October 8, 2014 28 Comments
A side-effect and direct consequence of marathon-related selective memory is that you forget how painful and arduous some undertakings are and decide to try them again. One of those is the tricky double-marathon. Last year to the weekend, Otter and I went to the Pacific Northwest to run the Leavenworth and Portland marathons on consecutive days. Though the endeavor did a number on Otter’s knee, I left the region with two new marathon states and a hipster co-op’s worth of confidence. It wasn’t all perfect, as I didn’t enjoy the otherwise beautiful and impeccably executed Portland Marathon as much as I could have because my brain was too focused on how much my legs were hurting.
But for some reason (runner’s amnesia), I decided to do it again. In the interim, my West Coast running pal Mike ran two marathons in one weekend and finished each in under 3:45. So, obviously, being the brutish male that I am, I found myself wanting to improve that impressive mark by running both of my marathons in under 3 hours and 40 minutes. And so it was that I found myself in Bristol with my high-school friend Javier and his family for the 22nd running of the New Hampshire Marathon. I was huddled with Larry Macon and a few hundred runners listening to the Newfound Memorial Middle School band get ready to play the national anthem. The bassist kept compulsively breaking into the opening notes of “Seven Nation Army” but would repeatedly get hushed down by the conductor.
“This kid just really wants to play that song,” I said to the runner next to me. “It wants to explode out of him.”
“Teach, I can do it!” he replied, imitating the feverish bassist, “I can rock this bitch, Teach, just gimme a chance!”
The famous foliage of New England had started and most trees were shedding their orange leaves and pine straw, preparing for winter. The entire race would be run surrounded by this beautiful change. While the trees were transitioning between forest greens and bright oranges, my feet would soon be in the process of changing from uphill to downhill. It wasn’t long before I realized that I hadn’t done the proper due diligence for this race. Not only did it start with a very long, gradual uphill, but from there it rarely flattened out. Many of these descents would be pretty steep.
So what does a smart, reasonable person do? He or she would evaluate these new environmental conditions and adjust their time expectations accordingly. Perhaps 3:40 would be a little ambitious given the constant elevation change and the fact that their training grounds afford no hills for practice. It is entirely acceptable to simply dial it back, given that no one below the podium cares about finishing times.
But I am not that person. I set out to run under 3:40, come hell or high water. Even worse, I told people about those goals. You can’t just back down after you’ve proclaimed it to the world.
I started with an easy, slow pace and ramped my way up to my target speed. The course traced a path around central New Hampshire’s Newfound Lake, with many hills lumped along the way. There was a near constant fog hovering above us for the entire race, often descending to the pavement as a light shower. I realize that I boast having never run in rain, and while this race may have proven that long-standing claim untrue, it was quite refreshing and rarely ever felt like a meaningful weather event. Water wasn’t dripping off me and my shoes hadn’t yet begun to squish against the road.
For virtually the entire race, we ran on the left side of a two-lane road, open to traffic. The chilly, damp air was being moved briskly by a breeze and as the sun hid from view all day, I was all but ensured to stay chilly for the entire race. Leaves would rain down from above, along with tine pine needles and the occasional acorn. Boats were moored on the shore by beautiful lake houses, every bit of ground covered in damp leaves. The race claims to be “the most beautiful marathon in New England” and I believed the hype. Between the tranquil, fog-draped lake and the rich tapestry of autumnal colors, it was indeed the picture of pulchritude.
About halfway through my left knee began to feel slightly out of place. I instantly panicked and slowed to a walk. It happened on a downhill, and each stomp moved the knee ever so sightly out of alignment. Dark thoughts raced through my mind and I muttered a soft curse into the autumn air. But once on flat terrain, it seemed to recover and I continued the rest of the race without any serious problems. But the specter of an injury lurked in the back of my mind. After all, many tiny little issues have a way of coming back after the running is over.
Mercifully, the biggest climbs were all in the first half of the race. I would dedicate the majority of my energy in the latter half to maintaining an even pace and keeping my feet even on the ground. When you’re running on roads that bank upwards on hills, you’re essentially running on the sides of your feet, lop-sided. This isn’t much of an issue if it’s temporary, but it happened for most of the race and I was worried about how it would affect my knees.
Aid stations came and went, staffed by two volunteers each. I might have guessed that about 800 people were running the marathon, so there wasn’t much need for large, industrial aid stations. But despite the slow trickle of runners, each volunteer was nothing but assiduous in making sure we were hydrated. There were several aid stations through which I walked, but even my slower pace didn’t dampen the volunteers’ dedicated energy. They would walk right up to me with two cups and hold them right at my chest level, as if offering me the elixir of life.
As the race drew to a close, I couldn’t help but wonder how my legs were going to wake up the next day. I wasn’t tired, but the near constant mix of ups and downs had pummeled my quads more than any 20-miler in recent memory. It wasn’t too late to slow down and give them a rest, but my troglodyte mind had been made up days ago; I was here to run a certain time and no amount of sound logic would get me to stop. I had built up a lot of momentum scaling these hills and I wasn’t about to let that meaningless 3:40 threshold pass me.
Three hours and thirty-eight minutes later, I was crossing the finish mats at Newfound Memorial Middle School. I happily downed a bottle of water, some orange wedges and a few cups of Gatorade before heading to the school locker rooms for a much needed shower. It took a long time to change out of my running clothes, rinse them and put on new ones. Though I strode confidently over the finish line in a time that would have been a PR two years ago, I was aching. The adrenaline had receded from my muscles and without my body’s mechanical, forward chug, I found myself hurting.
And this time, the pain was coming from that hitherto impervious joint, that steely bastion of endurance that had almost never complained in all my years of running: my right knee. The usual culprit was always my left side. For some strange reason, which a detailed gait analysis might disinter, most of my running pains emerge on the left. Historically, it’s my left metatarsals that get aggravated; my left knee was to blame for my first ever DNF; even my left elbow was struck with bursitis three years ago. But my right side had always kept it together until the afternoon after the New Hampshire Marathon.
You wouldn’t have guessed it on my face. I left the locker to find Javier and his family, actively disguising my clumsy limp, trying to look confident for the next day’s event. I did mention that I had overdone it, but said it with such sangfroid you’d think I was talking about putting too much barbecue sauce on a McRib. I had no idea how tomorrow would unfold, but knew without a doubt that I wasn’t going to laugh through it. After almost seven months of near invincibility, something had gone wrong, and I had yet another 26.2 miles to face down the next day.