Sunday, July 26, 2009

The path to my first marathon

Back in 2007, a month before my 40th birthday I achieved a significant goal in my life. I finished my 10th marathon. Having only started running three years prior I thought that was a pretty significant goal. Here's how I did it.

I have to confess that I was one of those kids that hated running. In school, running was a punishment and I had gotten my fair share. I was on the basketball team and played a lot of tennis and both chose this fine form of exercise as the proverbial whip on the back. The worst was running lines - a frequent occurrence in basketball practice. I was a fairly good runner but just couldn't enjoy it.

During high school, when I became more of a regular kid, I started running for fun but never anything long. Growing up in El Paso, Texas, you had to be an early riser if you wanted to get in some time before it got just too hot. I don't think I ever ran more than once a week.

I stepped this up when I got into the working world because I began traveling a lot. And as most of you know, business travel isn't as glamourous as many like to portray it. More often than not you see the airport, the hotel room, and a conference room and that's it. For the first few years, I'd go down to the hotel gym on occasion but it got boring really fast. So one day I said, "you know, you really ought to get out and see these towns you keep traveling to." And there's no better way than on an early morning run.

I never ran more than five or six miles until a friend, Amanda, told me I was a strong runner and should try a half marathon. She challenged me to come out to the Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Half Marathon and I figured, what the heck. I'll try it. I had run about six miles, this was double that but how hard could it be.

Hard. I was a wreck by ten miles and really starting to hate life. What made it worse was that it seemed like every other person in the race was getting cheered for and I wasn't. Most of the cheers were "Go Team!" and came from a horde of purple-clad fans. They were shouting encouragement to their teammates, also in purple and just sort of smiled at me when I huffed by. This purple army was the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Team in Training group and about mile eleven I certainly could have used that kind of encouragement.

I finished badly and told myself I'll never do that again. Not that I'd never run a half marathon again. I'd never run one when I wasn't properly trained. It's a pretty amazing feeling to cross the finish line. Despite my pain and agony during the last three miles, I immediately was overcome with a sense of accomplishment that I wanted to experience again. But not with as much suffering hopefully.

The following spring, I was ready to take on that challenge again but this time I'd have help. I joined the purple-clad cult with my wife and we both signed up for the Mayor's Midnight Sun Marathon and Half Marathon in Anchorage, Alaska. I figured if we were going to beat up our bodies for another 13.1, we should at least make a vacation out of it.

Team in Training turned out to be much more than a crazy bunch of purple-wearing cheerleaders. The program had professional coaches, an incredibly dedicated staff, wonderful mentors to help show us the way through both the fundraising and the life change we'd go through in training for this event. in fact the training was so good, that I decided to switch to the full marathon - half-thinking I was out of my mind.

I met some wonderful people that year, many of which have become lifelong friends and learned how to properly train for an endurance event.

I also learned that I had done just about everything wrong the first time.
Rule #1: Cotton kills. I ran my first half marathon with cotton underwear over cotton shorts, a cotton t-shirt, and 100% cotton socks. If you really like chafing, overheating and dragging around your sweat for 13.1 miles, this is the way to go. If you want to avoid all those, avoid cotton and find yourself some dri-fit materials.
Rule #2: Good running shoes. I, like a lot of people, went to Big 5, hit the clearance aisles, looked for shoes labeled as running and picked a pair that felt good but looked better. I picked up a pair of Adidas for $40 bucks and was ready to take on the running world. Big mistake. First off, the shoes were for casual runners at best and didn't have the support, construction or cushioning necessary to handle 40 miles a week and an eventual 26.2. I suffered blisters, IT Band syndrome, aches in my knees and quads and a minor case of shin splints.
Rule #3: Nutrition and hydration. Like many new comers to running I thought all you needed for a long run was shorts, shirt and shoes. The course would have water, Gatorade and other stuff that I would need - and on this count I was right. But they didn't have it when I necessarily needed it. On at least three occasions, I was between water stations desperately in need of fluids. It wasn't a particularly hot day but I was drained from exertion. I skipped most of the food they supplied. Gu? PowerGels? Yuck. What were these alien foods?

TNT helped me understand the importance of these things but I was still relatively stubborn and had to learn it all my way. Throughout that spring training season I slowly took to heart everything they were telling me - and they were right.

When May came around, Reesa and I, along with a small contingent from the team, flew up to Anchorage for our event. We arrived around 11pm on Friday night and it was as light as midafternoon. As we pulled into downtown we saw some college-aged kids stumbling out of a bar and it looked really strange to see them emerge into daylight when it was clearly night.

Our coach had told us to spend the day prior to our marathon, relaxing in our hotel rooms, resting our bodies for the marathon before us, but we were in Alaska for the first time and weren't about to sit in our rooms. So we went out, saw downtown, stood against the railings during a two hour cruise of the bay, hiked all over one of the ski resorts and then decided to trek across a glacier. It was during this hike that Coach Vince's words came back to us and we decided, maybe we had seen enough and really should rest.

The following morning, the buses picked us up at what seemed like an ungodly hour. We had maybe slept for two hours; we were way too keyed up about the following day's race. It drove us out to a high school where we used the port a potties, warmed up, stretched and rested until the starting gun. We gathered at the far end of the practice field under a small banner labeled "Start" and waited for the gun to go off.

I was rather nervous, not only for the reason you would expect, but throughout the season I had run with a guy from a neighboring TNT group who was exactly my pace and we had planned to pace each other through this event. I really wanted his support but this morning he was nowhere to be found. One of our team captain's was a short bit ahead of me, looked back, smiled and wished me luck. I calmed down and prepared to run.

While Alaska is a certainly gorgeous place, the Anchorage course left a lot to be desired. It ran through the backside of an army base, up and over a freeway overpass, and through a few strip mall parts of town. There were some gorgeous neighborhoods as well and a great view of the snowcapped mountains at the end. Unfortunately around mile ten it started to heat up and eventually reached 85 degrees. There was a bit of humidity as well which made this a very tough run.

About mile eighteen, my IT band was really talking to me and a volunteer was handing out bags of ice to help cool us down. I grabbed two and stuffed them both down the sides of my running shorts, right on my hips, where the IT band connects. A few yards later volunteers were handing out sponges and I put one under my hat and pressed down on it as cool water rushed all around my face and neck. A life saver.

While most of this marathon is relatively flat it ends with an uphill and with 25 miles behind me, a screaming IT band on the left side and aching feet, I was done. This was the most painful 1.2 miles of my life - or so I thought until I saw that same team captain half way up the hill. He had finished the marathon and run back onto the course to help his teammates with the final climb. I don't think I had ever been so glad to see someone. He told me I could do this, slowed his pace and stuck with me as I labored up that hill. My feet were barely moving faster than a walking pace but thankfully they were still moving. He offered me a drink of water and loads of encouraging words. That meant everything to me. If he hadn't been there, I don't think I would have made it to the top of the hill.

When the hill ended I could see the high school track which marked the finish and picked up the pace just a little as I knew the end was near. The captain, dropped off with a final bit of encouragement as it was all up to me now. I struggled across the line and pain was immediately replaced with elation and relief. I'd done it. I'd completed a marathon.

Then as I stood before a volunteer who was removing the timing chip from my shoe, all the remaining energy I had left me. I could barely move. Exhaustion hit the extreme and the heat was still coming.

I staggered to the medical tent where they had a kiddie pool filled with snowmelt and gingerly took off my shoes, freed my aching feet from the nylon socks that covered them and sat down fully into the pool. The cold water was shocking at first but massively relieving after about 30 seconds. I have no idea how long I stayed in there. It was heaven.

After a while I got up, ate some food and crashed near the medical tent, completely exhausted. I was asleep in five minutes.

The following day, my wife and I were in rough shape. We did the marathon shuffle through the tiny Anchorage Mall. Everything ached and movement was slow and agonizing. It felt like we walked the Mall of America and stairs were my total enemy.

The pain subsided with time, but the feeling of elation and sense of accomplishment that came with crossing that finish line trumped it all. The next week I was ready to sign up to do another marathon.

50 by 50

My life, like many of yours, has always been about setting goals and working hard to achieve them, then setting new ones. In running, this started for me with a half marathon, then a full, then a full after which I could actually walk the next day. Once I got to this point I was fully hooked on marathoning and set the next goal for myself - to complete 10 marathons by my 40th birthday. In the fall of 2007 I hit that goal with the Portland Marathon.
Then the craziness began. At my birthday party several people asked what my next goal would be and provided lots of suggestions. Should it be to run a marathon on each of the seven continents? To step up to ultramarathons? Triathlons? Do 10 more by 50?
I jokingly responded to this one, "how about 50 by age 50?" and it stuck.
As I thought about it more, I realized this was what I wanted to do. You see, marathoning for me isn't just about accumulating medals and bib numbers (although that's pretty cool, too). But about lifelong fitness and health and that's what made this goal so appealing. There are few people at races that I admire more than the people I see crossing the line who are in their seventies, eighties and occasionally 90s. That's what I want; to be able to stay fit, healthy and strong for life. And that is why my goal is to complete fifty marathons by my fiftieth birthday.
As I write this, I have completed 17 marathons and am beginning to ramp up the mileage for #18 - the inaugural Santa Rosa Marathon.
Later this year I will finally have the chance to run the New York City Marathon which will be a real thrill.
It's also a goal of mine to not run the same marathon twice. I figure there are so many events to choose from, why not experience as many as possible.
Maybe I'll see you at one of my goal events.

To a Great Man

Robert “Buck” Edmondson IV

1927 - 2005

(reposted from winter 2005)

Last month, just four months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, my father-in-law passed away at his home with his family around him. He was 78. I knew Buck for 15 years as a farmer, husband, father and shrewd, conservative investor. I learned a lot from him over those years and will miss him greatly.

Buck grew up in Riverside, California during The Depression when the value of a dollar was cemented into his generation in ways today’s children in America cannot possibly relate. For him, you respected a hard days work and earned everything you had and therefore it meant more to you. You fixed what was broken and reused everything. You didn’t throw things out as is the common practice in today’s society where this year’s products are obsoleted in 12 months or less. His 1940’s Ford Tractor still runs and is occasionally used to free a modern truck or two from the mud or snow.

He grew up in a time where you respected your elders, the government and most importantly, if you grew up in the agricultural belt of Orange County at the time, the land and all it bore. Buck was a thin athletic man who lied to joined the Navy at the age of 16, like so many others of his generation, because the world was calling and World War II was “the good fight.” After losing more friends than could be counted and seeing his brother come home with a Purple Heart, Buck returned from the war and again respected the land, but through eyes that had seen atrocities thrust upon them that were far removed from the care he and his family had shown to the orange trees around them at home.

Those orange trees grounded Buck. His greatest peace was achieved walking through the rows upon rows of Valencias he and his brother inherited and climbing and repairing wind machines that seemed constantly in need of care. The wind machines seemed to need so much of his time we often wondered if it was the trees or the wind machines, that kept them from freezing in winter, that needed him most. Buck also spent countless hours in winter tending to a series of old-world smudge pots that delivered heat to the trees and fighting snails and “political snakes” over precious water rights. To say Buck had a green thumb was far shy of an understatement. If it came from the soil and needed water, Buck could make it grow.

Shortly after I met him, he and his wife Bobbie moved from Riverside to escape the encroaching LA smog and settled in the small Gold Rush town of West Point, California. About an hour outside of Sacramento, West Point was a long drive from Buck’s orange groves and he diligently made the over 9 hour drive to tend his trees. It was only after he had planted every tree the Bureau of Land Management could spare that West Point began to feel like home for him. The BLM, fighting the ever-ending battle to keep California green, supplied anyone who wanted them with saplings. Buck’s son Bob told me that the BLM only expects a 10-20 percent survival rate for the saplings it distributes -- over 90 percent of Buck’s are still growing on his 10 acre ranch.

I think there were only three other things Buck really loved in this world -- bowling, stocks and most importantly, his family. Sure, he grumbled and rolled his eyes at the menagerie of dogs, horses and cats, and the constant stream of knickknacks, family squabbles and silly whims nearly every family experiences, but he cherished his wife Bobbie who was the only thing in this world that meant more to him than his trees. He was her wall of strength and reason. She showed Buck that love, spontaneity and frivolity were the rewards of a good life and not to take them for granted. Sure he would grumble about going as Raggedy Ann and Andy at an annual Halloween party, but then be the host with the most until the last guest had left, ensuring everyone had a good time.

Buck was good at just about everything, especially sports. One time my wife and I took 6 weeks of golf lessons, then went with Buck and Bobbie up to the links near West Point and watched him school us both with dead on straight shots, perfect putts and a humbleness that simply should not be allowed in someone who hadn’t picked up a club in over twenty years. Nearly everyone in West Point can attest to Buck’s bowling skills. You didn’t want to play against him and you definitely didn’t want to get ahead of him with three frames remaining.

While he probably would never have said he lived a charmed life, from most people’s vantage point, he had it all - happy, committed marriage; loving children; a great career that had allowed him a comfortable retirement; the looks, confidence and charisma that turned every head (yep, even women half his age looked), and his health. I never saw a day go by that Buck wasn’t working and in his seventies he took on tasks most men in their forties couldn’t finish. Yet cancer got him anyway.

Cancer got my mother too. She was in her fifties and had been a professional dancer and dance teacher her entire life. A picture of health and I miss her terribly. My wife never got to meet her and for that I am very sad as I think they would have been the best of friends.

You see cancer doesn’t care if you are in peak physical condition. It doesn’t care if you have a perfect diet. No supplements, herbal remedies or fad diets or exercise programs can keep it away. Yes, taking care of yourself can help lessen your risk of getting it, but genetics you can’t control. And if it wants you, it’s going to come calling. Thankfully a lot of us will reap the rewards of the incredible medical and genetic breakthroughs that are being developed and will be among the cancer survivors. But many will not. And those like me and my wife’s family outnumber both groups. We’re their survivors and we have a great responsibility. It is our job to keep fighting this disease and use the memories of our loved ones to drive us on in this fight. Some of us fight with our dollars, others with our time and others as our profession. I run and raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society as a proud member of their Team in Training endurance athletic program that funds cancer research, and patient care and education. However you choose to fight, remember that we fight not for those the disease has taken but to prevent others from succumbing. And so I thank all of you who contribute in whatever way you can.

We miss you Buck.