Sometimes our families make us a little crazy. Even though we may be relatively sane most of the year, when we get together around the holidays, most of us experience momentary lapses in judgment.
Such was the case last Thanksgiving, when my mother and my wife went out for an early morning jog near my brother's house in Colorado. These two lovely women, usually clear-headed and reasonable, came back from their run and announced that they were going to run a marathon.
The way they described it, the idea sounded romantic: they'd train for the next full year and would run the marathon the following autumn. "It'll be a great way to get in shape!" proclaimed my mom.
Shape shape shape echoed in my brain.
"It'll help us stay motivated to exercise!" predicted Jade.
Exercise exercise exercise repeated my synapses.
As I listened to them discuss this plan, their family insanity began slowly creeping over my brain. That would be fun, I found myself thinking, despite the fact that I am an overweight asthmatic. As my eyes turned into tiny pinwheels and driblets of drool dripped from my mouth, I decided I was going to join them on this adventure.
This is a story of courage, hope, and the power to move beyond our limits. This is a story of people just like you - lazy and untrained - on a quest to run the ultimate distance. This is a story of excruciating jock itch.
What were we thinking?
My mother had been running for a total of nearly twenty years, and my wife and I had been running for a total of twenty minutes. (That was the length of time needed to fake out my junior high gym coach by pretending to collapse of an asthma attack.) We were like people who decide they're going to start rock climbing by tackling Kilimanjaro.
A marathon is a 26.2 mile race. This seemingly random distance is in actuality just a random distance. As Gordon Bakoulis Bloch explains in "How to Train For and Run Your Best Marathon":
In 190 B.C., in the Plains of Marathon ... the Athenian general Miltiades led the Athenian forces to a crucial victory over the attacking forces of Darius, King of Persia. Once the victory was certain, Miltiades dispatched a messenger whose name has come down to us through history as Pheidippides.
Pheidippides ran approximately 24 miles to Athens, the story goes, to tell the citizens the good news. However, upon his arrival, he was so exhausted that he was only able to gasp out "Victory!" before he collapsed and died.
(Please note: the guy died.)
In the 1912 Olympics, the marathon distance was standardized at its current 26.2 miles. This distance was arrived at somewhat arbitrarily as corresponding to a point that allowed the competitors to finish directly in front of the thrones of the king and queen of Sweden.
To which I say, I hope the king and queen of Sweden are now burning in hell, and no matter where they run, Heaven's gate always appears an extra 2.2 miles ahead of them.
The marathon distance is the ultimate running challenge for most people, as if the human body could not possibly be pushed any harder. But we quickly found out that there is no "ultimate distance". We heard stories of runners who go 26.2 miles, then turn around and run back to the starting line. We heard about the "Ironman", a marathon run in the desert where you have to carry your own water on your back like a camel. We heard about "super marathons" of 100 miles or more, run through forests and glades. So if you're just out to conquer the ultimate challenge, it doesn't exist. That helped put things in perspective.
We immediately bought a few marathon books, most of which had training schedules mapped out. The intense marathon training wasn't supposed to begin until four months before the race, we found out, but you had to ramp up to a certain level of physical fitness before you could begin that stage. So we began running, very slowly at first, short distances. In the beginning, Jade and I could only run a mile or two at a time.
That would soon change.
We began our training in beat-up tennis shoes, but it soon became apparent that we were going to need some real running shoes. I'm not a believer in sports paraphernalia - the kind of person who will spend hundreds of dollars on biking gear will never use it - but my feet hurt.
So I went to a Foot Locker, or Athlete's Foot, or one of those cheesy national chains run by teenagers. I told the clerk, who had only recently discovered the joy of armpit hair, that I was going to train for a marathon.
He looked at me gravely. "That's a lot of training."
"Could you recommend a good training shoe?" I asked, ignoring this helpful advice.
He stroked the tennis-ball fuzz on his upper lip, and then pointed me to the shoes on sale. "The Puma 'Cell' line is pretty good?" he said, with the question mark.
I tried them on. Compared to the $29 sneakers I was wearing, they felt pretty good. So, not knowing any better, I bought them.
Flash-forward six months. My feet are twisted, diseased stumps of flesh. I am a hideous sideshow attraction: "Come see the disgusting callous boy!" shouts the unseen carnival barker in my mind. "Watch his scabby feet ooze and melt into his socks! Just two tickets to gaze all you want at the filthy callous boy! Poke his festering toes with sharp bits of pottery! Scrape his crusty sores with rusty stakes!"
My feet were a mess. Two giant boils had formed just beneath my big toe, blood blisters which had hardened into thick lumps of dried skin. My toenails were turning black, and loosening: I didn't know whether it was worse to have them fall off or to think about them falling off. It hurt just to walk.
Finally I couldn't stand the pain any longer. My wife and I (Jade was having similar problems, but not nearly as disgusting) went to Marathon Sports, a store just outside Harvard Square specializing in running shoes. The clerks, who were not put off by my stinking, leprous feet, analyzed my running stride and my foot type, recommending the Brooks "HydroFlow" line. Not only were these shoes far more comfortable, they were about a pound lighter, which made all the difference in the world. My blisters slowly healed, although my toenails continued to turn black (a common problem for long-distance runners), and I'm disgusted to report that as I was writing this article, my left toenail finally fell off.
My crappy digital camera wouldn't take a decent picture of my toe, but maybe it was just too scared.
We bought several books about marathon training, which turned out to be a good idea. It was very helpful to have so much information on what to expect, both during training and on the marathon day. Some of the books, however, were much better than others.
My personal favorite was "How To Train For and Run Your Best Marathon" by Gordon Bakoulis Bloch. Despite the ridiculously long name, this is a great intro to marathon running, with safe, gentle advice. Gordon (a woman) has several detailed training schedules drawn out, which I will discuss next. She emphasizes caution and common sense, and I found it an encouraging, helpful book.
"Marathon: The Ultimate Training and Racing Guide", on the other hand, was written by Hal Higdon, a relentless silver-haired taskmaster. "Six marathons in six weeks at the age of 60!" shouts the book cover. When most people are collecting Social Security, this guy is out pounding the pavement, his dentures fused together in iron grit. That gives you an idea of where he's coming from. He has a bunch of sample schedules from top trainers, but neglects to give you any advice on which one to use. I was left with the impression that if I followed this guy's advice, I was going to pull a groin muscle.
"Marathon!" by Jeff Galloway was the worst of the lot. Galloway is a former Olympic runner who writes a column for some running magazine and also wrote the rather famous "Galloway's Book on Running". Skill in running, it should be pointed out, does not equal skill in writing. Jade couldn't make heads or tails of this book, which tries to follow several example runners as they prepare for their own marathon.
To be fair, I didn't read the last one. And it should be pointed out that Galloway has an esteemed marathon training program, which my mother took back at her home in South Carolina while we were training by ourselves in Boston. Her experience with the program was mostly positive, as it gave her a group of running partners to keep her motivated. Her group leader, however, was not very inspiring, and the students were often left to organize themselves. The bright side of this was that Galloway himself came to speak a few weeks before the marathon, and since the group leader was so disorganized, only three people showed up to the lecture, so my mother got essentially a free one-on-one with this former Olympic athlete.
And she didn't have to read his book.
Our running schedule (taken from "How to Train For and Run Your Best Marathon") was unusual in that we didn't have to run a certain number of miles per day, but a certain number of minutes. This routine worked for us, as Jade runs more slowly than me, so we could both run the same amount of time (say, around a track) while not worrying about distance. The other advantage of measuring progress by time was that one or two days a week you could cross-train: rollerblade, bike, swim, etc. Because after a few months, running just gets boring.
In the beginning, it was great: we felt real accomplishment as the first mile or two became easier to run. Then three miles became the average distance we could cover. The first time we ran five miles was heart-poundingly difficult, and then it became just a leg in the journey. However, the "runners' high", supposedly caused by endorphins being released into the bloodstream (an experience which can be duplicated, by the way, by eating extremely spicy foods), was overwhelming during the first few weeks, and then tapered off. It became more and more difficult to capture that feeling of euphoria except by running longer and longer distances (that was my experience anyway; Jade claimed that she felt it after every run).
The average run was 45 minutes. Typically, you'd run 35 minutes on Monday, 45 minutes on Tuesday, one to two hours on Wednesday, take Thursday off, 45 minutes on Friday, take Saturday off, and then do your "long run" on Sunday. The long runs were very important, because that's where you'd build up the real long-distance stamina. These started out as 45 minutes, and then increased and decreased in waves until they were three to four hours long.
In retrospect, this seems like an insane amount of time, but it's really not a big whoop when you're doing it. You build up very gradually, and it just becomes a fact of life. Sunday mornings we'd get up early and say, "Well, we have to go run 180 minutes today". Like those kids hiding in the toilets in Schindler's List, you can do anything once you accept it as your fate.
My fondest memories of training were spending time with my wife in so many different places. Jade and I are lucky to travel fairly often, and we tried to stick to our schedule no matter where we were. We had some lovely runs in the Rocky Mountains; I did an early morning run down by Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco (Alcatraz is haunting in the smoky light of dawn); we jogged through the country backroads of Ohio; we huffed and puffed up hills in rural Georgia; we stomped through the auburn leaves of Cape Cod.
I can't say that we followed our schedule religiously; there were some weeks when we missed almost all our running dates, and I often worried whether we were going to finish the marathon at all. The goal of first-time training is not to run the full distance before the race, but only to run 20 miles. The philosophy is that the excitement of race day will carry you the final six miles. But in talking with acquaintances who ran marathons, we found that some people didn't even train that much and they still made it over the finish line. That was a relief.
One of the big advantages of training for a marathon is that you can pretty much eat whatever shit you feel like eating. Our books said to eat slightly more carbohydrates and slightly less fat than usual. I compromised and ate a crapload of everything.
It was very important to eat well the night before the Sunday long runs, or I would just run out of energy, which was a very unpleasant feeling. Runners call this "hitting the wall", the point where your body runs out of stored carbohydrates and begins burning fat instead. If you've ever had a "sugar crash" in the middle of the day, where you feel like you'll pass out if you don't have a snack, you know what this feels like - but it's so much worse when you know you still have to run to Cleveland.
I did a lot of experimenting with energy bars, which was not nearly as fun as experimenting with drugs, and here's what I found.
PowerBars. The gold standard of energy bars, but I found them only average in effectiveness. Their biggest drawback is the wrapper, which was apparently designed to withstand falling into industrial machinery while being mauled by wild animals while being shot into deep space. They should include a government secret with each bar, they're that hard to open. Here's some suggested ad copy for PowerBar: "Slippery foil packaging is perfect for the athlete covered in sweat".
PowerBar Harvest. The regular PowerBars taste okay, but I guess PowerBar wanted to move into the granola bar market, so they could cater to the school lunch crowd as well as the athletes. Problem: these taste like granola bars that have been ingested, thrown up, mixed with flour, left to harden for several weeks, then stuffed into a package that could withstand mankind's most advanced wartime artillery.
PowerBar Gel. The only substance that tastes worse than PowerBar Harvest bars (Department of Redundancy Department) is PowerBar Gel. To be fair, I only tasted the vanilla (which was like quenching your thirst with vanilla frosting) and the strawberry-banana (a fruit shake mixed with stomach bile), so maybe the other flavors taste less like aardvark snot.
Gu. I found that this stuff tasted pretty good, though it only gave me a slight boost of energy. It comes in a toothpaste-like tube which you squeeze into your mouth, and is very easy to carry.
Clif Bars. These were my favorite, both in taste and performance. They had a nice texture, not as chewy as PowerBars, but a little crunchier, kind of like a healthy candy bar. These things gave me mondo energy: I only needed half a Clif Bar to finish a long run. They were about a dime more expensive than the others, but worth it.
After several months of training, I came to believe that there were only two secrets to running a marathon: learning to handle the mental game, and learning to stay hydrated.
Water plays a big role in long-distance running, because it's the foundation for everything you put into your body. Our training book emphasized this again and again: drink more water. The color of your urine, the book explained, should be clear or very pale yellow; any darker and you run the risk of dehydration.
This means, of course, that you have to stop every half-hour or so during your long runs to go pee. This fact of life is completely accepted among runners, I came to learn, and they'll talk about it openly. In fact, the whole training process got me in touch with my body in a way that I had never experienced before. After a while I came to view it in a detached way, as something like a machine: it could take me as far as I needed to go, provided I supplied it with the proper amounts of food, water, and air.
Jade and I also experimented with the various sports drinks on the market. Like energy bars, I viewed these as overpriced luxury items for athletes. Although I still share this view, I did find that they often gave a boost of energy at critical moments.
The Powerade line of drinks, in my opinion, were the best-tasting, but most of them don't map to any known flavors. My favorite flavor was "Jagged Ice", which was deep blue and didn't have much taste - maybe a mild fruitiness.
Gatorade is the original sports drink, of course, but I guess Powerade has been eating (drinking?) into their market share, because they've started coming out with "radical" new "extreme" flavors, like "Alpine Snow", which was my favorite of this brand - a murky-white drink which tasted kind of like citrus.
Regardless, most sports drinks, in my opinion, taste like artificially-sweetened goat saliva, and I have no idea why anyone drinks them for pleasure. Given the choice, I'll usually go for water, which is just as effective a hydrator, and free.
Until only recently, I was classified as a "chronic asthmatic", which meant that I could die from not being able to breathe. My attacks started, my parents tell me, when I was three years old, and gradually grew worse until my teenage years, when I was hospitalized each year for a week or more.
I came very close to death a few times, in fact, because I would wake up in the middle of the night with my airways almost completely closed. One time I stopped breathing entirely and had to be given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation by my father, which still creeps me out because, I mean, my father kissed me on the lips.
So I look with disdain on these namby-pamby asthmatics who cry about having a little difficulty breathing. I've been to pulmonary hell and back, I've experimented with every asthma drug on the market, I've taken steroids (an extreme asthma treatment) for so long that they've stunted my growth and grown hair on my back.
Exercise makes most asthma flare up, and in fact I often used this as an excuse to get out of gym class in high school. I've noted that most asthmatics are whiny exercise wimps, and I was no exception. I routinely used my asthma as a device to help me avoid things I was scared of: youth retreats, camping expeditions, hiking trips. At some point in my life (I don't recall a specific moment in time, but rather a gradual awakening), I decided that this was ridiculous, that I wasn't going to let this be an excuse for wasting my life away. That was the point where I started opening up and becoming more adventurous.
Still, I was a little nervous to embark on a hardcore exercise schedule for a full year. I was smart about it - I always carried my inhaler with me, and I didn't run when I felt like I couldn't handle it - but I also didn't cave into the fear of my infirmity. And you know what? By the end of my training my asthma felt better than it had in years.
I don't want to hear any excuses from you asthmatic pussies ever again.
One of my pet peeves about exercise is that no matter what you're doing, there's always a certain type of person who wants to tell you why you're doing it wrong. Either you should be lifting some other kind of weights, or you should be rollerblading with some other stride, or you should be running on some other schedule. Usually, I've noticed, the people giving this advice are fifty to one hundred pounds overweight, and smell like cheese.
During training, I heard the full range of opinions on stretching: stretch for a long time before and after you run, don't stretch before but stretch during and after, only stretch after, stretch a short time before and a long time after, do a quick warmup run before stretching, stretch before and after but not during, and don't stretch at all until several hours after your run (espoused by my mother's training group)!
All this conflicting advice led me to the conclusion that not one medical expert knows when you're supposed to stretch, and any evidence that people give you to the contrary should be met with a firm roll of the eyes and the pronouncement, "And I suppose you still believe that blood-sucking leeches will cure disease".
For the record: we stretched for ten minutes before our runs, briefly while we were running, and five minutes afterwards. That's what felt best.
One of the biggest training pitfalls is getting injured, which is unsurprisingly easy to do when you're running 25 miles a week. "They" say that injury usually occurs as a result of overtraining, or ramping up your schedule too fast. If and when it happens, you can't do much but rest the injury until it heals - and that often means having to miss the marathon, which is a drag.
Jade had problems with her shins and feet for the six months or so leading up to the marathon. She would sometimes have to cut her training runs in half because it was just too painful. Even after we bought better shoes, she was usually hobbling around the house like a doddering old woman. (For her birthday, I bought her a walker and an ear trumpet).
We quickly found out she had severe shin splints, a common running ailment caused by tiny tears in the muscles around the shin which make you scream in agony if you bump your shin against a table, not to mention running 26 miles.
After several visits to the podiatrist, she was also diagnosed with bunions, which to this day is an endless source of pleasure, because we can walk around the house groaning, "Oy, my bunions hoit!" in a New York Jewish accent. I always thought bunions were callouses or growths on the feet, but they're actually screwed-up bone structure.
For my part, I had, at various points during the training, problems with my feet, ankles, shins, calves, knees, thighs, hips, and an acute case of jock itch. Many of these ailments are accepted as "coming with the territory" of long-distance running. We came to the conclusion that while running is a great way to keep in shape, long-distance running is just really bad for most parts of your body.
I was going to write a "tell all" section on my jock itch, because I thought it would be funny, but there's really not much to tell. The "itch" is caused by a fungus - the same one that causes athlete's foot - which thrives in dark, moist environments. Since our crotches got so sweaty so often while training, there was soon a fungus among us. (All right, just one of us). It wasn't painful, just excruciatingly itchy. You males out there, imagine wanting to take a trowel or hand rake to your scrotum, and you'll get the gist.
I bought some spray stuff from the drugstore (there was a pretty girl who rang up my purchase at the cash register - of course) which felt like, oh, rubbing burning sulphur on my balls. After a few days, the jock itch cleared up, though it did reappear briefly around my butthole.
If you think it's embarrassing to share this here, you should have seen me trying to talk about it at my family reunion. Nobody wanted to hear about my itchy nads!
The Zombie Track
I had two favorite running places in Boston: the path along the Charles River, and the Minuteman Bikeway in Arlington. The Charles has a relatively serene running trail dotted with water fountains which occasionally work, and a series of bridges to loop around the river, which makes it easy to measure your progress by which bridge you cross on the way back.
We moved to an apartment by the Minuteman Trail towards the beginning of our training, and it was a godsend since it's practically built for marathoners. The trail, which passes by a bunch of historic Revolutionary War sites, is exactly ten miles long from start to finish, so our ultimate goal was to run the entire length once before the marathon, and it was fun to measure our progress as we covered progressively larger chunks of the path.
But the weirdest thing was a running track near the trail that I came to call "The Zombie Track". It's outside the local high school, and situated so that it has become a kind of town social center: people meet, hang out, and talk while walking around the track. When Jade and I first moved there, we thought this was kind of quaint and homey, a sparkling example of small-town values just outside the big city. Gradually, though, our admiration turned to suspicion and then to outright fear - because someone was walking around the track 24 hours a day. I am not making this up. It was like the townspeople carried it in shifts, with an unspoken mental signup sheet. Do your civic duty. Walk around the track.
Several times we drove home from a movie well after midnight. Someone was walking around the track.
Once I got up at 4:00 am on a weekday to catch an early flight. Someone was walking around the track.
I'd check it during rain, snow, hail. Through the misty pea soup of inclement weather, someone was walking around the track.
The ultimate test came on New Year's Eve, when we were walking to a nearby party. It was about three hours to midnight. The weather was thirteen degrees Fahrenheit. The windchill factor (something referenced only by overly-protective mothers and those looking for exaggerative literary devices) was forty degrees below zero.
Someone was walking around the track.
I couldn't believe this, and told everyone at the party about "The Zombie Track", and how it struck fear into my heart. On the walk back home, I was still ranting to Jade, when we passed the track and found, for the very first time, that the track was empty. We peered through the murky stillness and saw no one.
So what did we do? We shrugged, jumped over the fence, and started walking around the track.
The best part about training for a marathon is that it gives you the chance to talk about your bodily functions with complete strangers. Even though I built a website to do exactly that, there's nothing like doing it face-to-face.
Peeing is a fact of life for the long-distance runner, as the goal is to drink enough fluids to be urinating once or twice an hour. You get so used to finding semi-private places to "make water" that you become relatively immune to embarrassment. I remember my first day on the job at a big corporation, five years ago, and how I got stuck whizzing into the urinal next to my new boss. I couldn't drip to save my life, and even as my boss and I tried to nonchalantly chat about the benefits package and holiday schedule, we were both acutely aware of the lack of fluid-ringing-off-porcelain sound coming from my direction. I always wondered if he was saying to himself, "What kind of freak did we hire who would go to a urinal and just stand there?!"
After a few months of training, in contrast, I could have taken a leak on national television while being berated by the National Guard. In fact, while running the actual marathon in Washington, D.C., I drained the lizard on an historic building which I think was the Museum of Natural History, while tourists stared at me, mouths agape. (I thought about shaking the snake into those, too).
I don't need to point out that squeezing the weather balloon is easier for men than women, but since I just did, there's no point in apologizing. Jade, for her part, learned to empty the tub without the luxury of toilet paper during our training runs. Since I hosed down the sidewalk faster than my wife, I'd play the lookout for other people who might invade the private sanctuary of our tree or wooded grove. I only failed at this once, when a woman walking her dog unexpectedly turned the corner as Jade was pouring vinegar on her fries. I yelped, and Jade bolted out of there with her running shorts halfway around her thighs.
Bowels are another favorite subject of runners, because you don't want to have to unpack the duffel bag in the middle of a fifteen mile run. Ideally you can either flush the fudge before your run or hold it until you're finished - although if you wait, you'll usually get the "running squirts", a kind of explosive diarrhea that is supposedly caused by your intestines jostling around so much.
World-famous runner Uta Pippig (who, for the purposes of this essay, I will call Uta Poopig) made for an heroic and extremely disgusting news story during the 1996 "Boston Marathon", when she had to squeeze the sausage in the middle of the race. Since stopping to pass the brownies would mean losing her lead, she did what any of us would do. Scratch that. She did what none of us would do: she doodied her pants. She was also having her period, as the story goes (I've even heard some accounts that she had a miscarriage), and so you can imagine her crossing the finish line with blood, fecal matter, and possibly a tiny fetus running down her legs.
Personally, I think her competitors were just too grossed out to pass her, which is a competitive strategy that bears further examination: imagine the mistakes that catchers might make if batters relentlessly farted in their faces. You'd think twice about tackling a wide receiver who was known to vomit beef stew on his opponents. And how would Olympic swimmers perform if they had to dodge floating turds?
It would sure make sports commentators more interesting.
The big day
In the beginning, we were going to run the "New York Marathon", the second largest in the country, but we eventually decided on the "Marine Corps Marathon" in Washington, D.C., which is number four. We chose this based on anecdotes from people who had run the marathon: they said it was well-organized, relatively flat, and scenic, where New York was a little bit crowded and crazy. Since we live in Boston, many people asked why we didn't run the "Boston Marathon", and the answer is that you can't qualify unless you've run a previous marathon with a certain finishing time. Lots of people sneak in anyway, but race organizers have been more strict in recent years about keeping "bandits" off the course.
We stayed with my uncle, who lives in Washington, and dutifully attended the "night before" festivities, which involved picking up our running packet, getting our race number, and eating the traditional pre-marathon carbo-loading dinner of pasta, salad, and cookies. We went to sleep that night excited: a year of training was about to come down to this!
The whole family got up early the next morning. From the suburbs, we took the subway into downtown Washington (a long ride made even longer by the fact that we had been downing fluids since dawn). There were a bunch of other runners on the train, and we all talked merrily about our bowel and bladder habits until we arrived at our stop. You think I'm kidding here, but I'm not.
We had a fifteen minute walk to the Iwo Jima Monument, where the race was to begin. I had to go, man, like my bladder was the fat guy in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. I was afraid the waiter was going to serve that last deadly wafer-thin mint, and there wasn't a bathroom in sight. So I did what everyone else was doing: I ducked behind a bush (a knee-high shrub, actually) and whipped out Dr. Worm. Unless I become homeless or strung out on roofies, it's the closest I'll get to the freedom of whizzing in the big city.
We spent the next few hours taking pictures, stretching, drinking water. The starting line of the race was a chunk of closed-off freeway, and the trees on either side of the road were dotted with runners (men and women) who were draining the dishwater. Regretfully, I did not have my camera along.
With just a few minutes to go, the announcer came over the loudspeaker and admonished the crowd of 13,000 runners: "It will be very hot today. Be sure to drink much more water than you think necessary!". He went on to describe the dangers of heat stroke, but no one was paying attention, because we were all cheering in anticipation of the starting gun.
And then we were off!
Actually, we weren't off for a full ten minutes, because the crowd in front of us was so enormous that it took that long for the great human traffic jam to squeeze through the gates. Each of us had groovy electronic sensors on our shoes which tracked our actual starting time, so this delay was not counted against us. We calmly walked to the starting line...
And then we were off!
I decided to run with Jade and my mother for the beginning of the race. None of us were fast runners, so before long we were near the end of the pack. Around mile six, I kissed the ladies goodbye and kicked ahead. Starting out the race so slowly gave me one great advantage: I now had plenty of energy to pass people for the rest of the marathon, which was a big mental boost.
The beginning of the course took you around the outskirts of Washington, at one point going all the way around the parking lot of the Pentagon. Every two miles or so, there was a refreshment station where Marines (this was the "Marine Corps Marathon", after all) served water and sports drinks. If you've ever doubted the courtesy and helpfulness of our armed forces, you simply need to run this race, because the Marines were great. Having said that, I was slightly disgusted to find them serving water from giant trash barrels which I'm not sure had been cleaned. So each cup of water I drank had black fuzzy debris floating on top.
You see some whacked-out shit when you run a marathon of this size. A high school marching band followed shortly by a high school rock band. People wearing fright wigs and people dressed up like the founding fathers. A guy with a boom box playing the theme from Rocky. And the signs! The crowds were dotted with messages like "Go Suzie" or "You can do it Dad!". They say that crowds make all the difference on race day, and it's true: it was inspiring and encouraging to be cheered along.
One of my friends, the great web artist Doug Johnson, had told me to choose my T-shirt carefully, because I would hear whatever slogan was on my shirt yelled to me a hundred times by the crowd. So I made a sign which read "www.zug.com" and pinned it to my shirt. So every time someone wanted to cheer me on, they'd yell, "All right! Go Zug!" or "You're doing great, Zug!" (I didn't wear a Zug T-shirt because I had just bought a super-breathable running tank top).
Speaking of courage and drive, there were several senior citizens who ran the marathon that day. I passed one of them, a tiny woman who appeared to be in her 80s. She was trotting up the hill at a leisurely pace, but to see her grey hair and wrinkled legs making that 26 mile journey was both amazing and inspiring to me. So I had to stick out my foot and trip her.
It got progressively hotter as the day wore on, and by the time I approached the halfway point, it was high noon and the sun was blazing.
The second-to-worst stretch of the marathon was the journey to Hains Point, a peninsula jutting out on the Potomac River. A grueling two-mile trudge out to the end of this point, only to turn around and run back the other way. So when you start out, you're running right next to people who are already four miles ahead of you, and it only gets worse.
After one of the water stops, I saw a woman pulled over in the grass. I was confused for a moment because she was spitting water into the air. Then I realized with some horror that she wasn't spitting at all, but projectile vomiting. Chalky, chunky liquid was shooting from her mouth and nose onto a nearby tree. That image stayed with me for the next two miles, and I was unable to shake my own feelings of nausea.
By mile 16, I had gotten over it and was feeling pretty good overall. A little bit tired, but I thought I was going to be able to finish the race. Because I was in the last third of marathoners, they had run out of cups at a few of the water stations. That's the only bad thing I'll say about the race organizers, because otherwise it was very well put together. But it was a high-level bummer at the time, as I began to grow increasingly hot and thirsty.
Little did I know what was to come.
As I said before, first-time marathoners are advised to only train up to 20 miles, because the energy of race day will carry you the extra six (there's even a saying that "the race doesn't begin until mile 20"). So although I was growing very tired indeed, it was exciting to be covering virgin territory: I'm now running farther than I've ever run before. That excitement turned to horror, however, on The Bridge of Death.
The 14th Street Bridge, I'm sure, is a very ordinary structure to Washington commuters, but after having run 23 miles in the heat, it becomes a concrete slab of unending torment.
No water stations.
No crowds to cheer us on.
Just an endless stretch of sweltering pavement, with the feverishly blistering sun raining down on your head and back. Pain courses through your feet and legs like molten iron; you try to keep running but everything's suddenly made out of lead. You look around and your vision takes on a surreal, hallucinatory character: the sky is burning and the guard rails are melting. You're vaguely conscious that no one is running anymore, so you slow down to a walk, try to catch your breath, but your legs are so torn up that it doesn't even feel like walking anymore, it just feels like you've slowed down this insane journey by a fraction.
I talked a little bit about learning the mental game of long-distance running during training, and here's where it saved me. The thought, "I've got two more miles to go" was enough to extinguish my will. But if I thought, "Look how far I've come! 24 miles! Who would've imagined I could ever do that?" I was able to keep going. My body was now at the point where it was going to shut down unless my mind was able to trick it into continuing. And so I tried desperately to find encouraging things to think about. A nice hot shower and a huge meal kept me going for some time, until I felt too nauseous to think about eating. And then I hit upon my own magic phrase.
I found that if I focused on how well I was holding up, I was able to inspire myself enough to continue. In reality, of course, I was on the brink of exhaustion and looked like I was about to die. But these were not logical times, and if I thought about how I had not yet collapsed and not yet dropped out, I was able to keep moving. "My body feels great!" I told myself, and that would get me a few steps. "My body feels great!" I'd say again, and go a little farther. It was like blowing a wadded-up straw wrapper across the table with a coffee stirrer (this sentence recently won me the coveted Most Obscure Analogy prize from the American Literature Association).
After 72 years of this, I finally reached another water station, and I hope that God punishes the person who was responsible for allotting cups to this particular station, because there were none. I ran to a Marine and, crazed by the heat and exhaustion, grabbed the pitcher of water out of his hands (this is true) and drank the entire thing, soot and all. Water was running down my face and my chest, and the Marine was staring at me incredulously, but I was four miles past the point of caring.
The final mile or so was just terrible. Here's a hint for future marathon bystanders: if you're near the end of a race, don't yell, "Hey, only one more mile to go!". I know it seems helpful, but at that point, one more mile seems like licking the sweat from Satan's scrotum. It's far more helpful to say, "You've come 25 miles! Woo-hoo!"
I don't know how people manage to sprint that final mile or so, because it took every ounce of willpower not to slow down to a walk. I knew the finish line was around a bend, so every corner in the road brought my hopes up, and then dashed them against the pavement. "Hey, only half a mile more!" people shouted, and I prayed their families would die. "Only five more minutes of running!" yelled a five year old, and I vowed to learn voodoo when I was finished.
Just as every nightmare has an end, just as every death-filled war ultimately ceases, just as the Spice Girls will one day break up for good, I finally saw the finish line.
My finishing time was five hours, two minutes, and thirty six seconds.
End of the trip
When Oprah Winfrey ran the "Marine Corps Marathon" in 1994, she described feeling more euphoric than when she won her Emmy. When Al Gore ran it with his daughters in 1997, he used similar superlatives about his feelings of accomplishment and enthusiasm. The completion of the marathon is supposed to be the end-all, be-all moment of human existence: more meaningful than learning to ride a bike while being handed your diploma while giving birth to your first child.
I felt nothing.
Actually, I did feel something, and that was pain. Pain and disorientation. As I trotted over the finish line, I was whisked away into a confusing exit line where a Marine hung a medal around my neck and another Marine stooped down to remove the electronic tracker from my shoes. Someone else handed me a bottle of water and a "space blanket", a silvery foil-like wrapping which is used to cool and warm runners at the end of a long race.
I was so dehydrated and exhausted that I was having a hard time thinking coherently. Some part of me remembered that I was supposed to keep moving (don't ever, ever sit down!), so it was all I could do to walk around, aimlessly, trying to get as much water into my system as I could. I was on another planet, and it did not feel good. They say that the accomplishment of running a marathon is better than drugs, but I'm here to say that it was not at all like drugs. Drugs are much better! This was just the unpleasant, flu-like sensation of being on the verge of passing out, while two branding irons are being pressed against your thighs and every muscle in your body is screaming for the sweet release of death.
I was also trying to find my father in a crowd of 25,000 people, so that didn't help. I knew there was a meeting point, so I walked over to a few Marines and tried to ask them where to go. The thought that was in my head was not being properly communicated to my mouth, however, and I remember saying, "I have to meet my daddy". My tongue was thick and hot in my mouth, like a juicy sausage. They pointed me in the right direction, and then I saw the food tent.
The thought of food was simultaneously delicious and hideous, but I knew it had to be done. I finished off my liter of water and promptly got another one. I started forcing down food, thought it felt like I was going to throw it up. I wandered around like this for an hour, until I finally met up with Dad, who was promptly followed by Mom and Jade. They had finished about an hour after me, and were both ebullient.
Little did they know what the future held.
The three of us traded war stories for a while as we ate bananas and rolls. I had consumed three or four liters of water, so I was feeling much better. Everyone was in good spirits as we walked back to the subway station, but I was worried that neither Jade nor my mom were drinking much water.
Sure enough, my mom's sunny disposition soon started to cloud over. As we reached the station, she began to swoon, and leaned on my dad for support. She ran over to a nearby trash can and started to throw up. It's very uncomfortable, isn't it, when someone throws up in public - such an intimate, embarrassing act performed in front of spectators? I really felt horrible for my poor mother, who must have felt so ashamed about something that was beyond her control.
What was going on, of course, was extreme dehydration, and once you've started to cross that desert, there's no turning back. She tried to drink a little more water while we were waiting for the train, but that came back up too. We boarded the subway, and after we had been travelling for fifteen minutes, we realized we were going the wrong direction. So we got back out, waited for another train, then started the terribly long journey home.
When we first boarded the train with our running shorts and space blankets, we were heroes. Everyone congratulated us, smiling, offering their seats. But slowly they realized something was wrong. Mom looked terrible, and Jade was starting to feel nauseous as well. When she looked over at me and said, "I think I'm going to throw up", the woman sitting next to her actually scampered to the other end of the train. Suddenly we were lepers, and everyone wanted to get away from us.
To make matters worse, the vast amounts of water I had consumed wanted back out. The pressure grew so intense that, even though I knew the exploding bladder story is an urban legend, I became very afraid that some internal organ was going to burst, spilling toxic urine into my bloodstream and killing me instantly.
When the train finally arrived at our station, I was literally doubled over from bladder pains, and when I placed my hand just below my stomach, I could feel my bladder poking out, like an overstretched balloon. I had no choice: I ducked behind a column and whizzed into my water bottle, in full view of several surprised subway passengers!
But the party was just getting started.
One of the rewards my mother had planned was a personal massage for each of us after the marathon. The massage therapist arrived at my uncle's apartment that evening (who knew they made housecalls?), a few hours after we returned. Neither Jade nor my mother had improved; in fact, they were both draped over the bed, moaning in discomfort. I had just stepped out of the shower, so I did the chivalrous thing and offered to take the first massage.
The massage therapist was named Pat, a curly-haired middle-aged fellow who, if he wasn't actually gay, was scouting out his options. I stepped in the second bedroom of my uncle's tiny apartment, where Pat had set up his massage table. I was wearing a towel.
Pat began rubbing, and I must say that it felt divine. As I lost myself in Pat's gentle (yet surprisingly firm) grip, a slow and sensual moan escaped from my lips. The marathon fast becoming a memory, I began to dream of sugarplum fairies and chocolate rabbits.
Suddenly, my uncle barged in without knocking. (I know it was his apartment, but I mean, c'mon! I'm in there with a homosexual massage therapist!). "John, the ladies aren't feeling well", he said. "They've asked us to call an ambulance".
Was he asking my permission? Had someone given me power of attorney over the situation? "I guess you should call the ambulance, then", I said.
"Should we continue?" asked Pat.
"Please", I groaned in pleasure.
My joy was short-lived, because two minutes later, ambulances were screaming outside the window. What sounded like a S.W.A.T. team of paramedics stormed into the apartment, tending to my wife and mother in the next room. A team of scientists working for forty years could not invent a less relaxing environment in which to get a massage.
"I think we better stop now", said Pat.
"Yes", I agreed.
He left the room so I could get dressed. Imagine the surprise of the paramedics, crouched in the hallway outside the door, to see a middle-aged homosexual emerging from the room. Imagine their further surprise when I stepped out a few moments later wearing only a towel, since all my clothes were in the other room.
Jade and my mom spent six hours in the emergency room hooked up to intravenous drips. Both were suffering from dehydration; Jade was given four full bags of fluid, and my mom five. (I should say a note here about my father, who not only spent the day following us around the course, cheering us on and taking pictures at various points, but also acted as head nurse of the post-marathon crew, taking care of the ladies in the hospital and finding me a place to sleep. Although he's only getting one measly parenthetical note, we couldn't have done it without him).
(Oh yes, he also saved my life once. That's worth an extra paragraph for sure. Thanks, Dad).
Anyway, as I looked at the two ladies in adjacent emergency room beds, matching IV needles in both their arms, I felt a twinge of pity. The two women I loved most had undertaken this heroic effort only to suffer so much pain in the end. I did the only thing I could do: I leaned next to their heads and opened up my true feelings.
"Please don't forget", I whispered to the two women, "that running this marathon was all your idea".
I suppose I should end this saga by telling you that the marathon changed my life. I should tell all you fat computer nerds to hop off your lazy asses and get some exercise for a change. I should share my feelings of success and motivation, and later write a series of books (co-authored by my personal trainer) which will help you be happy and successful like me, and then get to work on a line of exercise videos with an option for a daytime talk show.
The problem is, I don't feel any of those things. I suppose I'm proud of the fact that I did it, but it really wasn't a big deal. I'm glad I had the experience, but it was far from profound. It was great to be in the best physical shape of my life, but after the marathon I promptly retired from running, gaining several pounds over the holiday season. Now I'm having a hard time buttoning my pants.
People ask me if I'll ever run another marathon and my answer is to glare at them angrily until they slink away. Not only wouldn't I run another marathon, I'm convinced that no one else should, either. It's extremely hard on your body, it takes up a huge amount of time, and it's just not worth it.
Now, I'm not knocking physical fitness, which I think makes a vast improvement in your health and your outlook on life. In fact, regular exercise is one of my twelve secrets to success. (The other eleven will be sent to you in monthly installments. If you wish to keep them, pay just $99.95 per secret). There's no reason you can't get up right now and go take a walk, ride a bike, put on a pair of skates, take a swim, lift some weights.
The journey of 26.2 miles began with a single step. Your own journey starts the same way.
Run The Planet thanks Zug (www.zug.com) for the permission to reprint the complete saga "Running into the ground" by John Hargrave. The text has been partially edited. Text copyright © 1994-2002 Media Shower, Inc. All rights reserved.