I don’t think that running 26.2 miles provides an interesting arc to support an interesting story. Instead, there is a cluster of observations not unlike any given 4-hour time period. This one just happens to have a set of bookends and was, at least for me, a memorable event.
There were alternating beverage flavors at the aid stations. I like the blue better than the red, but the yellow is by far my favorite. Getting to stations with the yellow provided the smallest but most appreciated uplift. Also, the energy gel I was sucking on between miles 15 and 17 was the most delicious bit of goo I’ve ever ingested. (It too was yellow, purportedly “citrus.”) There are some foods that are better in specific contexts. Hot coffee from a metal cup on a camping trip. Pint of beer at an old pub and with an old friend. And citrus goo at mile 16, in the rain. Also, I delighted in a homemade chocolate energy ball (extra dash of curry) just past the halfway mark. It, too, was made more digestible by the streams of water falling out of the sky.
“It’s better than rain.” This is what runners were saying as there was some form of snow spitting out of the patchy, sunstreaked sky behind the start line. Very true. And then we lined up behind one another and the archway of balloons that demarcated the point in time and space between preparing for a marathon and running a marathon.
It rained. Really, really rained. As we passed the start line, there was this doom of dark cloud that we ran directly towards: an apocalypse of crows? flying monkeys? Worse. By mile 4 it was raining, and then harder, and harder still, varying but never letting up. I don’t mind running in the rain; there’s joy in the misery. But it adds anxiety, something else to think about going wrong. If I’m cold at mile 13, will I be hypothermic at mile 20? Do I take off a layer or keep faith that wet wool is warmer than bare skin? How much extra weight am I carrying in my wet shoes?
This little clip of the radar taken around the time of the race covers the last half of the marathon, ending at the “Ogden” labeled dot and coming right in between those two cold blue blobs — the snow on the ridges on either side of the canyon we ran through.
It was beautiful. Rounding a lake to witness the snow on the far ridge. Clouds whisping downward like jellyfish in the sea of falling rain. The south fork of the Weber River racing us downstream; the Ogden River building momentum as it spilled from the reservoir. The closing walls of Ogden Canyon, shaped by the river but also the side canyons, framed by the peaks and clouds on all sides. I didn’t take photos, but the images remain. The course is justifiably lauded as one of the most scenic. There isn’t any basis to argue with this, unless you don’t have the wherewithal to look up.
Along the course I watched others fall back, braced against the cold and finding a tent with an emergency blanket. There was a paramedic’s truck racing up the course early on, and a medical van passed back and forth several times. It makes me wonder what happened, how serious, what if … I watched a woman collapse into the arms of a volunteer at the end of the race, just next to me. Others shivered uncontrollably upon finishing. But there was support: massage tables and medics and people handing out towels at the last mile and a tent with buttered bread in the post-finish chute.
I can’t describe how great it is to have people not only handing you water and goo, but people cheering. This is foreign to me — running is solitary. But then when someone is waiting under an umbrella, holding a sign, ringing a cowbell, shouting at you that you’re awesome and that you look great and that you can do it, I have to admit that I’m more than a rational being. There were kids giving high fives and a woman with a sign that said “Push here for power,” and I pushed the magical button just like the runners in front of me did. And yes, it worked.
Besides the throngs of people I didn’t know, there were the people I did know. Sometimes there was an acquaintance in the crowds, and, well, “hooray!” there’s someone I know! And then there was the heroic effort of my friend and running pal, Joel. He hadn’t signed up for this race, but had planned to do a 5-mile run over a ridge that is purportedly an old Native American route that avoided the flooding runoff in the canyon below. This brought him, via a muddy and treacherous trail, into the canyon and onto the course, where he cheered on others (still in the pouring rain) while waiting for me. He ran along for the next few miles, chatting and pacing and adding to the fun of the whole experience. “You’re looking good!” he told me, and then he dragged me past the 4-hour pacer, as well as past the guy who was handing out tempting bacon at the mouth of the canyon. We went through a tunnel, under the road, and he left me to finish the last three miles with some momentum.
At mile 24, winding around the botanical garden, my family suddenly popped into view, a surprise that gave me another boost. They jumped up and down as I opened my arms and my grin wide. They said they’d see me at the finish, and sure enough they were able to race the racers and cheered me on the final tenth of a mile.
They brought towels. Oh, dear Jesus, how glad I was that they brought those towels.
Preparation, Pacing, and Pains:
There was very little I could do about rain. My rain gear, which I’d worn before the race started (when there wasn’t any rain), was safely stowed in a bag in a big truck and on its way to meet me back at the race finish. The other things I’d prepared for, and it turned out that the thought I’d put into them was actually useful. I ran a steady pace that I could keep for most of the course, excluding one stop at a PortaPotty. I’m more sure now that running on trails and on varied terrain was the right kind of preparation (at least for distance, if not for speed). There wasn’t a “wall,” but instead an ongoing challenge that I tried to meet by telling myself that my legs weren’t getting stiff with wear, but just with a higher spring constant; the cold wasn’t chilling me as much as it was preventing swelling; the crease in my sock that pained my toe was simply an interesting distraction; and so on.
Injuries and pain weren’t a critical issue, at least not in the context of all the other difficulties. There was the weird crease in a sock under a toe that I couldn’t fix, and now the toe displays a big red blister. Chafing wasn’t the horror story that can be told, though wet wool shirts didn’t exactly soothe the skin. And the only other extant injury that was noticeable was from a dance mishap when I slipped on a wood stage and bruised my knee a couple of weeks ago. It never bothered me, but I was reminded of a stupid maneuver two weeks ago that was totally unrelated to running. No lost toenails. I was able to get out of bed this morning. Walking is slower than normal, and walking down the stairs is comical, but overall it’s going to be okay. The weirdest soreness is in my forearms, probably from clenching on the ends of my sleeves that were wrapped over my hands.
Playlist (see below*):
I listen to less music on runs than when I first took up running, but having a playlist at the ready seemed wise. I like to compile things that will be interesting and/or inspiring and/or relevant, and then put that set on shuffle. I let fate decide what I need, knowing that there’s always an option to skip forward. I pressed play around mile 9. Certain songs, like “Hammer to Fall” (Queen) and “Running on Empty” (Jackson Browne) and “Wherever is Your Heart” (Brandi Carlile) and even a Rachmoninov piano concerto — just as I entered the canyon — were called for from above and the randomized seed in the microprocessor. These could have been other songs and I would have felt as blessed. Given the experience, the challenge, and the beauty, the music just allows for a place to churn the emotion. It’s well known that I get choked up when Luke blows up the Death Star, so it probably isn’t a surprise that I’m washed over in emotion when I see the snow on the peaks, hear cheers from family, or even have the simple realization that I’m running a marathon, that I’m going to finish a marathon. A song will help trigger this. (Had I added John Williams’ Star Wars theme to the list, I would have collapsed, overcome with irrational inspiration.) But there are also simple joys brought on by a rhythm or a line: “Build your muscles as your body decays,” suggests Freddie Mercury, and I comply with a full heart and a smile on my face.
I paused my music midway down the canyon, probably on the 19th mile. When I decided to put them on again around mile 23, the earbuds had apparently gotten too wet, and my left ear was silent. I put them away and didn’t miss them.
Moral(s) of the Story:
The paradox of a marathon, for me, is that there’s a tremendous celebration of the achievement of the individual; but you’re with 1000 others who are doing the same thing. Lots of people run marathons; but most people don’t. Those are two different kinds of comparisons, and I’m just realizing how very little either of them mean. Running a marathon only has to be meaningful to one person, even if everyone else does it.
In addition to being an accomplishment, running a marathon is also pointless and idiotic. It wasn’t as though I was chasing down a meal or running from a predator or delivering an important message. People who say they will never run a marathon and think that those who do are crazy are making a valid claim. But, now, just today, I was looking at a peak with an established trail that I’ve long wanted to traverse, now re-covered in snow after the storm front that I ran through. I’ve long wondered if I could run that path, and now I know. After a couple of weeks to let the muscles recuperate and the snow melt, I think I’ll be tackling that route. For fun.
And that’s the thing about the long runs in general. I realized a while ago that I haven’t so much been doing training runs in order to run a marathon, but the other way around. Running a little farther, especially off the roads and up in elevation, is justified only by an interest in seeing something else around the bend, over the next divide. If saying, even to myself, that “I’m training for a marathon” is an extra motivation or justification, so be it. Running the long distance was hard, and it was an accomplishment, and, especially, it was joyful. I could try to analyze this further by figuring out something about the chemical signals that the running produces, or the evolutionary causes of this motivation, or some subconscious need I’m not able to see for myself. I don’t need to figure out any of this. I had fun.
My dear friend had looked up my bib number the night before, inspiring this peptalk:
Wow, Bib 524. Well, maybe not “wow.” I did an online search for famous things associated with #524: room number where an INXS band member died, a style of Levi Jeans (girls, skinny), and the number of people who perished in Japan Airline crash in the 80s. It was also a leap year.
Now, I’m pleased to say that I’m giving #524 one more association: A first marathon result of 3:58:06.
*Playlist, randomly generated from a larger handpicked setlist:
- Four Simple Words, Frank Turner
- Life, in a Nutshell, Barenaked Ladies
- Running on Empty, Jackson Brown
- Lose Yourself, Eminem
- Reasons Not to Be an Idiot, Frank Turner
- Gaucho, Dave Matthews Band
- A Long Way to Get, Bob Schneider
- Mexican Home, John Prine
- Eye of the Tiger, Survivor
- 40 Dogs (Like Romeo and Juliet), Bob Schneider
- Round and Round, Bob Schneider
- Walk This Way, Run-DMC w/ Aerosmith
- American Land, Bruce Springsteen
- Rye Whiskey, Punch Brothers
- Swordfishtrombone, Tom Waits
- Round Here, Counting Crows
- Hammer to Fall, Queen
- Wherever Is Your Heart, Brandi Carlile
- Wagon Wheel, Old Crow Medicine Show
- Do It Anyway, Ben Folds Five
- Murder in the City, Brandi Carlile
- Mercy, Dave Matthews Band
- Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Andre Previn with the London Symphony Orchestra