So often when I’m working through an idea for a post here, I lock into a concept and then try to find clever ways to slowly unwrap it for you. Kind of a verbal striptease with my excessive use of ellipses being the grammatical pasties that cover up my real intentions. It’s a little verbal song and dance that I do that builds to a crescendo that likely only entertains me.
I’m not burying the lead.
On Sunday, October 20th, I finished a marathon.
Before you ask… and ohhhhhh so many of you have and will… that’s 26.2 miles. Marathon distance. The same distance it’s been since 1924. A marathon IS 26.2 miles. If it’s not 26.2 miles, it’s not a marathon!!!
You didn’t deserve that.
My quads are sore and I’m cranky.
If you told me a year ago that I would run a marathon, I would have thought you were nuts. I know a lot of people say that, but, I wasn’t just a guy who never thought about running one, I was almost pathologically against it . I’m a logical person, but I was absolutely convinced that I would die if I attempted a marathon. Period. Drop dead. I know it’s not rational… but… well… don’t judge me!
Early this year, just before my 40th birthday, I committed to running the 2013 Detroit Free Press International Marathon. I didn’t want to do it. I’d never done a timed race over 5K. A big part of me…ok ALL of me… was still convinced it would kill me. BUT… when something is put on your heart by something bigger than you… that all goes away.
What I thought I’d like to share today is a little recap of the run. Of course, I use the term “little” very loosely because… I have a lot to say. I’ve got about 48 hours of perspective and a gallon of Ben Gay Sports Creme behind me and, though I didn’t take any notes or write anything down during or right after the run, I feel like my mushy “marathon brain” is starting to clear up enough to share.
We’ve got highlights… warts and all…
The forecast for race morning was upper-30’s and, much to my dismay, the weather people nailed it. Add in the cold, biting breeze coming off the Detroit River and it was safe to say that man nipples were breaking through their protective band-aids in the starter’s corrals. Beside my normal race gear (shorts, compression shirt, race jersey, calf sleeves and shoes), I added a knit hat, gloves and a 3XL cotton poncho that I still had tucked deep in my closet from my 400 pound days. Like many marathons, especially in the fall or early spring, runners typically strip off layers as they go and race officials scoop them up and donate them to local shelters.
I was in corral “I” hopping around from a combination of nervous energy and overall fear of the unknown. Every two minutes, a new corral of 1,500 runners were released. As we edged closer to the start line, more and more discarded sweatshirts began accumulating at my feet.
“It’s like walking through my kids room,” I said with a smile to the stranger next to me. His blue race bib told me immediately that he wasn’t a first time marathoner like my green bib would indicate, but his refusal to even acknowledge my, at least borderline, amusing joke that told me he meant business.
“Fair enough,” I said out loud realizing quickly that me a “Chatty Cathy” here wouldn’t be bonding.
Corral D was on the course. Corral E and F took off like a shot. When G and H were released, I was so locked into my own thoughts I hardly noticed.
That’s all I kept reminding myself as the timer began to inch closer to GO.
10:30-11:00 minute miles. That’s where we want to be in the beginning. Don’t sprint.
The horn sounds…
I’m running a marathon.
One of the most unique aspects of the Detroit Marathon is that you actually cross the international border twice. The first crossing begins right around Mile 2, when you enter the Ambassador Bridge. With the sun starting to come up and the skylines of Detroit and Windsor, Ontario on either side of the river, I made my way over the two-mile span that connects our two countries.
I felt great. My pace felt right. I was really starting to warm up. I’d already ditched the poncho a mile or so back and was letting my bright orange Team World Vision jersey shine proudly with each step.
Though this was my first marathon, I’ve run more than my share of 5Ks. They always tend to have a lighter, “fun run” sort of feel to them, something I wasn’t expecting to see much of on this course.
I was wrong.
All along the bridge, runners were stopping to pose and snap pictures to capture this big moment in their lives. The beauty of the sunrise was dwarfed by the gorgeous glow of these smiles the people wore from ear-to-ear. They were enjoying this moment knowing that it may never come again. They laughed. They hugged. They smiled.
Running along the shore line in Downtown Windsor, my shirt paid off for the first time. I’d always read that you want to put your name on the front of your shirt when you’re running because marathon crowds love to cheer you by name. Yet, even with that knowledge, it’s still striking the first time it happens.
“Come on, Clay! You got this! You’re crushing it!”
I looked over quickly, naturally expecting to see someone I knew.
Total strangers. Canadians, I’m sure, so it was probably safe to assume they were good people, but they didn’t know me and I’d never seen them before that moment.
My heart swelled. And not in the “I’m about the die” way I was convinced it would before I signed up for the marathon. In a Grinch in Whoville on Christmas morning “Fah Who Foraze, Dah Who Doraze” sort of way.
Fighting back a tear, I gave ’em a thumbs up and a smile.
If you’re going to run into Canada, you’ve got to run back out. Another unique feature of the Detroit Marathon is that the second border crossing is actually done under the river. The Detroit Windsor tunnel sits underneath the Detroit River and thus allows the Detroit Marathon to tout the virtue of the country’s only “underwater mile”. Sounds cool at the time and, once you’re out of it, it’s pretty cool to think about, but while you’re inside it’s a slight different experience.
A few observations from the 1.2 miles I spent inside the tunnel:
- Men from the age of 18-39 (roughly) can NOT resist the urge to yell when inside a tunnel
- Panic attacks are tough to experience, but even tougher to watch. I saw two in the tunnel.
- Either people save them or you just don’t notice outside… but marathon runners are a gassy bunch. I was “crop dusted” at least four times in that ten minutes.
The steepest incline of the entire race comes as you exit the tunnel. Just as it’s starting to get tough, the sunlight starts to break around the corner and you hear the roar of the crowd. A huge contingent of supporters gather at the mouth of the tunnel. They do an amazing job pulling you up that hill.
I read somewhere that the average first time marathoner runs a 4:37:00 on their maiden voyage. Seemed pretty fast to me, but, I know it accounts for a lot of very experienced and well trained runners who just happen to have never run a timed race before.
When people asked me my goal for the marathon, I gave them the normal answer.
“Oh… I just want to finish.”
I was lying.
I wanted to run sub-4:37:00. I wanted to be better than average.
To hit that goal, I’d need to run (roughly) 10:20 miles. In training, I’d been running anything from 8:55 to 9:45 on most long runs. Most closer to the 9:35-range.
My goal was to come out slow and have gas for the tank on the second half. Reverse intervals or negative splits is the way I’d heard them described. Finish faster than you start.
At the 10 mile mark, I was running the exact race I wanted. I was at a 10:25 pace for the first five miles. Perfect. Miles six through ten, I’d moved up to a 10:03. I was doing it! I was running a smart race! The training worked!!!
Or… so I thought…
I knew the Team World Vision cheer section was set up around the 12.5 mile mark. When I left the house in the morning at 3:55am, the wife and kids were still sleeping, but would be there in time to cheer. A combination of the extra anxiety of the moment and the anticipation of seeing them ahead, I did what I hoped I’d be able to avoid… I stopped to go to the bathroom.
In 26 weeks of training, I’d managed to complete all but one of my runs without a pitstop. Today was the second time. Luckily, the line was short (about three deep for five Port-a-Johns) and I lost little time.
I made the turn toward what I anticipated being our team cheering section. In the very front of the pack… there they were. Decked out in orange, jumping and waving.
“Dad! Dad! Dad!”
I made a bee-line for the right edge of the course and slowed down to kiss each of my girls as I got to them. It was maybe 15 in the thousands of seconds that made up my run… but it was easily the most impactful.
The Detroit Marathon has a full marathon and two half marathons (the International and the U.S. Only). The International Half Marathon starts at the exact same time as the full marathon and runs the identical course until the 13 mile marker. At that point, the “halfers” make a hard right turn towards the finish line while the full marathon people continue straight down the road.
Approximately three out of four runners who started that morning would be taking that hard right turn towards the finish.
Truth bomb… For a brief second I hated those people.
Have you ever had to leave a party just when it was getting good? Or have you ever driven past an amusement park? That is what this felt like!
Person after person making that hard right turn. In a few brief moments they’d run head first into the adoration of their loved ones. They’d get a medal and the sweet Reynold’s Wrap cape at the finish line. They’d be cheered wildly. And the food…. OH… the food. They’d be eating soon.
Meanwhile, me and all the other fools… well… we were only halfway home.
That’s when it happened.
Through all of my training, I nursed a lot of little dings and uncomfortable runs. From some creaky hips and sore toes to your more standard quad pulls and shin pain. I’d run up against and, in most cases, ran through, just about every type of injury “below the equator” than you can imagine. That’s why I was shocked when it hit me this way.
My abdomen locked up.
A cramp would probably not do it justice. A tweak or a strain was putting it too lightly. It felt like someone took a bench-vice from my 7th grade shop class and locked it around my mid-section. Like a literal and figurative punch in the gut, I doubled over when it hit.
The fat guy in me immediately went to the old standards… “I don’t even have abs… how can they hurt like this!?!?!”
The pain was crushing and my spirit and attitude were following behind.
For the first time all day, I started to walk.
I did every twist and turn that I could think of. I stretched, I reached and I jumped. Anything I could do to make it feel better and, unfortunately, none of it worked.
Quitting wasn’t an option all I could do was try to run it out and hope for the best.
By the 17th mile, we were in one most beautiful residential areas of Detroit. Indian Village is absolutely gorgeous and the residents line the street in support of the marathoners. They cheer. They sing. They party. There were at least a half a dozen tables giving out little cups of beer in the neighborhood and more than a few runners who stopped to partake.
I was struggling.
I was racing, but I’d hardly call it a run. The only resemblance that it still bore to the beginning of the run was my bib number and detectable forward movement. I’d tried to modify my gait slightly to compensate for the still painful abdomen. While it alleviated that discomfort both slightly and briefly, it began to wreak havoc on my hips and ankles because of the over-compensation.
“Pick it up, Clay!”
I looked up to see a young girl. Maybe 16, but it’s tough to judge these days. I based it mostly on her high school jacket.
“Suck it up and RUN, Clay!!”
OK… not exactly encouraging, but I see what she was trying to do.
Though the pain was starting to build, I did have one of my favorite moments on the streets of Indian Village that day. Running side-by-side with a young lady who was battling a tweak of her own, we spotted an old man in a lawn chair offering high fives to the runners. We took to the curb to get in line for a little encouragement as we struggled by. About ten yards shy of his chair, he spots the young lady that I’m running next to and lights up.
“Oh Darlin’! If I weren’t 93 years old, I’d get up out of this chair and chase you!”
Love that guy!
They say “The Wall” hits a lot of people around Mile 20. That’s the point where your body starts to reject this whole marathon thing and you have to force it to cooperate. Well, my body had given up five miles ago… so my “Wall” was a little different. I smacked headfirst into it… and it started messing with my brain.
The first thing it did was it forced me start saying really mean and nasty things out loud. In Detroit, there’s an option for a 5-person Relay Marathon where individuals team up and each run a part of the course. Around Mile 20, I got sick of being passed by people flying the relay flag on their back. The longest any of them ran was 8.1 miles, so they were all super fresh. Tons of energy. I was dying.
“I hate you.”
I was saying it out loud. Probably not loud enough for anyone to hear me, but I couldn’t help myself.
The words just poured from my lips like drool from Ivan Pavlov’s pooch.
I’m not proud of it, but it happened.
I was in full on “marathon mush brain” by then. I was questioning everything. I questioned God, science, gravity, 80’s sitcoms, the OJ Simpson trial…. my brain was going 100 miles per hour… which was about 96 miles per hour faster than my feet were.
By this point in the run, I was running in the 12’s. The 4:37:00 would require a time machine to reach at this point. I felt beat. I felt defeated. I honestly didn’t know what was up and what was down…. but I knew I couldn’t stop. I was finishing. Period.
Everything hurts. I’m spent. I’m picking my feet up and putting them down, but I have no control over it. It’s happening only because I’ve been training for half a year. My mind and body are not on the same network.
“Two and half more miles! Let’s do this!”
And older guy along the path was yelling and clapping. I glanced at his chest to see his blue marathoner bib and the bright sliver medal already dangling around his neck. He’d finished already. He got his medal. And he worked his way two and half miles back up the course just to cheer.
“Come on first timer! It’s worth it! Finish strong!”
I love that guy!
About ten minutes and less than a mile later, I saw another group on a bench ahead.
“Come on, Clay! Two and half more miles!”
Wait! What!?!? That last guy said two and half more miles… and that was like almost a mile ago. I don’t like these girls or their message.
Not even five more minutes passed.
“Just two and half more miles, Runners! Kill it!”
COME ON!!! Am I running in place??? You people are killing me!!!
Back into the heart of the Motor City and I’ve got nothing left in the tank. Up on my left, I spot the familiar orange jersey of a teammate. I don’t know him and he doesn’t know me. His limp and wobble looked as bad as I know mine felt.
“How you doin’, Brother?” I asked him as I slowed my jog slowly to his walking pace.
“I’m on wooden legs right now. It’s killing me. I can’t feel anything,” he replied… his eyes never leaving the road in front of him.
“I’m on toothpicks myself. We got a mile to go. Let’s finish strong. Deal?” I offered while extending a fist for “pounding”.
“Deal,” he said with a knock of my knuckles.
So we ran.
But with what we had left.
As I made the first to last turn toward the finish, I spotted my family on the sidelines cheering. The crowds were pretty thin by then. They’d been there at least an hour wondering what was taking me so long. They had no way of knowing what had happened between 12 and 26.
With their smiles in my eyes, I made the last turn toward the FINISH. It looked so inviting and so far away. I put my head down and focused my eyes three steps in front of me. Every stride hurt my body, but healed my brain. I was going to finish. I was going to finish a marathon.
It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t perfect. But my first marathon was uniquely mine. A guy who was 428 pounds just six years ago, finished a marathon. A guy who swore he’d never do it, finished a marathon. I finished a marathon.
It was an emotional roller coaster that, as I’ve told everyone since, was like the most amazing therapy session that you could imagine. I started and finished at the ultimate high, but in the middle I feel like I was broken down to less than zero. I felt everything about my life in those five and half hours.
The amazing support from people has blown me away through this whole process. The positive energy that I’ve felt from this accomplishment is powering me through some very uncomfortable recovery days. And, when every hug and “Atta Boy!” ends… the inevitable question follows….
Will you run another one?
While my answer so far has been “Ask me in a month… right now I don’t feel like I’ll ever even walking briskly again”… the truth is… I never even planned to do this one. Who knows what God will put on my heart next. Ask Him.
Thank you to all of my amazing friends and family who contributed to my fund-raising efforts. Together we raised over $1000 for World Vision clean water efforts in Africa. As a team, we raised over $725,000 with Team World Vision : Detroit. We’re changing the world! If you still would like to contribute, fund-raising will continue for the next week or so: http://team.worldvision.org/goto/remodelingclay
UPDATE (1/1/14): Just finished my registration for 2014. See you at the start line!!!