I use to say, “I am not a runner.” And for most of my life that comment has been true. But almost three years ago, I took up running to get “back in shape” in order to hike the Georgia sections of the Benton MacKaye Trail and the Appalachian Trail—about 160ish miles total—before my 55th birthday. Having been an athlete when I was younger, I knew I could do the hikes but would need to overcome too much snacking and too much sitting as an adult. I have written about much of this transformation in My Year of Running Failure.
But after this past Saturday, I can no longer claim the “not a runner” status. For the first time in my life, I crossed a start and finish line that were 26.2 miles apart. I am a marathoner.
The race did not go as planned, but I still finished in under four hours. In the early going I did exactly as I trained. Slowish first mile and then build gradually through the next three or four miles to a sub-8 minute mile, returning to the slowish pace of mile one in the fifth mile and repeating the gradual increase again. Everything felt great and I intentionally thought for a moment about what it meant for me to enjoy the day—the sun, the cool air, the runners along the journey—and reflect on the past three years. It was a mental and physical check I needed. And if I had returned to my intended race plan, I would have finished in under four hours and likely felt pretty good.
At mile six, however, I struck up a conversation with two runners who were running an 8:15/mile pace. Having read and heard plenty of folks say that part of the marathon’s attraction is meeting new people, I decided to run with them. Through mile twelve, the near 8:00/mile pace felt great and I had indeed met some running buddies. But the course and the winds turned against me and my energy level.
Between mile eleven and twelve, the course turns off a longish stretch of mostly flat state highway running through neighborhoods that track runners back to downtown Albany. At the same moment, the winds either picked up or the near-tailwind heading out became a headwind on the undulating neighborhood roads. I expected the trees and houses to protect runners from the wind but no such luck. Though I had run a fast—for me—half-marathon distance, I had another half-marathon to run. My pace began to sink into the mid-eight-minutes through mile twenty with the unrelenting wind and the up-and-down of the neighborhood streets. Billed as flat, fast course, the Albany marathon is not a significant hill climb but the constant changes in the neighborhood took a toll on me. Although still feeling good, I was beginning to feel the length of the race.
“The Wall” hit hard at mile twenty-one. Either through my carb-loading process or not consuming enough fluid on the course, my right calf muscles began to knot, beginning close to the tendons and rolling up to back of my knee. The first one cause me to stop, but after stretching a little, I pushed forward. My plan immediately altered and I thought that maybe I would just run-walk-run the remaining five miles. About a quarter-mile of walking later, I decide to try running again but much slower. I finished mile twenty-two but cramps hit my right hamstring muscles. I’m sure I should name the specific one but it felt like they all fired off at once. Stop, again. Stretch, again. Walk a short distance, again. I repeated this process for the next two miles but had decided after mile twenty-four that I could simply walk the remaining distance, be happy with my time because I had completed the distance, and go back to running no distance beyond a half-marathon again.
My wife had followed my progress on the Race Day Event app by tracking my chip. Shortly after I decided to walk the rest the way because now my feet hurt and I knew the blisters were more plentiful and larger than I had ever encountered in running, I received a text message from Kerri that I read on my watch. “You are almost there!!”
I didn’t stop running the final two-mile stretch. In fact, I finished the final quarter-mile running at my training pace for much of the past twelve weeks. I crossed the line at 3:55:00 (chip time; the clock said 3:55:35). Without that text message, I would not have finished the race running.
The fact remains true that I do not consider myself a runner, but I guess that is one of the many things that changed over the course of the past three months and those 26.2 miles on Saturday.