May 15, 2014 16 Comments
I was happy to be shivering.
Laura and I walked from the Wilmington Westin to the starting line of the 2014 Delaware Running Festival Marathon, a short trip around the Christina River and toward Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park. The day before, I was flicking away sweat in the first mile of the Maryland Half Marathon and promptly spent the rest of the day assiduously drinking water. Had my legs not carted me across 13.1 relatively fast miles the day before, the cool breeze sliding through the thin fabric of my running outfit would have imbued me with tremendous confidence.
An hour later, I was on the road, chugging along at a relaxed pace. The opening miles weren’t terribly scenic and included a few long sections through the parking lot of the Westin, far from any shade or greens. But my biggest enemy in this race wouldn’t be the scenery as my mind had already begun to defy me. At some point in tough races, a tiny voice starts to rise above the breathing and plodding of feet. It usually surfaces around mile 22, but today its dastardly voice broke through the noise at the first mile marker. It said:
This is going to suck at mile 14.
You see, the Delaware Marathon is a two-looped course. Laura was running only one loop, where every single turn would reveal new territory to conquer, with the very last revelation being the finish line. I would have to repeat all of it, which meant that I couldn’t help but constantly wonder how I would feel the next time I saw this mile marker. While stronger minds might be able to shield themselves from thinking of the second round, I wasn’t faring too well in ignoring the mile markers 14-25 peppered across the course.
To palliate my fears, the course quickly became very beautiful. By the second mile we were running on the wet, wooden planks of the riverfront. They felt like rubber, springing softly below my feet, absorbing the impact. We followed the river to the starting line and then cut through the city of Wilmington, where we would abandon flat terrain for the rest of the loop. Despite being in the city proper, there weren’t many spectators. We soon entered Brandywine Park, where under the peaceful canopy of trees, the temperature felt like it dropped ten degrees.
That tranquil pause in the chugging of legs and arms was interrupted when we crossed a cobblestone bridge and turned onto South Park Drive, where a mile-long hill made heart rates soar. Relay runners were happily flowing downhill and just up ahead was a friendly spectator with a Captain America shield that said “Press For Power.” Somewhere in the middle of the hill, I heard it again.
This is going to suck at mile 20.
At the top, I saw Laura’s parents. Over the last two days, they had hosted me at their home in Silver Spring and drove up to Wilmington to watch us run. From the moment you meet them you know they’re going to be a hoot. Not only is her mom a fun, charming woman, but you can almost hear the synapses in her mind firing a million times a second. In the scant 36 hours I had known her, I had answered a thousand earnest questions. Her dad, a person of much fewer words, is just as affable and welcoming (and surprised me by knowing more about Costa Rica’s economy and trade relations than I was ready to discuss). I smiled as I passed them. Her mom was cheering so emphatically, she was practically squawking.
The next five miles were run through the neighborhoods of Highlands, Bancroft Parkway, Wawaset Park and Hilltop, with almost every single step having a tiny slope. I was by this point completely drenched in sweat and making sure to stop at every aid station. I kept looking for a mantra despite the mounting doubt in my head, like searching for a gummy bear in an anthill. And despite plentiful shade, it had become a warm day.
“Looking good, Larry,” I said as I passed an older runner. He was wearing a yellow shirt with a blue singlet on top that said “1,300 Marathons Larry,” power walking, slightly hunched under an orange cap and pumping his arms. It was Larry Macon, one of the most prolific marathoners in the world, who currently owns an un-ratified world record for most marathons run in a year (255), and continues to put all of our running accomplishments to shame.
Two downhill miles later, I was back in the city, with one hill left until the “finish” line. As I ran toward the crowds, I couldn’t help but think that I’d be happy to call it a day. I was already tired, had left a trail of sweat beads on the pavement since the start and would not have bet on a strong finish. I thought, if today were supposed to be just a half marathon, I would be proud of this time. But instead, I reached the split and turned away from the roar at Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park and back onto the familiar road from earlier that morning.
Those first hundred steps were the worst.
I tried not to, but the inevitable rapid-fire slide show of the next 13.1 miles flashed in my head. Every turn and landmark, but most menacingly, every hill burst in a matter of seconds alongside shrill, staccato horns, like a flashback to a war. That might be inappropriately hyperbolic, but it really was demoralizing. The first half wasn’t the sweet and easy jog that I was expecting, to the point that my mind was ready to check out.
I know myself and how I function. With this sweat rate at this point in the race, I can all but guarantee a disastrous second half. Why did I think I could comfortably keep this pace for this long? Why can’t I ever just run the race I’m supposed to run and not push it? And think of the sunburn I’m going to get …
There is much to be said about the power of the mind over the body. There is certainly no shortage of inspirational running bumper stickers that tout how a variable percentage – but usually more than half – of the effort is mental. I’ve never really known whether this is just a fun platitude to believe in or if it holds its weight in a lab. But let this post serve as anecdotal evidence of the exact opposite situation. The mind certainly can affect the body in numerous, wondrous ways. But on May 11, 2014 in Wilmington, Delaware, I ran my twenty-third marathon and watched in disbelief as my body overcame my weak, jellied mind.
My legs, heart and lungs were not paying attention to the quailing voice in my head. They continued onward, ticking off the miles. Though I wasn’t running that much faster, the distance between mile markers seemed shorter. It was as if my body had effectively shut off my brain and its powers of perception, allowing me to simply execute forward locomotion. I had become a machine, steaming past runners and spectators with a steely gaze. There were no more distractions, no more moments of quiet introspection or sightseeing. I had taken pictures in the first half of the race, but for that second loop, my camera was firmly clutched in my left hand, not to see any more daylight until I was done. The part of me that would have enjoyed that had been silenced.
South Park Drive would have one more go at shattering my momentum. During this climb I ran the slowest 5k of the race and it was looking likely that my body was going to join my quivering mind. But every moment of despair was followed by a surge of easy speed. I cruised through the dew-drenched neighborhoods and over the sun-burnt roads of Hilltop, passing everyone I saw ahead of me. Under normal circumstances, I would have covered those miles fraught with concern over the inevitable bonk, but today I had stuffed that poltroon perspective in a paper cup and tossed it at an aid station many miles ago.
Instead, I ran from 35k to 40k in my fastest split of the race, aided by a long downhill and the pull of the finish line. Once back in the city there was just one hill left to scale before the irresistible finish line. Still on auto-pilot, I was powerless to object. It was only until I crossed the finish line in just under 3:38 and heard the announcer say my name that I felt normal, human again. It’s a good thing this metamorphosis happened when it did because right as I got my finisher’s medal, I felt someone jab me.
“Hey, you might not remember me,” he said to the back of my head. I turned around and instantly recognized him. “Andy the Pacer!” I yelled before he could get another word out. We had met over two years ago in Little Rock, where he paced (and entertained with frequent trivia) the 3:45 group, with whom I ran for twelve miles in completely new clothes and shoes before taking off to earn an unexpected PR. For that reason, I will always hold a special place in my running books for him.
Laura continued her PR streak with a 1:52 finish, going 4 for 4 and confirming that I am her lucky half marathon rabbit’s foot. After the race we made our way to a Mother’s Day barbecue hosted by her extended family in a nearby neighborhood, where I became happily acquainted with northeastern hospitality and half of the charming genes that led to her incredibly affable and lovable personality. A few hours later, I was back on the road towards Baltimore, ready to fly home smiling.
I have faced time and time again the difficult truth that strength and confidence in long distance running, much like the elevation chart above, exist in a wave form. There are months where nagging pains and tiny setbacks make intense training feel like a chore. But there are also spans of time when everything feels easy, effortless and that the body’s limits can easily bend to your will. At the end of the Delaware Marathon, I felt strong, powerful, and incredibly optimistic about the rest of the year’s challenges. The last few months have had their aches and pains, but as I finished my 39.3 mile weekend averaging an 8:07 pace with almost 3,000 feet of vertical change, I felt incredible.
Now I just have to make sure, as my mom advises, to not overdo it. Because running two and a half marathons in ten days is certainly not that.