by Jon Lindenauer
There is a memorable exchange in the movie "My Cousin Vinny" in which the title character is introducing himself to his defendant cousin and his cousin's friend and discloses to them he spent six years studying for the bar exam.
Vinny: To be honest with you I didn't pass my first time out.
Cousin's friend: It's okay, you probably passed the second time.
Vinny: I'm afraid not.
Cousin's friend: Three times the charm?
Vinny: Not for me it isn't, nope, for me six times was the charm.
For myself, for the marathon, nope, not even six times was the charm. For me, it was the ninth time.
There was the City of Oaks Marathon, the Tobacco Road Marathon twice, the Boston Marathon twice, the Self-Transcendence Marathon in Bear Mountain State Park, the Hudson-Mohawk Marathon, and a marathon in the course of an ultramarathon while running the USATF 50k road racing championship at Caumsett State Park on Long Island. Eight tries and eight times smashing headlong into the wall, as early as 18-19 miles into the race and as late as 25 miles in. In the past when I have been posed the question "Do you ever get nervous before the start of a race?" I would respond along the lines of "if it isn't a marathon 'no' and if it is 'always'." The best analogy I can think to use when describing to someone the feeling of hitting the wall (to someone who has never experienced it firsthand) is in the Harry Potter series- The Dementors, which drain people's life essence out of their bodies. As the character Ron Weasley put it after his encounter "I felt like I would never be joyful again." In that sense, every marathon has its own potential to take a detour through the grounds of Azkaban Prison.
In my initial marathon, at the City of Oaks Marathon in Raleigh, NC, I first ever experienced "bonking" (the alternate term ascribed by the running community to hitting the wall). It happened at precisely the 20 mile mark. I recall there being a timing mat at the 20-mile split and at precisely the moment I crossed it all of the strength and energy I had in me to continue competitively racing vanished. It hurt to move, even just to walk or stand upright. Each subsequent mile marker seemed as though it was multiple miles apart. Even attempting to form any coherent thoughts was a massive strain. I had never truly known what it meant to be suffering through to the end of a race until then.
It's okay, you probably did better the second time. I'm afraid not. In my second marathon, the Tobacco Road Marathon in Cary, NC, I hit the wall earlier, at mile 19. I ran the same marathon again the following year and hit the wall at mile 25. My overall performance was not particularly different from the first time, and that remained my high-water mark as far as the furthest into a race I had gone without bonking. After suffering the effects of both bonking and hypothermia at the 2018 Boston Marathon (the deluge year, in which it rained 2.5 inches on race day and was 39 degrees Fahrenheit) - my eighth marathon and eighth straight crash-and-burn - I decided I was done with marathons for a while.
Part of me definitely believed there was a chance I was physically incapable of racing a full marathon. Note: I make an important distinction here - I did physically complete all eight marathons I have referenced, but I am differentiating between "completing" and "competing". What I mean by this is continuing to mentally and physically remain in the "race mode" for the entirety of the marathon, rather than getting to a point in which you are jogging and walking and all you care about is crossing the finish line and being done no matter what the clock says. It was baffling to me. In numerous training runs I had simulated continuous race-like efforts for runs of 26.2 miles or more. This whole scenario was maybe akin to a boxer who can go the full 12 rounds in training no problem (really battling hard the full 12 rounds) then on fight day they are completely gassed by the 9th round, and that is when they get knocked out.
Especially for marathons I am of the mindset that one should have very good reasons for running them. I read a meme that was a screenshot of a tweet which read "do people who run marathons know that they don't have to?" Setting aside the couch-potato logic of this idea, I would say the answer is an emphatic "yes." Even a person who enjoys running can be wholly opposed to the notion of running 26.2+ miles continuously. Out of hundreds of races I have run in my life only 9 have been marathon distance or longer. The most nervous I have ever been for a race was not even on a starting line. I had woken up one morning at 5 a.m. When I looked out the windows all I saw was darkness, not even the light of any streetlights or stars. I braced my arms around myself, sitting alone in a quiet basement. "Today I am going to run over 31 miles straight," I thought and felt a chill go through me. It had nothing to do with having to hit a certain time goal, or having to get a certain place, it was solely a matter of that I am afraid of how it might feel to run that far. An interesting caveat for that race was the fact that the 26.2 mile split was marked on the course, and the split could be counted as a Boston Marathon qualifier if someone achieved the requisite time, BUT only if that person went on to complete the full 50k ultramarathon. I swear to you if there was ever a time when I regretted a choice in my life it was when I crossed that 26.2 mile mark of that race and knew I still had to keep going.
That experience, along with my other marathon horror stories, had not fully put me off of running them. There was a sense of pride. I wanted to "solve" the marathon puzzle. It is also a more universally recognized running accomplishment; a non-runner might not know off the top of their head how far a marathon is or have a good sense of what it means to hit certain times / paces in various common race distances, but it is obvious to just about everyone that completing a marathon in itself is difficult. Olympic 10,000-meter runner Garry Bjorklund once said, "I got more notice running in my first two marathons than I did in my total track career." I likewise recall having a conversation with my father before my first marathon in which I mentioned various races and running goals to which he responded along the lines of, "Okay, but how fast do you think you could go in a marathon?" Eventually I did run one which was awful enough put me off the idea of them for years.
Having watched the 2016 Boston Marathon finish in person the week I had moved out to eastern Massachusetts, I vowed to myself that I would watch the next one as a competitor. I qualified by running the Self Transcendence Marathon in Rockland County, NY. Upon completing that race I collapsed and was carried away from the finish line and given an IV, but I qualified for Boston within weeks of the cutoff date. When I did run Boston - in keeping with tradition - I hit the wall very, very hard, around the 22 mile mark. It still wound up being my favorite marathon experience up to that point and I again vowed to myself to run Boston and improve upon my performance. Going into the race I felt strong and confident. The training block leading up to the race had been maybe the best of my life. I was convinced I hypothetically would have run a personal best that day even if I was running a completely different race distance- 5k, 10k, half-marathon, bring it on. The forecast had called for rain, but I was used to running in the rain and even if I felt cold at the start, certainly running would warm me up. Man was I way wrong. As I previously referenced, it was not ordinary rain or ordinary cold for a Boston Marathon, and at about the 15k mark (9.3 miles) I badly wanted to bail out with nearly 17 more sopping wet and freezing cold miles left to go. I did wind up finishing, notching my personal-worst in a marathon and being treated twice for hypothermia by the race medics (both times were after the race, in which I was treated, discharged, then had to be treated yet again about 15 minutes later). At that point I was mentally, physically and emotionally done with marathons.
Fast-forward three years and I was convinced to enter the Chicago Marathon. It was a flat race, I had a good friend and teammate who was entered, I had someone I could stay with to mitigate lodging costs. I had never previously visited Chicago and the emotional scars of my latest marathon effort had receded enough in my mind to convince myself it was a halfway decent idea. This race wound up being even more ill-fated than any of my previous marathon forays. Almost a month out from the race I developed a femoral head stress fracture, which made even walking painful. I still went out to Chicago. I still picked up my race packet. I knew, though, that I could not compete. I watched the 2021 Chicago Marathon from a recumbent bike in a Planet Fitness in Lockport, IL. I remembered the pain which can come with NOT racing.
The race organizers allowed me to defer my entry to the following year due to my injury (for which I am tremendously grateful, as they had every right to refuse) and so I did. I proceeded to have what was likely my favorite year of racing in all my life. I did not win every race or set personal bests in every distance but my passion for competing and befriending fellow runners and enjoying a well-organized race was ignited like never before. I had a few races which were among my all-time best performances and yet that seemed almost irrelevant- I was just having so much fun regardless. That also provided me with some solace from the fact that I was maybe having what I considered my worst marathon training block ever.
In prior attempts, my mentality had been that to properly race 26.2 miles a person needs to train up to 26.2 miles. The rationale for this being that the final 6.2 miles of the race is by far the toughest, so why wouldn't you then practice that part going into the race? For most of my previous marathons (apart from the ultramarathon and my first ever marathon) I knew when I got on the starting line that I could hypothetically run the full race distance, because I had already done it in my training. Not the case for this one. This time around I had run two long runs which were just barely over 20 miles and neither was particularly encouraging. In my final marathon-pace workout I bombed and had to stop partway through. Elsewhere I had run a race as part of an overall long run effort, and in the additional post-race miles, which were intended to get me up around the 20- miles-total mark, I felt woozy like I might hit the wall and collapse if I kept going. Basically all of the training which was specifically intended to replicate marathon conditions was shoddy at best. I had also run one of my worst races ever a few weeks out from the marathon at the Malta 10k. I told myself that when I inevitably bombed I could console myself with the following two points:
1) I already had a great, fun year of racing beforehand
2) I always bomb in marathons anyway, so why should I be upset when it happens again?
Even in the immediate leadup to the race I did a number of things many marathon runners might consider baffling. I had beer with my dinner the night before the race, and the night before that. I bought a pair of compression socks, which was my first time ever wearing them in a race. The Chicago Marathon is considered one
of the six World Majors (the others being Boston, New York City, London, Berlin and Tokyo) with estimated annual participation of over 40,000 competitors, and I did not leave my hotel room for the start line until about 45 minutes before the start of the race, despite being in the frontmost section gathered just behind the elites. I did make it with plenty of time to spare, and plenty of time to hear the pre-race goals of other runners. Many responses were in the 2:30 range. "2:39:59," I recall telling someone. In my head I even added the additional 99 milliseconds. My personal best was 2:40:02, a race in which I watched the 2:40 range tick away at the end of an already otherwise dismal, soul-crushing performance. In the present, I also recalled the night before the race - the period I might refer to as "the calm before the storm" - being alone in the hotel room with my fiancée, telling her I would not allow myself to sulk or mope or otherwise show disappointment regardless of how well (or how horribly) I did. To revisit the Twitter meme, I had to remind myself this was something I was doing because I wanted to, not because I had to.
When the gun went off I could tell right from the beginning this would at least equal the most excitement I had ever seen in a race. The top of my measuring stick was Boston, which to me felt as though it was rich with energy and support for the entirety of the 26.2 miles. I had heard otherwise for Chicago, that there were a few lonely miles especially later on. This made me particularly nervous knowing that the energy from the crowds might make a person more apt to start out too fast and the relative dearth of that same energy might make that same person lose motivation during the most brutal part of the race. Former marathon record-holder and Chicago Marathon champion Steve Jones once described the marathon saying "I just run as hard as I can for 20 miles, then I race." Even the first mile did not feel as though I was racing yet, just still shuffling along with the crowds, trying to make my way through a starting banner which was exceedingly far away. And the next few miles after that did not feel much different. Neither did crossing the 10k mark. Even by the 15k mark I could have been on a nice Sunday morning running tour through the streets of the country's third largest city. The marathon WAS in many ways a glorified running tour of Chicago, though unlike the other two U.S. marathon majors this race did revisit some similar locations along its route. This was an important distinction, because for spectating purposes people could congregate around the start, middle and end point of the race without having to move around much. The circumstance led to the half-marathon mark being easily the most exciting halfway point I ever encountered in a marathon. Crowds were roaring and colorful handmade signs checkered my peripheral vision. Still, even in this moment of rapturous encouragement, I was acutely aware of the lurking specter of hitting the wall yet again, descending deeper into the portion of the marathon I refer to as "the heart of darkness." Joseph Conrad wrote in the book of the same name: "The reaches opened before us and closed behind." Conrad was referring to a traveling into the African wilderness. Chicago, of course, could not be any less of a wilderness from a naturalistic perspective. The "reaches" I reference here are mental and spiritual, mutually exclusive from my surroundings. I had not quite reached the threshold by the 15 mile mark, or by 16, or by 17 or even 18. 19 was the earliest I had personally experienced it, though I had heard of and seen runners crumble before that point. There were already signs of it setting in for my fellow competitors in this race prior to the 20 mile mark. They did not need to put on a sandwich sign that read "I hit the wall" (maybe followed by a frowny face emoji) but it was something you could sense if you have been through it yourself. The feeling of world weariness. Feeling like forcing the synapses in your brain to fire in a manner conducive to rational thoughts was too much work. Miles stretching out the way they do in horror movies when a victim is fleeing some supernatural entity. It is my conviction that marathons should substitute their 20 mile marker with signs which instead say "abandon all hope all ye who proceed from here." I felt strong from there in this particular race and through 21 miles, and 22, and 23. That all can change on a dime. My first time running the Tobacco Road Marathon, I went from feeling fantastic to bonking in the course of less than one minute. If I live one hundred years I will always remember that moment of feeling all of the life force drained out of me along that gravel path with over seven miles still remaining in the race. This day though through the streets of Chicago, through all the different crowds and cultures and music and signs which comprised various segments of the course, I continued to feel strong. "At Mile 23 it will start to feel tough, it always does." These words of my coach echoed in my mind. But not this time, not for me. Alongside the course, elite level runners had stopped to walk. They hung their heads. The race was over for them, and now it was just a matter of clawing their way to the finish. At this juncture of the race, I knew that at any moment the "off" switch could be flipped for my energy and I could likewise be reduced to a suffering, staggering shell of a human. I was ahead of my personal-best pace by a few minutes, a scenario which had repeated itself numerous times in other marathons, particularly through 18ish miles.
Still, marker after marker passed with it setting in, until I reached a unique feature of the Chicago Marathon, where there began a countdown how much distance was remaining in the race. The counting down commenced at 1600 meters to go (1 mile remaining) which was along a straightaway that spanned several miles total. This was where I finally made my promise to myself. "Not this time. Eight straight times but not this one." I powered through the road crossings, passing runners who were typically far better than me on any given day and especially at this point in a marathon, but not today. 800 meters (half a mile) left to go and I felt the strongest I had been for the entire race, stronger and faster than I had been in many other far shorter races that same training cycle. The only real "hill" of the race was with about 600 meters left in the race and was nothing more than a bump as I crested a bridge and swung around to the left toward the finishing chute. It seemed like so many more than eight races where I had arrived at that point with the wheels totally fallen off, with the chassis meant to be supported by those wheels getting pulverized against the ground, and the driver in the cockpit of that chassis hopelessly white-knuckling the steering wheel praying for it all to be over. Even down to the very last step of the race I fought for every last millisecond. I made my final passing of a fellow competitor with mere meters remaining.
I crossed the finish line at 2:32:59, over 7 minutes below my previous marathon PR. And any runner can additionally attest to how much better it feels to be just under the nearest minute marker than just over it (i.e. 2:32:59 versus 2:33:01). I had not needed to be escorted away for medical attention. Far from it. This was the second best I ever felt after a race of any distance (the first being a race in which the final two miles were significantly downhill and I was running alone, so I basically coasted it in). This was not how I was supposed to feel after a marathon. I was supposed to be aching through ever fiber of my being. I was supposed to be cursing myself for ever signing up. This was supposed to be the forefront of a period of deep regret in which I was reminded of why I rarely sign up for marathons. Somehow this time was different. The sun shone brightly. Complimentary post-race beer had a taste that rung of liquid gold. By the grace of God the ninth time really was the charm. Of all the races I have ever completed - triathlons, trail races, relays, track competitions, an ultramarathon, a swim-run, a zombie run, other marathons - this was my all-time favorite. This was where I finally learned to RACE a marathon, and how much different that felt from simply completing one. And so to expand on my previous answer, my rebuttal to someone who says "do people who run marathons know that they don't have to" would be yes. Marathons have a tendency to be physically, emotionally and spiritually brutal, that is why most people would not even consider running one, and people who do often struggle through to the end. However, I am reminded of another (far better) saying, "finishing a marathon is a state of mind that says anything is possible."
Jon is one of our elite runners and a prolific writer of articles for the Pace Setter. Jon loves to travel to new sites to run races and can happily tell you about the races’ highlights and the craft beers they serve.
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