Why do I run marathons? I pointedly ask myself this question at mile 18 of a training run on August 22, 1998. The plan is simply 6 miles at 8:45/mile, 12 miles at 8:30, and 4 miles at 8:00. At mile 18, my watch indicates that I am right on target, but like many metrics, my watch is misleading.
My watch does not know that I am bonking. It is hot, and getting hotter. I have no chance of running the last 4 miles at anything approaching an 8:00 pace. I take it easy for another mile and a half, and then pick up the pace and run `hard'. Certainly, it feels hard. At the next half mile marker, I check my watch: 4:15. Exhausted, I stop. 20 miles will have to do for today.
I don't look very good. Bonkers rarely do. A woman calls out to me to be sure to drink enough water. I reply that water is not the problem. We chat as we walk down the trail. It turns out that I have heard this woman on radio; Diane Rehm hosted her to talk about chronic exhaustion disorders. There was a time when simply walking across the living room overwhelmed this woman. She has since worked up to several brisk miles a day.
People use the trail for many reasons, but this woman walks the trail for a very specific one. Even in my bonked state, I grasp that she walks to affirm that she can. She walks to walk.
She has my answer. I run marathons because I can. I run to run.
I hasten to add that not all of my long runs end in bonks. Six weeks later I have my best long run ever. I start out nervously, recalling the prior debacle. I ponder how far to go before turning around; too far, and a bonk ensures a long, unpleasant walk home.
However, today seems different. The farther I go, the better I feel. I finally turn around at Route 28, which is twelve and a half miles from the house. I thereby commit to cover 25 miles in one fashion or another, most, I hope, on the run. 20 miles into the run, feeling great, but a bit hungry, what should I find but an aid station. I cannot believe my eyes!
The aid station is from the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club. The Club is sponsoring a race from one end of the W&OD Trail to the other, a modest 45 miles, I am told. This is one of their short races; the typical ones are in the 100 mile range, often on rugged trails. I recall having read about such a race in the Washington Post.
Ultrarunners eat real food during their races, as opposed to the sugary sports drinks and gels that are typical marathon fare. Even though I am not in the race, the volunteer cannot help but notice my covetous gaze at the well stocked aid table. He graciously asks if I would like anything. I immediately accept and opt for a handful of potato chips. I crave salt.
I thank the volunteer, and easily run the five miles back to the house. I even stick in a couple of 8:00 miles. Too bad the marathon isn't today; I would have a great time.
Many marathon coaches recommend choosing a descending list of race day goals. These explicit goals prepare the runner for problems on the course. When the primary - or the secondary - goal slips out of reach, there is something to fall back on. One of many seductions of marathoning is that the mental challenge can easily exceed the physical one. Specifically, a mental shock during the race can be just as debilitating as a physical one. Setting explicit goals helps manage mental shocks.
I feel like I am petitioning Santa Claus, but my goals are modest enough. First, I want an 8:30 pace. I managed this in my last training run, so it doesn't seem like much of a stretch. Bert, who is running with me, is also comfortable with this pace. Failing that, I want a personal record (PR). I have two marathons under my belt, both at a 9:00 pace; beating this pace should be easy. Failing that, I want to finish. For me, as for most runners, a DNF defines failure. There are certainly degrees of failure beyond a DNF; a fair number of runners will end up in the capable hands of the numerous medics.
The weather provides the first ill omen. Marathon day dawns as forecast: chilly in the morning, but bright and sunny. It is hot by marathon standards, that is, in the mid 70s, for much of the run. Parts of the run, specifically the evil 14th Street bridge, seem much hotter.
Muscle soreness provides the second ill omen. The week before the marathon, I take an extended bike ride - 56 miles, a distance which has the significance of being the bike leg on a half Ironman. I know it is a risk this close to the marathon, but I feel good. I turn the bike ride into a brick by following it with a brisk run.
I am surprised on marathon day to discover sore abdomen and hip flexors from the bike ride. I am even more surprised that this discovery comes in within the first 5 miles. I mention this to Bert, who hasn't exactly been an angel himself when it comes to pre race tapering. We run on.
A pacing error provides the third ill omen. Thousands of runners crowd the course, and Bert and I concentrate hard on simply staying together. We miss mile markers 3 and 4 as a result. At mile 5, we check our pace, and are shocked to discover that we have just run three 8:00 miles. Uh oh. We slow down, but the damage, in the form of spent glycogen, is already done. We focus on our primary goal, namely 8:30 miles, and wait to see what the back of the marathon has in store for us.
Becky, Roy, and Dad wait for us on the Mall. Mom and Matt play at home. Becky has the huge green and yellow `Go Paul' sign from last year. The sign makes picking them out of the crowd easy. Bert and I pick up encouragement and food, and head around Capitol Hill. Back on the mall, we pick up more encouragement and more food. We need it.
Eating on the run is tricky. Race organizers provide sports drinks, such as XLR8 or AllSport, and gels, such as GU or PowerGel. Energy bars such as PowerBar are also provided. Both sports drinks and gels are are mostly sugar.
My problem is that sugar doesn't work well for me on long races. One reason might be that I don't eat much refined sugar in my normal diet. Certainly, I rarely eat straight sugar, and as a result my body doesn't have much practice processing it. So, race day sugar gives me the classic buzz, followed by a crash. On shorter distances, I can hold off the crash until after the race, but in a marathon, the order of events can be reversed. This is not exactly helpful. Pouring in more sugar doesn't help; it just makes me naseaus, especially in hot weather. For example, in the Lancaster triathlon, I carried a GU packet through the entire 15K run - well, run/walk..., but never felt able to eat it.
What I crave is salt, so, based on the success of my last training run, Becky gives me a bag of potato chips each time I see her. They taste good. The fat in the chips is no problem, and the salt is wonderful. I have heard rumors that some elite triathletes have decided that some fat is needed for fuel, and have tried olive oil and water. This sounds close to classic salad dressing. I am tempted to to try it in training. I can hear it now: Aid stations where the volunteers ask `Italian, House, or Vinagrette?'.
The food problem illustrates why I like endurance events. It is a challenge, a personal puzzle. I am sure I can solve it.
Mile 20 sees in the bonk foreshadowed by the omens. The watch reads 2 hours and 50 minutes - exactly on pace, but we have no hope of holding the pace. I feel the first tingle of cramps at mile 21 in my right hamstring. The tingling continues into my right calf, and then starts on my left leg, hamstring first, and then calf. As we start up the 14th street bridge ramp, I stop to stretch, walk a few steps, and kiss my primary goal goodbye. Neither Bert nor I will finish with 8:30 miles today.
Bert and I remind each other of our secondary goal, and try to compute how much we can afford to slow down. After significant mental effort, we agree on `a fair amount'. Bonking is like that; the brain doesn't do well when the glycogen runs down. Sunshine converts the 14th Street bridge into an oven, and the race morphs from pleasant run to interminable endurance mission.
At mile 24, I stop and send Bert on ahead. He resists for the usual reasons, but eventually goes. He has more left than I do, and I want him to finish strong. I walk for several minutes, eat the rest of my potato chips, drink more water, and start to feel much better. I resume running and gradually pick up the pace, but the cramps in the hamstrings and calves return.
I feel terrible, but I know which mistakes I have made. Analyzing the bonk provides a useful distraction from my physical condition. I drag my sorry behind across the finish line with 5 minutes to spare on goal number two.
At the finish, I unlace my chip under the watchful eyes of attentive Marines. One too many stumble and I will find myself on a stretcher with a beefy Marine on each end! I find Bert, pick up my baggage, and meet Becky, Dad, and Roy at the link up area. After a stretch, we grab some food, walk to Metro, and go home.
Becky signs up to run the Marine Corps Marathon in 1999. I offer to pace her, and she accepts. We have a blast planning which races to run on the way. We look forward to a great year.
Overall Rank: 2102/13248
Male Rank: 1727/8444
Age Group (35-39) Rank: 376/1556
You may wish to visit the home page for the Marine Corps Marathon.