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.

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