I’m fond of saying every marathon is a journey. Lining up at the starting line on race day isn’t the beginning of the journey; no, it begins months earlier, when you decide to take on the immense challenge that is training for a marathon. Yesterday, I was in Minneapolis/ St. Paul, taking part in my 7th consecutive Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon (my 13th overall), and this particular journey to the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul was the greatest challenge I’ve faced yet in my 8+ years of running!
Sunday’s journey began exactly one year earlier in the Twin Cities when I finished my 12th marathon, one which didn’t go very well. I was finishing up my best year yet of running, but instead of savoring the achievements, I instead became obsessed with the one disappointment.
Obsessions are rarely beneficial, and mine on a Boston qualifying time soon became my undoing. I began experiencing injuries. Some would heal, but others lingered on. I got better, then worse, then better again. Somehow, I limped through a summer of training, but I was in no way brimming with confidence. By the end of August, I was thoroughly exhausted. I became tired walking across a parking lot, and even the easiest training run quickly elevated my heart rate.
The Dick Beardsley Half Marathon on September 9th was my wake-up call. The race was supposed to be a time trial, but I quickly needed to slow way down, and even finishing the 13.1 miles at base pace became a challenge. I realized I was severely over-trained. I was experiencing all the symptoms and the only treatment was lots and lots of rest and recovery. I had a marathon in three weeks, and although I knew that wasn’t nearly enough rest time, I hoped that if I took it easy until race day, I could have an average showing. My friend and trainer Martin advised me to simply turn the Twin Cities Marathon into a long, slow, fun run, so that’s what I planned to do.
I walked out of my hotel for the race yesterday morning and was greeted by a steady rain. This wasn’t my first marathon, so I was prepared, and pulled out a disposable rain poncho, which I quickly threw over my head for the short walk to US Bank Stadium. I jogged a few blocks to warm up, then stretched prior to pulling off my warm pants and shirt and packing them into the bag to be checked with the UPS people. As I headed to my starting corral, the rain stopped. As I waited for the race to start, the sun began trying to break through the clouds. I began to have hope that this race would be OK. I had no reason to suspect at that bright, optimistic moment that a primal battle of survival was in store for me. The 2017 Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon would turn out to be my most difficult yet, and even simply finishing would be in doubt until the very end!
My plan to use the first few miles to “fade in” went well as my body became accustomed to the constant movements it would repeat over and over again for the next few hours. There’s a nice long downhill portion at the end of the third mile where I usually speed up to my planned marathon pace and that’s what I did yesterday too. I settled into a pace much slower that I had trained for, one like what I had used for most of my long training runs. I planned to continue as long as possible at that speed, then make the most of what ever portion of the race remained.
By mile 8, I was feeling the familiar wave of fatigue settling in. I bribed myself into holding the pace through the half-way point by promising that I would take a short break, then slow way down for the remainder of the race. My body responded, but I was exhausted when I crossed the 13.1 mile mat in the road. I walked a block through a water stop, then started running again. I ran the 14th mile and most of the 15th mile, but running was becoming difficult.
I realized I would probably end up walking most of the rest of the marathon and considered dropping out. I did a quick calculation and determined that even if I did walk the rest of the way, I would still be able to finish within the six-hour time limit. That encouraged me a bit, but the thought of walking for three more hours just to receive a finisher shirt seemed fairly stupid.
In the end, I continued for three reasons: 1) My main purpose for coming to the Twin Cities was to run this marathon, so even if it took me six hours, I felt obligated to complete it. 2) I was being watched. There were friends and family watching my progress, and after telling them for years that running was all about mind over body, I knew I better follow through. 3) Trying and being called a loser is far better in my book than being called a quitter!
I did a lot of walking after that, but ran every now and then when I felt I could. The miles passed agonizingly slow. Everyone was passing me, and I began to feel embarrassed. I stopped the music and stuffed my i-pod and head phones into my pocket. A while later I imagined I looked stupid wearing a sweat band while walking so I lowered it to my neck. By the time I reached mile 22, every time I would try running, I had to stop after about 10 steps because my left leg hurt so badly. I then gave up even trying. People were yelling encouragement to me, but my legs simply weren’t capable of running any more. I walked in shame, with my head hung low, which only made people yell harder. They used my name because it was printed on my bib. I wished I was invisible. I thought I had reached the lowest I could go, but the race wasn’t nearly over yet…
The wind picked up and it began to rain steadily. I walked on, my head hung low, with water running onto my face. People continued yelling personalized encouragement in my direction, but is was useless. I was getting cold and my fingers were becoming numb. Virtually every EMT and race official I came across checked my welfare, asking me if I was OK. I assured them I was, not wanting to be pulled from the course when I was so near the end.
By mile 24, walking fast became painful, so I slowed down. I also realized my gait was quite uneven with me limping, favoring my weaker left leg. I had two miles remaining and I was freezing, but I was incapable of moving fast enough to warm up. It began raining harder. As the final mile approached, it felt likely that I would begin shivering uncontrollably at any moment. I knew that if that happened, I would be in serious danger. My plan of action was to start yelling for help if the shivering occurred. My race would be over, and everything I had endured so far would have been in vain. My greatest fear at that moment wasn’t going to the emergency room with hypothermia, it was receiving a DNF (did not finish) after my name on my marathon results.
As I passed the St. Paul Cathedral, there were two police officers standing in the middle of the road keeping an eye on things. They were giving the runners “high fives” as they passed. When the officer slapped my hand, it didn’t just sting, it hurt. He was quite strong and besides being painful, his slap turned me sideways, causing me to stumble. I just about fell but was able to catch myself and start the downhill descent towards the finish line. Gravity helped me walk fast again, and I may have even trotted a few steps down the stretch, but I don’t remember.
I saw the official viewing area approach and located Sue, Nancy and Jim waving at me. Sue snapped a few pictures, then I stopped, giving them all “high fives.” I continued on, across the finish line, completing this marathon in well over 5 hours, making it my slowest by far. As I looked up for the first time in hours, I noticed that the hundreds of other runners in the finisher chute all looked just as miserable as me. We were drenched, cold, exhausted, and aching, but we had just completed a marathon, and there was a bright primal light burning in all our eyes. Our spirits had been severely tested, but we had persevered, and that’s what running a marathon is all about!