Storytime: My Marathon Journey: 1983 to 2011

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PART 1

How ironic that my last post was back in February when I was supposed to START training for Grandma’s Marathon. Since then I pretty much gave up training at all. For March I averaged about six miles per week. In April I completed the Martian Half Marathon and also averaged about 6-7 miles per week. Then for two months I didn’t run at all. The two weeks leading up to the marathon I did a couple of four milers followed by a 6 miler the Tuesday before the event. During April and May I started to give up hope of completing the marathon and by June I knew it was not possible. For a variety of reasons my training was a failure and, truth be told, I was feeling very much like one.

Marathon week I was on vacation in Glen Arbor, MI with my wife and I decided to go on a run. The plan was to see if I could just go real easy and come up with a survival plan to get through SOME of the marathon. I alternately ran a quarter mile and walked one. By the fourth mile I was having difficulty catching my breath. This wasn’t a huge problem, just not able to breath as easily as that pace should have allowed me. When I got back, I made the decision that I would not even try to finish part of the marathon. But, since Al and I had agreed to go (and we each paid a bunch of money for airfare and hotel), I still planned on heading to Duluth. The next day I realized I was having some sort of lung issue. Felt sort of like bronchitis. Went to the doctor in Empire, MI and got some medications. Was not sleeping at ALL. Called Al Thursday night and (realizing the opposite was true) said I was “ready to go!” Felt terrible and knew I wouldn’t be running, but I wanted to support my buddy in his effort. Friday morning we boarded the plane and off we went on what would become an amazing adventure.

After being delayed/diverted and stuck in a holding pattern, we landed much later than expected in Duluth. Took a cab to the hotel, checked in then headed to the expo. After picking up our race packets, I was getting pretty bummed out. This was an amazing event and I was not going to be a part of it. Bought a new pair of running shoes. Really wanted to buy a hat or shirt with the Grandma’s logo on it, but felt I hadn’t earned it. We ate at the pre-race pasta dinner (again, felt like a waste of time to me) and headed back to the hotel. Looking at the forecast (RAIN) I figured race day would be tough.

Saturday morning arrived (at 4:30am!) and I looked out the window. It was 48 degrees and pouring rain. Al even looked a little dejected at this point. For some reason I put on my running shorts, shirt and shoes and we packed up for the start. I ended up wearing my Running Fit l/s tee with my old Charlevoix tee over it. I mention this because I had purchased a Grandma’s training tee a few months ago, but purposely didn’t bring it to the event because I felt I was not worthy to wear it anymore. At this point, I was thinking I would at least take the bus to the start and maybe run a bit. Maybe complete a 10k or half marathon and take the SAG bus back to the finish. We headed down to the lobby for breakfast and then onto the bus. On the bus Al turned to me and said “you didn’t have to do this”. I told him I understood but I was not going to let him get on that bus by himself. He smiled and replied “yeah, but you could’ve gotten on the bus in jeans and a jacket”.

Bus left at 6:05am and we were on our way to Two Harbors, MN for the start. The ride out was unnerving to me. Being a point to point course we had to drive the WHOLE 26.2 MILES to the starting line. Felt like it took FOREVER! When we arrived, the rain had stopped and we exited into a mass of humanity. Al and I said goodbye and good luck (well, actually, he said “Don’t do anything stupid”) and, as if by habit, I walked to take my place at the starting line. I saw the 3:30 pace group, the 4:00 group, 4:30, 5:00 and, finally the 5;30 pace group. I stopped there because there were no slower groups to find.

Her name was Sharon and she was our “pacer”. I thought I’d hang out with these cool people as long as I could and then drop. At 7:39 the race started and we started walking to the start line. Seven minutes later I crossed the starting line and what happened next would be completely inexplicable to me and become one of my fondest memories.

PART 2

Sharon was a hoot. She was part cheerleader, part military drill sergeant and part mother. This was her 91st marathon. Yes I said NINETY ONE. She turned us into a cohesive, loyal and motivated unit almost immediately. The first five miles or so went by quickly. I was learning how to work with a pace group and found myself having to hold back quite a bit. After mile seven I allowed myself to run a bit in front of the group, but still listening intently to our pacer. By around mile 10 I was far enough ahead of the 5:30 group where I could no longer hear them. Still maintaining a very conservative pace, though.

Miles seven to seventeen were amazing. I felt fantastic. Not sure exactly when I decided to try to finish this thing, but at some point the idea occurred to me. At mile seventeen I received a vivid reminder that I had not completed training for the event. My legs and arms became heavy and my left knee began to ache.

I slowed my pace and by around mile 19 the 5:30 group caught me. I was happy to see them, but not sure I would be able to stay with them. Just before mile 21 I was dropped and left to fend for myself again. About a half mile later I was feeling TERRIBLE and thought I had reached my limit. Then I met Mark.

Mark was an older guy who had completed a few marathons and was struggling a bit himself. He walked with me a bit and we eventually decided to try to run to that next intersection. Then to the phone pole up ahead. Then to the Wendy’s sign. Getting started running at this point was excruciating! We ran for a bit then walked a bit. Each time we began to run again I wanted to stop. Eventually we found ourselves at mile 23 and I thought, “HEY! I CAN DO THIS!” Not only did I start to believe I could do this, but I began to realize I could do a sub-6 hour marathon! What an incredible change of mind from four hours before.

Mark and I stayed together for awhile. I began to feel a little better and started doing longer stretches of running. We had both agreed that if either of us felt better we could go for it, so I did. As the yards went by I realized we were entering downtown Duluth and I was going to finish this! Unbelievable! At mile 25 I started cramping up in the left calf, but kept it under control. Al found me at mile 25.5 and, honestly, looked a little surprised and worried that I was there at all! He tried to run with me, but was too sore from having finished his own amazing race. Just before mile 26 Mark caught me and we renewed our partnership for a bit. One last turn and I saw the finish. This was almost too much to believe. 5 hours, 39 minutes and 40 seconds after leaving Two Harbors, MN, I arrived at the finish in downtown Duluth.

When the lady placed the medal on my neck I nearly lost it. Unexpected, to be sure, but understandable. My eyes welled up and stayed that way as I saw Al approaching me. We congratulated each other and I picked up my finishers shirt. The next hour or so is sort of a blur. I was just so happy. Did I do it the “right” way? No. But I did it. I remember thinking around the halfway point that if I didn’t finish it wouldn’t be because I wasn’t mentally tough enough.

PART 3

Earlier I said it was ironic that (for all practical purposes) I stopped training for my first marathon in February of 2011. Ironic because it was exactly 28 years before then I started to train FOR it. In February of 1983 I went on my first run. Ever. I still have the log book. I was living in Northville with my dad and went for a short run. After a half mile or so I threw up and walked home. The reason I went on that run was because I wanted to run a marathon. In the past 28 years I have said I want to run a marathon, and, in various ways I’ve trained to make that happen. But, for whatever reasons, I never did. Many times I ramped up my training thinking maybe this year or next year. In 1984 I ran with my buddies in Indiana and could have run one. In 1989 I trained hard enough to set my mile PR and match some of my ’84 times. In 1999 and 2000 I ran fantastic half marathons (1:59 & 1:45) and probably could have run a sub four hour marathon. In 2007 I ran another half marathon and completed CFC. At each of these moments I was in infinitely better shape to run a marathon, but didn’t. Last weekend, after giving up on the idea back in February, I seemingly had no chance of even completing one.

But I did.

Go figure.