October 17th, 2010, I completed my first marathon. After running ultras and longer-distance triathlons for 2 years, I suppose it was time.
One day a few months ago, I went on a fun group trail run on the North Country Trail. I was accompanied by Ken, Rick, and Mark. On the way back, the marathon came up. Ken asked, "whats your marathon time, Jesse?" I gave my usual reply. "I don't know, I've never done one." "What?" he asked in suprise. I usually take a little bit of joy in that I neglected to do one of the major milestones of a runner...maybe thats why I'm not always viewed as a serious runner. My lack of seriousness and/or sense of pride doesn't help that cause either. The guys told me that it was about time I give a road marathon a shot. This is probably where the seed was planted
I decided that doing a marathon could be done on my ultra training. If I can win a 50 on it, why not run a halfway decent road marathon? training consisted of very little speedwork, a fair amount of tempo efforts, and lots upon lots of junk miles! Junk miles is a term commonly used by people who don't like running for fun to describe miles without specific purpose. The conditioning that results from my training is a byproduct of getting out and having fun. That's not to say that I don't have races in mind when motivation gets low, but living solely for race day seems a bit empty. Its a balance that is different for everyone, and I like to think I've found a level of commitment that works for me at this point in my life.
The only concern I had going into the marathon was the pace. My last race, the Woodstock 50, had me running about an 8:20something average pace. Since Grand Rapids was roughly half as long and completely flat, I know I should be able to run faster. The only issue with that was that I rarely run faster than 7:30-8:00/mile pace. If I was going to run the race, I thought I should be able to run a time I felt I was capable of. Since I rarely race on flat roads, it was hard to determine what speed would be appropriate for a runner of modest talent such as myself. Im not a speedy runner, nor am I super competetive. What should I aim for? 3:30? A Boston Qualifier of 3:10:59? Sub 3? I figured I would decide when I started running. Alex, Evan, and I were all talking about shooting for a sub 3 hour time. There was not a doubt in my mind that either of these two would be able to cross the finish in under three hours. They both have the ability to drop me at a moment's notice. I was a different story. My marathon splits for my ultras are pretty far from boston qualifiers,with the exception of a 3:16 marathon time on te Kal-Haven Tral ultra(33.4miles). That should be a positive indicator that I could run a decent marathon time, but as usual I was unconvinced.
I came to Allendale to Friday night to see Samantha. She lives near Grand Valley State University's campus, so it would be perfect. I would be able to spend some time with her, and I would be close to the race. I arrived Friday, but it was sort of late. Saturday morning, We had planned to go for a short run, but opted for sleep instead. It was then that I realized that I wasn't feeling 100%, nor had I been for a couple days. Since thursday, I had been having flu symptoms. I won't divulge details-I understand that not everyone's mother is a nurse like mine. We don't all love hearing about projectile...nevermind. Anyway, I wasn't feeling pass-out tired like one does with the flu, just some of symptoms that prohibited food from staying in my body. Frequent bathroom trips were inconvenient and worrysome. I don't typically worry too much prior to races, so I honestly wouldn't attribute the gastrointestinal distress as prerace jitters.
Sam and I ate breakfast, then Alex came from Kalamazoo. We talked a bit and goofed off while Sam ran to the rec center for her own workout. She returned, cleaned up, and then we made the short drive to the expo/packet pickup at the YMCA. It was a pretty nice place to have the pickup, and it was cool to finally feel some semblance of prerace excitement. We met up with our friend and training partner Abbey, who would be going for her first boston qualifier at her first marathon. My friend Ryan would also come meet us at he expo. Ryan would be running his first road marathon Sunday, and was looking ready to race. He had injured his ankle a couple weeks prior to the race, but seemed optimistic that it would be ok for 26.2 miles. He completed the North Country Trail Marathon(half of which in socks), so this race would be less of a challenge with repsect to vertical and technicality. Our running group often gives ryan crap about his lack of preparation and less than stellar execution of marathon distance races, but the truth is that tenacity is an admirable trait. We all should envy a person with the guts to throw themselves into the void of the unknown. I waited 1 year after my first ultra to even attempt the marathon distance because of a fear of inadequacy. Ryan's "ahh, f*ck it" attitude reminds me that self exploration is less about sure things and more about the unknown.
After the expo, our group went for some food in Standale. We ate, watched some football(I never watch sports, so I more or less distracted everyone with conversation). More trips to the bathroom. More signs of the flu...or cohlera...most likely flu. My color was looking a little pale and I was feeling a little shaky. In past experiences I get more and more relaxed as the race draws near. I kept thinking "how could I possibly be nervous? Could it really be nerves?" The more the symptoms persisted, the clearer it got that I wasn't nervous. I didn't want to make anyone nervous, especially Sam. She's amazingly perceptive and caring, so I wouldn't want to make her worry. She had no reason to, but she cares about people in her life very much, and its more that I deserve. We left the restaraunt, and I made one more trip to the bathroom. I made a mental note to drink lots of water tonight, as most of it was pouring out of me(excuse the nastiness). I said to my group, "get me a cot with a hole in it, I got the cohlera!" Alex and Sam understood the reference as they're both going to school for medicine. We parted ways with Ryan and Abbey as they headed back to their respective houses and stopped at the store to pick up Alex's secret prerace breakfast-white bagels. I imagine that Alex's simple diet is akin to supersonic jets using not some secret formula, but actually low grade kerosene. He burns a bunch of it and he burns it fast.
We returned to Samantha's place to spend the rest of the evening. Alex and I took a quick 5.5mile jaunt around campus to look around and try to get a little feel for race pace. I only used the bathroom on campus once during this run, so I felt a little more confident that tomorrow wouldn't be a total disaster. After the run, Alex went to the library to study, and Sam and I went to Jason and Shelly's for a little bit to say hi and exchange one Zensah leg sleeve with Shelly. She likes my blue leg sleeve, so I thought we'd swap one just for fun(alright, I wasn't opposed to wearing one pink one, but Im trying to preserve what's left of my masculinity). We quickly exchanged 1 sleeve, wished each other luck and let Jason and Shelly put their kids to bed. Both Shelly and Jason are great friends, and I could probably talk with them for hours(well, 14 is our record on our longest run so I guess we must be decent friends if we didn't kill each other), so we took off before we spent the whole night chatting it up. Doing a race didn't seem quite right without a road trip with Shelly, Mark and Jason beforehand. Just more proof that running is just an excuse to have fun.
Alex, Sam and I spent the rest of the night slacking(except Sam, she studied). We went to bed early after a couple beers and tried to get some sleep. I counted how many trips I had made to the bathroom, but stopped when I realized that it was a bit of a negaive exercise. I just told myseld that there is no such thing as sudden onset Krohn's disease and went to bed.
We awoke just in time for me start falling asleep. I tried all night to sleep well, but couldn't stop alternating between shivering and sweating.
There's no better time to experiment with food than the morning before a marathon, especially when you have some mysterious dehydrating stomach issues that may or may not include slight intestinal bleeding(not sure about that, but it kinda looked that way). I downed a Honeymilk brand meal replacement shake and ate some gross Amway protein bar. I washed it down with a bunch of water to hydrate and wash the nastiness from my palette. Time to hit the road.
We found a decent spot to park near the YMCA, the place the race would start and finish. I was excited to see my friends who were running, and those who were there supporting. My parents were also on their way, but were cutting a little close on time. We saw Jason, Shelly, their daughter Ava, and Shelly's mother first. Shelly looked excited and ready to go. She's always really positve and never looks nervous before a race. She really runs for the fun of it. In agreement with many of our collective theories, it has made her progressively faster. In just one year her 5k PR is approaching that of girls I know who run for colleges(in training, mind you, not races. The real PR will be determined soon!).
|Shelly and I before the race, sporting a sweet Zensah sleeve combo|
We gathered our stuff and headed closer to the start, where we met Ryan and Mark. Mark wouldn't be running the marathon becasue he has enough sense to stay off a hard, boring marathon course. He, being the friend that he is, came to support us and take his patented 10000000 pictures during the race. I got a phone call from Abbey; she told me she was near the start and was looking for us. By this time, Joey, Alex, Shelly, Ryan and I knew we had to get to the start, so we headed over. Joey would be going for his half marathon PR, which would be a win compared to last years times. He's fast as hell and would be a top contender in the half.
|left to right: Ryan, Alex, Me, Joey|
|The start. Joey out front in blue. I can be spotted in there with Evan and Alex|
We took off nice and easy, which happened to be about a 6:30/mile pace. A bit fast for me. I typically like to warm up just a little before getting into race pace. I guess its not as much of an option in a fast race where every second counts. We backed it off to about a 6:45 pace, which was just a little slower than a 3 hour pace. We all knew we would be speeding up at least for a little while, so I wasn't sweating it. A few turns, and we were heading into downtown Grand Rapids. It was really cool to be on a closed street in one of the busiest areas of the city. There were bystanders waving out of buildings, spectators and supporters of other racers, and police officers lining the course. We saw Jason and Mark, who would be leapfrogging on the course supporting Shelly. This was the last time I'd see them on the course, but Mark did manage to snag some pictures. Around mile 4, Alex's parents, along with his roommate Phil, were waiting with some accelerade for Alex. I tossed my shirt to Phil. It was 40 degrees and I was hot. I had my gels tucked into my armsleeves, and my watch over the top, so removing them wasn't possible. So, I was sporting a bit of a running model look sans running model's body. What do you do? I was already wearing mismatched pink/blue leg sleeves and tiny, tattered shorts with toe shoes on. Does it really get worse if I remove my "borrowed" middle school cross country singlet?
|Left to right: Me(red), Alex(Yellow), Evan(White with headband)|
|Really? Nobody told me my butt was hanging out?|
The course took us out of the city, through a series of paved trails on the outskirts of town. All I could hear was the stomping of running shoes. They seemed to be hitting the ground in unison, running at a very close cadence. My pitter-patter feet moved quietly on the course. I have a habbit of matching my cadence to those around me, so I have to be careful when running in a group shod runners. Its not good, bad, or whatever, but if my cadence gets too low, I start overstriding and my knee starts bugging me. A few minutes later, I was joined on the course by my friend Jeremiah. We train together occasionally, and he was participating in the marathon as a member of MyTeamTriumph. It's a program in which a person with a disability completes a marathon in a stroller, accompanied by a group of runners. Im proud to call Jeremiah a friend and his participation in this program is a great reason why I do. Already having a stellar running season, one that included a fantastic finish of the Burning River 100mile followed by the Pike's Peak Marathon just a couple weeks later, Jeremiah passed on running the marathon to help out someone who wouldn't be able to cover the distance without him. He ran with me for a few of the road miles before breaking away to go meet his wife, Susan, for a little while. He promised to be back later. It was great to have someone there to visit with for a while on the ealry part of the race. At this point, I was still running with Evan as well. Alex had slowly built up a gap, and I didn't expect to see him again until the end of the race.
"Dammit." I thought to myself as the all-too familiar feeling of a stomach cramp set in. Just when I had forgotten about my stomach issues, they magically reappeared. I just grinned and dealt with it for a while, knowing I would be in search of a bathroom before too long. There wasnt one around, so I just slowed up a little bit and let Evan go. I joined a small pack of guys from Indiana. They were all cool guys who were also running their first Marathon(from what I remember). They asked the usual questions about my fivefingers, and I answered to the best of my abilities. My heart rate was a little higher than it should've been, and I was fighting the stomach pain. I broke off from the group to water the bushes on the side of the road. It wasn't exactly the bathroom break I was looking for, but I had to piss and I thought it would help to "make room" in my abdomen for the other unpleasantness building inside. Yes, I've taken anatomy and physiology classes and I know that makes little sense, but desperate times and all that. I caught back up to the Hoosiers as we rouned another corner into another bike path. To say the surge I put on to make up for my exceedingly long piss was dumb is an understatement. My Garmin recored a 5:10/mile pace. I should have just let them go and paced my catch-up over a mile or two, not a couple minutes. Just in time to catch up, We arrived at an aid station with porta-potties. Thank goodness. To my suprise, they were all empty! I guess sub 3 marathoners dont stop for sh*t breaks! It was quick, and I foolishly left the restroom, downed a Jet Blackberry GU, and put on another surge. Egos are dangerous, and mine was temporarily running the show. My pace dipped below a six minute mile again, and I forced myself to slow down. I cauught another group of guys who were going for a 3 hour finish, so I talked with them for a little bit until the turnaround ahead of us.
|grunting through a flu-induced wall...or at least thats my carppy excuse|
"Really!?! Again?" My stomach knotted up and felt myself shivering. If I could stop running 6:30/mile pace and relax, I may have been able to shake it off. I knew the bathroom was coming up gain, so I smiled and waved at the spectators that were on the course. Reg, Annie, and Joe(Abbey's dad, mom, and boyfriend) were on the course, and I could hear them cheering me on. It was nice to see familiar faces, and that meant that Abbey was still running strong, not too far behind me. I reached the john again, and hopped back in. I just took a second and laughed to myself. I've never had gastric issues on a run. I hardly ever even use the restroom before a race. I managed to hold my bladder for 4 hours and 23 minutes for the Kal Haven race this spring. the shortest race I've done all year, and Im droppin' deuces left and right while resisting the urge to puke. I lept out of the bathroom and joined the runners once again. I tore open another gel and spit the top onto the ground near a trash can. It was then that I hear a gentleman yell, "Oh come on! That went right on me!" I guess my peice of wrapper hit his leg. I apoligized and laughed awkwardly, hoping he was overreacting for the sake of humor. We exchanged a few more words, and I could tell he was pissed off. I told him I was sorry again and sped off. At least I still had the energy to outrun a socially uncomfortable moment.
About 1 mile later I got swallowed up by the 2:59:59 pace group. The GR marathon does kind of a cool pace group thing where the paces are named after celebrities who have run that time. Since Lance Armstrong's marathon debut was a sub 3, the pacer's sign read "Sub 3 Lancers." This group was my saving grace in those tough miles between 20 and 22. I kind of dissociated from the run and tried to hang on and stay comfortable. That lasted about 10 seconds. This was my pain. My moment. It was time to focus on it. It hurt. My guts were in knots, My legs were hurting(but I was pleasantly suprised by how slight the pain was), and I could feel my fivefingers eating a hole in my foot. At no point in my last 50 did I hurt this much. The rest of this race was goig to be run the wrong way. It wasn't fun. As much as I preach my hippie bullshit, sometimes you just grit your teeth and torture yourself for no good reason. We were back onto a part of the course that brings you back into the city. It was then that I saw Jeremiah. He was waiting to pace me into the finish! I was happy and relieved to see him. It was a bit embarassing to let one of my running role models see me in such awful shape, but I was still holding a solid pace as I broke free from the sub 3 pack and Jeremiah and I cruised through an aid station(note- I haven't mentioned aid stations or fueling, but I just brought 4 GUs with me and took about 1-2 per hour, with a couple extras at low points, taking only water from aid stations).
At one point, Jeremiah told me I was "looking great" about 3 times in one minute. As a semi- experienced pacer, this is how you know you look like shit. I dropped back a little as I felt my vision get dim on the sides. I saw Jeremiah point to a spot right next to him. "Right here." I shook my head, feeling the sweat fly off my hair and my vision sharpen again. I slowly crept back up to Jeremiah's side as we rouned a 90degree corner to the city streets. Two more corners and I was home free. My stomach was in knots, but I stood up straight and pumped my arms to get myself moving. Am I going to take my spot as the urban legend, the guy actually messes himself during a footrace? It was time to start the "kick" Jeremiah pointed out one guy who had been ahead of us for a few minutes as we sped up. "Should we take him down?" he said jokingly. "let's try." I leaned forward at the ankles and felt myself relax. I knew it was almost over, so I just let it flow. My pace quickened to about a 6:00/mile as we rounded the corner and I saw the finish. "Try to look happy. Your parents are watching. Sam's watching," I told myself. I mustered up a half-assed smile. I saw Shy, a friend from running club as I tried to look less like a zombie and more like a good runner. She was waiting to see us finish, so it was a pleasant suprise to see her there. I got closer to the gates and could hear "Marathon Don" Kern announcing the finishers names. Jeremiah Broke off and said, "take it, its yours. you owe me a beer." He may not know, but I owe him a hell of a lot more than a beer. I could hear Sam and my mom cheering as I came in to the finish. The clock was ticking away. 2:57:56. I broke 3 hours, no where the hell is the bathroom?
Last minute edit:
My group did exceedingly well on race day. Joey ran a 1:14 half marathon for a PR and 6th overall(I can't even get my head around a 1:14 half). Evan ran a 2:56:22, crushing the 3 hour goal he set for himself. Alex ran a 2:47! I knew he could, and he didn't disappoint for a 7th overall and an age group 2nd. Abbey ran a 3:35 and qualified for Boston in her first attempt! It was cool to see her gut out the finish and put all her worrying behind her. Shelly ran a 4:44 and PR'd as well. Brandon finished strong and made it look easy, as you can see in the photo. Ryan had some complications, but still managed a 6:30 on a pretty badly injured leg.
|Abbey had some minor comlications, but its not as bad as it looks, honest.|
|My mom and I after the race|
|If there's ever been a picture that shows what the marathon is truly about, its this one of my friend Brandon and his daugher. No matter how many times I see finishes like this, it still gets me. Human nature at its finest.|
|Ava, Shelly, and Jason,|
|Alex showing Sam, my mom, my dad, and me how to dougie.|
|my sweet temporary tatoo/bumper sticker|