When Unpreparedness Meets Opportunity: My Marathon Story
October 11, 2023, marked the 25th anniversary of my "running" the Chicago marathon. If you're in shape and prepared to run, it is a beautiful way to enjoy the city and its diverse neighborhoods—29 along the course. The route is primarily flat, and early October typically brings gorgeous weather to run, though none of that may matter much if you're not in shape or ready to run. I jogged most of the 26.2 miles, walked a couple more, and did something I'm not sure I can adequately describe for mile 24—more later. The good news is I not only completed the marathon, I did so strongly, coming as close to a sprint as I could to cross the finish line in five hours and eight minutes to an adoring crowd still in the stands cheering me on as if I won the race and set the world record along the way.
That cheering was the primary inspiration to run the marathon in the first place. My wife, Corina, and I cheered with the crowd a year earlier while waiting for a few friends to finish. We got caught up in the rooting for everyone phenomenon as if everyone crossing the finish line was our soulmate. We heard rumors that the same support was provided throughout the race, and it all sounded fun and exciting. Plus, I craved the attention. A few years ago, I took Dr. Gary Chapman's 5 Love Language Quiz as a fun exercise with my family, and my love language is, by a considerable amount, Words of Affirmation. Truth is, it's not only my love language, but words of affirmation are the secret access to my soul. Knowing that spectators would cheer for me at the end of the race and throughout the course, too? I might not even have to train. I'd receive admiration for completing or even attempting to run, sympathy for trying and coming up short, and even if I was seriously injured or didn't survive the race, I would be a hero for my failure. My love language on steroids.
If that wasn't enough motivation, the thought of putting my body through a test of this magnitude appealed to me. I had never run more than five miles at one time, and that was in high school. I was more of a sprinter, and the only thing I knew of the marathon was it wasn't a sprint. Completing the intense training I imagined it would take to be successful fit nicely with where I was in other life areas: Business owner, fatherhood, and marriage. The primary difference is that an almost universally accepted method of training to successfully complete a marathon exists. I was still mostly figuring out how to navigate and succeed in those other areas, which also came with training guidelines but are so diverse that I can usually find material on how to run my business, raise my children, and enjoy a long and happy marriage that matches my current style and methods. No growth or change is necessary. Still, nothing in my everyday life would present the physical challenge quite the same way as running a marathon. I liked that fewer than 1% of the population has run one, and some sources I checked state that number to be much lower, from .1 to .5%. Sign me up.
The race started effortlessly enough for me. I had been trained and retrained to understand the adrenaline rush initially and go out slowly. I needed to save my energy as I would require it later. It worked. I eased out of the start, letting most people pass me during the first couple of miles (a strategy, it turns out, that would unintentionally last the remainder of the race). I attempted to stay with my 10-minute/mile training group because we all employed the same energy-conserving strategy. For the most part, I stayed on this pace, only dropping back a bit with Corina when I realized at mile one that I had consumed too much water and Gatorade pre-race and already had to use one of the portable toilets that lined the course a mile in. I would have laughed if I had seen those before I started, thinking that one mile in was too soon to use the facilities.
I was wrong, as were the throngs joining me in my search for an open porta-potty. Corina stuck with me during that pit stop, but she was done with my race-running style when we reached the first water station. I wanted to walk through the station, slowly drinking my water and catching my breath. She didn't want to stop, grabbing her water and gulping it down without slowing her pace. She asked me if it was OK to run ahead, but I don't think she waited for my answer before leaving me in her dust and empty water cup. I was fine with her decision. She was a much better runner in general and more adequately trained for this race than me. It would have been fun taking in the sights and talking with her along the 26.2-mile route, but I knew that wouldn't be the case for me. I would do my best to enjoy the scenery and cheers from the onlookers along the way, but I was prepared to struggle at some point. I needed it. I wanted to push my body to the brink, to challenge myself like I've never before. It was part of my motivation to run. Spoiler alert: I would succeed.
I had lost most of the running group by the halfway point, but I wasn't worried. I felt good. I knew a few friends were cheering us on at mile 14, so I looked forward to that. I found my friend, Renee, and the four children who accompanied her, two of hers and two of mine. I stopped to greet them. I figured they made their way through all the traffic and blocked streets to cheer on Corina and me; the least I could do was to hang with them for a few minutes. I'm confident it had nothing to do with my needing the rest. The brink could wait. I also discovered that Corina had blown by them with a wave and appreciative smile, wanting to continue her stop-for-no-one race mentality. I was more of a runner of the people. After mile 14, I was still doing well when my friend, Doug, joined me for a few miles for some pleasant conversation before dropping off, either because he was forced to do so or because I became a less-than-enthusiastic conversationalist. It was the former, but I wouldn't discount the latter, especially as the miles piled up.
After Doug exited the course, I approached the 20-mile point of the race. "The Wall," as many marathon runners refer to it. As 20 miles is the most anyone will run during a typical training program, it is at this point in the race that many begin to slow down, break down, or lie down. It could be a psychological phenomenon. Runners talk about it enough for it to cause a mental barrier, one that overrides how well you feel physically, and also because people realize that once you cross The Wall, you still have 6.2 miles (a 10k) to run. That can be good news for strong runners or a warning for those looking to push themselves to the edge. Or, if you've made it this far, you've run, walked, or crawled 20 miles, and your body is feeling the effects, and therefore, The Wall is the accurate representation. Either way, I was ready. I still felt good when I hit The Wall and was able to run through it without much issue. "That was The Wall? Is that all you got?" I overconfidently thought.
Shortly after that, I came across our 10-minute/mile group leader, still holding the 4:30 sign to indicate that we were estimated to finish the race in approximately four hours and 30 minutes. I ran up next to her with my new just-busted-down-The-Wall confidence and asked, "How are we doing on our pace?" She glared at me like a mama bear who had just witnessed me taking one of her cubs and screamed, "I don't fucking care!"
Whatever distance I ran to get out of the way of her glare and her ability to impale me with the 4:30 marker she was carrying was, by far, my fastest portion of the race.
My thoughts turned back to the finish line. I crossed mile 21, starting to slow slightly but still feeling decent enough. Miles 22 and 23 were rougher. I could feel things happening to me that I wasn't prepared for. My body began to seize, starting in my legs and moving up. Not only was I cramping, but my whole body felt like it had the liquid, food, and air sucked out of it, like deflating a portable air mattress. At mile 24, I hit my wall hard and could barely move beyond it. The brink I thought I wanted to push myself toward when I registered for this race didn't seem so desirable anymore. Instead of enjoying the cheering and the beauty of the day, I might as well have been alone, lost in the desert of some distant land, looking for any hint of water and food on my way to base camp but most likely left to die in the scorching heat. The temperature was warmer than typical for that time of year, but still a lovely autumn day. For me, however, it might as well have been Death Valley. I somehow dragged my body to the water station at mile 24. To my surprise, along with Gatorade and water, there were bananas, energy bars, Gu packets—a healthy, cake frosting-like energy substance—and cherry-flavored gummies. A volunteer noticed my suffering, asked if I was OK, and strongly suggested I consume Gatorade and some or all of the non-liquid items. I remember downing gummies, swigging Gatorade, and taking a banana with me as I moved at snails-pace through mile 24. I wasn't quite yet at a walking stride when I felt my body relax. I was still cramping everywhere, but the convulsions were less frequent and with decreased intensity. I was soon able to walk close to my average pace, and as the sugar from the candy made its way through my bloodstream, I was back to a slow jog by mile 25.
Incredibly, I would finish this race after all. I had pushed my body to the brink of collapse only to find (be fed) the energy to finish and do so at an almost-sprint the last 10 meters or so, taking in the shouts and applause from the onlookers and high fives from those who crossed the finish line with me. What a rush!
I was in good shape and a decent athlete but wasn't much of a runner, so Corina silently doubted whether I could complete the marathon. Her lack of confidence in my ability to finish the race increased when I sprained my ankle during a training run and had to pause my training to heal. Had she realized what I had gone through at mile 24, she would have likely left the course searching for the nearest bookie to make a wager that I wouldn't be joining her at any post-race celebration. If my life was going to end on the Chicago marathon course, she would cash in on it. At any rate, when I crossed the finish line 20 minutes behind her and last in my training group, I was met with looks of surprise and astonishment. "I was certain you wouldn't make it!" Corina confided in me shortly after I finished. Others in our group nodded in agreement, including me.
Twenty-five years doesn't feel all that long ago. My daughters were ages six and three back then. I can look at each of them to see what 25 years will do, and if that doesn't convince me, I can look in the mirror. However, thinking about the marathon all those years ago, I vividly remember certain aspects, mostly centered on the pain. The pain caused by the pounding, bleeding, chafing, and blistering during and after the many miles of training runs, the pain of injuries sustained during the training, the pain of getting up at 5am every Sunday to answer the door for the babysitter, and then be on our way to train; and the pain of running the actual race. All that pain comes back to me as if I felt it this morning—maybe those aren't memories. I remember non-painful details as well. I remember Corina and I signed up for the Hal Higdon training course, joining the 10-minute/mile group. Although I don't know the names of any group members, I recall I was the only male of the bunch. I also remember that Corina and I were the only two over 30 years of age and that on any given Sunday, a dozen or so of us were hitting the dirt trail along Lake Michigan. We met once a week to get in our long runs. Other than that, we were on our own to train, and with me working a full-time job with a decent-sized commute each way, I didn't fulfill much of the training outside of those long runs. What made me use work and my commute as excuses for skipping the mid-week training is that our training coach told us that if all we did was stay healthy and get our long runs in, we'd probably be OK running the marathon. I focused on the word "probably." I wanted more assurance that I could do less and still complete a marathon. Still, the possibility of finishing a marathon by doing nothing more than the Sunday long runs provided comfort and also kept me on my toes enough to cause me to sneak in training runs during the week and on Saturdays from time to time. I didn't think about it then, but one way to ensure I would challenge my body and push myself to the edge was to skimp on the training. The balancing act between stupidity and an internal challenge to push my body to its limits was delicate and nuanced. One thing I nailed during the training was the rest day. Monday. I consistently nailed rest days. One of the best to ever do it; I am confident of that.
I'm not here to convince you to run or not run a marathon. There are plenty of positions on each side of the debate that you can use to justify your stance on the topic. I ran one in 1998 and thought I might run a couple more, but I never followed through with the training. The first incomplete success was in 2000 for Chicago. I was training alone this time as Corina wasn't interested. That was probably my downfall, as I underestimated how well we motivated each other in 1998—or, more accurately, how well she inspired me. Other things were going on in my life at that time that took energy and focus away from marathon training. Some were good, and a few felt more like extended versions of what happened to me at mile 24 a couple years prior. In 2006, I started to prepare with a coworker for the Rock n Roll marathon in San Diego and backed out midway through the training due to a lack of motivation—could I blame Corina again? Having already pushed my body to its limit in 1998, maybe I didn't need to prove anything to myself or anyone else by running another marathon. Perhaps I no longer required the attention of the onlookers along the course and at the finish line; words of affirmation now garnered from alternative means as I became more experienced and confident in other areas of my life. The thrill and excitement over the unknown were lost. I was already one of the fewer than 1% of the population to run a marathon. What else did I need?
Apparently, something. In early November 2022, Corina and I realized we were just blocks away from the New York City marathon course, so the morning of the race, we walked to the mile six marker and cheered on the runners for an hour or so. Thoughts of running another marathon crept in. I asked Corina if she would ever do another one. "No!" was all she said.
No further explanation. I thought about the idea over the next few months. I recently had both hips replaced, one in 2016 and the other in August 2022, and running a marathon on those new hips may not be the best idea. As you can imagine, I would research the topic and find information suggesting I could run a marathon on artificial hips and urgent warnings never to do such a thing. The New York City marathon caps the number of participants at 50,000. For two weeks in February, a lottery opens to allow the hundreds of thousands of people who want to run to enter in hopes of being selected. I added my name to the list. When I wasn't selected, I figured that was a good sign not to run. I gave up on the other potential ways to earn an entry to the race and decided to join the 50,000 participants of the New York City marathon as a spectator this year. It's probably for the best, although watching it will increase my desire to run in 2024. I'll cross that starting line when I get to it.
Overcoming the physical challenge of a marathon provided me a confidence boost in other facets of life. Did I become a better father? More patient and confident in the decisions I made regarding the family? Maybe not, but I could effortlessly chase down my children should the need arise. And if I made a parenting mistake, I'd rest easy knowing everything would be OK. After all, I survived a marathon. My business didn't necessarily take off after I ran the marathon. Still, I impressed more than a few with my success-in-the-marathon translates to success-in-business analogies. I'm sure I was the first and only one to ever think of that. Not too long after running the marathon, I wrote my first book. I may not have cramped up or bled during any part of that process, but my marathon training certainly helped in my dealings with copy and technical editors. Of course, that boost of confidence did not carry over to my marriage as not only did Corina also run the marathon, but she ran it faster than me. Her confidence boost was at the "things are going to change around here" level. I should have trained harder.
The four months between the start of training and the afternoon I crossed the finish line, although seemingly long while in it, was a pretty short timeline to go from zero to total success and validation. It was a good lesson to apply anything. A true success-in-the marathon translates to success-in-life moment. I benefitted greatly from those who provided training tips, expert knowledge, and other tidbits on preparing for and running a marathon. As I stated earlier, I won't suggest you run or don't run a marathon, but having read about my successes, both on and off the race course, as a result of my participation, you have to be eager to lace 'em up to join the 26.2 mile. So, in the spirit of paying it forward, I offer a few tips, knowledge, and tidbits to consider should you join the fewer than 1% of us who've successfully completed a marathon. Here are my 12 tips for pre-race training, race-day preparation, and post-race triumph.
One of the first pieces of advice I received before any tips on training, nutrition, and race-day procedure is to tell everyone you know you're running a marathon. If you've told your friends and family, you will be more motivated to complete the training and run the race. This is somewhat true. It did add pressure to finish what I started, at least this first time. It probably also annoyed most of my friends as the advice I received didn't include the frequency in which to announce my intentions, so I may have overdone it in the interest of getting across my message, and more likely to the point of them rooting against me to finish. Perhaps tread lightly with this recommendation.
Give yourself at least four months to train. This allows ample time to procrastinate for a month or two, then follow the advice in numbers 3 and 4 below to prepare just enough to complete the race. You may not need this much time to train if you're an experienced runner. You may be able to procrastinate all four months, wake up on race day, and run the marathon without thinking about it. Good for you. Your individual balance of training and procrastination will vary based on skill level.
Find a marathon training plan, especially if you're a novice. It will cover training, nutrition, preparation, and post-race recovery. There are tons of programs out there for various skill levels of runners. And…
Understand that you don't necessarily need to follow the training plan you find, especially if you want to push your body to the brink, as I apparently did. You can follow my regimen of long runs, rest days, and cherry-flavored gummies at mile 24. However, if that sounds too much like the brink of stupidity, go back and follow every word in step 3, except the last one.
Don't sprain your ankle during a training run. This is only a suggestion, not a hard rule. Plenty of other running-related injuries, such as IT (iliotibial) band syndrome, shin splints, hamstring pull, and runner's knee, are much more impressive sounding and hold more cache with runners. Leave your ankle sprain on the basketball court. I wish I had.
Don't ask your group leader at mile 21 of the marathon, "How are we doing on our pace?" I was lucky to escape mostly unscathed. Don't risk it.
Honor the rest days. This came naturally to me, but some overachievers might struggle.
Parts of your body that you never expected nor imagined will chafe and bleed. These include but are not limited to, nipples, inner thighs, inner biceps, various cracks, and, for those who have them, testicles. The severity will depend on your size, how much you sweat, and the clothing you wear. There are products to relieve and reduce this bleeding and chafing. Invest in those products, but wear the pain as a badge of honor and brag about it often.
When you're exhausted and sore, and the mileage burden becomes too heavy, remember my story. Remember my struggles at mile 24, the recovery from a sprained ankle, and the fact that I had never jogged more than five miles at a time before I started my training. But mostly remember how much better I am than 99% of the population who haven't run a marathon. I am better than you, too. Use that pain!
Celebrate your accomplishment. Corina and I were tired and sore after the race. We hung around afterward wearing our post-race aluminum blankets to congratulate our fellow training group members and bask in the glory of our achievement. Once back home, it would have been easy for us to stay in for the night, but we were invited to a downtown brewery to continue the celebration later that evening. We popped some pain meds, mustered up the energy, and limped to the car to meet our gang downtown. We were the two oldest in the group, so we wanted to show them that we could still hang out and party, even in our mid-30s. We're glad we did. The real advice? Take pain meds.
Modify your diet and eating habits after running the race. You must change your diet unless you plan to continue training after the suggested post-marathon rest period. I ate one way to keep my strength during the four-month training. I should have eaten differently starting the day after the marathon. I didn't, and since I no longer ran or trained again after the marathon, between Marathon day, October 11, and Thanksgiving morning, November 26, I gained 25 pounds, and not the good kind.
Once you complete the marathon, inform all your doubters and haters, "I told you so." at every opportunity, and maybe throw in a bleeding nipple story for good measure.
This article was originally published on my Medium site.