Friday, October 31, 2014

The story of 26.2 miles (Or how Thomas Magnum and I are the same person)

Shortly before the race.

My official time in the 2014 Dublin Marathon was 4:05:45. That's an average of 9 minutes 22 seconds per mile.

I'm recording my time because I sense my older self will be interested in that information. Though I know my present self is not. Indeed, my present self gets annoyed at the idea of paying attention to anything other than the simple fact that I ran really far and I doubt I could have run much further. Or much faster.

Well, maybe a little faster. In training for the race I had been clocking pace times of roughly 8 minutes 30 seconds on long runs (and as speedy as 7:15 on runs less than 3 miles), which led me to assume it possible to complete the marathon in 3 hours and 54 minutes (i.e., a pace of 9 minutes per mile).

"Oh, sub-four and I'll be happy," I'd say when asked what time I wanted to achieve.

In truth, I hoped I could do better –– something along the lines of 3 hours 45 minutes. So, I'll admit there was a feeling of disappointment on the day. Or, rather in a very specific moment. At mile 25, my back was radiating with pain; my mouth and lips were tingling from dehydration; I could find no energy to put into my legs. I was propelling myself forward mostly through chant-huffing: "I can. I will. I can. I will. I can. I will. I can. I will. I can. I will. I can. I will. I can. I will..."

Jenn and I had only decided to enter the marathon a few months before, in mid-August. We had been toying with the idea of running such a distance together for a long time, even going so far as to sign up for the 2013 Twin Cities Marathon.

That fell through when urgent roof repairs ate up the cash we would have needed for flights. However, with the exception of being annoyed at having thrown away money in paying the exorbitant entry fee I wasn't terribly upset to have missed out. Hitherto, I had not run a long-distance race since 2005 (a) and my memories of such events were not terribly positive. That is to say, my memories of my performance in these events weren't positive.

That is, to a large extent, because I didn't know how to train. I had always figured that if you want to prepare yourself for running a lot, you should do so by running a lot. Turns out this isn't entirely correct. But therein you have the reason I didn't see any problem with signing up to run the Dublin Marathon about two months before the day.

Jenn, fortunately, was more realistic about the work ahead of us and produced myriad charts and graphs identifying when we should run and how much, along with advice on what to eat, and, most importantly, on what other exercise we should be doing. Which explains the whole DDP Yoga thing.

I still found myself suffering serious fatigue as race day neared, but overall Jenn's system made preparing a lot less sucky.

Our friends, Donal and Isobel, put us up while we were in Dublin. Well, actually, that's something of an understatement. They basically served as super awesome surrogate parents. They fed us, gave us a place to sleep, ferried us around town, served as cheerleaders during the race, and were otherwise all-round amazing hosts. They even clothed us. On the morning of the race, Jenn discovered she had not packed her running tights; Isobel saved the day by lending a pair of her own.

Friends from the internet are the best kind of friends, yo.

Signing the wall full of good wishes for runners.

The last mile of a marathon is the distance runner's two-minute drill, I suppose. It's the point that all the other miles have led to, the moment when all you do is push. And afterward, it is the thing you remember most vividly. Not that the other miles are throwaway, of course.

There is an episode of Magnum P.I. ("Home from the Sea") in which Magnum finds himself alone in the middle of the ocean, forced to tread water for an implicitly long time. As one is wont to do in such a scenario, Magnum passes the time experiencing a number of semi-hallucinatory flashbacks, many of them related to water-treading experiences both with his father and in the Navy SEALs. It is a surprisingly gripping episode and one that I often think about when running.

Some people think really deep things when they run; I think about Tom Selleck. Don't judge me. Anyway, somehow it is partially from that episode of Magnum P.I. that I get my belief that you can always run another mile. You can always push just a little more.

Mimicking Magnum checking his father's Rolex whilst treading water, I checked the £12 Casio on my wrist as I drew even with the Mile 25 marker. I realised that if I wanted to finish the race in less than 4 hours I would need to somehow run this last 1.2 miles in roughly 3 minutes. The slight twinge of defeat at knowing I would not achieve my arbitrary and irrelevant timing goal mixed with the exhausted relief of knowing that I would finish –– that I could and would survive the final mile –– and served as a sort of pinprick to the balloon of emotion that had been swelling up since I had gotten out of bed that morning.

I had not slept well, suffering anxiety dreams that I would arrive at the start line too late or that my notoriously unstable stomach would sabotage the day. As Donal had driven Jenn and I to the race my mind had been spinning with worries: Had I eaten enough? Was I hydrated enough? Was I too hydrated? Was I wearing the right gear for the weather? Would I be too cold? Would I be too hot?

All this minor panic affected my thinking to the extent I lined up at the start line with the wrong pace runner. Thinking I was standing next to the guy running 3 hours and 50 minutes I instead queued up near the bloke wearing a 4:50 banner. It was only as the crush of runners oozed toward the start that I realised my mistake. Agitated panic ensued and I spent the first part of the race trying to get beyond those runners who were planning to finish the race an hour after me.

In my head I wasn't trying to catch up with the 3:50 pace runner –– I recognised this would be impossible since he was now so far ahead of me –– but that information wasn't communicated effectively to the rest of my body. Filled with nerves and agitation I just sort of lost control and covered the first 3 miles in 22 minutes. Way too fast.

Keep in mind, too, I hadn't covered this distance in a straight line. Roughly 15,000 people turned out to run the Dublin Marathon, so in moving away from slower runners I had done a lot of zig-zagging around within a dense pack. I was expending far too much energy for so early in the race. Figuring this out, I spent the next few miles telling myself to calm down, sometimes even making little "whoa" gestures to myself.

"SMILE IF YOU'VE ALREADY PEED A LITTLE!" announced a sign being held by a woman in Phoenix Park. This was around mile 6, and I was finally calming enough to be looking around and taking in the incredible support of Dubliners. They were lining the route, banging drums, singing and shouting encouragement. To be a recipient of so much goodwill is a reason in and of itself to run a marathon.

You can see from the picture at the start of this post I had chosen to wear a shirt with the University of Texas Longhorns logo on it. Ireland is a long way from Texas but a surprising number of supporters knew the logo's significance.

"Go on, Texas! You're doing great!" people would shout. "Hook 'em!"

I wrote "Go Go Super Jenn!" on the wall of support.
The size of the crowd increased or decreased depending on what part of the city we were running through, of course. In some places supporters were shoulder to shoulder, in stretches through park there might be just one or two people, but always, all of them, cheering and clapping and ringing bells and shouting and making the whole thing feel like a 26.2-mile party. I saw a man dressed as Elvis dancing with a woman dressed as a toilet. A little girl had set up a full drum kit and was playing with full gusto. Countless children offered high fives. One man stood on a wall playing guitar and joked with runners in his thick Dublin accent: "Ye's wouldn't happen to have some water? I'm really thirsty from all this singin'."

The hundreds of volunteers at the water stations moved at full speed to hand out drinks to runners without any of us having to break pace. They shouted and whistled and whooped support as we stomped through.

Many of the runners themselves were supportive, too. They were dressed in costumes or wearing wigs. They blew whistles or cheered at mile markers. Others inspired just by being there: some carried pictures of loved ones who had passed away. One man ran pushing his MS-crippled brother in a wheelchair.

Wearing my University of Texas shirt had been a good idea in terms of making me slightly identifiable within a crowd, but it was ill suited for the weather. I had trained expecting the sort of windy, grey, cold misery that all of us in the Soggy Nations experience in late October. But in a fit of climatological freakishness weather on this day was sunny and warm. The temperature rose to 20C (68F). The heat, combined with my unnecessary wasting of energy at the start of the race (many runners also complained of strong winds but I honestly don't remember this as too much a problem), began to affect me just past mile 19.

By now I was going through water more quickly and unable to fully quench my thirst. The two pieces of toast I had eaten for breakfast felt like not nearly enough. All around me, a surprising number of runners had broken into limping walks. I felt weak, and some part of me started to wonder where I was going to find the energy to push on.

At mile 20 there was a family handing out bags of Jelly Babies, a soft candy. I had seen a few other supporters offering sweets and bits of fruit but to this point had paid little attention because, well, you know: candy from strangers. But in this case the stranger offering me a clear plastic bag of candy was a 6-year-old girl.

"Thankyouthankyouthankyou," I wheezed, giving her an enfeebled high five and trundling forward.

I accepted candy from a few other people further on, and by mile 22 was back to feeling confident I would finish the race. To underscore this and to resist the temptation to join the increasing number of people walking I had fallen into repeating to myself, in the style of the Team USA "I Believe" chant: "I will not fucking walk."

After a time it occurred to me I was speaking to myself in negatives and the personal chant morphed into: "I can. I will."

At mile 25, when that emotional balloon burst –– filled with anxiety and joy and people's cheering and laughter –– I started sobbing uncontrollably. It was a strange sort of sobbing because my body was too dehydrated to produce tears. My lungs were too overtaxed to hyperventilate. I suspect that to an observer I just looked like someone who was trying hard to push through the last mile. And I was.

In that last mile the support of Dubliners increased exponentially. The crowds now heaved on each side of the route. Their noise was deafening. The race winner, Kenyan Eliud Too, had finished almost two hours beforehand but people were screaming as if I were in the lead. It was one of the most life-affirming things I have ever experienced first-hand.

When I crossed the finish line I discovered my back and shoulders had tightened so much I could not straighten to walk. I fell into a hopping limp as I moved along, breathlessly saying "thankyouthankyouthankyou" to the volunteers who ushered me along, put a medal around my neck, and gave me a bag full of post-run drinks and foods.

A little further on I found a place to stop and go through my post-run stretching routine. I did so gingerly and without much grace. Bending over to touch my toes I almost fell over. Doing a hip stretch required I lie down, so I eased to the ground and lie flat on my back, my arms outstretched.

I looked up into the blue sky and thought about the all-but-defeated skinny man in a University of Texas shirt now lying in the middle of a Dublin street. I listened to the crowd still roaring not too far away and the happy-exhausted chatter of others who had finished. I thought of Donal and Isobel, who I knew were somewhere nearby to take us back home to shower. I thought of Jenn and how happy she must be to be nearing the finish of her first marathon. And I realised that this, most peculiarly, was one of the best moments of my life.


(a) EDIT: Actually, no, I forgot about running the Cardiff Half Marathon in 2007.

1 comment:

Mom said...

A great story! Thanks for sharing this experience.