The Longest Mile

This weekend was the culmination of several months of preparation for an event. I had no idea that I even wanted to do this, and even when it was a reality that I would be doing it, I’m still not sure I was entirely aware of what I was getting into. I ran a marathon. The Indianapolis Monumental Marathon, to be exact. Somewhere along the line, I had convinced myself that I needed to put my body, and mind (which I will explain later), through this ordeal before I turned 40. As it happens, I turn 40 next month, so that became a more urgent timeframe.

Sometime in May of this year, I uttered the words aloud in front of my family: “I want to run a marathon.” To my surprise, they were completely supportive. Not that they’ve ever been anything but supportive, but I suppose I wanted someone to say, “Oh, I don’t think that’s a good idea” or “Maybe you should wait until the kids get older” or even “Are you sure?” Because, in my head, these are all the thoughts I had placed before myself. However, my family, first my sister and her husband, then my wife, then my parents and godmother, then my in-laws…all of them rallied to the cause becoming engaged in the idea. I really felt like my wife would talk me out of this nonsense, because it is a significant time investment. And, with two children under the age of five, she was the first I expected to balk at what some might consider a mid-life crisis. On the contrary, she became a cheerleader extraordinaire. She challenged me to run when I needed to and could not find the strength and/or energy, and was a wellspring of support from day one. I simply could not have done it without her. My sister and brother-in-law, training for their own milestone half-marathon, were inspirational with Facebook posts about their own training. My parents and godmother were there to help with the kids when I needed to get out for a run but I also needed to be a parent. My father-in-law and mother-in-law also assisted with childcare but introduced me to a running group to help push me through the long and worst parts of the training. To all of them, and to many others, I am indebted because there is no “i” in marathon. It’s very cliche, I know, but there would have been no way I could have attempted this without their complete support.

So, I won’t bother you with the aspects of training, unless you really want to hear about bleeding nipples (not pleasant) and thigh chafing (also, not pleasant) and eating strange nutrition from foil pouches and drinking gallons of water. All of these things occurred, but that’s not the sexy part of marathoning. Actually, I’m not entirely sure there is a sexy part, but I will tell you about a couple of events during training that I think you’ll find interesting. First, since I’m now done with the event, let me tell you how I got hit by a car. Don’t panic! Clearly, I’m fine, otherwise you’d have heard about it before now. And, it was just a glancing blow off my left shin which probably scared the driver more than it did me. But there it is. I was running one evening as I had made a habit of doing; earphones in, timer on, headed along my usual route. I was on the sidewalk, but there are several cross streets which cars frequently come from. Ordinarily, I try to run behind cars mostly so I don’t block traffic or become a nuisance, but this once, I felt like I had space and the driver didn’t wait for me to clear the vehicle before taking off. I dodged just as my leg rubbed the bumper and my hand came down on the hood. The adrenaline didn’t allow me to stop; I just kept running, making the international symbol for “I’m okay” and I didn’t even think about how close that came to ending my marathon training until later that night. Secondly, I had never experienced what you might call a “runner’s high.” I’m not sure such a thing exists. However, there were moments of calm that came over me while running where I realized I wasn’t thinking about running anymore, my body was just doing it and that freed my mine to worry about other mundane things. It was sort of a zen experience, but you have to run a long way to get there.

Now then, on to the race. My wife and I drove up to Indy on Friday night, watching the rain fall heavily at times as the temperature dropped. It was on pace (no pun intended) to be the coldest night and following day of the season. Not my favorite weather to be out in, much less run in, but one does not get to choose the conditions. We picked up my packet and got to the hotel. I was so tired at this point, I merely sank into the bed and fell quickly to sleep. I was really hoping that it would somehow warm up overnight, but in some nearby locations, it snowed. I slept well, until 4 a.m., when I awoke from a dream that I had finished the marathon. Certainly this was a good omen, but at 4 a.m. it would’ve been nice to have simply stayed asleep. I have now reached the age when waking up at that hour portends at least 30 minutes of wakefulness wherein you ponder life’s mysteries. I got a drink of water and stood quietly at the window, gazing at the blazing lights of the parking garage across the alley. Fortunately, that was the extent of my musing and I fell back to sleep.

Race day! I awoke, attempting to dress very quietly and allow my wife some needed child-free sleep. I dressed with everything I had brought to put on hoping against hope that I would be able to shed some layers later, but the truth is there weren’t a lot of layers to shed. I went down to the lobby, got directions to the starting line (because, really, you’d think I’d know this sort of thing ahead of time, but no, I’m very fly by the seat of my shorts), and headed out the door. A brilliant gust of cold wind shattered my illusions and I went back inside the lobby to sit down and rethink my life, at least the next few hours of it. I summoned the willpower to walk out into the cold, knowing that it couldn’t possibly be as bad as the long runs in the heat and humidity of mid-July. My jaws clenched, I shuddered to the starting area. Thousands of people huddled into the street as with all races, but some sharing a little more personal space than usual because the body heat was very comforting. All of the usual hoopla surrounded the start of the race; blaring music, a national anthem, words from sponsors, etc., most of which no one is listening to, they’re simply shuffling about attempting to stay warm or are commemorating the moment with their friends and the ubiquitous selfie.

It is dark, it is cold, and there is no one around you that you know. It’s like the opening of a horror movie, except that you’ve paid to be here. You chose this moment and told yourself that this is how you wanted to spend the precious free time that you have available. And, then it starts, and you move forward, and stop. Then move forward again, and stop. It’s almost as if there’s a traffic signal at the beginning of the race allowing just a few runners to leave at a time. As I run slowly, I am usually relegated to the area near the back of the pack which is fine, but it’s nearly nine minutes before I reach the starting line after the gun goes off. However, before reaching the start line, I shuffle awkwardly amid hundreds of strangers across what I affectionately term “The Rapture Field.” On a cold day, runners bundle up and then doff whatever clothing they don’t need as the race begins. Fortunately, the race organizers graciously collect this cast off clothing and donate it to charity, but not before it has been trampled where it lies on the cold ground. I must have stepped around and over a dozen different piles of clothing that looked as if their owners had simply been whisked up to the heavens as the race began. As the crowd thinned out across the start line and the icy gale hit me again, I was sort of wishing I had been raptured myself.

The race moves turn by turn through the city out to the eastern edge before heading north. This all happens before the sun lifts its head above the low-rise buildings. Heading north, we felt the wind bearing down upon our faces causing tears and shivering, but we trundled on, threading past slower runners and walkers. I was pleased to maintain my pace early on, not worrying about who was passing me or what my pace might seem to others. I knew what I needed to do to finish which was my only goal. Finally the sun rose to a respectable height and begin to burn away the chill of the morning. This is only the seventh mile and now a great portion of the crowd splits away to finish the half marathon. At this point, I feel the reality set in, because never before have I not split away. This is one of my first new experiences. As I mentioned, my ultra-supportive wife was there driving from place to place to cheer me on with signs that inspired both with love and laughter. From “Your daughter loves you and your son looks up to you” to “You can day drink after this,” she was a welcome sight along the way. Somewhere along mile 15, there is a stretch which is very beautiful, but also very desolate and bereft of a marathon fan base. Some kind soul was lovely enough to place signs along the greenway to provide inspiration, but the highlight of this area was when a rooster, apropos of nothing, just appeared out of the woods. A beautiful fat black rooster with a bright red comb that crowed after I had passed him. If nothing else, you get to experience the surreal during a marathon.

During training, I’d never run farther than 20 miles, and when I reached that point, my brain suggested to my body that this was the limit. I didn’t need to run anymore. My legs were mostly in agreement, but my heart knew there were 10 kilometers left and common sense prevailed because I couldn’t just stop there and wait for someone to take me home. This is where the mental fortitude comes in. If you allow yourself to quit, you will. I didn’t quit, but I knew I’d have to adjust my pace somewhat to make it the rest of the way. I slowed down, walking more than I had been, eating the last of the nutrition that I had brought with me. This final stretch is a 3-mile jaunt through the heart of downtown, the concrete jungle. By this point, you’ve been running for four and a half hours and the sun is in your face. You can feel the exhaustion from your own body as well as from the auras of the runners around you. There’s not reserves of energy to summon, you are simply being dragged along by the mere thought that there is a finish line out there somewhere and you will eventually find it. This is the “lost in the desert” moment. Your body is in the throes of its most challenging exertion to date and you simply want it to end. Your “running” has now become just stumble-walking interspersed with half-hearted attempts at a slow jog. You are alone again. Warmer, but still alone. I finally reached the last mile marker, and even though my brain could do the math and tell my legs it was only another 1000 feet, they would not be swayed. This is the point where the crowd saves you. Those final 1000 feet you are pulled along by the crowd. There is no other way to cross that divide.

As I crossed the timing mat, I grabbed everything they handed me: Finisher’s medal, banana, cookie, chocolate milk, hat, just taking everything, looking for an exit to the chute to celebrate with my wife. Stop for pictures, another final gust of icy air, and a brief sense of achievement mostly clouded by sheer pain in my knee and calves. I doubt if I’ll do another one, because one is plenty, honestly. But, I can now say that I’m a marathoner and I’m proud of that.

See you in the funny papers!