I’ve been waiting for a long time to say that, and running 30-40 miles a week as part of the Atlanta Track Club training program to get to that point, but today was the day, and the good news is that I made it. But it wasn’t pretty.
Flash back to last weekend. I was out for our last Saturday training run, midway through a two-week taper. I’ve been running for the past few months with roughly the same group of people, and we’ve all come to know each other’s running habits fairly well. We were talking about fall colds, and I said that I was glad that I’d had mine a couple of weeks before, having hopefully gotten my semiannual sick out of the way. Turns out I was wrong.
Monday morning I woke up with a bit of a frog in my throat and, by Tuesday, I was pretty well dealing with a sinus situation: throat tickle, the occasional hacking cough and my lower-register soul-singing voice, which is usually the lone benefit of my getting sick. I experimented throughout the week with different treatments — cough syrup, Sudafed, DayQuil — and they all brought temporary relief, but it seemed like an illness that just had to run its course.
I put training runs on hold for the week to focus on getting better, and by Friday night I felt functional enough to go for it. I’d also been dealing with a sore toe from our 23-mile course run the week prior, but I hoped that it wouldn’t get aggravated during the race.
Based on my training runs, I signed up for a 3:45 pace group, which requires about 8:35 min/mile. That’s usually a fairly comfortable pace for me, though I’d heard that this marathon was atypically hilly. I set that as my stretch goal time, with 4:00 as a more likely time.
I had a bit of a nervous stomach on Saturday and didn’t eat as much as I should have. I laid out everything the night before, gave a care package to Melissa and my Mom, who would be at mile 17 and at the finish and tried to get some sleep. My plan was to start the race with a banana and a piece of peanut butter toast and have a Gu every five miles to keep my energy up. I had my Bondi Band, Fuel Belt, my music player (a Sansa Clip) and my Garmin Forerunner 305 ready to go. I added a pair of Reebok weightlifting gloves, as the temperatures were expected to be lower than my training runs had been.
Sleep was fitful. I woke up roughly once an hour, usually glad to have more sleep time ahead, but a little concerned that I wasn’t getting good, uninterrupted sleep. I got up at 5:20, Body Glided my problem chafe areas, Band-Aided the chest area and taped and moleskined my feet. I headed out around 6:15 for Atlantic Station.
The place was hopping by the time I got there at 6:40 a.m. Music playing, runners stretching, long lines at the bathrooms — everything you’d expect at a big race. I was supposed to be in the B corral, but my pace group was in A, so I joined them. I made a little small talk, but everyone seemed focused on the start, which was a few minutes away. I put my headphones on and queued up the first song on the shuffled playlist: The Beatles’ “Paperback Writer.” Good enough.
The race started right on time, as Atlanta Track Club races always do. There were clouds overhead and it was still mostly dark, though the lights of the city and Atlantic Station gave everything a luminous glow. Everything was going well, except for my shoelace coming untied around mile 2, but I made my way back to my pace group and all was well.
In retrospect, it was probably too ambitious for me to come out of the gate that fast in my first marathon, especially feeling the way I did. I’d put on a brave face about it, but the truth is that I’d been feeling pretty crummy for days. Not getting to run during the week only made me feel worse. I definitely felt like I was on the mend, but I wasn’t well yet, and the days of being sick had depleted me more than I realized. By the time we got to Grant Park around mile 8, I knew something was awry.
By the time I got to the eighth mile, I’d let my pace team get ahead of me, though as long as they were in sight I didn’t worry too much. I couldn’t ignore the fact that I was slowing down and I was starting to feel spent, way too early. Somewhere around mile 9, I let myself walk for a little while, and that was the beginning of the end. I took my second Gu a mile or two early for a little more energy, and it worked for a little while, but it was clear that I was on borrowed calories.
My coach from the training program caught up to me and stayed with me the rest of the run, though it was, by any stretch, a “crash and burn.” By the time I made it to the halfway point, I seriously wondered how I was going to finish. I was running well, when I was running, but I was starting to hurt in place I usually didn’t (in my torso, primarily) and I constantly felt depleted. My Bondi Band felt like it was squeezing my head and I wanted to rip off my Fuel Belt and throw it away. It was getting miserable, and I had hours to go. My time at the halfway point was about 1:56, which was, surprisingly, only two minutes shy of my Atlanta Half Marathon time last Thanksgiving. I knew, though, that I couldn’t maintain that pace.
My coach, Tom, and I sloughed through Piedmont Park in a cyclical walk-run pattern. By the time I got to my family at mile 17, I was already exhausted, throwing down the band, the gloves and the belt. “I’m struggling,” I told them, and I was. I felt drunk, lightheaded and sore. Breathing in while running made my torso ache, so I’d have to stop to let the cramping subside. Not enough carbs in the days leading up, probably insufficient hydration.
Things got worse when we got to Lindbergh at mile 20. The undulating hills left me feeling wrecked and depleted and I was fighting nausea. I struggled to down a third Gu, feeling as if I might throw it up. A little girl in her yard cheered on “red shirt” guy, and Tom joked that I should go throw up in her yard. I gave it a thought.
I kept going back to the mantra that I’d repeated to myself throughout the training process: “What one man can do, another can do.” I always liked it since seeing “The Edge” back in the late 90s, and I often finding myself going back to it when I feel doubtful.
Peachtree Road, and the beginning of the end. With three miles to go, I started to pick up a little more steam. I was still run/walking, but I was running a little more and actually starting to feel a little better. I knew by this point that there was no chance that I’d be forced to quit. Compared to the hills on Lindbergh, “Cardiac Hill” in front of Piedmont Hospital seemed relatively painless. With about a mile left on Deering Road behind Atlantic Station, I said “Let’s finish this bitch” and ran the rest of the way in.
The Finish Line chute was, I have to say, everything it was said to be. The crowds were cheering, they announced my name and I made my way across the finish line. My family was there to greet me and it was extraordinary.
The remainder of the afternoon is a bit of a blur. Mercifully, I did finally throw up a pinkish combination of Gu and Powerade once I got settled in at home. I ate a chicken sandwich and a few french fries. I took a 90-minute nap and woke up feeling fairly normal again. My feet definitely hurt, but there’s only a small blood blister thanks to the moleskin, as do my legs, but nothing outrageous. My lower back hurts a small amount, but nothing unbearable. The toe is sore, but not appreciably more than after my 10-miler last week.
All-in-all, an extraordinary experience, though one that I would vastly prefer to try again well. Perhaps the March Publix, which is substantially less hilly. A little too early to think about that now. I’m just go to enjoy getting healed up and spending time with my incredibly supportive family.