I left for Grandma's on the Thursday before the race, as I had to be there for a press conference the next morning. My wife, Mary, had to work and was going to ride up with friends the next day. We had only one car, an old Honda Civic that we had to park on a hill because we couldn't afford to get the starter fixed; we had to let the car drift down the hill and then pop the clutch as it picked up speed.
Needless to say, I was really excited about the race. I am by nature a very positive-thinking person, and I was going over in my head about how ready I was to run a fast race, all the 20-plus-mile training runs I had done, the hill repeats, the fartlek, the track workouts, and then that little bit of negativity would slip into my head and would say things like: Maybe you've done too many 20-plus mile workouts, too many hill repeats, too much fartlek, too many laps around the track at too fast a speed!
I knew I had to do something to get my mind into the race coming up Saturday.
On the way out of town, I had grabbed the mail, and it was sitting on the passenger's seat. I looked over and saw the newest issue of Track & Field News and thought to myself, Hey, while I'm driving up to Duluth, I'll page through the issue. I flipped the magazine open, and the page it turned to had big bold headlines: "John Graham of England runs 2:09:45 at Rotterdam."
I thought, Wow! That was like the fifth-fastest time ever run in the world at that point.
I read the article and didn't think much more about it until I noticed a mile marker along the interstate, and its number was 209. It was the first one that stuck out in my mind. I'm always looking for positive signs to enhance my day, and now I was starting to get very excited. I was thinking, Am I going to run a 2:09 on Saturday?
My best time coming into Grandma's was in March, when I had won the inaugural London Marathon in 2:11:48. But it's a mighty big drop to get to 2:09. I tried to get that "2:09" out of my head, but it was hard to not think about it -- especially considering the omens.
As I was coming down the big hill into downtown Duluth on the shores of Lake Superior, I could feel the electricity in the air. There were signs and billboards everywhere welcoming the runners. All the radio stations I turned to were talking about the race. Hey, I was so pumped I was ready to stop my car on the side of the highway and begin running immediately!
I was staying at the Radisson Hotel in downtown Duluth, and as I walked to the counter with my bags, I asked the gal if they had a room for Dick Beardsley. She informed me that they did, then handed me a key and wished me luck in the race. As I made my way to the elevators, I realized that the big rush of runners had not yet arrived, so I had the place pretty much to myself. It was a big enough place that the sparks of energy I was shooting off didn't hurt anyone.
As the elevator door closed, I realized I had no idea which floor I should push. I thought it might be about time to take a look at my key to see which room I was in. When I did, I couldn't believe my eyes. I started jumping up and down inside the elevator, hollering and screaming, I was so excited.
No, this isn't the Psychic Channel. You're probably saying to yourself, Hey! I bet he got room 209. Well, I didn't. I got room 902—which, backwards, is 209! At that moment, I knew there was absolutely no doubt that I was going to run 2:09. I didn't know if that would be fast enough to win the race, but there was no longer any doubt in my mind that come Saturday, I would run 2:09.
Although it was difficult to keep this to myself, I didn't tell a soul about what had been revealed to me. Not the race director, Scott Keenan; not my coach, Billy Squires. Not even my wife, Mary. No one. It was my secret, and I was now really, really ready to go!
Mary arrived in Duluth the next day, and it was reassuring to have her there. She helped me immensely by serving as a screen and a defense so I could avoid all the people. I love people and especially enjoy being around runners, but the last few days before a big race, I didn't want to be around anyone. It was my time to get myself mentally ready for the race. I tried to never leave anything to chance when I ran marathons.
I always brought along two sets of racing shoes and clothing just in case one set was lost or stolen. The night before the race, I would lay my racing clothing in the spare bed in the hotel with my number pinned on my singlet, my racing shorts, socks, and my racing shoes lined up. I would then tuck them in nicely. I knew that I wouldn't sleep well that night, but by golly, my racing gear was going to get a good night's rest! I know it sounds weird, but for me it was as important a preparation as my long runs.
The next morning, I was up early, spending much of my time sitting on the toilet seat. I was excited. I began to think that the butterflies in my stomach were going to carry me away. As I slipped into my brand new racing gear that my sponsor, New Balance, wanted me to wear, it was like putting on armor to go do battle.
I had been running for New Balance for a couple of years and had been wearing the same outfit for quite some time. Each marathon I had run up to this point had been faster than the one before, and needless to say, I didn't want that trend to end.
As Mary and I left our hotel room and waited for the elevator to come up, I started feeling guilty. I told Mary I had to go back to the room for something and that I would meet her downstairs. I rooted around in the back corner of the closet, and there was my old racing outfit. I felt terrible, as if I were abandoning my best friend. Even though I had to wear my new uniform to race in today, I just couldn't leave my old friend stuffed in a corner.
So I took my old racing singlet and hung it on a hanger. I pinned my old racing shorts to the singlet, pinned my old racing socks to the shorts, tied my old racing shoes to the socks, and hung it up in the window of my hotel, which looked down on the 25-mile mark.
I thought that if my old friend couldn't be out there running with me, at least he could watch as I ran by. Now my mind was set, and I was ready to race. Everything was in order.
A PERFECT DAY
When we walked outside, we discovered the day was the kind every marathoner dreams of: cloudy skies, no wind, a little light mist and fog from time to time, temperatures in the mid- to upper 40s. And lining up in the race was the defend ing champion and 2:10 marathoner Garry Bjorklund, plus many other top-notch runners. I knew the pace would be fast right from the start.
The gun went off, and BJ and I took off fast. A quarter mile into the race, I looked back and couldn't see anyone else because of the fog. BJ turned to me and said, "Beards, it's just me and you. I'll run with you as long and as fast as I can, but this is your race." I couldn't believe my ears. Was he sent down from God to help me run fast today? I'm thinking to myself, Hey, he's the defending champion, the course record holder, and he's telling me it's my race?
At about 4.5 miles, we had been running under 5:00-per-mile pace, and I was feeling great, but then out of nowhere I started getting a bad side ache. I didn't know what to do to stop it. Should I tell BJ? If I did, he might just take off and say bye-bye! But he had said it was my race, and I'm a very trusting person, so I took a chance.
"BJ, I've got a bad side ache."
"Don't worry, Beards. We'll cut the pace back a little, and there's a water stop over the next hill. Get a drink and you'll be fine."
Now I knew he was sent from heaven! I got myself a drink, stretched out my side a bit, and the ache was gone.
With that behind me, I began to notice that while I had been running smack dab in the middle of the road the whole way, BJ kept cutting the tangents. How naive I was in those days. BJ's going to get disqualified, I thought to myself. At about eight miles, BJ rolled over next to me and said, "Beards, if you keep running in the middle of the road, you're going to be running a couple of extra miles. The course is measured to the shortest possible way a runner can run."
"Thanks!" I said, and I began doing tangents with BJ.
I was feeling really great as we kept clicking off sub-5:00 miles.
At the halfway point, which we hit in 1:04:35, BJ came alongside me and said, "Beards, you've got a 2:09 going."
Thinking I'm pretty witty, I replied, "How 'bout I stop now and just double my time?"
By 15 miles, we weren't really talking much to each other anymore, as it was time to really focus on what we were doing here, running at breakneck speed.
At 18 miles, we were still running side by side, and I looked behind us to see if I could see anyone. When I turned back around, BJ had thrown in a surge and had a 50-yard lead on me. He was flying!
Wild emotions shot through me. Had he been setting me up by telling me it was my race? Or was he feeling better than he thought he would and was now going for the win himself? I concluded that this moment was not the time for a lot of pondering. I took off after him as if I were wearing a rocket. At 19 miles, I caught him and threw in a really hard surge.
REPORTS FROM THE FRONT
At 20 miles, a race official on a bike came by me and said, "Beards, you just ran a 4:41 mile, but BJ is only about 20 yards back!"
I panicked and took off again. I hit 21 miles, and the race official pedaled up to me and said, "Beards, you just ran a 4:36 mile, and BJ's hurting."
I thought, BJ's hurting? What about me?
The biggest hill, just before 22 miles, is called Lemon Drop Hill. It was not really all that big, but situated at that point in the race, it felt like a mountain. I was hurting going up Lemon Drop, but once I topped out, I could see downtown Duluth and knew I was getting closer with every step.
By this time the crowds were huge, and they were giving me a lot of encouragement. I didn't know how fast I was running, as my cheap wristwatch had stopped, but I felt that I was still moving good.
Then, in an instant, my worst nightmare happened as I approached the 24- mile mark. The side ache returned, and suddenly I felt as if I had been snagged by a bear trap. It was the worst stitch I've ever had! I had gone suddenly from having this race under my control to wondering if I would be able to finish. I felt as if I were pulling a plow. I kept going, trying everything I could think of to get rid of the pain.
I approached the 25-mile mark with the bear trap still firmly attached to my side. I looked ahead, trying to focus on something other than the pain. Ahead I had a sharp left-hand turn. I saw a very young boy standing in the middle of the street. Surely he will move, I thought, as I rushed toward him. But he just stood there. Where was his mother? I began yelling at him to get out of the street, but it was doing no good. He just stood there, blocking the route. What should I do? I was trapped. I was surrounded by massive numbers of bicycles (since outlawed from the course); to my left are the huge, massed crowds of spectators; and there's a big old light pole on the course where I need to turn.
What could I do? I kept yelling at the kid to get out of the way, and he actually began to start moving. But I was coming like a freight train. He got partway to the side of the street, and then his eyes met mine (that's how close we were to each other), and he froze!
OUT OF OPTIONS
I suddenly had no options left. This little boy had removed them. I was trapped in a tunnel, moving at faster than five minutes per mile. I ran right into the poor little guy, and he went flying into the crowd. I chanced a quick glance back and saw he was crying. Well, that's good, I thought -- that means he's still breathing. I felt bad about the collision, but there was nothing I could have done at that speed! Where in the world was his mother?
On the upside, the crash with the kid did something to my side, and the bear trap pain was gone.
I was back running normally again—with less than a mile to go.
As I completed the final turn into a long quarter-mile straightaway to the finish, I was overwhelmed by the crowd noise. It was deafening. As I started welling up with tears, I looked ahead and could see the finish line. Then I saw the clock and could not believe my eyes!
Unless I died right then, I was going to break 2:10.
As I crossed the finish line, the clock read 2:09:37—only nine seconds off the American record held by Bill Rodgers, my running idol.
I was jumping up and down like a little kid on Christmas morning when he finds a new train set under the tree. I was hugging everyone, and everyone was crying.
This was one of the best days of my life. All the hard training had paid off. But the reason this day was and remains special to me is that my wife, Mary, was there in the finish chute with me, along with my two sisters and my mom and dad, who had never seen me run a marathon before.
It was like a family reunion—the best one I ever had!