This month, Randy Thompson shares a race report he has written describing how he completed his first marathon. Enjoy!
Sunday, Oct 9, 2016, Portland Oregon (d2)
The runner staggered slightly as another wave of pain shot through his legs. Off balance now, he splashed into a nearby puddle, flooding water over the top of his soaked shoe. The big white 20 mile course marker crept into sight ahead, on the right, as packs of chattering runners passed on the left. Everyone seemed to be having fun, but it dawned on the runner that he was not having fun. This was not going according to plan or expectation.
He was 62 years old. This was his first marathon. As a runner for 15 years, he had completed twenty 1/2 marathons, with times ranging from 1:45, in his youthful 40’s, to 2:15, recently. He had carefully planned the past 40 weeks, since Jan 1, 2016. He had read all the training materials, consulted with experienced marathoners, watched endless videos. He expected challenges, rough spots, and difficulties. But THIS?
They said “Don’t go out too fast”, “Take all your early walk breaks”, “Hydrate”, “Eat”, “Keep a PMA (positive mental attitude)”, “Don’t try for a time”, “Focus on finishing”. And his favorite: “Have fun”. He had embraced all this wisdom and more.
Well, maybe he had started a bit fast, at his aggressive pace of 9:45 (minutes per mile). OK, maybe, he had forgotten about those early walk breaks. He had planned a 30 second break every mile, which was conservative and should make only a minor impact on his overall time. But the early energy, music, cheering crowds and thousands of runners packed closely together had swept him up, there was no time for walking. The big, warm, sweating group of runners around him, felt like a single breathing creature with heaving sides, and he was part of it.
Against all advice, he had a secret time goal of 5 hours. It seemed logical, double your recent half-marathon time of 2:15, add 20-30 minutes and presto: 5 hours. 4:45 if everything was going well, 5:15 if it wasn’t. Already relegated to the “F” wave, he could do better. He expected more of himself.
The 40 weeks of training involved 600 miles during 100 runs, ranging from 5 to 20 miles each; 3 pairs of shoes, dozens of dark groggy 5am morning runs, hours sweating in the Boise summer sun; gallons of Gatorade, Core Power, GU gel. Running on vacation for heaven’s sake (Yes, it was Hawaii, but still).
This was his 4th try at the Portland Marathon. The first one was over 10 years ago. Something always seems to come up to disrupt the training and set the marathon beyond reach: injury, health, family issues, business problems.
The three training runs to 20 miles had produced some desirable effects. His body adapted to the stresses and responded with remodeled muscles, connective tissue and metabolic changes. Actually, one of the runs was really only 18 miles. Another was a total disaster, with dehydration and exhaustion. Probably not much adaptation from that one. But the trainers and coaches said that was enough to “finish”. No one said anything about “compete”. He should have thought about that before he started.
Miles 1-5 passed quickly and pleasantly enough. The rain, which had been on-and-off since the corralling at 6am, was not an issue. Sure, sun and warm air would be nice, but that has drawbacks as well. 60s and drizzle was OK, The fearsome Harrison St Hill was a yawn. Maybe that was the first sign of getting cocky. Nearly the entire family was on hand and they had waved signs at his first mile and then the 4th mile, on the way back from the hill. He felt strong, limber, relaxed, cheerful ….cocky.
Miles 6-12 were a dreary “out and back” into the train yards and industrial area. The rain picked up and the wind started, cold and unpleasant. His glasses fogged, his fingers went numb. His shoes, socks and feet were soaked. He worried about his cell phone getting ruined in his hip pack. But the bathroom stops were easy, water and Ultima was plentiful, his GU supply and flask worked well and he felt pretty good, all things considered.
During miles 13 to 16, a father and two 20-something kids were ahead, all wearing the same bright outfits, all tall and stringy, all running carefully and consciously, probably first timers too. The runner likes to chat a little after being shoulder-to-shoulder for a while.
“Sure, how’s it going?”
“We’re on a 5:00 pace and the rain has stopped. Life is good”
Sounds a little cocky, doesn’t it?
“I’m from Boise, you?”
If the conversation sounds short and choppy, remember they are running after all.
“Father, son, daughter”
“Mind if I run with you for while”
And so on…
The time and miles pass pleasantly enough. Something to do and think about, besides the road. Then the steep ramp up to the St Johns bridge, a good time for some walking and then shuffling. Only 1 mile to the top of the bridge and then the view; grey and misty, but it’s mostly downhill from here, he thought. He remembers that the photographers start to appear after the bridge. They say smile and wave like you’re having fun. He was.
More family at mile 19, his sister and her husband, a retired track coach, “You’ve got this, no problem” he says. That should have been a warning.
His marathon WAS NOT a double 1/2 marathon. And three 20 mile training runs at 13:00 do not prepare your mind and body for the challenge. PMA is not a substitute for trained muscles, joints and connective tissue that know what 50,000 steps will feel like.
The combination of a fast start, too few breaks, and a fixation on finishing time led to his meltdown at 20 miles. How cruel.
It started with profound aching in his big butt muscles where they attach deep inside. At the other end of his kinetic chain, all 26 bones in each foot complained at each step. His feet felt mushy and weak. In the middle, between pelvis and feet, his calves, knees, quads and hams all quivered, whined and flashed warnings of approaching collapse. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Was he really too old for this? Did he not train enough? Train correctly? His mind was racing, as the coaches predict. He was trying to solve problems with no answers, get fixed, get back on track, but his body refused to respond.
The only possible response is to slow down, mix in walks, take deep breaths, relax his frantic mind, and try to find some positive thoughts. But now, the rain returns again in earnest, thick grey sheets in visible waves, soaking his thin clothes, skin and soles. Oh well, what else could go wrong? Great, the course markers and his watch now disagree by 0.7 mile and his watch is predicting 5:20. His left brain spins frantically, trying to figure it all out.
The pack is now clearly divided into the “haves” and “have nots”. He does not “have it”, despite his brother–in-law’s assurance that he did. Might as well lie down and die.
He should have followed his race plan but it was too late. He went from too little walking, to too much. Now a walk every 1/2 mile was necessary and the walk rate went from a fast 15:00 to a stumbling 18:00. A satisfactory 5 hour finish was lost, even 5:15 seemed unlikely. His world was collapsing.
The runner’s vision tapered down to only 10 ft. in front and almost nothing to the side. His head is down and dejected, not held high and confident. There were a few hardy cheering souls out in the rain or under pop-up shelters and tents. A few soggy musical performances were bravely going on, but he was having none of it. A particularly enthusiastic cheering group, close by, interrupted his misery with cheerful “looking good”, “keep going”, “you’ve got this”. They were mocking him for sure. It earned them a curt “this is horrible”. He felt immediately ashamed and his funk deepened. The entire time and space of the world existed between mile markers; first 20, then 21, then 22, then 23. The walks became more frequent and longer. He developed a limp, but it was so unfocused that it varied from leg to leg, responding to different pains. He was in a dark hole.
Unexpectedly, 24 emerged from the mist, the rain stopped, an open portable restroom appeared at the friendly aid station staffed by the Red Lizards, who were all dressed as… you guessed it. 24 is a wonderful number, divisible by 2,3,6,8 and 12, making it the very best number on the entire course. He had one pouch of his reserve energy gel, “2nd Surge Ultra”, to be used only in a moment of great need. He ripped it open and swallowed it in one gulp. Caffeine, amino acids, sucrose, maltodextrin, and probably miracle ingredient X9, chased with two waters. He imagined it had magical powers.
Mile 24 starts at the bridge back to town, and to the finish. You mean there is an end to this? With an empty bladder, magic X9 in his veins, modest sunshine, a great song in his earphones and his world turns brighter almost immediately. The runner’s head clears and he smiles.
Mile 25 is still a slog but the runner is running hard now, his breath fast and loud, blood pulsing, pain forgotten. Then the 26 marker appears. The crowds are thick and noisy, the runners have the entire street, separated by the cheerful, bright blue barriers. Suddenly, he sees the finish arch ahead, the cheering is overwhelming. It all merges into a head-exploding flash.
And then it’s over. He is a marathoner.
Thanks to Jenn, Cari, Scott, Henry, Blake, Sam, Marilee and Nile who stood in the rain to cheer me on or sent powerful messages.
Thanks to Jeff Galloway who wrote “Randy, You can do this” in my autographed copy of “Running Until 100”.
Thanks to my extended family and friends who offered encouragement and advice along the training journey and who sent congratulations at the end.
And special thanks to Janet, who arranged our life to make it possible, and supported and encouraged me along the way. Couldn’t have done it without you.