit the top, circled Luke Lea (awesome view!), and continued the march. I was now past the point of the longest run of my life. And I knew I was hydrating and pacing well, because I didn’t feel any worse than I had at home after a flat 18 miler.
Michelle and I both seemed to be fighting the same internal battles. Somewhere in that 19-23 stretch, she said to me, “if I’m holding you back, please go ahead.” I told her I was about to tell her the same thing. The walk breaks were becoming slightly more frequent (now up to a minute or so every five or six minutes of running). Slowing to a walk was painful. Starting to run again was painful. The best part of these miles to me, and I swear I’m not making this up, was the running. When we were moving along at that steady pace, I felt very little pain. I just felt the finish line growing ever closer, and I knew I wanted to be there. We crossed mile 20 somewhere around 3:30, and I did happen to glance at my watch then. I knew that unless something crazy happened, I would be finishing this marathon in less than five hours. Despite my best efforts to keep time out of the running equation, I now had something else to keep me moving towards both the finish line and the answers I hoped I’d find there.
The clouds thickened a bit in the sky, the sun kiss was gone, and I was cold. I remember someone saying that they find it tough to determine what to wear in this race because they always get cold in the last six miles, and I was finding this to be true. There were occasional gusts of wind that would bite through the layers and run a chill through me. By this time, all sense of decency had gone out the door, and I was using my shirt to wipe my nose (c’mon, I’m running a marathon, cut me some slack). Every step forward I’m imagining me crossing the finish line. It’s a dream that is so close, but not close enough.
We passed the steeplechase, and I knew the golf course was next. As we rounded a corner, we saw it. The golf course hill. Trent, you are a bastard, just sayin’. And I’m an idiot. I looked at Michelle, she looked at me, we looked back at the wall of asphalt that seemed to go straight up in front of us, and I said, “we’re walking this hill.” We slowed painfully, and started to walk up the hill when I heard screaming and yelling coming from the top. I recognized the silhouette of my crew, and looked bashfully over to Michelle and told her who it was. She calmly stated, “we’re running this hill, aren’t we?” We agreed on running part of the hill, and started dragging our dead legs towards the summit. Two thirds of the way up, we gave in to gravity and temporary exhaustion, and finished the hill with a walk. A few words of encouragement and we were back running again, my family and friends left behind. We would see them next at the finish.
The last three miles I don’t remember a lot about. Three things stick out. The first was a volunteer at a fork in the road. To the right was a nasty uphill climb, to the left was a downhill jaunt. I was so afraid she was going to direct us to the right, that I nearly kissed her when she told us we were going downhill. But that would have wasted energy, and I had little to spare. The next thing I remember was my crew showing up again between mile 25 and 26. They gave one last cheer of encouragement, and those wonderful words of “less than a mile to go, you can do it.” Michelle and I agreed on one more walk break so we could finish strong for the crowd. We took a few seconds to gather up the remaining bits of energy and strength, and headed off to the final destination. As we left the main drive, the final volunteer was sitting bundled up with a dog in her lap, pointing to our left towards the finish field. I asked her if the dog was helping to keep her warm. When she said yes, I asked if I could borrow her dog for the last 0.2 miles. I didn’t stick around long enough for an answer because I’d figured out in my head what the question and answer was that I’d felt was lurking somewhere in this race.
Michelle and I squeezed through the path between the trees, and made it out onto the grass. Boy did that feel good on my feet. I could see the finish line. I could HEAR the finish line. I could hear my wife screaming from almost a quarter mile away. And I’d figured out the question. “Do you want to be a runner?” My pace quickened, from the 10:00-11:00 we’d been running, I was now running hard. I felt Michelle slowly slip behind me, but I knew the answer and had to grab it. I made the final turn at the big pine tree, and broke into whatever sprint was left in my body after 26.1 miles. I hurtled my body towards the finish line. I glanced at the official clock and saw I was going to finish in a time I wouldn’t have believed if you’d told me at 7 AM that morning.
I couldn’t believe how good it felt to run hard and fast. It was amazing. I crossed the finish line at 4:45:29, and I had my answer. Yes, I want to be a runner. (Please note, these characterizations only apply to me and my self-perception. I am not intending to denigrate the efforts of anyone else out there. This day, and this report, was about me and nothing else.) I stumbled over to my waiting family and friends, and took a deep breath to fight back the tears that were bubbling just beneath the surface. Hugs were issued, hands were shook, Trent came over and said something about me being an “undertrained fast idiot”, and I was done.
I am a marathoner.
I changed clothes, got a quick post-race rubdown from the onsite massage therapists (thanks!), got a little to eat, chatted with some of the wonderful people I’d met in the last 24 hours, and in short order started the trek back to our cabin in the middle of nowhere.
I learned a lot from this experience. Among other things, I learned that it can be a lot of fun to put your body into a torture chamber like Percy Warner Park. I learned that mental toughness is easily as necessary as physical toughness. I learned that it was a lot of fun to run with someone like me (Michelle also seems rather quiet and shy, yet tough). I learned that people who are personality opposites of me are also fun to run with, and I learned that the folks who are affiliated with this marathon (from the race director and volunteers to the participants and spectators) are great people who love running.
And most importantly for me: I learned that I am a marathoner, I want to be a better runner, and I can’t wait to do this again.