Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Marathon Story

October was quite a month. As many of you know, the Step Out: Walk to Fight Diabetes happened on October 24. We had great weather, a fantastic crowd of 1,500 walkers, the Fab Four Beatles tribute band, the Broncos Cheerleaders, and we raised almost a quarter of a million dollars. Because I work the event and cannot walk the route on walk day, instead of walking I chose to run the Denver Marathon the weekend before, trading 3.1 miles for 26.2.

I wanted share with you the story of the 26.2 miles that I ran to support the American Diabetes Association’s mission to prevent and cure diabetes, and to improve the lives of all people affected by diabetes.

My wife, Lara, and my kids, Elowyn & Dash, dropped me off at Civic Center Park around 6:15 a.m. The temperature was around 45 degrees, but I warmed quickly once I got moving. I hoped I could run the marathon in under 5 hours. I hoped I could possibly slip in under the 4 and a half hour mark, if I was lucky. My super-stretch goal was 4 hours, but I figured I'd have to suddenly morph into Superman for that to happen.

Not knowing my capability, I started at the back of the pack, right by the sign that said “Fast walkers here”. I hoped I would be a bit faster than a fast walker, but what did I know? I didn’t want to get in anyone’s way.

Of course, when the race began at 7 a.m., I spent the rest of the next hour trying to get people out of MY way.

At that early stage, I paced myself. The biggest key to long distance running for me was making sure I didn’t go too quickly at the start. Still, I found myself constantly passing other runners as we wound through LoDo, the Pepsi Center and Coors Field.

An interesting side note: Runners will often buy cheap fleeces & gloves that they can toss to the side of the route (later to be picked up by the Denver Marathon crew and donated to charity). For those of you who were wondering who got my ratty wool gloves, I bequeathed them to the Big Blue Bear outside the Colorado Conventions Center. I hope his hands stay warm this winter.

The first 5 miles went uneventfully. I was feeling good, taking my time, not feeling any kind of physical strain at all. At mile 5, I got a glimpse of the first official time clock, which said I was running just over 10 minute miles. That jump started my engine a bit. I knew I could go faster. So, I figured I’d make a quick portalet stop and then increase my pace.

After 7 MINUTES OF WAITING IN LINE, I finally got into the portalet. The frustration of standing in line that long weighed on me, and when I burst out of the little plastic room, I flew along the course trying to make up for lost time. I mean, I wasn’t trying to break any records, but I still wanted to do my best, and 7 minutes is an eternity.

For the next five miles, I pushed much harder than the first five. I wound through City Park, back along 17th and then down Gilpin St. I never went back to my original calm pace, but I eventually managed to back off my “angry at waiting 7 minutes” pace to something a bit more sane.

The hill going into Cheesman Park was steeper than I expected, but I was feeling pretty spry at that point, feeling I could really run faster. Having trained since February and having done my share of long practice runs, I kept that “extra juice” in reserve. The objective is to be happy at mile 23. That’s the hard part. Being happy at mile 11 meant about, well, nothing. So instead, I slowed down a bit.

Along the route in Cheesman Park, my friend Lawdon popped out onto the course and ran with me for a while. His appearance did a great deal to bolster my already upbeat mood. Thanks Lawdon! (That being said, I think next time I’ll ask him to pop out and boost my spirits at mile 25.2. THAT was the tough mile).

After Cheesman, we headed west to Logan St. and turned south again, where we left the half-marathoners at the turnoff point on 9th Ave. and headed down what I have come to all the “dogged” stretch. It was at this point, about mile 13, that I realized the new shoes I’d bought for the marathon were a bit tight around the front of my right foot. It wasn’t bad, but just a little tight. I figured if I could make 13 miles in them with nary a problem, I would be good for the rest, right?


On 7th Ave Parkway, we jogged a mile out to Cook street and a mile back. The street was slanted toward the median the whole way out, and each step put pressure on my tight right shoe. I began to worry, then abruptly put it out of my mind. Thinking about it didn’t help. And since I wasn’t going to stop or get new shoes, there just wasn’t any point.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. In two of my practice runs, I had reached a point where it didn’t matter how tough I was (and let’s face it, I’m really not that tough in the first place). The ailing part of my body just stopped working (once, my knee. Once, my calf). I wanted to make sure I didn’t hit that particular wall, so I kept drinking whenever I had a chance and took my Clif Shots every 45 minutes.

The 3 miles south to Wash Park went without incident. I finally pulled out my ipod and let the music boost my spirits. The pain in my right foot quieted a little once I got on level ground. I took the reprieve to mentally prepare myself for the trip around Wash Park, which I thought would be the hardest part of the marathon. Not only would I hit the 20-mile mark there (which is reputed to be one of the big “walls” you can expect to hit. There are some who say that the marathon really begins at mile 20), but the route takes you on streets around 85% of the park, and then doubles back on the track inside the park and takes you around it again. Running over almost the same ground had a vaguely “You’re not really getting anywhere” feel to it that I was not looking forward to.

Going through mile 19, 20 and 21 was tough, but I was expecting it to be tough, so it didn’t hit me very hard. I grabbed Gatorade and water alternately from the stations, took whatever “Gu” was handed to me, and began to relinquish the tight control of my pace. That is to say, if I felt spry, I ran hard. If I felt winded, I slowed down. Every now and then, during my walk breaks, I would stretch out my calves and hamstrings.

When I left Wash Park, I noticed the heat for the first time. The day was cloudless, and the temperature had been rising steadily since we began. 70 degrees was a lot different than 45 degrees, and I kept my mind on drinking water, suddenly worried that I hadn’t been drinking enough. For those of you who’ve ever been dehydrated, you know that when you start to feel the effects, it’s all over. All you can do is stop, put water in your body and wait for it to regain its balance.

Just past mile 23, I slowed for my last walk break before the big finish, and I made Big Mistake #1. I stretched my quad. Immediately, my hamstring locked up. It cramped so suddenly and so fiercely that I actually had to punch my calf to force my leg back to the ground.

I started running again right away, and I didn’t stretch anything else after that.

At this point, I realized that I just had what I had. Stretching wasn’t going to make things better. Even walking wasn’t going to make things better. My shoes weren’t going to get any more comfortable, and I couldn’t ease any of the aches with anything short of stopping, which I refused to do. I just had to make the most of it and eke out those last 3.2 miles.

And that’s what I did. I vaguely worried about long-term damage to my right foot as every step sent a stab of pain across the ball of my foot, but I pounded up Santa Fe, which was drab, hot and unfriendly, all asphalt and industrial landscapes.

I kept telling myself that 3 miles wasn’t that far. I ate 3 mile distances for breakfast. But I felt my energy starting to wane, and my body was in pain in a dozen places. Still, I tried to push for that little bit extra. I wanted to keep my pace strong. I hadn’t seen a clock in a while, and who knew? Maybe I could even break 4 and a half hours if I was lucky.

When I rounded the corner of 13th Avenue and started east toward the Denver Art Museum, I got a shot of relief. I was almost there!

“I know where this is,” I thought. “The finish line is just around the corner!”

Big Mistake #2.

I forgot that the final stretch included a switchback. We had to run past the finish line on Lincoln before doubling back and coming at it again on Broadway. I’d seen this on the map two weeks previous. I even remembered thinking at the time “Oh, that’s going to suck.” But in my heat- and pain-addled brain, I’d forgotten, and it was crushing.

I know what you’re saying. “Oh p-shaw! Anyone can run half a mile.” But I was so aching to be done that I felt cheated. Deflated. Oh, those steps, especially uphill as they were, were torturous.

Still, I redoubled my efforts, rounded the corner of 16th Ave., got a brief and blessed moment of shade from the tall building, and then came out onto Broadway. Mind you, I could SEE the finish line at this point, but still the only thing I could think was, “Oh man, why is it so far away!”

I picked up my pace as much as I could, and as I neared the finish line, I whipped off my hat and sunglasses and took the advice of my friend, John, who runs marathons. He said, “Be sure to smile when you cross the finish line.”

I smiled. And they did take a photo. My smile looks like the rictus of death, of course, and nothing like a smile, but hey, I tried!

The moment I crossed the finish line, I could barely walk. How I ran that last half mile relatively strong, I’ll never know. But once I stopped, it was as though my body knew it could keel over, and that’s all it wanted to do.

Still, all the pain seemed inconsequential at that moment. Walk, stagger or crawl, I didn’t care at this point. Let them bring a stretcher for me if I fell and couldn’t get up. I grabbed a water, chugged it down, grinned and limped all the way to where Lara, Elowyn, Dashiell, my sister-in-law Carla and Aaron (who talked me into this fool marathon in the FIRST place) waited for me, cheering and clapping.

For those of you wondering about my time, it was 4 hours, 15 minutes and 25 seconds. I didn’t morph into Superman and get under 4 hours, but I’ll take that time. I’m very happy with it. So happy, in fact, that I don’t feel the need to run another marathon anytime soon.


Megan said...

Is that time including, or not including the 7 minute stand in line time? Either way, great story!!

Lynette Conner said...

There are many kinds of marathons in life and running a physical one really helps one through all the other kinds. I swear no matter what kind it is it's the .2 that gets you. Good job! What a milestone.

Todd said...

Thanks, y'all. As to the time question, the 4 hours 15 minutes was after I subtracted the 7 minutes I stood in line and did not need to. My official clock time was 4 hours, 22 min.