The following 3-part post recounts the story of how an out-of-shape college professor (me circa May 2007) became a runner, and how a personal tragedy motivated me to challenge and survive my first marathon.
Part I: Becoming a Runner
If you ask a distance runner like myself why it is that we run, most of us can articulate at least some of the reasons why we feel the need to put on our shoes and go. Some of us run as a way to stay healthy and/or lose weight. Some of us enjoy the camaraderie of the running community and the thrill of road racing – running allows us to regain some of the athletic glory experienced during an earlier stage of life. For yet others, running long distances simply feels natural – running is something that we as humans are supposed to do. For most of us, our motivation to run is usually a combination of many of these factors. Explaining why we run is not usually difficult, but for those of us who have watched a recreational running habit flourish into a desire to tackle a full-length marathon, it can be difficult to put a finger on the exact moment that inspired our transformation into someone insane enough to enjoy running for several hours at a time. I’m still not sure I really know how this happened with me, but what follows is my attempt at an explanation.
I had been a variably active person throughout life, exercising when time was available, and slacking off when time disappeared. However, prior to May 2007 I had never run regularly, and never more than 3 miles in one go, so I never really considered myself to be a runner. Shortly after moving to New Hampshire nearly six years ago to begin a career as a college professor, my wife gave birth to my son (our first child). Less than 2 years after that, my daughter was born. Commitments to work and family put the squeeze on my allotment of free time, and exercise was one of the first things to go. As the exercise dwindled, and the food scraps from my kids plates found their way onto mine, the extra pounds began to appear, and before I knew it I was about fifteen pounds overweight. Like many of the stories I’ve read in Runner’s World and listened to on various running podcasts (e.g., Steve Runner’s Phedippidations), getting myself back into shape was one of my primary motivations for initially hitting the road, especially since I had two active kids to chase around at home. Setting a good example and maintaining my health for them was important to me, and continues to be a major source of motivation.
A second factor also played a big role in my transformation – my wife and I both decided to enter a road race in Maine in the summer of 2007 (the Bridgton Four on the Fourth). In retrospect, I’m not really sure where this idea originated, but the motivation the looming race provided was incredible, and it really reignited a competitive fire in me that seemed to have been extinguished since High School. I was amazed to find that I could go beyond 3 miles without passing out, and my mileage slowly began to creep upward. After experiencing some initial knee and shin pain that I attributed to the increase in mileage, I took the advice of a colleague (and experienced runner) at work and went to a local running store to get a proper pair of shoes. When I told the woman at the store about my aches and pains, she took one look at my shoes and asked if I ran on roads or trails – my response (roads) was apparently not the right one, and it clearly let her know that I was a complete novice when it came to the sport. I felt like an idiot, but I realized that I was definitely at the right place if I was going to get serious about running. She analyzed my gait and let me try out three pairs of road shoes with laps around the block. I don’t know why, but I can still remember that trip to the shoe store like it was yesterday. I’d urge anyone who is just getting started with running to make a trip to a specialty running store a first priority, if for no other reason than to limit the likelihood of injuring yourself by picking shoes because they “look cool” rather than because they are appropriate for your gait and the type of running that you do.
Anyway, with my fancy new shoes ready to go, I ran through the four mile race in Bridgton, and then a few more local 5k’s and a 10k. Each race seemed to bring a new PR, and the desire for personal improvement became addictive. I’m one of those people who is both a perfectionist and extremely self-competitive – I don’t really care who finishes in front of or behind me, but I’m always in a race to the death against myself (and for this reason running a race for “fun” is extremely difficult for me). I ended the racing season by completing the inaugural and ridiculously hilly Manchester Half-Marathon in 1:41:24. I was hooked, and there was no turning back.
Part II: Going Longer
One of the bonuses of being in New Hampshire is that I teach at a college that has a sizable group of students who run the Boston Marathon each year, and I have had several of them in my classes. It always amazed me that these students had the self-discipline to train for and run a 26.2 mile race, and I never hassled any of them who asked to miss my class on marathon day. However, during those first few years as a professor, the thought of doing a marathon myself had never really crossed my mind. In fact, I clearly remember telling a colleague and dedicated runner that there was no way I could run more than 3 miles at once. To be honest, when I first started running in spring 2007, a marathon was not even on my radar. It took another fellow runner to push my thinking in that direction. Right around the time I got hooked on running, I discovered Steve Runner’s inspirational Phedippidations podcast. If you haven’t listened to Phedippidations, you should (check it out here). Steve describes himself as a middle-aged, middle of the pack runner, but for many of us he is much more than that. For many of us, he is the reason why the marathon bug worked its way under our skin. His insistence that anybody who is willing to put in the work can finish a marathon was a great inspiration to me, and made me realize that setting the completion of a marathon as a personal goal was not pure insanity.
By the end of 2007, the thrill of road racing had developed my motivation and my love for running, and Steve Runner, my students, and others provided the knowledge that running even farther was a worthy and possible goal. I was ready for the ultimate test – I just needed to pick the time and place. As it turns out, the time was Memorial Day weekend 2008, and the place was the Keybank Vermont City Marathon in Burlington, VT. Why did I choose this race? The answer to that stems from a personal tragedy, and one that brings a special meaning to Memorial Day for my family and I.
About four years ago, my wife and I were overjoyed, and frankly a little bit freaked out, to find out that she was pregnant with twins. After just emerging from our first son’s babyhood, the thought of adding two new little members to our family was initially a bit (truthfully, a lot!) scary, but we quickly adjusted to the realization that they were coming whether we liked it or not, so we had better accept the challenge. Not long after the notion of having twins became more exciting than frightening, we received a phone call that stopped us cold. A routine ultrasound had detected an anomaly in the placenta shared by the twins that could potentially be life threatening to one or both of them. They were diagnosed with a condition called Twin-Twin Transfusion Syndrome (TTTS), and the prognosis was not good (check out the TTTS Foundation website for more information on TTTS). The pregnancy quickly became a high-stakes race against time, with twice weekly trips to a hospital an hour away for ultrasound scans and surgical procedures to remove excess fluid from the amniotic sac surrounding one of the twins. Things continued to worsen for the babies, and we were shuttled off to a hospital in Rhode Island so that my wife could have emergency surgery to try to correct the placental abnormality. That was Memorial Day weekend, 2005, and on the Sunday of that weekend, at 24 weeks of age, we lost my daughter Ana to this horrible complication. Unfortunately, her health had deteriorated too far prior to the surgery for it to save her, and the loss was devastating to my wife and I. However, the procedure wound up saving the life of her sister Emma, and the pregnancy continued until Emma was born, completely healthy, on September 9, 2005. Perhaps the most amazing part of this story was that Emma was born on and thus now shares her mother’s birthday.
Sometimes there are larger things at play in life that we have no control over. While I am not an overly spiritual man, I believe that Ana was sent to me for a reason, and I felt that as her father I needed to do something honor her memory and the marathon of life that she ran with her sister and mother for those 24 weeks back in 2005. She was a fighter, and I will always remember her for that. Although my only knowledge of what she looked like was from a grainy ultrasound monitor, I see her every day in the face of her identical twin sister (who is playing with dress-up dolls at my feet while I write this sentence). It was to memorialize and celebrate Ana’s short life that I chose to run my first marathon on Memorial Day weekend 2008, the third anniversary of Ana’s passing, and roughly the first anniversary of my birth as a runner.
Part III: The 2008 Vermont City Marathon
The weather in Burlington on Marathon day was beautiful, although not ideal for running a marathon. The forecast called for highs in the mid to upper 70’s by midday, and there was not a cloud in the sky. The town was out in full force to provide their support, and I can’t say enough about what a great event this was, both in terms of organization and the beauty of the course along Lake Champlain. I’d highly recommend it to anybody looking to do a first marathon. Burlington is a great college town, and there are tons of brewpubs for the adults, and local attractions if you have kids (Shelburne Farms and the nearby Ben & Jerry’s Ice cream factory are personal favorites).
On the shuttle to the start line from my hotel, I met a fellow runner named Claud, and we hung out together prior to the race. He was from Massachusetts and a veteran of a few previous marathons (including Boston), and his advice to me as a first-timer was to avoid starting out to fast, and to keep a steady pace (advice that I unfortunately did not heed). We lined up at the start, and the emotions of the moment began to overtake me. I actually felt much more emotional waiting for the starting gun than I did at the finish, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it was just the length of journey that led me to the starting line, or that I was just too dead at the end to really feel it. Anyway, I found myself getting a little choked up as the final few seconds to the start wound down. As the gun went off, I jogged with the pack, found some space, and set out with Claud on the first mile at about an 8:30 pace (which was my long run training pace). Unfortunately, I got caught up in the excitement of the moment, and delusions of qualifying for Boston in my first marathon entered my head. I was unable to stamp them out.
One of the best and worst things I did in the week before the marathon was to run a 5k race 4 days before marathon Sunday. It was the biggest 5k race in my hometown, and one of the largest in New Hampshire each year. I had entered as part of a team from work, and my initial plan was to walk/jog with the kids in a jogging stroller. In the words of my wife in the days leading up to the race: “You are incapable of running a race without going all out – don’t jeopardize all of the training you have done for this one little race.” Well, since I seem to do so well listening to others advice (most of whom are a lot more sensible than I), what did I do? I ran the 5k all out and set a PR of 19:37. Getting the PR was great, but it turns out that this was one of dumbest things I have ever done, and not for the reasons you might expect. I recovered from that race well, and I physically felt great on marathon day (though I’ll never know if there was some residual effect on my muscles). The problem was that I plugged my new 5k PR time into one of those on-line marathon pace/time projector/calculator thingies, and it predicted that I could run a marathon in under the 3:10:59 needed to qualify for Boston. The calculator could not have been more wrong, and I would recommend that anyone running a first marathon avoid using those on-line predictors at all costs. For a first marathon, be conservative about your pace, and don’t be seduced by your dream pace, or a pace predicted by an all-out 5K four days before the race.
Anyway, my split for the first mile was 8:30 (see split summary image below), which is where I probably should have stayed, but I then proceeded to push a pace that would later be my undoing. For the next nine miles, my pace hovered between 7:30 and 7:45 min/mile, and I hit the halfway point a little over 1:41, which was almost the exact time I had finished the Manchester City Half Marathon in during the previous Fall. This should have been encouraging, but a BQ (Boston Qualifier) was not going to happen, and I already knew at that point that I was in trouble. I had hit a rough patch right around mile 11, though I was able to down an energy gel and another runner who I chatted with for a bit gave me some encouragement. I started to feel better, but my pace had already begun to slow to around 8:00 min/mile, and as we approached Lake Champlain for the first time, the sun exposure was beginning to take a toll. Around the halfway point, I tried another gel, but it didn’t go down well, and my ability to fuel at that point was essentially over – anything other than water made me fell ill.
Mile 14 was another ~8:00 effort, but I knew that what was coming next would challenge me physically and mentally in a way that I had never been challenged before. Probably the most significant hill on the marathon course occurs on Battery Street around mile 15. We had eaten dinner the night before about halfway up the hill, so I knew exactly where it was and how hard it would be at that stage of the race. Just before I hit the hill, I saw my wife and kids at the roadside, and I think that the jolt of adrenaline this provided is only reason I was able to avoid walking up the hill. By New England standards, the Battery St. hill is not huge – it is less than a 200 ft rise, but it hits right at the time in the race when you are beginning to deplete your energy stores, and the realization that there are still ten miles left when you get to the top is mentally devastating. I made it up ok, finished mile 15 in about 8:30, but from a physical standpoint, my race was essentially over. None of my remaining split times were below 9:00 min/mile, and the mental challenge that finishing the race required was immense. I receded into my head, and I became aware of almost every single step I took for the next ten miles. Honestly, I’m still not sure how I managed to finish the race, and I don’t know what the result would be if I had to face the same challenge again.
Over the final ten miles, I came to the realization that walking was going to be necessary if I was planning on finishing, so I took a number of breaks to regroup, hydrate, and cool myself down. Miles 18-19 took us through a residential neighborhood, and the families along the road were lifesavers. They had informal water stops set up in their yards, some handed out icy pops, and many had sprinklers aimed into the street. Although it was only in the mid-70’s, it was one of the warmest running days of the year for me at that point, and I was beginning to suffer. I walked through almost every water stop from that point on, making sure to drink as much water as I could. Mile 20 was my low point, with a split over 10:00, but I miraculously managed to recover a bit after that and dropped my pace back down about 30-50 seconds per mile for the remainder of the race.
The final 4-5 miles of the race follow a bike trail along Lake Champlain, though the view is often obscured by trees on both sides. What I distinctly remember to this day about that final stretch is that it was like a long, green tunnel, and every step was an effort. Lots of us were hurting at that point, but my walk breaks somehow became less frequent. I had read in some of my running books that it can help to have a mantra or saying that you can repeat in your head when you are struggling to finish a tough race, and what repeatedly popped into my head were my daughter’s names. Ana-Emma, Ana-Emma, Ana-Emma. Over and over, I repeated their names to myself as I trudged along. I had chosen this race to celebrate my daughter Emma’s life, and to memorialize my daughter Ana’s death. Thinking about the marathon they had been through in the first 24 weeks of their life was my inspiration to keep going, and giving up was not an option.
As we emerged from the forested portion of the bike trail into a more open stretch, the finish line became visible in the distance. I found a final burst of energy somewhere deep inside, and ran the final half-mile at under a 9:00 min/mile pace. I crossed the finish line in 3:43:38 (chip time), which was within my desired target finish time range (although over a half-hour above what was needed for a BQ). All things considered, I was satisfied with the outcome, and I was happy to be done. For some reason, finishing the race was less emotional for me than starting, probably because I was mentally and physically spent. All I wanted were rest, food, and my family. I wish I could say that something profound happened after finishing, or that I came to some great realization, but what I remember most clearly about the minutes after the race are the following:
-Sitting on the ground next to my wife and watching my calf muscle quiver as if it were filled with worms crawling under the skin.
-The excruciating cramps that would occur every time I tried to re-position my legs after sitting down.
-How amazingly good Ben & Jerry’s ice cream tastes after a marathon. Ice cream and pizza were the two things that seemed to go down ok immediately after the race.
We didn’t stay too long after the finish – the kids were tired, and we all wanted to head back to the hotel for a swim. For some reason, I wound up pushing them in the stroller for a portion of the mile walk to where my wife had parked our car. I vividly remember a passerby commenting on how it was amazing that this person who had just run the marathon was pushing a stroller up a hill (I still had my bib number on), but at that point activity probably felt more natural for me (I still can’t remember why I was pushing – I should check with my wife on that….). We returned to the hotel, had an amazingly refreshing swim, and headed out for a much needed dinner at an incredible little brewpub. I have to say, a beer has never tasted so good as the one I had that night, and it is a testament to the importance of food and drink to me that these are some of the things that I most clearly remember about that day (and also goes a long way to explaining why I need to run!).
One last thing and I’ll let this long story end. Shortly after the race ended, my wife asked me if I would do it again. I said to ask again in a few days, but inside I knew that this was not a one-time deal. Running has become a part of me in a way that is difficult to explain. I have reached a point where I need to run, and part of that need involves challenging myself in ways that might seem crazy to most people. So will I run another marathon? Let me answer this by first saying that running the marathon was probably one of the most amazing experiences I have had in my life, and I learned things about myself in doing it that I would not have otherwise known. I learned that I have a level of mental perseverance that goes way beyond anything that I was previously aware of. I learned that I am physically capable of things that I would previously never have thought possible. I still marvel at the fact that I ran the final ten miles on an almost step-by-step basis, and I’m not sure exactly how I managed to do it. I think about things I could have done better – I should have fueled more early on, I should have slowed down at the beginning, I should not have run the all-out 5k just a few days before. Given all of this, the marathon is something that I have to revisit, for I have a lot more to learn from it. So will I run it again – absolutely. If nothing else, running a marathon on Memorial Day weekend each year might be the best possible way to force myself to never forget the daughter that I lost, and to celebrate the miraculous life of the daughter that I have. The pain I experienced on marathon day in Vermont was nothing close to what I felt on that fateful weekend in Rhode Island back in 2005, but the reminder that it provides will hopefully keep me going for years to come.
Update 5-27-2009: I ran the VCM again on Memorial Day Weekend 2009! Click here to read the story of my second running of the Vermont City Marathon.