May 2, 2005

When Pigs Fly!

...that would have been my answer a year ago if you'd've asked me, "Hey, wanna run a marathon?" First off, I hate running; second, I don't have the lung capacity to run two blocks, much less 26.2 miles. Third, I hate running, detest it. Fourth, I don't have the kind of time it takes to train for something like that. Fifth, I hate running; it was always forced on me as a kid and I find no joy in the activity. Sixth, while I do like rock climbing and roller-blading, I am most assuredly not an athlete. And did I mention I hate running?

Fast forward a bit, to a phone call in late October. My sister has just completed the Chicago marathon. Wow!

A couple days later...I find out that another of my online friends has succumbed to Cystic Fibrosis. I am depressed for a week. Until...

I'm standing by the side of the road in the heart of Brooklyn, cheering on forty thousand runners as they pass by in the ING New York City Marathon. Many of them have on the lime green CF jerseys. God, it'd be neat to do that, I thought. No, not neat. Great! Fantastic! I could never do that. Could I?

I announce at work I'm going to start running and I buy my first pair of running shoes. My sister sends me a book for beginners which helps them train for a marathon in four months.

We made a plan. My family would meet in Cincinnati May 1st. I had almost six months. At the time, I couldn't run a long block without having to stop and catch my breath. It took two months before I could run 30 minutes continuously. And very slowly at that.

But yesterday, May 1st, 2005, I RAN THE CINCINNATI FLYING PIG MARATHON!!!

Technically, I participated in the marathon. I think to say one runs a marathon is to say one doesn't walk any of it. Well, I walked some of it. But I finished running!

The weather was great -- crystal clear skies, temps started at 39 degrees, rose to the mid-50s by the time I was done; I took just the right amount of clothes and didn't have to "lose" anything.

I ran a really strong first half. I set out on a good, measured pace with my sister, Rachel. We ran the first six or seven miles together, not going too fast, about a 10:45 mile or so. Turns out that, even without enough training for this event, she actually speeds up going uphills without meaning to. After mile five or six somewhere, I said "go ahead" and by the time the half-marathon turn around point came up, I'd lost her completely. (She had signed up for the half-marathon kinda late in the game, along with my mom, who had started an hour earlier and was walking the half-marathon. I had signed up for the full marathon and [at the time] there had been no half-marathon option. Was there a big man upstairs manipulating things to make sure I ran the whole thing??)

So off Rachel went. And I trucked on. At mile 11, still going strong, I had emptied two of my HEED flasks and one of my gel flasks. Fortunately, that's exactly what I'd planned, since my cousin's house was right on the route at that point. I zipped off to their lawn, threw my empties on the ground, grabbed the 24oz bottle of HEED and new gel flask and took off. Didn't skip a beat and kept going strong all the way to mile 19. By that point, I'd finished the 24oz bottle and had switched my fueling to the concentrated Perpetuem, along with some water from the tables. And while I still felt energetic and mentally strong, my thigh muscles -- in front and back -- were beginning to lock up and not cooperate. I stopped several times over the next couple miles to stretch, but that would only help for a few minutes. And while the aches and pains in my feet, knees, and hips were immitating all the pains and injuries I'd had in my training to date, they weren't stopping me -- it was those thigh muscles. Damn.

Let me back up a bit. The route of the Flying Pig is flat for five-six miles, then a long uphill battle for the next five or six, then downhill six, then flat eight; approximately. I found the hills OK, but the downhills finally took their toll on my muscles and joints. By the time I got out on the (rather boring) flats, I was in a walk-jog-walk-jog mode.

Let me back up a little bit more. Let's say I have been a Deiist most of my life -- a vague belief that God exists, but he's on leave of absence -- that he chooses not to be involved anymore. Subsequent to that belief is the belief that prayer is useless. A rather pessimistic view, huh? Well, over the last few months, I'd noticed that when I appealed to God for some strength regarding my training, that strength always came through, provided I put in the effort. God helps those who help themselves, after all. Well, on the plane to Cincinnati, I had taken some time and really asked God for help. I knew that after two weeks of no running at all and only this minimal six months of training (not to mention CF, no fat reserves, etc.) that I needed some Grace to get through this. Religion has not been a cornerstone of my life, but Saturday I was asking for help honestly, plainly, and I put myself in God's hands.

About mile 21, I realized that walk-jog-walk is a "survival shuffle". I cleared my head and said to myself, Self -- you need to just WALK, that's it. Keep up a good pace, but just WALK. Let the lactic acid clear out a bit; let the Perpetuem and Sonic Strawberry powergel have a few minutes to do their work. Walk and then finish RUNNING. I had doubts in my mind about this; it felt like a cop-out. But I was soon up to a power-walk stride that I kept up for three miles and with it I was passing a lot of walkers -- including one gent I chatted with who was on his second marathon that weekend. By this point, I had forgotten all about my prayer to God the previous day. I have strong belief in my own willpower and knew that I would finish, at the very least, even if I did have to walk like this.

Mile 23: I pass a choir. Out on the shittiest stretch of the whole damn marathon -- in whitetrashville -- there's this 60+ person choir -- black robes and all, on risers, led by a preacher or deacon or minister or whatever in the black shirt, white collar, the whole bit. He's leading them from a little distance as he's in the middle of the road giving high-fives to the runners (and now-walkers) as they go by. He's this tall, powerfully built middle-aged man who is the epitome of "large and in charge". As I go by, I clasp his hand in the thumb-lock style handshake, brother-to-brother style. His grasp is warm and firm and he smiles and says "you're doing fine."

And I realized yes, he was right, I was doing fine! And my plan B was the right choice, because it was the choice that would make me realize my goal of FINISHING RUNNING. I felt my spirits lift and when the sign for mile 25 came in sight I got into a trot, then a jog, then a real run and stuck to that for the last 1.2 miles.

I'd passed mile 24 at exactly 5:00 on the clock. (Keep in mind that I have no idea if these individual clock times were accurate or not.) I passed 25 at 5:14:45. I wondered if I could make a sub 5:30 yet. The final mile took me down a slope and into the rennovated waterfront of downtown Cincinatti. I was going pretty strong, too, though my legs felt like hell. They felt like the little unburned charcoal bits in an otherwise-used-up pile of charcoal ashes -- black, stumpy, and useless. But I kept running. The finish line came into view between the crowds and I started sobbing a little bit, realizing that my long-worked-for goal was now, for the first time, a 100% certainty. Then the clock at the finish line showed from behind more people about 75-100 yards out (this is up a slight slope and the finish is very curvy) -- I had 45 seconds to cover that ground -- even then, I wanted to beat that clock and summoned up the last of my energy and broke into a sprint, really zipping it out, and crossed the finish line at 5:29:48, from what I saw.

Today's morning paper had all the runner's times and they're on the web, too. Since Rachel and I didn't get to the starting line for several minutes after the cannon, my net (published) time is officially 5:24:49! And my half-marathon time is also five minutes better than my previous best half-marathon! I came in 3156 out of 3790 -- a significantly better finish percentage-wise than my New York races!

Getting home was a bitch. I neglected to stretch out properly, thanks to a bad decision on my mother's part of where she should meet me and a bad decision on my part to try to get to her, instead of MAKING her come to me. In the ensuing confusion and the 30-minute ride home, I didn't stretch like I should have and things really locked up. I expected pain and stiffness anyhow, since I was already experiencing that, but I think I made it worse. I've been eating and drinking well since the run so I hope the damage is already starting to heal. The plane ride home today also made me very stiff.

As I had my sister to thank, mostly, for getting me into this and for contuing to inspire me, I sent her a little flower arrangement this morning and am now figuring out how to download her thankyou message from my phone to my computer. She and I have never been close, but this was a great bonding experience. (She finished the half in 2:19:46.) Also, props to my mother; she walked the half-marathon in 3:45 and was instrumental in getting us a hotel room just a few minutes walk from the starting line.

I would like to see the rest of my family get in on the act, too, somehow. Mom doesn't think she'll do this again -- 3 miles a day is enough for her health at her age. Rachel is beginning to think about another full marathon. I'm already planning which one will be my next and where it might be. If I don't get the lottery pick for this year's NYC Marathon, perhaps I'll try the Marines Marathon in D.C., late October, if registration isn't already closed. Or maybe Chicago!

My plan now is to sign up for some speed-training and endurance-conditioning classes at New York Road Runner. My next run will be on the 13th -- a little 5K for charity out in New Jersey. Should be a good first run after a couple weeks of full rest. My goals for the next marathon are, by priority: 5:15 or under. No walking (which would easily result in the first goal). Less post-run pain and stiffness. All doable I think.

As for God in all of this? I'd forgotten about my request of God until I was on the flight home. The second flight (leaving Chicago) rose up above the cloud ceiling and banked onto the port side, allowing me an awesome view of the nearly-purple sky above fading to pale baby blue at the horizon and the carpet of fluffy clouds beneath us, with the silouhette of our plane squarely lined up in the center of my window. The shadow was clearly highlighted at its center -- where I was sitting just behind the wing -- with a round halo of light. It's a matter of optics I know, but all of a sudden, I remembered my prayer the day before the race, and the sudden appearance of the choir and preacher, and the strength I had to finish the race under my own terms, and finally this beautiful picture outside the plane and I think it's possible -- no, probable -- that I was watched over this whole time, through all my training and especially this marathon. I haven't had the personal strength and willpower to finish anything this monumental since grad school. But God helps those who help themselves, they say. Men aren't supposed to cry I know, but for the second time in two days, tears ran down my cheeks -- there was such a relief in the whole thing; a closure of one process and the beginning of another.

So, OK, God. New York City November 6th, right? It's just you and me.


Derek said...

That is a great, truly inspiring story.


Kara said...

Your story brought me back to my first marathon in Columbus last fall. I remember having several of the same feelings.

You did a great job on a tough course. Congratulations.

Kara said...

Your story brought me back to my first marathon in Columbus last fall. I remember having several of the same feelings.

You did a great job on a tough course. Congratulations.

Anonymous said...

Brought tears to this non-runner's eyes! Congrats!

Chelle said...

Hey, I haven't been keeping up with you and I totally forgot you were doing Cincinatti, but CONGRATULATIONS! You did really great and I loved the way you wrote about it as well.

And it says a lot that you're already planning the next one. I think the usual first reaction is never again!

If you don't make the NYC lottery, Philly is a nice marathon as well,
but I would say NYC, Marine Corps and Chicago are the best ones, in that order.