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Where the wheels fall off at the end of a marathon

by John on April 14th, 2014

According to all of the training guides, I had underprepared. In the running world, “long runs” are supposed to happen once a week or so — it’s never necessary to run the whole distance you’re set to run, but you should feel comfortable having run about 2/3 of the distance . . . for that last third, you can rely on your nerves and adrenaline and chutzpah and whatever it is that keeps an endurance athlete going. The problem is, long runs require a long time, and time has been at a premium — and because I’m a moron a purist, I won’t run on the dreadmill. The marathon came, and I had runs between 40 & 55% of the full marathon distance under me.

Smiling Pre-Race

But I’m me – I wasn’t worried. I would finish.

Sometime in 2014, I want to run a marathon in under 4 hours . . . but, with this being my first take at the distance in over two & a half years, I was going to be happy to “finish strong1“. Basically, I wanted to go out and treat the Garden Spot Village Marathon like “just another long run.” Just a long run that happened to be 26.2 miles in length.

As per my past behavior, I did not scope the course, but I did study the course map & elevation profile carefully. There was a big hill just before the 10k mark. There was another hill between miles 22 & 23 of the same elevation, but with a much steeper incline and decline. The thought in the back of my head was “if I get to the top of the hill with my legs still going, I should be able to coast to the end.”

I started pretty well — within the first mile, I had weaved my way, into & out of the crowd, to find “my pace,” which is always good — at the beginning of any big event, I typically spend far too much energy over the better part of two miles just being able to run my own race. By that first mile marker, I was on my own.

I passed the 4-hour marathon pace crew.

I passed the 3:55 marathon pace crew.

I climbed the hill at the 10k mark and passed the 1:55 half-marathon pace crew.

I hit the “runners high.” Honestly, I can’t tell you too much about miles 8-17. I remember passing each mile marker, thinking “Ok, I feel good.” I wasn’t even looking at my phone to see what pace I was running — I was on autopilot and it felt great.

As we approached mile 20, I consciously started to slow myself down. I still had plenty “in the tank,” but I knew the steep climb was coming – and, dammit, I wanted to be running at the top.

Mile 22 came. The summit came. I was still running.

Then mile marker 23 hit.

In the past, I’ve always claimed that a half marathon is, really, only a 10 mile run — you can coast the last 5k. And a marathon? It’s “only” a 20 mile run . . . and then it’s “just” a 10k. Of course, I was lying to myself.

What felled me is that I had spent too much time thinking about getting up the hill — I got up the hill without issue. But, it was steep going downhill, and, unlike riding a bike, going downhill requires just as much effort when you’re running as going uphill – except, to keep myself in check, I shift my weight back – instead of leaning slightly forward as I stride, I actually stand almost straight up. It was on one of these steps, right after the 23rd mile marker, that my right hamstring seized.

I immediately stopped running, got myself into a squat position, and the kink worked itself out. I started running again, and, within half a mile, it was right back. Again, I stopped, squatted, and got myself back into shape.

The 3:55 marathon pace runner passed me.

The 4 hour marathon pace runner passed me.

I passed a water station and guzzled two small cups of water, run/hopping with the pain in my leg.

I turned a corner and the leg seized yet again.

I lied down to stretch my leg out. Someone came running over from the last water station, a radio in her hand.

With less than a 5k between me & the end of the race, I very nearly had her call for a vehicle.

But I got up. When I tried to run, my leg would seize. When I walked, as long as I favored the limb, I was mostly ok.

A woman with whom I had been running much of the early part of the race caught up to me — on the uphills, I’d pass her, then she’d catch up on the corresponding downhill. Our flat-elevation cadences were just about perfectly in-synch. She tried to pep talk me into running. I tried. I couldn’t.

Others whom I had passed and shared a story or a pep talk or a smile or whatever passed me. I couldn’t go with them.

Mile marker 25 passed and I felt the knot dissipate – almost like the magic trick where a magician will pull two ends of a string and the knot in the middle just disappears.

Gingerly, I ran a few steps. And then a few more. And then a few more.

And then there was mile marker 26.

And then there was the finish.

Garden Spot Village Marathon Medal

It was a beautiful day for a run, and the volunteers on the course were among the best I had ever encountered in a race. I crossed the finish line.

Despite walking most of the last 5k, I bested my previous best time for the distance. Heck, I officially knocked a full hour off of my first marathon time (and I’d argue that this marathon was far more difficult than any of the previous marathons I had run).

Injuries suck. Finishing feels great.

1 Foreshadow alert: I did not finish strong.
  1. I’m awfully proud of you and all you have accomplished in regards to your fitness. I love you!

  2. I’m glad you were able to finished, and with a better time! You prove to me, yet again, that you are a machine!

    • I was, honestly, surprised that I set a personal record for the distance, though, thinking back, I was quite strong the entire time. And thank you.

      – the machine.

  3. Ouch!! What’s amazing is that you finished!! I’ll never be able to do that! Great job!

  4. You finished! That’s awesome!

  5. So what was the final time?? That’s pretty damn impressive. I just want to hit 5 hours on my next one. Gah, you rock! How’re you feeling now?

    • Oh, silly details like final time — yeah, I guess I should have put that in there. I finished at 4:24:01, according to RunKeeper . . . I haven’t looked at my official time from the race, but I’m pretty sure the clock read 4:24:51 when I crossed, and I was about a minute back before my chip crossed the start.

      My first marathon was November 14, 2010, and took me 5:25:55.

  6. Tracey permalink

    You finished and finished well. Congrats!

  7. Laura permalink

    You are a machine. Congratulations! I’m very impressed. Watch out for dem hills!

  8. I read this on the day you published it from my phone but it’s too damn hard to comment from my hand-me-down cell…

    Then I got sick sick sick and didn’t do any blog reading/commenting for a solid week.

    So here I am, post-vacation, post-head-cold-that-hung-on, post Listen To Your Mother finally telling you how proud I am of you.

    I knew you could do it.
    Screw the wheels. You ARE strong.

    No matter what.

    • Thank you, Julie — you’ve always been one of my running inspirations 🙂

      And I made up for any disappointment that I had here with the next event.

  9. You are so impressive. And that just sounds awful.

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