On Marathons, and Getting Older

I ran marathons in the 1990s, when I was twenty-something. I ran the first one to qualify for the Boston Marathon. 1996 was the 100th running, and it felt like the place to be. I needed to run 3:10 to qualify; I trained reasonably well, and even with a late-race slowdown, I ran 3:09:14 in Columbus, Ohio, and ran Boston the following spring. I qualified and ran Boston in 1997 and 1998 as well, and I thought I might become one of those people they introduce who has run the race every year for 30 or 40 or 50 years.

I didn’t. Three attempts at qualifying in fall and winter 1998 went awry, and I realized that 9 marathons and 4 ultramarathons (ranging from 28 to 50 miles) in just over three years was maybe too much for the body. And then I was defending my thesis and starting a new job and getting married and buying an old house that needed lots of work and hurting my back and having kids and worrying about getting tenure and living in South America and coming back and before I knew it, eight years had gone by without running a race.

I started racing again when I was 39, and ran my first ultramarathon in 16 years just before my 45th birthday. I ran three more, and they all went well. That is, I finished toward the front of the pack, and I didn’t hurt myself. After another year in South America – with lots of (fairly short) runs at altitudes above 10,000 feet – I started thinking about trying to run a fast marathon again. A dangerous thought crept into my head: Maybe I could break three hours in the marathon. I didn’t do it in my twenties – my best was a 3:04 on a hilly course in Kentucky in 1996 – oddly enough, in a race I only decided to do three days before. Sure, I’m twenty years older, the thinking went, but I’m smarter now, I’m eating much better, and I actually weigh a little less.

Years ago a chiropractor told me I would do well to stay off the pavement as much as possible, and I am lucky to have three local routes that do that reasonably well. I signed up for the Abebe Bikila International Peace Day Marathon in September in Washington DC, for various reasons: Abebe Bikila, the Ethiopian who won the Olympic marathon barefoot in 1960 (and won it wearing shoes in 1964), is a hero of mine; the marathon is entirely on gravel canal towpath; it is fairly near our daughter Anna, who is going to school in Maryland; it is very close to cousins Andy and Jenny; and it seemed like an old-school race – not very expensive, without the frills that some people expect from big-time marathons.

It is also true that it is in September in Washington, which can be hot and humid. I watched the weather forecasts obsessively for the two weeks before, and the predicted high went up as the day got closer. I spent a lovely evening before with Andy & Jenny & Jackson, had a restless night of sleep, ate breakfast and then felt all woogly tummy in the morning, worried I might not get to the race on time. But I got there, and it was a small scene, with almost no line to pick up my shirt and number, a fairly short line for the portapots – this is why I like the small races. Magically, at 7:45, my stomach settled down and my legs felt OK and I was ready.

At 8am we were off, the half-marathoners and marathoners together. I tried hard to stay relaxed, and soon found myself in a group of 4 – me, Matt, Roberto, and Brent. We were all hoping to run 3:10 to 3:15. The early miles went by at 7:15-20 per mile – and it felt easy and good, though even in mile 2 I already had sweat pouring off my head. In retrospect, I wonder how much slowing down even 10 seconds per mile would have affected my temperature. Five miles went by in 36:05 – that would be a 3:09 marathon – and we had already lost Brent. The cups of water and Gatorade which came every 2 miles or so seemed too small. Matt was taking 2, and I followed his lead. We hit the first turnaround for 1/4 of the way – this course was a double out&back, with plenty of chances to see where the other runners were.

On our way back to the start the pace actually picked up (note use of the passive voice) with me doing the leading. We lost Roberto, who I didn’t see again. Matt and I hit the halfway mark – that is, the finish line, before heading out again – in 1:34:30 – and he asked how I was feeling. I said I felt like I was taking it a little hot. He had asked earlier if I was trying for a BQ – a Boston qualifying time – and I said no, at my age it is a 3:25, and I certainly hoped to be well under that. He noted that I had a lot of cushion to work with. In fact, the second half could be 16 minutes slower than the first and I would still qualify.

Mile 14 was a little mystifying, as the watch said 7:03, the fastest of the day, while I already felt like I was slowing. I think that it didn’t recognize the turnaround and gave me credit for about 0.1 miles I didn’t run. I was slowing not because I physically had to, but because it felt like the prudent thing to do. The times were still good, as I went through 17 miles in 2:03, but miles 15, 16, and 17 were slower than average, and I could tell I was heating up. Running slower wasn’t keeping me from getting hotter, and at 2:05 I walked for a minute. I decided to go to a regimen of 4 minutes running, 1 minute walking, and did that for the next 6 miles, which went by at about 8:30 pace. The running was at about the same speed as before, but I needed those rest breaks to keep that up. I hit the 23 mile mark in 2:54 and change, and 8:30 pace for the next 3.2 would get me home in 3:23, slower than hoped but still under 3:25, which was suddenly looking like a nontrivial benchmark. But now the minute of walking wasn’t enough to cool me down or slow my heartbeat, and I still felt like I wasn’t getting enough water. Here for once a handheld water bottle would have been useful. I was in a slow-motion race with a guy ahead of me, as we took turns walking and running. The sun was now directly overhead – it was after 11am – and the temperature above 80.

The 24 mile mark came at 3:03. Surely, I thought, I can run the last two miles. But the heat felt irresistible. My legs weren’t beat up, my energy wasn’t gone, but I felt in danger of overheating badly. So I walked more. 24 and 25 and then 26 went by in 9 minutes and change each, and I hit 26 right at 3:22. Two-tenths more could surely be done in 2 minutes, and I’d be under 3:24. But the Garmin was off, which I had thought might happen, and 26.21875 came and went with the finish line still ahead. I sped up over that last bit, and came across the line in 3:24:46, 14 seconds under the Boston qualifying time for men of my advanced age. The watch said 26.36 miles, but I am inclined to believe the course was correct. The official time came out as 3:24:50, meaning I had a 10-second cushion. But qualifying for Boston doesn’t mean you automatically get in; it has become so popular that folks are let in according to by how much they beat their qualifying time. I didn’t bother registering for Boston, as I’m not yet sure I want to run a huge race again, and also because I was pretty sure my 10 second margin didn’t stand a chance. Sure enough, in the following week came the news that 3 minutes and 23 seconds was the necessary margin.

Could I have run the 3:21:37 in less hot conditions? I’m pretty sure I could have. Matt held it together well and ran 3:10, but he lives in North Carolina, and is much more used to this soupy hot weather. In the days after the race, I thought maybe I should find a December marathon and hold my fitness until then. But that’s a mistake I made when I was 28, and it didn’t end well. There should be a spring marathon, and I’ll have a better mileage base by then.

My friend Brady was running the inaugural Williamsport (PA) marathon three weeks later, and I nearly chastised myself for not waiting for this marathon, farther north and 3 weeks into fall. In the end, temperatures for that were unseasonably hot, perhaps even hotter than in my race, though not as humid. So you pick your race and take your chances. Over the years, hopefully it all comes together a few times.

In the meantime, I’m running, a little less as the semester gets busier, but at a faster pace. I’m thinking about shorter races. The eight years of not running taught me to appreciate the daily run and the luxury (really, the luxury!) of getting out the door, feeling the warm and the cold and the wind and the rain and the snow, and losing myself in the effort for a little while.

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2 thoughts on “On Marathons, and Getting Older

  1. I’m jealous. Never ran a marathon, but would give anything to just run anything at this point, even a 5k, but I’ve been told not to do so given the knee and to get on a bike. Still haven’t totally warmed to the bike, though — it’s weird to have something you have to maintain before you can go out, and all the equipment to worry about.

    Glad to hear you were being responsible, though, and not pushing things too far given the heat — it WAS hot that weekend.

  2. go dad!

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