The Rocket City Marathon – A runner’s Challenge

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Would I Quit? 
That thought started to creep into my mind around the half way point of the Rocket City Marathon in Huntsville, Alabama. I was two or so miles into a long, straight stretch of the course coming up to mile thirteen. A cold, damp wind had been pounding me in the face for the last few miles. Normally this section of a long run is where I am at my strongest. Today I was not sure about that.

The Weather Factor 

It had started that morning with a weather forecast that called for temperatures starting out in the low thirties, the wind blowing at fifteen plus mph and a cold rain starting somewhere around hour two to three of the race. I could not decide what to wear. I ended up going with a new light weight water proof windbreaker. I had never run with it before but felt I might need it due to the wind and the chance of rain. In order to keep my race number visible with the jacket on I attached my running belt with the number pinned to it. I rarely run with the belt and had never tried it in a marathon.

The Cold Wind 

As we made our way to the starting line the jacket felt great since the wind was cold and steady. The cannon blasted and we were off and running. Once I got settled into my normal stride though, I started to heat up with the new windbreaker after a few miles. We were running in and out of nice neighborhoods where all the houses and trees blocked the wind. By mile five I was considering tossing it to the side even though it was brand new. Even with this distraction, I managed to stay on pace for the first five miles. I spotted Anna Ruth after mile six and she agreed to hold the jacket for me. I just hoped that the rain would hold off now.

The First Wall  

I started to slow down after mile ten but was still managing to stay under a nine minute pace. Shortly after this I started down the long, straight part of the race course. I no longer had the trees and houses to block the wind. I could see the mountains to the side and off in the distance as I ran through the valley. At times it felt like I was running through a cold wind tunnel. I tried drafting other runners but this only worked so long due to the crowd moving in and out. By the time we finally turned off this section of the course at around mile fourteen I could feel that I was wavering.

Just not my day

It was turning out to be one of those runs where it’s just not your day. I was quickly losing energy in spite of staying on schedule with the water and Poweraid stops as well as downing my normal energy gels. My legs just didn’t have much left to give. Would I have to call it a day and walk the rest of the way or even worse catch a ride and end up with a DNF?
Before I knew it I was passing the marker at mile twenty right under three hours. I found it amazing that I was still on pace to break the four hour mark despite the fact that I felt like a runner who had been lost in the desert and was wandering around looking for a watering hole. The contact lenses in my eyes we hurting from the earlier wind. It felt like I was trying to run in concrete boots due to my lack of energy. Would I quit?

Thinking about the finishing line

I knew my wife and kids, who have been there to cheer me on for all my races, were waiting around mile twenty-three. I can’t tell you much about my run from mile twenty to mile twenty three since now it all seems like a blur. Somehow I managed to make it. My wife tells me now that I looked pretty bad at that point. She said my eyes were red from the wind and that I was moving like a person on their last leg. I high fived everyone and assured them that I only had about three miles left and started off.

The Mile 24 

By the time I got to mile marker twenty-four I had to stop running and start walking. I was spent and not sure if I had anything left. Other runners were passing me by. Would I quit now?

A runner helping a runner to get to the finish line 

One of the other runners stopped though and starting walking with me. He had hurt his leg the week before the marathon and had been alternating between running and walking for most of the race. He was running his fifty-third marathon while I was on number four. He understood when I told him about my lack of energy. He said that he had been there before but had always found a way to make it to the finish line. Before I knew it we started running. We became separated after a short while but I managed to get to the next mile marker before having to stop again due to sheer exhaustion. Would I quit now?

I had stopped at a water stop and was walking with my drink when another runner pulled up and started walking as well. Once again it happened to be a marathon veteran working on race number twenty something. His legs had been cramping up the last few miles so we walked and talked. I am not sure now what we talked about but the distraction from my weariness was welcome. After a few minutes of walking, we started running again for the last home stretch. The finish line was less then a mile away. Would I quit now?

The finish line

I actually managed to pick up my pace for the last half mile and rounded the corner towards the finish line. I spotted my wife and kids and started to stop and wave but they screamed for me to run towards the finish line. The next minute on the clock was getting close. I crossed the line in four hours, thirteen minutes and fifty-eight seconds. Well off the sub-four PR I had set in Chicago just two months prior but I had not quit.

Lesson Learned

Looking back now I can see all of the classic mistakes I made which probably contributed to my poor race. I wore a jacket I had never run with before. I had a running belt around my waist which I never used on long runs. I had ignored one of the main rules of racing which is never try anything new and paid for it. But in the process of paying for these mistakes I also learned more about long distance runners and what drives them. Unless you are one the elite runners actually trying to win the marathon, you are probably more focused on racing against yourself then trying to beat the guy next to you across the finish line. The runners who stopped and walked with me those last few miles shared their experiences and encouraged me along. They were much more interested in helping out another runner then trying to compete versus the other runner. I also have a better grasp of the mind over the body aspect of the marathon. Well after your body has thrown in the towel your mind can convince the body to keep going.

I now have a better grasp of why runners speak of 5K and 10K events as races and marathons as more of an experience. After the Rocket City marathon I now understand.

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