So yesterday I completed my fifth marathon. It was a much more difficult journey than my previous four marathons filled with uncertainty up until the final miles of the race. It was my fourth time running the Chicago Marathon and my third running on my own.
My first was the Chicago Marathon in 1989 at 18 years old during my freshman year in college. My training consisted of running in the cornfields south of the university during the heat of the early fall in central Illinois. During the marathon, I started cramping soon near the 22 mile mark, but finished with a time of 4:07.
My second was another Chicago marathon in 1999 at 28 years old. I wanted to run another marathon before I turned 30 and hoped to break the four hour mark. Again, I started cramping after the 20 mile mark and finished with a time 0f 4:13.
In 2001, my mother was running her 50th marathon, so I joined her. Honestly, I didn’t push myself with the training speed-wise since she runs slower than I do. During the race, she had some bad side effects from a medication she was taking and could only run in limited spurts. We finished with a time of 5:36.
During the time after this race, I started to feel that it’s quite likely that I wouldn’t run another marathon. I’d already run three, which is more than most people, and there is quite a bit of sacrifice and preparation involved. For fall marathons, most of your summer revolves around the training and one day per weekend is occupied running and recovering from a long run.
Again in 2011, my mother was running a marathon in Maine while we were living in Montreal. Again I trained focused on completing the distance and not on speed. Unfortunately, she was having much difficulty with her hips and we walked much more than we ran. We completed the marathon in over seven hours.
So sometime last year, I got to thinking. What could I do that is over and above ‘just’ running another marathon. My mother has run ultra-marathons such as a 50-miler and she attempted 100-milers a couple times and was able to complete 70 and 90 miles in them. I was there for both of those and ran 10 miles with her in each in the middle of the night. There’s a mystique about it running in the forest in the middle of the night and the assemblage of participants and supporters. But those types of races are for those who live and breathe distance running like her.
Twenty years ago there was another race that she ran. The Pikes Peak Marathon. It is a marathon, run in the forest from the base of the mountain to the top and back. In addition to the marathon distance, it is an 8000 foot climb and descent. After checking out the registration for the race, you need to have completed a marathon under 5:45 within the last three years. So my plan was to run a fall marathon in order to achieve that time.
My training basically started at zero and I made progress, but there were many obstacles. While I do a fair amount of walking and ride my bike to work most of the summer, it’s not the same as running. My first runs were only a mile and I could not run more than a block. I slowly increase my distance, but started to have recurring pains in my calves. The calf would tighten up and I would have pain from then until two to four days later. I didn’t know exactly what it was or what was causing it. I tried multiple things to avoid them, but more rest between runs seemed to be the best prevention. I think it must have been tendinitis. The rest worked and it seemed to go away, but then it started getting hot outside. On three occasions I got heat exhaustion. Again, I made modifications such as being properly hydrated and introducing methods of cooling down. But I was not completing my long runs and it was getting to the point that I only had a few long runs left. Finally, I completed my 16 miler, then the 18 miler, and finally the 20 miler.
It seemed that I could coast until the marathon. But I bought some new shoes and my calf problems came back after the two runs with them. So I switched back to my old shoes, but I was still was only able to finish two miles into an 8 mile run just one week before the marathon. So I resolved to avoid running all week until the marathon. But then on Wednesday while bending over to cut my toe nails, I felt a spasm in my lower back. For the following days I had lower back pain and difficulty rising from a seated position. In the final days before the marathon, I seriously questioned if I’d be well enough to actually run the race. I’d already been wondering if my calves would act up during the marathon. The night before I took a couple ibuprofen and an analgesic patch on my lower back and hoped for the best.
The morning of the marathon, I felt pretty good and followed my normal routine with limited stretching adding two more ibuprofen and another analgesic patch. The cool morning was a bit of concern for cramping, but I dressed warmer than normal to keep everything toasty to prevent cramping. The race started well and I was slightly faster than my target pace. But occasionally, I’d feel a twinge in one of my calves. I’d slow down a bit and adjust and it would go away. This happened repeatedly on one calf or the other, but would go away. But then at mile 12, I felt a pop in the right calf. I thought this could be it. If this is bad enough, I’d never be able to keep the pace needed to finish below my target time. Given that this is what all that training was working toward, I pressed on and surprisingly it did not affect my pace despite a dull pain.
I kept ticking off the miles keeping below the pace that I had determined would allow me to get in under my goal time of 5:30. I was getting a bit fatigued and spent some walking breaks and started thinking if there would be one point where I could just walk fast and still get the 5:45 time I needed to qualify for Pike’s Peak. So for over a mile, I mostly walked, but began to think that I might be taking too much of a chance. Maybe something will cramp up and I wouldn’t be able to walk fast. It’s not like I had to walk and running would give me a better finish time. Plus I figured that I’m feeling fine, so why not just go for it and get the best time I can. So I started running again and what surprised me is that it was still the same pace that I had been running earlier in the race. I had assumed that my pace would slow later in the race much like I had during my training runs. So I ran the final four miles and finished under my goal of 5:30 with a 5:23 time.
You can see that it seems that I was very lucky to complete the marathon with a number of obstacles that could have kept me from finishing. Plus, it really surprises me that I was able to finish that strong. I hadn’t done that in previous marathons.
But it reminded me how difficult the Pikes Peak marathon will be and how much more I need to train for it. Now onto the next step.