In addition to photography and writing, I used to be a runner. This is an article I wrote about one of my last marathon experiences. It was published in Runner’s Journal and Washington Running Times.
I had a plan. It wasn’t a great plan, but a plan nonetheless. I was going to break 2:50 in the New Orleans Marathon and qualify for Boston. If I made that, I was going to hire a coach to train me for Boston with hopes of breaking 2:22 and making an Olympic Trials qualifying time. Of course, dropping 30 minutes in 2 months was a fairly absurd idea, but we runners are nothing if not dreamers.
In Atlanta, I spent a lot of time at the old Phidippides at Northlake mall and had discussed coaching occasionally with Benji Durden (1980 Olympic Marathon Team), and Lee Fidler. Both runners had admonished me on several occasions about incorporating more rest into my training. I didn’t know at the time that both runners would be at New Orleans; Lee to run the Marathon and Benji to run the 10K.
I had a previous best of 3:10, so I only needed to take 20 minutes off. I had been training for about 8 weeks, and my average weekly mileage was 50 – 60 miles. I had put in four or five 20 milers, so I felt I was prepared for this effort.
The race ran across the Lake Pontchartrain causeway, the longest bridge in the world, so it should be flat and fast. I needed to break 6:30 per mile for 26.2 – I don’t know why I thought I could, but back in the day, I ran most races on guts and dreams, rather than any solid scientific data or recent accomplishment.
As I stood at the start with 2300 other runners, I wished the wind would quit. The temperature was close to freezing and the wind was blowing at around 20 miles per hour. It would be a tail wind for 24 miles of the race, but I was cold and miserable, and just wanted to get on with it.
At the gun I took off, running at what I thought was a good pace. I’m sure it was pushed along by the wind and my desire to get warm. About 3 miles into the race, I heard a familiar voice and turned to see Benji running up from behind – obviously a slow day for him. “Hello, how’s it going?” I huffed out as he came along beside me. “Not bad,” he replied, going on to explain he was there to run the 10K. I don’ recall if the 10K was later and this was a warm-up, or it was the day before and this was just a training run. “How about you, what are you trying for today?” he asked.
I told him I wanted to qualify for Boston, and was about to spring my plan to ask him about coaching, when I saw the incredulous expression on his face. “What’s wrong,” I asked. “You know you need a 2:50 for Boston, right?” “Yeah,” I said. “You know that’s just under a 6:30 pace, right?” “Where is he going with this?,” I thought, as I puffed out another, “Yup.” “Any idea how fast you are going?” Assuming he wasn’t about to tell me I was dead on a perfect pace, I said, “No.” “Well, the tail wind makes it tougher to estimate, but I’d guess you’re doing about a 5:45 mile right about now. You better slow down. “See you,” he said as he trotted off into the distance.
Oh %#*&, I thought as I tried to assess my pace. I kept trying to slow down, but the weather, other runners, and the tail wind kept pushing me along. At five miles, I was still under thirty minutes – not far off my 10K pace. “I’m going to die,” I thought as I continued to try and get my legs to obey my brain.
The middle miles turned into the same mind-numbing mush that all marathons are reduced to. I tried to do the math in my head as I hit the 10 and 15 mile split, but it was too much. I remember thinking that whoever told me the far shore never gets any closer was right, the jerk, and oh God, would I ever get off this bridge?
The brain and most other functions shut down one by one as my body was depleted of every nutrient it could suck out of each and every cell. I hurt and wanted to stop, but every time I started walking it hurt that much more to start running, but I can’t just keep on running, so I’ll walk one more time, please get me off this bridge. As I approached the next split, I finally came to a complete stop and leaned against the rail. I kept thinking I didn’t know if I had another 6 miles in me, and tried to figure out my pace, but my brain would no longer do anything more complicated than right foot, left foot. Completely broken, I took off in another slow-footed shuffle toward the…what? What does that sign say? 25 miles? That can’t be right? When did I pass the 20 mile split? What time is it? 2:43 something. Can I make it? Once again, I tried to do the math in my head.
I don’t know, but just maybe, I can make it. I got the infamous second-wind, and picked up the pace a bit. If I could have thought clearly, I would have given up, but delirium has its advantages. Within the space of just a few yards, the far shore suddenly loomed close and we ran off the bridge. I kept looking at the road, looking at my watch, looking at the road – maybe. I finally got in site of the finish line and started focusing on the clock. It said 2: something, what is it?
As I got closer I could see it said 2:50 and some seconds, but where is the clock? Where is the finish line? In my mind I had convinced myself that I crossed the finish line before I saw the clock and maybe had hit my goal. I could hardly walk, but I stumbled around for a bit trying to find someone who could give me my finish time. The pain was setting in with a vengeance, and I was getting chilled as the woman who would become my wife helped me out of the way and into a warm car where she gave my legs a much needed massage.
Of course, I hadn’t quite made my goal and my finish time was 2:50:38. 224 men met that goal that day – I was number 227. Even though I finished in the top 10%, the if-onlys started beating on me and I was in a funk for days. The reality is that I hadn’t trained for that kind of speed, I hadn’t paced myself properly, and I hadn’t kept the mental game in play long enough to keep myself in the race. 38 seconds.