November 17, 2007

A Study In Marathoning

I ran my first marathon in 1997. 'twas the Chicago Marathon and it was a wonderful race. Probably still is. I was married back then and the goal was to help my then-wife qualify for the Boston Marathon. We had to beat a 3:40 to make that happen.

Back in 1997 I didn't know a lot about nutrition. And though I'm no expert now, I've since learned the basics for survival. For instance, I now realize that I have to eat healthy to stay healthy. In fact, I now realize that I have to eat, period. It wasn't uncommon many years ago for me to get so busy I'd actually forget to eat a meal. What'd you have for lunch today, the wife would ask later that evening. Um....uh...., I'd stutter as I delved into the meal-specific corner of my mind only to see an empty gap. Inevitably, of course, I'd wonder why I kept getting sick and never bothered to associate it with poor eating habits.

In terms of exercise, I ran a lot. These were back in the days of youth when my legs could handle the pounding. Back then running was running to me. Running wasn't eating and drinking. Calorie intake and exercise were mutually exclusive properties. I run and then I drink and nary the two were combined.

So back to the Chicago Marathon. We started off the race at a pretty good clip. By the half-marathon point, we were on course for a 3:20 marathon and were feeling pretty happy overall. Even if we walked a mile, the wife would still qualify for Boston. But we felt no need to walk, so things were looking good.

Around mile 17 she started having hamstring problems and that slowed us down a bit. But not to worry, we were still on pace for a 3:30. We could practically taste Boston. And though I don't quite remember the actual flavor, I can recall it had a sweetness to it.

Then we hit mile 22 and I hit the wall.

I didn't really feel anything building within me, it just happened suddenly, which I suppose explains the whole "wall" concept. I mean, it's not called "hitting the exit ramp."

One step all was nice and fine and then the next step I couldn't move, couldn't walk, couldn't speak. I had become a vegetable. I thought I was going to die. I stopped right in the middle of the street and stood there, hoping to dear God that my wife would turn around and see me before I collapsed onto the ground in my final pathetic goodbye.

help, I said quietly and meagerly. Not nearly loud enough for anybody to answer. Not even loud enough for anybody to hear. My knees were knocking, legs were feeling like a windblown castle of cards about to tumble. I was not enjoying myself.

That feeling, I realized later, had nothing to do with healthy.

The wife eventually did realize I wasn't by her side anymore. She looped back for me and somehow pulled me to mile 23, at which point I stopped at the aid station and drank about 10 glasses of water.

Eventually I was able to run again and eventually we got to the finish line (albeit at 3:41 - one measly minute slower than her qualifying time!). I don't know how we finished. I mean that literally, I have absolutely no recollection of anything after mile 22. It scares me. Kinda freaks me out that I did so much damage to my body, destroyed so much of my brain that I can't even remember the last 4 miles of my first marathon. It's like a drunken blackout, when a big chunk of your life is missing and will never come back no matter how hard you think about it. I don't like not remembering my life, it scares the hell out of me.

Fast forward 10 years and 3 weeks later and here I am running my second stand-alone marathon. I am proud to say that I've learned a think or two over the past decade. I know a bit more about nutrition and have a vague concept of how to keep myself healthy. Still, my only stand-alone marathon experience still looms in the scared section of my brain. As marathon day approached, I was subconsciously nervous. I had no clue what would happen to me this time at mile 22. All I know is that I didn't want to have the same experience I did back in Chicago.

In the past 10 years a company called Fuel Belt was launched, enabling people like me to run with a veritable buffet around their waist. With memories of Chicago haunting me, I needed liquids and nutrition within arms reach at all times, so I bought myself a new fuel belt right before the race. I tried to drink constantly throughout the course, knowing that liquid intake would ward off the demons of disaster.

When I passed the mile 22 point, I did a mental check. Am I coherent? I asked myself. Will I still be able to remember this moment?

All answers were positive, I felt pretty good from the waist up. Sure my legs were in pain, but I was mentally secure. Even when I got to mile 23 and my quads decided to revolt, I remembered. I was present and accounted for.

As I crossed the finish line of the New York Marathon, I hobbled over to the side of the course and mentally reviewed the last 10k. I wanted to be sure I could remember, that I would never forget. I wanted to be sure I didn't hit the wall and not realize it. Mile after mile I went through in my mind, trying to recall every single painful step of the way.

You may not understand this, but it was somewhat of a surreal experience to actually remember my entire race. It almost feels like I had just ran my very first marathon. It makes me happy, not so much that I finished, but that I can remember it all. I'm proud of myself and, perhaps, a little bit curious to try another.


Anonymous said...

Congrats on your NY finishing time. Sounds like you finished closer to Lance Armstrong, than to Katie Holmes.

BTW, was your preventing your ex-wife's qualifying for Boston the cause of your divorce? You probably should have told her to go ahead and finish, and then send out the medics.

It has been almost 16 years since my last Marathon (i was 29). Back then I understood a little about fuel. Mainly I ate anything people had on the course; Bananas, oranges and oreos seemed to be the top items back then. I knew I had to drink a lot of water..but did not understand electrolytes.

I have run many triathlons since, including several 1/2 IM (now LAMELY called IM 70.3) and have a better handle on nutrition.

Your comments got me thinking it is time to ramp up again and give a marathon a go. It will be interesting to see if age and knowledge are any match for youth and blissful ignorance.

Looking for a slightly downhill race with a good tailwind.

triathlonmom said...

i just signed up for my first marathon. ...Something I vowed I would never do, unless it was the last leg of an Ironman. ...I have 363 days left to train for it. I think I have lost my mind.

Jason said...

Great post, I really like the bit about it's not called "hitting the exit ramp". Very descriptive.

No Wetsuit Girl said...

1 minute? She missed the cutoff by 1 minute? I would have left you to languish in the gutter and would have come back to pick you up when I'd attended to more important business.

I'm glad your second marathon experience was a positive one (in relative terms).