“It is the journey that matters, in the end.” – Ursula K. LeGuin
And, in the end, this has been a spectacular journey for me, even though the destination ended up being a lesson in suffering and humility. What started last January as a second beginning to my athletic life - my journey to triathlon – ended today at a place I couldn’t have imagined when this blog began: the finish line of the Shamrock Marathon.
Because my time of 3:23:26 fell more than 13 minutes shy of my goal, there will be some negative aspects to this report. It was a tough race. But I want you to know up front how proud I am of what I did today, and of my journey to get to this place. And even though I didn’t achieve my goal of qualifying for Boston (just toss me onto the mountain of runners that have fallen short of that goal), I did set a new PR at the marathon distance by more than 44 minutes. (And, come on, a 3:23 marathon isn’t that bad, right?)
Race day: The day dawned with nearly perfect weather – 54 degrees and overcast. It was a bit windy but otherwise a great morning for a race. Since my race didn’t start until 8:30 I had time to sit in the hotel room and enjoy the sunrise over the ocean. I took care of the race-morning rituals and arrived at the starting line about five minutes before the race (the luxury of having a hotel just a few blocks from the start).
Opening miles: One of my biggest worries was going out too fast. So I made sure to control the pace even as people shot out of the starting gate. After a first mile at 7:23 I locked onto race pace (about 7:10-7:14) and stayed there, with a couple minor blips, through Mile 10. I was feeling very steady and smooth, even chatting with fellow racers. This was the honeymoon period. At about Mile 7 a group of us realized we had been together for a while and decided we would be the 3:10 pace group in the absence of an official pacer. I led the group through a military installation and was feeling so good that I was high-fiving the cheering servicemen who lined the roadway. The wind was steady from the northeast and we definitely could feel it in places, but most of the early part of the course was either protected or running with the wind. The last major hill of the course – re-crossing the Rudee Bridge – was at the end of Mile 10, and once it was behind me I allowed myself to think that the most challenging part of the course was behind me. I was horribly wrong.
Descent into darkness: I had so badly wanted to feel good at the halfway point of this race. I told myself that if I was still feeling strong at Mile 13 I had a fighting chance to hit my goal time of 3:10. But even at Mile 10 today I felt something was off. It’s really hard to explain – I wasn’t tired and nothing was hurting, but I just wasn’t feeling right. Then we made the left turn onto the concrete Boardwalk at the beginning of Mile 11, where we would run directly into the wind for the next 2 miles. As many runners know, concrete is one of the most unforgiving surfaces on which to run – add the stiff wind and the conditions started to take their toll.
I knew coming in that the course would likely be windy, and I had pinned hope on the ability to find a group to draft with. But as I’ve gotten a bit faster over the past year I’ve started to realize that there are a lot fewer people around as you get closer to the front of the pack. There were maybe 10 people spread out in single file in my general area, and the only drafting that was taking place was a diminutive woman who had obviously placed herself behind my left shoulder for that very purpose. I thought back to the huge crowds of racers that I had seen on the out-and-back near the front of the course (the folks who had been going out at mile 5 while I was coming back in at mile 6.5) and wondered if they would even notice the wind because of the sheer size of the group.
I fell slightly off the pace in these 2 miles – 7:17 and 7:19 – and my 3:10 compatriots started to pull ahead. But a feeling in my gut started to grow, and even when we turned off the Boardwalk and out of the direct wind at the end of Mile 12 I had a hard time regaining my pace and my mental strength. This, sadly, is when the wheels started to fall off.
Miles 13 and 14 passed in 7:27 and 7:26 – more than 10 seconds off goal pace. It doesn’t sound like much, but, between the growing stomach discomfort, the wind (which, although slightly diminished, would continue non-stop through Mile 16) and that not-quite-right feeling, my mind started to take over with unpleasant thoughts.
I’m sugar-coating this. At Mile 14 I was in misery. I just wanted to stop. I gave serious thought to just stepping off the side of the course and trying to find a phone to call my wife. I had crossed the halfway point at 1:36:09, a minute and a half slower than goal pace. Again, it doesn’t sound like much when I write it now, but at the time I was coming to grips with the realization that I wasn’t going to hit 3:10. I was slowing quickly and all I wanted to do was vomit to relieve the tension in my gut. And I was mentally hobbled by the fact I was feeling this poorly so early in the race. This had been the point in my long training runs where I was just getting into the groove and picking up speed. Today it seemed to be the opposite.
I thought of how I would explain a DNF to people, but part of me just didn’t care. I was done, or so I thought. In a moment of clarity my mind retreated and I became aware of my legs – they were still going and they were feeling strong. The trouble was in my mind and in my gut. I told myself I would keep going until my legs would no longer carry me.
I took my first short walk break around Mile 15.7 when I just couldn’t handle the wind for another step. I shoved my fingers into my diaphragm hoping to jostle something loose and maybe even to bring something up. Sorry to be explicit, but my gut was so unsettled that I thought just vomiting would help me feel a lot better. But I never did. At this point the 3:15 pace group came by so I jumped in with them for a while, hoping to salvage a decent time. I hung for about a half-mile until the course turned left – out of the wind, thankfully, but onto a shallow but steady incline that would last for the next 3.5 miles.
The late miles: At this point I was resigned to the fact that 3:10 was not happening, and I realized I was now going to be fighting for a sub-3:20. When I was running I was feeling good, but I walked through the water stops and drank lots of fluids. I was very thirsty and the liquids seemed to help my stomach, too. Then I would be off and running again. I laughed to myself as I approached Mile 19 – still going uphill – and wondered if this was “the wall,” right on schedule. It felt nice to walk for a few steps, but it didn’t feel bad to start running again. There was a group of about 10 runners at this point who were engaged in the same walk-run approach – we kept passing each other on the run and getting passed on the walk. It was actually very comforting to know that it wasn’t just me who was struggling.
Aside from an out-of-nowhere 7:20 on Mile 17, my pace slowed noticeably in the later stage of the race, dipping into the 8′s after Mile 20 and never coming back into the 7′s until the last half-mile. I finished up the top loop of the course at Mile 23 and re-joined the main road, where slower marathoners were heading out past Mile 15 to start the upper loop. I have never felt so sorry for another human as when I thought of what those people still had to go through. Of course they were probably fine, but I was projecting my own misery onto them and thinking of how horrible it would be for me to be only at Mile 15 at that point.
The death march: Before the race I had told myself that my training would be tested after Mile 22, since that was the distance of my longest training run. I also thought that I could thumb my nose at Mile 24 as I cruised by, since that was the point where I collapsed during my first marathon more than five years ago. But when I actually crossed these points during the race today, there was no celebrating. The last miles were pure misery. Mile 24 was the fastest of the last 6, at 8:18, but that pace doesn’t seem to tell the whole story (or maybe it does). I felt like I was crawling, fighting for every step. I felt anger toward the legions of cheering spectators as they told me I was almost there, because when you’re at Mile 24, those last 2.2 miles seem like they might as well be another marathon.
I walked a bit after the Mile 25 marker, and then tried to run the entire last mile. I had to take one more small walk break but then forced myself to keep running as the course wound back over to the Boardwalk. Once on the Boardwalk I looked for the Neptune statue that marked the finish line, and it was hazy in the distance. It was maybe a half-mile away, but it seemed like a mirage that could never be reached. Somehow I kept running, and, inexplicably, didn’t stop until I had crossed under the finish banner.
The walk through the finish chute was the longest, most agonizing few minutes I’ve experienced in recent memory. All I wanted to do was collapse in a heap. But volunteers made me keep walking, and kept handing me things – a medal, a hat, a bottle of water, a Gatorade, a banana, a sweatshirt, a granola bar. I could hardly lift my arms but people continued shoving things at me. What I needed was a wheelchair.
I finally found my wife at the end and could only rest my head on her shoulder as she patted my back, like a mother welcoming the return of her wayward son.
“I did it,” I said. “And I’m never doing it again.”
I learned a lot from this race, but also came away with lots of questions. To keep this entry from getting too long, I’ll address the lessons in my next post.