Where the wheels fall off at the end of a marathon
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.
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.
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.