At the precise moment that we reached summer solstice 2014, that time when the sun’s arc through the heavens reaches its highest extent; I was about a half hour into my fourth marathon. My goal? Complete the thing and not be injured. Why such lowly goals for a veteran distance runner?
Simple. This had been the most difficult training season I have yet experienced. It started in mid November with a calf injury. Then we had the coldest and one of the snowiest winters I have ever seen or tried to train through. We ran through -10 deg Fahrenheit cold with wind-chills in the negative 20s and 30s. We ran on hills and streets covered in several inches of packed snow and ice for months on end. It was relentless. The snow varied from nice crunchy snow that grips your shoe treads to splatterly “applesauce snow” that squirts out from under your treads. But mostly it was “mash potato” or “pie crust snow” from December to March. You know, the kind that just starts to bear your weight then crumbles and slides out from under you causing you to lose a step for every two you take. Ugh.
We were so far behind in our training runs that nearly all of us that signed up for the Kal-Haven ultra, including me, backed down on doing that. By the start of April, at the Portage Winter Blast, which was again aptly named, I had only done 10 miles for my longest distance. Then finally, after months of suck runs, the calf problems resurfaced and I got sick days before my marathon race.
After all this, I simply found myself unable to not do a marathon this year. I was determined, stupidly perhaps, to make sure I did a marathon. Fall races are usually not an option as I can’t deal with the heat and humidity of Michigan’s summers to do a 20 mile training run. So it had to be spring. But since I got sick during the week of Bayshore, which was over Memorial weekend, there was really only one chance and that was at Charlevoix.
What compounded the entire mess was that after two really good long runs a month and three weeks prior to Bayshore, a 20 and 22 miler, was that the calf issue came back and I never got a chance to do another 20+ mile run before Charlevoix. I felt completely unprepared and nervous. I tried to find that balance between short runs and icing the hell out of my leg and popping “runner’s candy” (advil).
For 10 days out, I had been cautious optimistic about the weather. It was forecast consistently to be cool at the start and cool all during the race. There was also some small chance of rain. Say what you will about the weather forecasters, but they nailed this forecast 10 days out. It was perfect weather. Low 50s at the start and it never got above 65.
Several of my friends from Kalamazoo were running this race. Originally I was going to run the half with my friend, Andi, who was getting ready to do her 2nd half marathon. But after missing the ultra and the Bayshore marathon, I decided to do the full at Charlevoix. And this was a gamble. Would my calf hold up? How hot would it be? Well, the second question was no longer an issue since we had the perfect conditions. Even the rising sun was periodically getting blotted down by some clouds and the course was along Lake Michigan and places of it were deeply shaded.
I started the day with some fruit and oatmeal, some diet wild cherry Pepsi, and half a bottle of those little five-hour energy shots. Since these contain about 200 mg of caffeine, I figured they might help some but I better do half now and half sometime later. I tried it out the prior week with no ill effects or unexpected bathroom stops.
When the gun fired, I started up the hill to the tracking mat. Why I didn’t start up there with my other smarter and more talented running friends, I don’t know. They didn’t have to go nearly as far up the hill! But soon enough we were all off and running the flat course. Mile one came and as usual, I was going to do my walk interval one the miles. For whatever reason, I decided not to and kept going. My calf was a bit stiff but thankfully no shin splints in the other leg, which had been an issue for about two weeks prior.
After a while, I saw some of my Kalamazoo Runagade friends, Angela, John, and Gary way up ahead. I wanted to catch up with them and chat for a while before they left me in the dust. Somewhere around mile two, I reached them and they were happy to see me. They thought I had to cancel on this race since they didn’t see me at the start. We ran together for a short while and I started pulling ahead.
At this part I still held no delusions of grandeur. I wanted to finish and was thinking that maybe I could do it just under five hours which is my usual marathon time. I also remember thinking that I would take a page out of my own play book and just run this fast so I would have time to burn later. What did I really have to lose anyway? Well, other than a functioning leg I suppose. LOL. I kept along at just under a 10 min per mile pace and blew past another walk break. I was also listening to my short distance play list and I think that was pepping me up as well. Between the weather and the caffeine, I was feeling ok. The calf was still stiff but not too bad at this point. In my mind I must have decided that I was running a half marathon and ignoring the fact there was another one RIGHT AFTER. Previously, my longest distance I ran without a short walk break was seven miles. After gulping down some water around mile six, I decided that I would see how I felt at mile 7 and if I was doing ok, I would go until mile 10.
The course is mostly flat but there was a long shallow hill around mile 9 or so. Since I was doing ok, I skipped all the walk breaks up to then, and gutted it out on the hill. Soon after was mile 10 and I took a much anticipated walk for about a minute or so. I couldn’t believe how well I was doing. At this point, I was pumped and wanted to go for a PR. I would need to break four hours, 52 minutes, and change. I could see that I was on track to do this and I decided that I would take my next walk break at the 13.1 turn around point. turn-arounds make you lose momentum so it would be an ideal place to walk.
13.1 came by and I made that god awful U-turn in a four-foot span that you have to do it in. But I kept going. I had reached the half way point at 2 hours nine minutes. Now, if you do math, you know that is on track for a 4 hour 18 minute marathon. If you do marathon math, you know that is usually not going to happen. Add five for the wind. Five for the heat. Five for fatigue, and five for choking on water and energy gel. But even still, it made the possibility of setting a PR still feasible. I kept going. Next walk break would come at 16 miles.
When 16 came, I was so ready for it. My calf had stopped aching some miles earlier but I was tired. And there was 10 to go. But I bought a lot of time to do it in. However, the easy part was about to be over. I was in no-man’s land; that stretches between about 14 and 20 miles. The good news was it was still cool, the sun was at my back and no longer in my eyes as it had been, clouds were slowly moving back in, and there was no wind. But at mile 17, I felt trouble. I was really beginning to feel tired. But this wasn’t unexpected and I was ready. I choked down the other half of the five hour energy drink, ate half a Larabar, and started back up again. From now on, the walk breaks were going to be more frequent.
I spent a lot more time watching my Garmin watch and doing marathon math. 4:20 was a near impossibility. But 4:30 was still possible but only if I could maintain that 10 min/mile pace and if I took few breaks. 4:40 was quite possible and if I didn’t faceplant (which I almost did earlier in the race), a PR was almost all but certain. Oh and speaking of faceplanting in a race…it wasn’t that I could have been seriously hurt that pissed me off. It was that it broke my stride and rhythm. It’s funny how we think when running.
I was holding up ok until about 18 and a half miles. I had to walk more and I had a pretty sharp cramp in my inner thigh. Not enough to knock me down but enough to scare the crap out of me. Not again not again not again you got this you got this it will be ok it will be ok not again. I had these horrific cramps on my third marathon for the last 10 miles. I didn’t want something like this again, obviously, especially since a PR was quite possible.
This is where it gets hard, I said to myself. Here was the time for “LETS MAKE A DEEEALLLLLL!!!!!” You run to that patch of shade, and you can walk. Well, sometimes I honored those deals and sometimes I broke them. I didn’t really care. Peek at the Garmin, wipe some sweat off the brow, remember to look at the pretty course, feel an ache, keep running. Rinse and repeat.
Finally mile 20 came. Of course at this point is where the whole race has been nothing more than a precursor to a 10k…proceeded by the feeling that you didn’t sleep, someone pulled a Tonya Harding on your legs, and you hadn’t eaten in a day. I kept doing my marathon math and seeing that 4:30 was no longer possible. 4:40 was but it was now possible to blow it.
Around mile 21, I was back in the shade and it was even cooler than it had already been. I picked up my pace and was able to go nearly a mile without a walk break. At mile 23, I was still cautiously optimistic. I had a bit more than a 5k to go and I just had rolled over the four-hour mark on my Garmin. However, the 23 mile sign wasn’t to come for another 0.2 miles. For miles and miles, the signs were a consistent 0.2 miles ahead of what the GPS watch said! I had to mentally figure on an additional 0.2 miles and factor in some seriously fading endurance. I started to worry. Angela passed me and she was tired but seemed to be doing well. I told her that I was doing well and I hadn’t even taken a walk break until the 10th mile. Angela said “oh, Shawn!” “No, it is ok, Angela! It was what got me this far this fast!” She quickly faded away as I needed to walk again.
This was a long mile and when 24 came, I was getting really concerned. Oh I would set a PR alright which should have been enough. But somewhere in this race, breaking 4:40 became an obsession. And I had to keep up with the positive self-talk since there was plenty of worry going on. Matt Inman’s comic, the Oatmeal with his anti-hero, the Blerch, kept riding shotgun on my shoulder. This is the little fat guy that convinces you to just say “screw it.” Slow down, buddy. Eat a cake. Eat the whole goddamm thing.” Instead, I was saying, “you got this. You got this. You are awesome. You can do it.” Of course I was staying it maniacal speed and had it been out loud, it would have totally sounded contrived and bullshit. I was fading and 4:40 was looking as if it would come and go.
At mile 25, I was realizing with 1.2 plus those stupid “bonus miles” of 0.2, that I needed to do this remaining 1.4 miles at a decent clip or else. Charlevoix had terrific, even if small, crowds and some kids high fived me and a lady who had finished already said “you really are almost there.” I smiled and since it came from a finisher, hearing those words “you are almost there” was perfectly ok. I said, “I know it, logically it is true but it feels like forever.” She laughed in complete agreement and encouraged me. I was walking at that point but started running again.
Eventually there was a turn up ahead. I looked at the Garmin and was completely dejected. There was no way I was going to break 4:40 with those stupid bonus miles remaining. I was almost to tear up over this “loss.” Oh well, you are going to PR, I told myself. That is something.
I rounded the curve and had about come to accept the inevitable when I reached the flat and saw that hill. The one I started up at the beginning. And there it was. The big inflatable “U” that marked the alpha and the omega of the race. No, I said. Can’t be. Where were those last 0.2 miles?! I looked at the Garmin and saw I was still in the 4:30’s and the end was magically close.
Iexploded towards the end. I glanced at my Garmin and laughed out loud while flying down that hill! I was going to do it! The crowd was cheering and up ahead I saw my friend, Maureen. You can’t miss her beautiful long red hair. She was taking a picture and I fist pumped the air and was yelling. I crossed at four hours, 38 minutes, and change. I. Did. It. 14 minutes faster than my previous fastest time and 22 minutes faster than my first marathon. Later she said I came in screaming like a banshee! I kinda was.
Moments after, John, Sheelagh, and Andi came running over to me. I was on the curb side resting not realizing they saw me finish. I had told them expect me at the earliest at 4:45 but more realistically at 5 hours. However, Sheelagh saw that I reached the half way point at 2:09 and wisely decided to make sure they were at the finish. My thrill of making 4:38 immediately increased since they were able to see me finish that race.
This, the longest day of the year, may turn out to be the best day of the year as well! It was perfect. I not only finished, I set a PR, had friends and loved ones to see me at the end, and spent the rest of a beautiful weekend celebrating not only my race but Andi’s as well. She obliterated her previous PR. I wish I could have seen her finish with her sprint.
We watched as the rest of the Runagades came in and then started back to Elk Rapids for a shower, nap, food, and celebration! I couldn’t ask for a better start to summer and what a smashing success after months of difficult training.