Four years ago I crossed the line of the Lakefront Marathon in 3:00:12. After a summer of hard training and excellent racing, I was disappointed, but not too discouraged, as I figured I'd be a lock to go under three in my next race.
That winter I trained for Boston with vigor and did a 20 mile run in 6:30's on a hilly course with no trouble about two months prior to the race. However, five weeks before the race I developed tendonitis and Boston turned into a race day disaster 4:04.
Shortly after I moved overseas to Bolivia and at the same time developed chronic pain in my peroneal tendon on the left side. Medical care in the third world is hardly adequate, and for a year I was essentially unable to run as my pain escalated and nobody could treat it.
A year later I returned to the States, was diagnosed with a peroneal tendonapathy (tendon starts to degenerate due to running on tendonitis too long) and eventually was fitted with foot orthotics that allowed my to run. Eight months later I did Madison in 3:20, and in September of 2007 I dropped out of Quad Cities in 85-degree heat at 22 because I fell of pace and would have run about 3:02.
This June I started training again and followed the plan of two weeks up and one down. Five weeks prior to the marathon I ran a 20K in 5:59 pace and figured myself a lock to do well. Then the injury bug struck again.
I developed chronic shin fatigue which caused my peroneal to flare. Then three weeks out after a 10-mile tempo run, the top of my foot just killed. A week before the marathon I was getting an MRI because the doctor thought I had a navicular stress fracture. Four days before it came back and though the navicular was okay, another bone was definitely compromised. The Friday before the Sunday race, two doctors gave me the go-ahead to run in my regular trainers, but also gave a very stern lecture on dropping out if it began to hurt a lot.
Fast forward to Sunday morning. Perfect weather. 50 and sunny with clouds due in for the late part of the race. No wind. I hit the mile in 6:50, the second in 6:40, and the third around 6:45.
Things feel pretty good, but I was hoping that the 6:40's I'm running would be 6:30's with the same effort. The only other problem is I have to pee. The miles start clicking off and I enjoy the scenery and try to keep the women's leaders in touch. At about ten I've reeled in all but one or two of them and I hit that mark in about 67:30. Shortly after I get a lift, when after what I feel like is an eternal mile eleven turns out to be me missing a marker and mile 12 appears. Still looking for a place to go to the bathroom. I see a couple of porta johns along the way, but opt out because of the red occupied sign.
At the half I'm at 88:25 and I have to empty. I pull to the woods and take 30 seconds to go. Then I ease back in, glad that I made the choice.
I'm focused. M&M's Lose Yourself is in my head (best marathon song ever) I keep repeating the song's line "success is my only mother F#@E#@ option, failure's not."
I hit 16 in 1:47 and I'm definitely feeling better than most people on the course. I try to keep the pace real. My most prevalent thought is "stay within yourself." I check the watch at 17 only to realize I've knocked off a six-minute mile. I wish I hadn't checked because this gets in my head. I don't check the rest of the way. I couldn't do the math anyway at that point. I just know I try to slow up a little to save it for the end.
My goal is to make it to Silver Spring Avenue and the 20-mile mark. Then it's three to the downhill and maybe one or two more to the girls from the track team I coach who said they'll be waiting for me. I hope they plan to run with me, but I'm not sure.
It's not until 21 that things start to get interesting. I hit 20 in 2:13:30 or so and definitely have a shot. I know it'll be close as my legs are definitely getting heavy. My foot is starting to become an issue. I've been told to drop out if the pain crescendos. It's certainly becoming an issue on the downhills.
Now to understand my dilemma, you need to remember that it's been four years that I've been waiting for this. A week ago the doctor basically said, "don't run," and I figured it'd be another year until I got a shot. This 3:00 barrier, silly as it seems for somebody who's run 10K in 32:00, has been the albatross around my neck the past four years. Nothing in the world bothers me more than the picture I have of that 3:00:12 finish. I've been consumed by it. To a point that's unhealthy. When I think about how I've got a shot, I get a surge of adrenaline, even at 20+ miles. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, would be worse than not breaking that barrier.
But at 22 my head starts to fog and I delve into marathon logic. No longer am I concerned with running faster, just running. I tell myself my foot doesn't hurt, but it kills, and I'm worried it's going to become an excuse. At 23 the hill is my saving grace. The steep downhill of 400 meters gives me enough of a boost to get refocused. More M&M. More thoughts about staying relaxed and within myself.
I pass a hot dog stand just before 24. At this critical point with my goal in reach am I thinking about the race? No, I'm looking at a guy with a hot dog wishing I could trade places with him. I'm getting concerned. The clock is ticking. Then I see them.
Just past 24 (where I have about 2:43:10) I see a group of several girls with some signs. I can tell they're looking at me hard because they can't quite recognize me from a distance. When they finally do, they let loose with their cheers, and two drop their signs to run with me. They say a few words of encouragement which I only meet with groans, and then they silently run along side me. They're my angels at this point. So often I'm the one running along side them trying to offer encouragement. It's the neatest thing in the world to have the roles reversed and to feed off their energy. We run in silence to 25 and I hit it in about 2:51. Now I know the time is crucial. Finally it occurs to me I'd better make a little push. Another runner goes by and says, "You didn't come here not to break three hours, come on!" I don't go with him, but I do put in a bit more effort. At 25.5 I'm at about 2:56 and not sure if I'll make it. The girls get a little louder and take me to about 300 left. When I hit 26 I can see the clock. It gets closer and I see 2:59:30.
The first time I ran the marathon I remember watching the clock turn over from 2:59:59 to 3:00. Oddly, I'm not sprinting like crazy because I think I have enough time. But at 2:59:45 or so, I'm starting to wonder. It's not how I envisioned it. I envisioned having a cushion, high fiving people down the stretch, feeling intense jubilation. Now I'm fighting for my life. It's not until about 2:59:55 that I'm pretty darned sure I have it. I cross in what I believe is 2:59:57 and instead of jubilation, the feeling I have is of pure relief. It takes a moment for me to soak in the magnitude of how close it was.
And then I smile. I smile with tears in my eyes as they usher me over to take the chip off my shoe and put the medal around my neck.
I'm looking for my angels in the crowd and as soon as I spot them I go over to express my sincerest gratitude. It's a sweet embrace. Two days after they both ran personal bests after long struggles, I've done the same. Several other friends come over to congratulate me.
The reality still hasn't sunk in. That doesn't happen until about ten minutes later. Foot in a bucket of ice the girls brought me (it wasn't a stress fracture before the race, but is now), I break down in tears. It's been ten years since I've felt this way about a race and I know that I'll probably never feel this way again. As ordinary as it seems, I've achieved my goal. Even as I type this, there are tears of joy in my eyes. I've always liked to say that running will break your heart. No matter how hard you work, so often the payoff you desire doesn't occur. But every once in a while it gives back in a way that words can't describe. It's the most beautiful feeling in the world. I'm going to cherish this because I may never feel it again.
Epilogue: Later that night I'm talking to my buddy who ran 2:57 when I ran the 3:00:12. After that race his first words were, "I'm sorry man. I'm sorry." As we talk he gets on line to look at the results and informs me that the official time was 2:59:59) This is so close that even after the fact it makes me uncomfortable. Or as he put it, "Just think man, what if when you stopped to go to the bathroom you'd given it one more shake? You wouldn't have made it." Now that's cutting it close.