I was talking to a group of runners the other night before their first marathon at the Rock N Roll San Diego Marathon. I was repeating my mantra to them — “Don’t freak out” — and telling them not to worry. “You’re prepared, I promise” I told them. One of them came to me afterward and asked me, “how can you promise that we are prepared Coach?” I answered her by telling her the story of my first marathon many years ago. In the age of the Internet, great web-resources, astonishingly detailed race web-sites and fleets of personal coaches, think about this next time you wonder whether you are prepared for your next race.
Let me take you back to 1989. I was the tender age of 18. I found myself at the time running with the University of Puget Sound, where I was spending my Freshmen year in college. I was a lean (read: scrawny) teenage (read: stupid) runner (read: fast) with tons and tons of racing experience (read: almost none in reality). I could talk a good talk with runners though. One day, precisely seven days before the Portland Marathon, someone asked me if I wanted to run the marathon the next weekend. “Sure!” I exclaimed. “That sounds great.”
I had no idea at that moment what a marathon would entail. In fact, I didn’t know how long a marathon was. In those days, there was no such thing as a half-marathon. I had raced plenty of 5K and 10K races. I was well prepared for those distances, which is to say I had a no idea about anything longer than that. I didn’t even want to ask anyone how long the marathon was, because, well, I didn’t want to look stupid.
In those days, we didn’t have the Internet, so I went to the library. I looked up the word “marathon” in the dictionary. Here was the definition: “an endurance contest. . . Something (as an event, activity, or session) characterized by great length or concentrated effort.” Thanks for nothing Noah Webster. I went to an encyclopedia and in it I found out that someone in ancient Greece had once run from a place called Marathon to Athens and had dropped dead at the end. Great.
I proceeded to make my preparations for the event. I filled out the entry form, which didn’t ask for my e-mail or cell phone number, because we didn’t have those things at the time. The only information I had to give was my mailing address, which I presumed was so the race organizer could mail home the bodies of those that dropped dead at the finish.
I spent the next few days training my ass off. I probably ran more that week than I did in the entire year before. I put on my Walkman, loaded it with a mix-tape that my ex-girlfriend had made for me when she broke up with me (on my birthday; true story) and headed out and just ran and ran. I bet I ran for at least 90 minutes each time. When the batteries died I went home. I did this once a day, every day until the day before the race. That day I did it twice. Then I drove down to Portland, arriving just in time to pick up my number and my race t-shirt. There was no such thing as a “goodie bag” at the time. There wasn’t a race expo either. It was table with boxes of safety pins on it. The only pre-race information was the start time. I didn’t think to ask how long I had to finish. I just assumed that it took long enough that people might die, which is a pretty long time.
Of course, there was no such thing as the World Wide Web back then, so I couldn’t look up any information like a course map. Not that there would have been one. I still didn’t know how long the race was when I went to bed the night before.
I barely slept at all, owing to the fact that I am allergic to cats and my hosts had several, two of whom regularly slept on the pillows in the spare room. In the morning, with my eyes almost completely swollen shut, I made my way to the kitchen and ate breakfast. I ate what I ate every morning back then — six scrambled eggs and six pieces of bacon. People had told me you needed to eat a lot of protein before a big day.
I wandered outside only to find that someone had smashed in the window of my car and stolen my car stereo. It was pouring rain, so my car was soaked inside. If you doubt any part of this story, don’t doubt this part. This is the God’s honest truth. I sat down in two inches of water and completely soaked my running shorts and my Star Wars t-shirt and then drove to the race.
When I arrived in downtown Portland there were lots of men getting ready to run. I use the term men on purpose. I think there were about five women. There were people in the parking lot doing doing one-armed push-ups to get ready for the race. ‘These people are crazy,’ I thought to myself. At 18 years-old, I was probably one of the youngest runners. No, I am sure I was the youngest runner.
The race start area was set up like any other road race and people were shouting for the fastest people to go to the front. Someone said, “anyone running faster than 7:00 minutes per mile should go the front.” ‘Shit, I run 5:30 miles. I should be up there’, I thought to myself. I lined up among the other skinny (read: fit) men and got ready to run. For some as yet to be determined amount of miles.
The first 5K went great. I was out there with the leaders feeling quite at home. I was young (read: stupid) and thin (read: scrawny) and loved running fast. This is what I was made for. At the 10K mark I celebrated an equaling of my longest race and I think it was a new 10K PR as well. I didn’t bother stopping at any of the “water stations”, because I would lose time if I did.
After about mile 10, my head started to spin a little bit. I recall the sensation being like running uphill, but I don’t think I was actually running up a hill. At mile 13 someone shouted, “great job, you’re half-way there!” I nearly fainted. I spent the next three miles trying to figure out how many more miles that meant I needed to run. No matter how I worked the math, it wasn’t coming out well for me. I didn’t like the answer.
Somewhere in those dreaded Middle Miles, I finally slowed down to a walk. I’d been out there for longer than I had ever run. I was soaking wet. Chewbacca was frowning. I had neither eaten nor drunk anything.
At mile 21 I started to cry. I’ve always been sort of a “crier”. This was no exception. I cried hard for at least two miles. I could NOT STOP crying. Crying might not actually be the right word. Sobbing might be a better word. Like the kind of crying people do at their spouse’s funerals kind of crying. The interesting thing was that I really didn’t know why I was crying. I simply was not in control of my emotions and crying seemed to be what was going on.
With one mile to go the tears finally stopped. I actually started to run again. People shouted to me that I was “looking good” which I have always since translated as “you’re still moving?! Wow! You look like such shit, we can’t believe it!” The pace picked up considerably from where it had been, but I have no idea what pace I was running. This was before the days of Garmins or even races keeping split times. My Casio digital watch had stopped displaying the elapsed time, presumably because of the tears and the fact that it wasn’t water-proof.
I crossed the line. I stopped. Someone put a medal around my neck.
“Great job kid!” someone yelled. “You broke four hours!” ‘Is that good?’ I wondered. I had no idea. It wouldn’t be until many years later that I would realize how fast I must have run the first half of the race to be able to finish under four hours after walking and crying for essentially half of it. I sat down on the grass and cried some more for good measure.
Then I got back in my windowless car and drove back to Seattle in the rain.
I learned a lot about many things that day. Perhaps the most important is that we can do anything we set out to do, even when we don’t know what we’re doing or how we are going to do it. And the next time you start to freak out a little think of this story and know that it won’t be that bad. Even if it is, you will most likely live to tell the tale.
Coach Joe English, Portland, Oregon, USA
Running Advice and News