There are many different reasons to run a marathon. I’m not sure that I had any deep desire to do it, but after running for more than ten years and running 5K’s, 10K’s, and other assorted runs, I signed up for a half marathon in 2010. That was meant to be the pinnacle for me. And then, four half marathons later, the longer distance just seemed to be the logical step.
I signed up for the Go! St Louis marathon and started a training plan.
There were several to choose from, and you can probably google marathon training plans and come up with a million of them. I settled on Hal Higdon’s novice I plan. Based on my existing running level, and my work and family schedule, this seemed very manageable.
So, armed with a plan and a goal, I set out to run a marathon!
By the end of March and my scheduled 20 mile run, I was ready for the big race. The long runs were never easy, but I was still able to finish them, and enjoyed planning out the new routes each week. For the twenty-mile run, I left my house, went to the Arch and back. With the cool weather, and a relatively flat course, I finished in just over three hours. My confidence soared, and I was eager to stretch it out to 26.2.
What I seemed to have forgotten from my earlier downtown races was how crowded it is those first few miles. The most common advice is to start slow, don’t rush out early or you’ll burn out. But it seems with 15,000 runners, that never seems to be an issue. It was a good five miles before I felt like I was running in open space and at my own comfortable pace.
Moving out past downtown, we climbed our way up Olive Street toward St Louis University. It was a familiar path- one that I had covered many times on an annual March to the Arch that honors the victims of September 11, 2001. I’d made that trip several times moving to the arch, and now I was going out to the county. I felt pretty good watching the 6 mile marker, then the 7 mile marker, and closed in on mile 8. I could have sworn I saw World Series hero David Freese watching on the street, but I didn’t stop to ask, and I’ve been wrong about that stuff before. Then the crowds got thicker, and the cones indicated the big turnaround. That’s where the half marathoners turn back to their finish, and we go on into the unknown. Just past the turn, I said to a runner next to me, “Here’s where the adventure begins.”
The first thing I noticed was how less crowded the street suddenly became. More than two-thirds of all the runners were completing the half marathon course, and they were now all heading back home, just about three miles away. My course would go on another eight miles before heading back to downtown.
It was almost surreal to be running almost alone west on Forest Park Parkway, but the drummers on the overpass provided a kind beat and a friendly cheer. And it seemed the course organizers made sure to always find the biggest hills for us to climb. The exit ramp into Forest Park was just a little more than I had bargained for, and by miles 10 and 11, I was starting to wear down. I knew I had gone on much longer runs without this much fatigue, but I began to think the warm day, the hills, and fighting the early crowd had taken a toll I hadn’t counted on. As I crossed the halfway point, about ten minutes behind what I hoped for, I was starting to think this was not just the next long run. Crossing in to the county, and getting a cup of water from my friend John, who was volunteering at the Big Bend and Forsythe station, I was really starting to wear down.
And as I approached downtown Clayton, I felt it for the first time.
It was just a little sting, almost like an insect bite, but knowing that it came from my lower right calf, I knew it meant only one thing. Though I had never had cramps while running, I’d had them before and knew just what it was. I figured I’d just run through it and maybe it would go away!
But not only did it not go away, its companion arrived in my left calf. I figured I’d better walk a few minutes. I’d had plenty of Gatorade along the way, and even had some with me, so I drank it, hoping it would feed the cramp and make it go away. It didn’t.
I tried to assess the situation. First of all, I was not going to quit. That was not going to be an option as long as I was able to walk. I figured that I had about 11 or twelve miles to go, and about four hours before they closed the course. I could walk the rest, if I had to. Certainly, that’s not what I had in mind when I signed up, and as repulsive as the idea was, I would not stop now. So, I started doing the math and readjusted my goal. Instead of 9 minute miles, I’d try for ten minute miles. I would walk a while run a while.
Just before the turn back to St Louis, just when I was feeling just about like I’d made a big mistake, I came upon an impromptu water station. Or at least it looked like a water station. The local residents had set up a Stag Beer station! At first I thought they were joking, but as I got close, I saw they had filled hundreds of little cups with a shot of Stag! Oddly, I wasn’t the least tempted, but their kindness and good spirit lifted me up and go me around Delmar.
There were some tough hills there, but I knew that most of the way back was downhill for a change. And I just felt that as long as I kept moving, I would be okay. For a while, I would run about a quarter-mile, feel the leg hurt and then I would walk it out. I could tolerate the pain, but I wasn’t ready for the next stage; complete lockup. My leg would actually lock up. And until I walked it out, it simply wouldn’t bend.
My wife and daughter were working the mile 21 water station, so I was looking forward to seeing them, and letting them know that while I was in pain, and well below my pace, I knew that I could finish if it didn’t get any worse. And sure enough, as I made the turn toward the station, I heard the cry, “Daddy!, Daddy! Daddy!”.
The best part of the race is that whenever I was starting to feel like I couldn’t go any further, there was always someone to lift me up. Sometimes it was the crowd, sometimes another runner, and this time, my little girl. And after another drink, I went back on Forest Park Parkway.
I was starting to recognize the same dozen or runners around me. And it seemed we were all kind of doing the same pattern of running and walking, catching out breath, and summoning the strength to run again. Even the walking part wasn’t really restful, it was always about gathering enough energy to start running again. We didn’t talk much on the strangely quiet thoroughfare, but we all had the look that we were determined to finish.
The relay runners would come flying by, and I wondered what they thought as they easily passed this group that had spotted them 21, 22, and 23 miles. And as we got closer to the finish we started seeing more crowds, and the volunteers would kindly remind us, “You’re almost there!” Well, I knew how hard the last two miles had been, and I knew the next two miles were not “almost there”, but they meant well, and what they were saying was, “don’t give up now after all you’ve done so far.” And I kept going.
Besides just finishing, I wanted to finish as a runner. The hard part was trying to figure out how close I’d have to get before I could start what I knew would be the most painful run. About two hundred yards from the finish, I got the legs moving. It was not much more than swinging my hips, as any attempt at a normal stride was far too painful. About fifty yards out, I could feel my foot starting to lock up and get all twisted up. I just focused on the clock, then on my Garmin, and I’d do the math. When I set out at 7 am, I was hoping to finish between four and four and a half hours. Now I was digging deep to beat the five-hour mark. As I crossed the lone, my watch read 4:59:12!
Of course, the time became secondary as the volunteer draped the Marathon Finisher medal around my neck. I had just completed a marathon!
On the slow walk back to my truck, I looked at medal. Four months of training, of pushing myself beyond anywhere I’d been before. I’d set a goal, and I had achieved it. Maybe not a big deal for a lot of people, but I’d fallen short of lots of goals before. Not this time.
Inevitably someone will ask, “What’s next”? And I don’t know for sure. My goal now is to be less consumed by finishing times and pace times. I want to learn how to just enjoy the run.