Running in the 21st Century

As my sophomore year at the University of North Carolina began, it looked as if my running days were ending. My dad had informed me that I needed to quit running and start focusing on improving my GPA. I had nagging knee pain. Throw in a new Carolina track coach who demanded results (a 2:00 800 meter time was no longer going to cut it) on day one, and you had the perfect storm for quitting. I resigned from the track team.

 I became more of a typical college student. I actually began studying. I did what a good son is supposed to do – I graduated with a respectable GPA, got a job, and got married.

 Over the next 20 years or so, I made half-hearted attempts at a running comeback. In the 3 years of college in the post-track team era, I won a couple of intramural races. A few times after college, I broke out the old running shoes and trained for a month or two for a 5k, here and there.

 Fast forward to 2004. I was 38 years old and had just gone through some of life’s big challenges. My marriage had disintegrated – I was coming off a bitter divorce – and my mother had recently died of breast cancer. I felt lost and needed something to help me get my life back on track, so to speak.

 One day at work, I was chatting with my friend Todd, a fellow former collegiate runner, who had recently struggled through his own tribulations, namely a bout with cancer. We simultaneously had an epiphany – why don’t we train for a marathon? And so began my rebirth as a runner.

 Todd and I downloaded a 16-week marathon training schedule from the internet and just started running. Our training program basically consisted of 3 or 4 eight-mile runs during the week and a long run on the weekend, which varied in length depending on where we were in the training cycle. We ran some minimal and random speed work.

 We were fortunate in that we found some local races that corresponded with the right distances in our training schedule. Our first 12+ mile run occurred at a 20k in Hickory, NC (also the site of our planned marathon). Our first 18+ mile run came in Winston-Salem at the Salem Lake 30k. We  were comfortably on track to finish our first marathon.

 I  felt great and ran well at Salem Lake – I ran a 2:23 30k, or about 7:40 pace. I finished feeling like I could have run faster and gone farther. The extra 8 miles needed to finish a marathon sounded easy. I had recently read about qualifying for Boston and now the 3:10 qualifying time for a man my age seemed doable. Suddenly, just finishing the marathon was no longer enough – I wanted to shoot to qualify for the Boston marathon.

 The day of the marathon, October 23rd, 2004 rolled around and I felt ready. I decided to try and run a 3:10. Todd and I wished each other good luck as we stood on the starting line in Hickory, NC for the Catawba Valley Bank Marathon. The gun sounded and we took off. I went out fast (for me), running sub-to-low 7-minute miles. Then I learned something valuable, too late for me but something I could pass along to first-time-marathoners later. When choosing your first marathon, you might want to avoid the ones with ‘mountain’, or in this case ‘foothills’ in the description of the geographical area (Hickory, NC is located in the ‘foothills’ of North Carolina). From about mile12 on, this marathon had numerous long, winding, brutally tough hills. My mile splits started dropping from the low-7:00’s, to the high 7:00’s, to the low 8:00’s, and ever spiralling downward. At mile 16, my quads and calves started cramping. When I stopped to try and stretch the cramps away, every other muscle in my body cramped – hamstrings, glutes, biceps, triceps, traps – you name it. If it was a muscle, it cramped.  My eyebrows cramped.

 I was in agony. I stopped to walk but then realized, since the cramps didn’t stop and the pain didn’t go away while walking, I might as well run. So I did – slowly. The pain was excruciating. If the van roaming the course to pick up quitters had pulled up, I would have gratefully climbed in, but it never showed so I continued to slog along.

 The splits dropped from 8:00, to 9:00, and eventually 10-minute miles. I always go into a race with a series of goals, and this race was no different. My highest goal was to qualify for Boston – I abandoned this dream at about mile 13. Next, break 3:30 – this one was clearly out of reach at about mile 17. Around mile 20, only 2 goals remained, break 4 hours and finish.

 Whoever designed the Hickory course was clearly a sadist. Approaching mile 25, one can see the finish line, but the last 1.2 miles meander around, labyrinthine-like, to the finish. You can see it but you never seem to approach it. Tears of joy literally filled my eyes when I finally rounded the last turn and the finish was mere yards away. I finished in 3:50:41 (Todd ran a 4:15:17).

 They say a marathon is like childbirth. You soon forget how painful it was and start looking forward to doing it again. The second I crossed the finish line, if you had asked me, ‘Will you ever run another marathon?’, I’m pretty sure the answer would have been ‘(Expletive) no!’ But a few days later, once the extreme soreness had worn off enough that I could walk down stairs again, I was looking forward to resuming training. I wanted to qualify for the Boston Marathon…

 NEXT POST – THE INJURY BUG STRIKES

 

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