(This part should show up in slanty letters that go up into space just a little faster than you can read them:)
For the last three years, Paul has been on a mission to run a
marathon in under three hours. Or maybe this mission
began in 1996, when he ran a 3:04 in Kentucky. Anyway, his
next attempt was to be on March 28 at the Two Rivers
Marathon in eastern Pennsylvania, but it was cancelled due to
the virus that is sweeping the galaxy.
And so he decided to run a marathon that day anyway.
On the local high school track.
That was fun, wasn’t it? A little over the top, perhaps, but here we go.
Saturday, March 28 was a cold rainy day. At 8:30, when I got to the track, it was about 40F and raining. I had some worry that someone from the school might come and tell me to get off the track, and bad weather made that less likely. Leticia suggested that it might be smarter to wait until Sunday, but I was not ready to delay another day. I set up lawn chairs on either side of the track with water bottles and 2 Larabars, broken into little pieces, to be my aid stations. I planned to take water every two miles, carrying a bottle around to the other side while drinking. Two miles later, I’d carry the bottle back to the original chair. A marathon is 26 miles and 385 yards, or 42,195 meters. That means almost 105 and a half laps on the track. But a lap is just short of a quarter mile, and I wanted my splits to be mile splits, so I planned to run the first lap and a half of each mile in lane 2; that gives a little more than the extra 9.34 meters needed to stretch 1600 meters into a mile. All of this put a bit of a mental landscape on top of the monotony of 105 laps on the track.
And so I started. The goal was to run each lap in 1:42-1:43 for a 6:51 mile average, which would put me just under 3 hours for the full marathon. I had run 10 miles at 6:42 pace on the track a few weeks earlier, so these first 10 miles were not a test. Except that the rain was hard and cold, and I was soon soaked to the bone. I counted laps myself, aided by the watch, where I clicked off a lap every two laps to get half-mile splits. (I didn’t know if my watch would remember over 100 laps, and I didn’t want to experiment here.) I got through 5 miles (20 laps) in 33:59, 10 miles (40 laps) in 1:08:07, and halfway (52.5 laps) in 1:29:44, 16 seconds under my goal. Zeke showed up for a little while in the first ten miles, but was soon pretty wet and biked back home. Leticia arrived at around 12 miles, and I was still moving well, clicking off miles in the mid 6:50s, but they didn’t feel easy – maybe trying to keep warm was zapping my energy – and my hands were getting really cold.
15 miles (60 laps) came in 1:42:39, still on pace, but in each of the last 5 miles I had lost a few seconds. Stooping to get water bottles and Larabar pieces off the low chairs was awkward, and it was good to have Leticia there to hand me things. She had also posted a picture and announcement on the Book of the Face, and began relaying encouraging messages that people were posting. Mile 16 was my last sub-7 minute mile, and I backed off the pace, hoping to hold off the crash that felt like it was coming. By now the sub-3 hour run was off the table, but a personal best (under 3:04:47) or a second best (under 3:09:15) or at least a sub 3:10 seemed possible.
From mile 17 to mile 23.5, I kept every half-mile under 4 minutes, but each mile was slower than the one that came before. Anna and my friends Matt and Drue all showed up by the 20-mile mark – just in time to see me fall apart, I thought. I feel like my big failure came at mile 23.5 – just 2.75 miles to go, but that was 11 laps, and somehow, after 94 laps, 11 felt like too big a number to handle. In a regular marathon, with other people around, and a road ahead with less than three miles, I may have managed it, but here the mental strain of going around and around caught up to me, and I walked for the first time. At 22 miles I had still been under seven-minute pace (2:33:49), and even eight-minute pace from there on would get me home in 3:07.
By now my hands were too cold to squeeze water out of the squeeze bottles, so Leticia was handing them to me without tops and only partway full. Anna was jogging beside me in rain gear and rubber boots, and that could have been a sign of how slow I was going, but I didn’t notice. I tried to keep running, counting down the distances by hundreds of meters (3000!….long pause…2900!…long pause…2800!…too long pause…2700!…excruciatingly long pause…2600!) but this couldn’t keep me running, and I walked about 50-100 meters of most of these laps. I had fallen behind in my calorie consumption, and for a while I took a piece of soggy Larabar from Leticia every single lap. Mile 24 was an 8:31, Mile 25 a 9:02, the first half of mile 26 a 4:40. My projected finish time was slipping through 3:07 to 3:08 to 3:09 to 3:10… Finally in the second half of mile 26 I decided that I could run the rest of the way, and Anna (now barefoot) paced me along. I ran 4:17 for that half mile, and then accelerated through the last lap, realizing I was right on the edge of breaking 3:10 or not. Even though it felt like I was sprinting, I managed that last lap in 1:49 (that’s 7:16 pace), but just missed the 3:10 cutoff, shutting off the watch at 3:10:03.
Mentally, I go back to two places: first, mile 16, where I let off the gas, feeling like I had to readjust my pace to keep from crashing and burning; and second, the 23.5 mile mark, where I first walked. That decision to walk, and to walk several times, may have cost me two to three minutes. In retrospect, even though the highest goal was gone, there were others still in play that I missed thanks to a lack of mental toughness at that point. (Counterpoint: or did I really need to walk? That’s what makes this tricky – how much do we push the envelope, and how much do we play it safe? One of my goals in any race – and especially during these times – is NOT to be the guy that gets taken away in an ambulance.) Part of me asks what went wrong; I had run a half marathon in 1:23 (6:21 pace) three weeks before and I had three months of really good training averaging 60 miles per week under my belt; 3:00 should have been manageable.
The other part of me points out that it was cold and wet. The rain let off for a few minutes at a time, but it was also really hard at times. The temperature never got above 42F. And I was on a track, which was fine for a long time, but finally got to me toward the end. And, lastly, I was running alone. So, yes, running my first sub-3 marathon at age 49 solo on a track in a cold driving rain would have been epic. But I’ll settle for my 3rd fastest marathon, and fastest in 23 years.
I can’t end this without thanking Zeke and Anna, Drue and Matt, and all the people who wrote encouraging words on the the Book of the Face. I have to give special thanks to Leticia, who both asked if this was a good idea and, when it was clear I was going to try it anyway, hung out in the cold and the wet to help me.