Saturday, March 20, 2010

My First Marathon

The following is something i wrote about my first marathon several years ago. I thought i'd put it here for posterity (and since i don't have much to write about running anymore). This is from 2003.

Personal stories about marathons are both abundant and fairly boring. Still, i couldn't resist, if only because there were a couple of odd twists in my case.

In spring i started running regularly again for the first time in several years (correlating closely to the age of Henry). I'd also been doing long bike rides, including my first organized century ride in February in Palm Springs. Employing a sublimely irrational leap of logic peculiar to people in their 40th year of life, i combined these two facts to conclude that i could run a marathon. At first, i just tried to increase my mileage, but eventually i started following a prescribed 18 week training plan. Working forward from my training start date, i chose the Santa Clarita Marathon in Santa Clarita, CA. The training went well, at least until the last few weeks, and by the middle of October i was pretty anxious to run the race.

Then on the Sunday prior to the marathon (Oct. 25), California started on fire. Since the major fires were almost literally in my back yard, the marathon was not foremost in my mind. It was late Monday before i realized that Simi Valley, site of one of the larger fires near LA, was due west of Santa Clarita. At first it appeared that the fire would not affect the marathon, but on Tuesday the winds changed direction and the fire started burning eastward. At noon on Wednesday, the marathon was canceled.

This is where things started to get strange. For some reason, the idea of not running the marathon was inconceivable to me. Since marathon training focuses on a particular race, i also couldn't figure out how i could delay until a convenient race came along. So i started looking for other marathons that i could run on the same weekend. There were three: the New York marathon, for which registration had long been closed; another in Kansas City, MO; and the third in Boise, Idaho. After a few hours of thought, i decided to try the last, so i registered for the race and bought airline tickets to Boise.

Yes, that's correct: Boise. Boise, Idaho. The place with the potatoes. Let me recap, just in case this isn't registering. I decided to fly voluntarily to Boise, Idaho at my own expense on my own time to run 26.2 miles. I'll never be able to explain this, even to people who understand the compulsion to run any marathon. I don't really understand it myself. Obviously, it's partially because i didn't want to waste the training. I think it's also because i am about to turn 40 and i subconsciously wanted to complete the race before that birthday. Also, at some point during my training i decided that i was going to run the race in honor of my childhood friend, Todd Bair, who was killed by a car bomb in Saudi Arabia in May. I don't know what i expected to accomplish by this, since even my best effort would a meager memorial, but the idea had motivated me while training. Because of this, not running would have seemed a double defeat.

So on Saturday, Nov. 1, i flew to Boise and got a room at the Owyhee Plaza Hotel, which was the start/finish point for the race. I spent most of Saturday trying to figure out what i'd wear, because it was cold. I'd brought gloves, a hat, and several layers of clothing; but i'd forgotten how cold 20 degrees really is. The next morning, the temperature was about 22 degrees at start time. I had a base layer, a long-sleeved shirt, and a singlet that i wore to hang my number on. I wore shorts, mostly because i don't own any running tights. There were only about 300 starters for the marathon, so we were able to go straight from the hotel lobby to the start area, and we waited in the cold for only a few minutes before the gun went off.

Near the end of my training plan i developed a case of what's called iliotibial band friction syndrome, which means that the long tendon that runs from your hip to below your knee gets really tight and rubs against the bottom of your femur when you run. After the first mile, my knee started to hurt but not enough to affect my stride. Like all rookies i went out too fast. I'd planned to run about 8 minute miles, with the goal of finishing in about 3hrs, 30 minutes. I did the first two miles in 14:28, but i felt like i was just jogging. My knee got gradually worse up to about mile 6, but it still didn't seem to change my gait.

Up until about the half way point i tried to find people who were running a similar pace and i ran along with them. One of these people was an older man whose shirt said that he had finished marathons in all 50 states. Twice. I figured he must know what he was doing, so i hung with him for a couple of miles. Amazingly, after about mile 11 my knee started to feel better. I was warm enough, my legs felt good, and i wasn't straining at all. I reached the halfway point in about 1:40, or about a 7:40 pace. I probably should have known this wasn't a good sign.

For the next two miles i ran very comfortably, but then at mile 15 i started to feel pain in my left quadriceps. I hoped this was just some temporary tightness that i could run through, but it didn't go away. I started focusing on getting water and Powerade at the aid stations, but i could sense that i was slowing down. Between miles 15 and 20 i focused on passing half-marathoners who had started about 10 minutes before i hit the second half of the marathon. I reached 20 miles at 2:38, still a bit below 8 minute pace.

Mile 21 featured the only major uphill on the course. Compared to San Diego hills this wasn't much, a big-ring sort of hill for a biker, but at the time it hurt plenty. Just after the 22 mile aid station, my legs rebelled. I had to stop and walk for about 200 yards. Then i slowly eased back into running, but i was probably going slower than 9 minute pace. For the next two miles, every time a spectator yelled out "You're looking good", or "You're almost there", i wanted to stop and beat them with a large stick. Good thing i couldn't lift my arms.

At around mile 24 we went down a hill, which made my knee start hurting again. Fortunately, the next mile and a half were straight, flat, and picturesque. For me, the end of the marathon was like a cruel manifestation of Zeno's paradox. Even when i turned the final corner and saw the finish banner in the distance, i could not convince myself that the end was any nearer. The banner seemed to float backward and i felt like i was chasing it. Finally i did cross the line, but i was virtually insensible. I couldn't speak or even acknowledge the volunteers, and it took me several seconds to remember to stop my watch. My watch said 3:38.40, although my chip time would later be listed as 3:39.10. Slower than i'd hoped, but all things considered i was happy. I beat P. Diddy, and George Bush's PR :-)

Some people have an intense emotional release at the end of hard runs like this. I did not. I felt pain and depletion, but little else. I stood in the finishing area for about 10 minutes, wrapped in mylar, drinking orange Powerade. It was still only about 30 degrees but i wasn't cold. After 3 and half hours of running it's almost difficult to walk. The ground seemed a little too far away, kind of like when you're stepping off a curb in the dark. Some clever sadist decided to put the post-race food and race t-shirts up two flights of stairs. I had to walk up sideways to avoid putting too much pressure on my knees. I had two arcs of salt on either side of my face from the sweat, and depressions in my forehead from the hat i'd been wearing. I must have looked frightening, not in an intimidating way since i was so decrepit, but sort of like those transients that you see on street corners arguing with nobody in particular.

All in all, i'm glad i made the trip. Boise is a nice little city, very pretty and clean, and the course was good for a first-timer. Finishing a marathon gives you a tremendous feeling of accomplishment, although in my case it took some time to sink in. Like many worthwhile things, i think what makes the marathon special is that it's just hard enough to make you uncertain that you can do it. For most human beings there seems to be some sort of limit reached between 20 and 25 miles, so by definition you have to exceed that limit to finish the marathon in the time you hoped for. It's a controlled environment in which you can push yourself beyond what you were designed to do, which in principle gives you confidence that you could push yourself in a less controlled environment. I heard Oprah say that the marathon is a "metaphor for life", but i think that's only true in the sense that life's a bitch and then you die. Life is messy and complicated, marathons are not. To me, the appeal of organized marathons is that they remove all of the complications, so that all you have to do is show up and subject yourself to some degree of suffering for some number of hours. There's something very liberating and joyful about lining up with a bunch of other lunatics dressed in similar goofy clothes to run the exact same course, but in the end only really caring about how you did relative to your own expectations.

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