I can’t say that running a marathon has always been on my bucket list. It sort of creeped on in the last year.
Last winter, I started running as a cross-training activity to supplement my cycling and to help keep me in shape in the cold Ohio winters. For me, running outside in the frigid temperatures is much easier than riding.
My training started off pretty rocky though. Despite being in excellent cycling shape, my legs started cramping in less than a minute on my first attempt to run. I was surprised how little my fitness seemed to translate between the two sports. My heart rate was soaring at fairly slow paces and my legs would ache for days after I pushed myself even a little. This running malarkey was no joke.
I was a fairly successful runner in high school. I earned a spot in the Ohio State Championship track meet in the 4×400 relay. I was second team all-city in cross country. Now outstanding, but definitely better than average. But, every time I started reaching my potential, I was knocked back down by knee injuries. I stopped running and turned to bike riding because I was worried about hurting myself permanently and not being able to walk when I was older.
This time I was determined to be smarter about it. I read several books about running and training. I had been doing everything wrong in the past. I always pushed myself too far, too fast. I never allowed myself to get enough rest. I ran through mild injuries instead of letting them heal, which only made them worse. And, I was too cheap to buy new shoes when my old ones started to wear out. There were so many factors that had contributed to my past problems.
I patiently began building up my running. It felt absurd to be adding on so slowly. The first week I started with a few one minute jogs with walking in between. Then I worked my way up to 90 seconds per interval. I bought a GPS watch and started tracking my speed. My first runs were very slow and I inched my speed up a little with each workout. There was an amazing amount of stiffness that came with these initial light workouts. I couldn’t believe the toll it was taking on my body. But, I forced myself to rest and let me body catch up and repair itself. When my knee started hurting, and several weeks later when my IT band started aching, I was frustrated. I thought I had been doing everything right, but I gave myself more rest and made my workouts easier to let my body repair.
My slow patient process began to pay off. Eventually, the soreness subsided and the distances started to get longer. My body had built up the necessary structures to survive some pretty rigorous runs. Compared to cycling, running is generally a more intense workout. Runners can burn more calories per minute than any other athletes. That’s why its a great activity for time-crunched people looking to get in shape. I could do my running workouts in half of the time that I might spend cycling.
Eventually, I wasn’t just surviving my runs, I was enjoying them. It became more than just cross-training for cycling. It was fun to get out and explore new places that weren’t practical for bike riding. But why was I doing all this running? I needed a goal.
On December 3rd, I was turning 40-years-old and I wanted to celebrate the moment by trying to do something that I had never done before – run a marathon.
I did a search for marathons that were happening the week of my birthday and decided that the EAU Palm Beach Marathon in West Palm Beach, Florida looked like a good one. I would fly to Florida to escape the winter, run my marathon, then celebrate my accomplishment while I recovered in Key West.
My wife and parents travelled with me and we marked several milestones at once – my 10th wedding anniversary, my parents 41st wedding anniversary, my 40th birthday, and a bucket-list goal of visiting Key West that we all had.
Now there was a goal and I began my training. I read a couple of books about marathon preparation and came up with a loose training plan that I thought would allow me to finish strong.
One of the biggest challenges was that I was training for mountain bike races and the running was just meant to supplement that. If I ever had to cut a workout short or miss it completely, then I would cut the running first and prioritize cycling. Usually I would do a long bike ride on Saturday and a long run on Sunday. Most of my runs were done while I was slightly fatigued from a cycling workout the day before.
At one point in September my marathon training took a big hit. I was in a cycling accident during a mountain bike race at Chestnut ridge. I went down hard and hurt my shoulder and strained my right leg. I couldn’t run at all for at least 3 weeks and it took me several more weeks just to build up to where I was at before the wreck. In the long run it wasn’t a huge deal, but it forced me to squeeze my long runs into a shorter time-span than I wanted to.
Over time though, the long runs built up – 16 miles, 18 miles, 20 miles, and eventually I ran 22 miles (on a treadmill!). I was having conflicting feelings. On one hand I was proud that I had built myself up to this level of endurance. But, on the other hand, these long distances were too time consuming. Once I passed the 16 mile mark, I couldn’t help but thinking that there might be better things that I could be doing with my time. I like running, but did I really like it THAT much. (I have similar feelings about some of the longer bike races I’ve done as well.)
But, I had set a goal of trying to run a marathon for my 40th, so I stuck to it and did the long runs.
I had read that you shouldn’t set a time goal for your first marathon, but I couldn’t help myself. I decided that I wanted to try and run it under four hours. Most of my training was done with this pace in mind. Some workouts I could exceed the pace on a long run and sometimes I was a little slow. However, I started to wonder about my ambitious pace when I ran my final long run of 22 miles. I ended up running it on a treadmill because it was 16 degrees Fahrenheit outside and I decided three hours in the sub-freezing temperatures was more than I wanted to deal with. Most of the workout went really well. I watched two movies while I chugged along like a hamster. However, when I hit the final mile or two the run got much more difficult. I was really struggling to keep my legs moving forward and started to worry that I might stumble and fall off of the back of the treadmill. I was forced to slow down the pace and eventually ended up walking the last half mile. Was I even going to be able to finish the marathon?
After building up for a year, the trip to Florida finally came. I flew down south with my family and went to bed early the night before the big event. I was rested and well-tapered.
I had never been to a marathon before and the crowd of runners getting ready to go was exciting. I hugged my loved ones and crowded into the starting chute with the other 9-minute milers. The chute was overflowing and not everyone could fit in. The wheel chair racers started first and my nerves creeped in a little. My big focus was not letting the energy of the crowd and my competitive spirit inspire me to go out too fast.
The race started and I began my slow march forward. It was fun. There were so many different people hovering around me of all ages, fitness levels and body types. Some marched forward gracefully, while others seemed to lurch unevenly. There was a mix of marathoners and half marathoners and it was fun to try and guess which were which. I would covertly size each runner up and then peek at the color of the their number to see if I guessed right.
For the most part, I ran those first miles in silence. I was trying to conserve energy for later in the race. To entertain myself, I sidled up to small groups of runners and eavesdropped on their conversations. It was like listening to a podcast without having to deal with the inconvenience of the earbuds. I had thought about taking an iPod for the run, but opted not to because I wanted to be living in the moment of the big event.
It was fun checking out the streets of Palm Beach. I had never been there before and I got to see a nice mix of neighborhoods from the middle class to mansions and limos. There were more palm trees and waterfront views than I get on my average run through Columbus, Ohio, which was a really nice change of scenery.
The weather was perfect for the marathon. Temperatures were in the 60s at the start and went up into the upper 70s by the finish. It might have been a little too warm for some people at that point, but it sounded a heck of a lot better than the 30 degree days that were going on back home. I was loving the weather and I could definitely see why people would choose to spend their winters down south.
Around the 12 mile mark, the half-marathoners split off to finish their race, while the marathoners marched forward. The pack thinned out quite a bit. I’d say 60-70 percent of the runners disappeared. Almost immediately, a guy named Ryan Johnson started up a conversation with me. My legs were starting to get a little tired, so I was happy to talk to him and distract myself from the mild discomfort and thinking about the long journey ahead.
We had quite a bit in common. This was the first marathon for both of us. We had the same time goal. He also thought of himself as more of cyclist than a runner.
Ryan had moved from Minnesota to Southern Florida in January. Talk about a change of scenery! He was fresh out of college and had landed a sweet gig as a mechanical engineer for an auto racing team. It was fun learning about the world of auto racing, a sport I didn’t know much about.
He was pacing himself with his heart rate monitor and as we chatted we were rolling along at an 8:45 min/mile pace. Although I was feeling the first signs of fatigue, I was still feeling very optimistic about my finish time.
We ran together for the next 9 or 10 miles.
Around mile 20 or 21, Dave, the official marathon pacer for the 3:55 finish time, caught up to us. My legs were starting to feel a little heavy. It was nice knowing where we stood with our pace and we followed him for a while. I had run behind Dave in the first couple of miles of the race. He was a chatty guy who was full of knowledge about marathons and pacing. It was fun to listen to him bantering back and forth with his followers.
However, somewhere between mile 21 and 22 his voice started to trail off as he inched away from me. My legs started to feel like heavy tree trunks under my weary torso. Ryan was able to keep up with Dave and the group. He noticed I was falling behind and turned around to wave goodbye. (He eventually reached his time goal of finishing under 4 hours.)
I was shocked at how quickly things went downhill. Within a mile or less, I went from sustaining my goal pace to barely even being able to scuffle my legs forward. My pace was so slow that I could barely distinguish the difference between my running and my walking speeds. I made the decision to walk and see if I could recover enough to run a little faster. But, when I tried to run again my legs ached even more and my pace felt slower.
I hit the wall – that dreaded wall. I read so many horror stories about hitting the wall. I was trying to be smart and felt like I was running within my abilities. I was determined to pace myself and not get myself into trouble. But, I hit it anyways. Let me tell you, hitting the wall in a marathon is a very demoralizing moment. Despite your desire to do well, you are forced to spend an agonizing amount of time wallowing in the limits of your own abilities. You are no longer Superman. You are a mortal and you feel like you are being punished for wishing you were Superman.
For the next few miles, I alternated between walking and running. I was determined to finish. I had to finish. It was the only way I could get back to my family and my car.
Somewhere around mile 25, the hot baking sun started to take its toll on me. I was now drinking two cups of water or Gatorade at every station, and despite that, my mouth still felt as dry as the Mojave desert.
Off in the distance, I could see Meyer Amphitheater summoning me to the finish line. I knew the end was near and I was happy to put an end to my misery. With a half mile left, I began to run. It was more of a shuffle. I was determined to run across the finish line. I didn’t care how much it hurt or how slow I was going. I wanted to look like a runner when I finally saw my family and put the end cap on my first marathon.
I marched forward. The finish line was within sight. I saw my wife, Chrissy, and my parents and they began cheering for me. For the next 50 yards I was able to forget everything and a big smile came to my face. I run across the finish line and came to halt completely depleted. I left everything on the course that day.
All of sudden, my eyes started welling up with emotion. I saw Chrissy on the sidelines and tried to talk, but instead of words, tears snuck out of the corner of my eyes. I’ve finished so many running and cycling races and I’ve never been brought to tears. But something about the weight of that moment crushed me with emotion.
The marathon ended up being way harder than I ever could have imagined, but I survived the punishment and finished my goal. I could barely walk, but I was happy that I had achieved a goal that I had set so many months before.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever run a marathon again, but I’m happy that I did it. It was a great way to celebrate my 40th birthday and I’ll remember this achievement for years to come.
But now comes the big question… What should I do when I turn 50?