I ran. I ran until my muscles burned and my veins pumped battery acid. Then I ran some more. – Narrator, fight club
Back in June I decided that I wanted to challenge myself physically. I wanted the type of challenge that felt impossible at the time, but that I knew if I committed myself, I’d be forced to push myself further than ever before. I dropped $115 on registration fees, and immediately started telling people about my intention. I wanted there to be no backing out, barring serious injury.
I’ve always run in an informal way. I played soccer and basketball throughout high school, but I had no idea what I was signing up for. Distance running is a completely different beast than the short bursts needed to play basketball at a high level, and Soccer didn’t come close to preparing my body for extended training runs.
With zero experience, I needed to establish a baseline. How far could I actually run, pre-training? Philadelphia summers tend towards 80+ degree heat and 80+ percent humidity. I sweated walking around the block, and couldn’t manage more than a couple of miles without a downing a bottle of icy water and taking cold shower. I travelled to Greeley Colorado for a Quaker conference in early July. The mornings were cool, and free from the oppressive East coast humidity, but the altitude left me breathless after only about a mile. My longest run in the first month came courtesy of an unusually cool day in late July coupled with a light drizzle. I managed about 5.5 miles, and headed home tired.
I went West in early August for the first chapter of Not Back to School Camp. Taking advantage of the time change, I got up early every day for the first week and ran. At camp I had the advantage of running partners, which was wonderful motivation. The best running spot nearby was a steep hill, which kicked my ass every morning. My camp runs culminated in a 6 mile double round trip. Up the hill and back again, twice. It felt great.
Between sessions at Grace’s house in Eugene, Oregon, friend and fellow staffer Abbi Miller and I enlisted each others help to stay in shape. Her Yoga and core exercises left my abs sore, and I set the pace and distance for regular runs around town. I looked up mileage recommendations for marathon training online, and found that I was behind. My first Saturday in town, I gutted out 10 miles, my personal best. I was sore for a day and a half, but I topped 11 miles the next week.
Second session of camp took us further west to the Oregon coast, where I ran my first half marathon. 3.3 miles up the road, 3.3 miles back. Half pitcher of water gulped down, half a Clif bar eaten, then out and back again. I felt amazing. My first 10 mile run had been nothing but pain, but it appeared that my heart, lungs, and lower body muscles were getting with the program. I was experiencing runners highs, forgetting about my legs for a half mile at a time, and just enjoying the breeze and the scenery.
Unfortunately, that was my last run of the session. I came down with a minor camp illness, nothing serious, but I needed to sleep. I lost my east-coaster on the west coast early-wakeup advantage. I slept until breakfast every morning, and with the end of the session approaching, I couldn’t find time to run.
Back in Eugene again after second session, I got in a couple of nice long runs. Once with Blake alongside the Willamette, then across the river to Tilke’s house in Springfield and back, another along the opposite shore. Neither topped 13.1 miles. Before I knew it, we were heading East to the Vermont for the final two weeks of camp. Jet-lagged and overwhelmed with extra camp responsibilities, I didn’t get in a single run. I did however, swim across the lake and back several times.
Signe was the first to attempt the swim. She triumphantly reported her experience at one of our junior staff meetings, and I couldn’t wait to do it myself. We enlisted Elijah and Brenna to join us, and on the count of three, plunged into the icy water. I don’t know how wide the lake was, and I don’t consider myself a strong swimmer, but it felt like exactly the sort of challenge I was looking for. As we touched the rocks at the other end of the lake, the dock we left seemed impossibly far away. Halfway back, I picked my head up to see Brenna already close to finishing. Elijah and Signe were setting a slower pace, way back behind me and George was paddling the lifeguard board alongside them. I was all alone in the middle of the lake. I was tired, the water was cold and deep, and I had no choice but to get to work. Getting out felt so good, I promptly committed to repeating the swim on all three of the remaining days of camp.
A month later it was race time. I’d had a lackluster finish to my training, eventually running a 15 mile personal record, then cutting a long run short due to pain in the arches of my feet. I replaced my shoes, just in time for the recommended two weeks of tapering off form training. According to the experts, I’d trained all that I could, now my job was to stay in good shape with short runs, fuel up on carbs and hope for a good race.
On race day I arrived at 6 AM. I waited 45 minutes to use a port-o-potty. I had to get as much stretching as possible done in line, because the race started at 7 AM. I was hoping to run a 4 hour and 30 minute race, but I couldn’t find the pacer. I did see the 4:15 guy, so I stuck tried to get as close to him as possible.
By mile 3 I needed to pee. I saw some other guys peeing on a wall along Columbus boulevard and raced up the slope to find a spot. Then I sprinted to catch up with the 4:15 pace keeper. I had a tendency to run too fast during training, so I was happy to be able to depend on someone else to be deliberate in their pacing.
At mile 6 I passed Helen for the second time. She’d cheered me on at mile two, then cut across town to see me as I made my way up Chestnut street. I was feeling great, and showed off for the camera as I went by.
By mile 13 I started to feel it. I’d made friends with a med school student from New York named Adi, also running his first marathon. We’d been able to maintain a stead pace while conversing for the past few miles without major effort, but as the half marathoners split to the right for the finish line, I imagined how sweet it would be to go with them.
Instead we went left, slogging up Kelly drive. No longer were there cheering crowds of center city with signs, nor the frat kids along 34th street to tempt us with cold beers they tried to press into our hands. There were miles of empty road before us and I was not feeling my best. By mile 16 I could no longer carry on a conversation, responding in short grunts or one word sentences to the other runners. I downed a gel pack, and a gatorade, and told my legs to shut up.
Entering Manayunk was a relief. There was a marathon party going on, and we were the guests of honor. One guy had his whole drum kit set up on the sidewalk, and kept our legs in motion with a marching beat. There were hundreds of people in the street cheering us on, offering us fruits, and again, beer. I declined the beer, but was buoyed by the support. I got my legs back under control in time for the hill at mile 19, and made the turnaround at mile 20 feeling good again.
At mile 23, I hit the wall for the second time. The clouds parted and the sun beat down on us as we made our way back down Kelly drive towards the finish line. I downed a cup of gatorade, doused myself with two cups of water, then drank a third. I’m in the middle of the lake, I told myself, gotta keep swimming. No point stopping here.
I refused to acknowledge any signals of distress from my lower body and powered ahead. My friend from earlier in the race, Adi decided to run ahead. I decided to stick with him as best I could. He pushed me every time I slowed down. “Come on man, don’t break your form! Come on, we have to go!”.
At mile 26 I could see the finish line. I gathered all my remaining energy for a sprint to the end. Adi had already finished, but had turned around to cheer me on. I high fived the mayor, who stood near the white line and tears came to my eyes as a passed under the giant red timer.
As I slowed to a walk I could feel my knees beginning to stiffen. I felt like the tin man, filled with a heartfelt pride I didn’t know I had, and badly in need of oil. I leaned against a fence and painstakingly reached down to pull my foot up into a stretch. It was pure agony, but I was convinced that If I didn’t do it, my knees would lock up and I’d be frozen in place. Standing like the rocky statue, except with a medal around my neck and a shiny blanket around my shoulders. My family and Helen found me at the finish, helped me to the car, covered my knees in ice, and fed me protein and carbs for the rest of the day. They were just what I needed.
Without a doubt, the marathon was the hardest physical challenge I’ve ever attempted. Crossing the finish line was meaningful in a way that goes far beyond running. I can’t tell if this was a one-off adventure, or the beginning of a new era in my life. I do know that I’m finally no longer sore, and a run sounds really great right about now.