The first five and a half miles are comfortable. My legs warm up and my breathing evens. Checking my pace and upper body relaxation. I recite affirmations: ten times minimum. I unencumber distracting thoughts and ideas and focus on the run. It all feels quite pleasant. Presently, fatigue begins. A report from below, usually from my legs. I continue.
1973: At thirteen, I stood five feet tall and weighed 112 pounds. I was required to run an 880 – roughly half a mile - during a seventh grade gym class. It was horrible; I was fully intimidated by circling the track so many times. I finished, feeling shamefully slow. This experience reinforced a distaste for sports. I lacked natural coordination, so I’d avoided playing games since kindergarten. I now added a dread of future track and field classes.
1975: At fifteen, I was six foot two and weighted 125. I had stretched, beginning acquisition of my lean adult form. I played the trumpet. To improve my wind, I began to run. My father started too. We both took advantage of the mid 1970s jogging boom. Nike and other firms had launched; it became easy to get good running shoes. I still miss my first pair of Adidas blue runners, though I shutter to remember how little support they had. I worked out a series of three to four mile loops through my neighborhood. Running was pleasurable, other than the very frosty winter mornings. I ran early, enjoying the solitude and time to observe the streets before they woke up.
1978: High school ended: college began. I discovered that the intensity of academics eased with regular physical action. So I continued to run: the gym in the cold of Ohio winter, outdoors when the air warmed up. I continued to run in solitutde. I had a girlfriend who was on the track team. She told me about their long training runs. The town was surrounded by a gridwork of roads which separated farmland into a square mile gridwork. A number of four plus mile runs were thus possible. So on a spring day I decided to try a loop. I set out from the gym. I was now six foot five, 157 pounds. Four miles seemed impossibly far. Turning the first corner, I left town. Hey, this was interesting. I had never seen the countryside. I ran north; a stiff headwind from Lake Erie greeted me. I turned east; the headwind continued. I continued to enjoy the landscape. Back into town, almost done. The gym: done, I felt exuberant.
1983: After graduation, I worked in Washington DC. I began to run longer distances; the challenges of my job were released by 30 plus laps around my high school track. This was also validation. As I ran on a frigid moonless night, I thought, damn it, when I was in school I was afraid about sports, but now I am doing just fine.
1985: Graduate school in California and subsequent life in the San Francisco Bay area forced changes in routine. I travelled for research. Running became episodic; six months, two years, one year. Much of this was triggered by my serious study of Aikido. Developing a martial arts body contradicted serious running.
2007: I had begun consistent strength training at a gym as recovery from a knife accident (in the kitchen, not the dojo). Pushing iron was accompanied by cardio: I learned the variety of elliptical machines, stationary bikes, and treadmills on offer. I ran infrequently; the ellipticals were more of a workout. I now maintained a stable weight of 176 pounds, and added a new metric: 10.1% body fat.
2010: After 30 years of Aikido, I began to study qi gong and tai chi chuan. As this training began to teach me concepts that Aikido would not, I declared a dojo sabbatical. A friend at the gym said that it would be fun to run in the annual Bay to Breakers race in San Francisco. This event crosses the city; 2011 would be the 100th anniversary. I signed up.
Without Aikido, time and energy were available. I thought, I’ve always wanted to run a marathon. I’d heard of the marathon in 4th grade, when I read about Pheidippides’s run in Greece after the Battle of Marathon. I had not realized that it was a modern road race until seeing Frank Shorter win the Olympic Marathon in 1972. Was now the time? I was fifty. I researched races. Well, the San Francisco Marathon was in July. It was October. This seemed sufficiently far away in time and convenient in space. I signed up.
When I registered for the San Francisco Marathon, my inventory of races was a dozen or events of 10k or longer distance. My experiences on these were mixed; I was sometimes undertrained, sometimes intimidated by running in a race, sometimes bad cramping. So I didn’t want to race on the marathon; I wanted to run and see if I could finish.
I consulted with a friend in the sport psychology department at work. I’d helped them get a lot of grant funding, so she was glad to help. She recommended a book that covered the mental aspects of training and competition. Although designed for triathletes, it addressed the issues I’d face as an endurance runner. Part-time scholar that I am, I read it completely. I quickly realized that mentally, I was in pretty good shape. Sure, I could skip working on mental issues related to competition, but in terms of other potential barriers, I was good. I like myself and have built confidence in my mental toughness and physical ability. We also discussed using imagery and “positive self-talk” while running. This seemed interesting. I immediately thought of my sister, a cancer survivor. I could easily imagine running the marathon for her; the pink ribbon would be a symbol.
I read more about running a first marathon. It became clear that competition was optional. Almost everything I read encouraged first-timers to run to finish, not achieve a certain time. This validated. I could just run my run, and not worry about competition.
By mile fifteen, my feet and legs are at maximum soreness. An undifferentiated broad distress throughout my muscles, tendons, and fascia. I’ve drunk enough water and electrolyte and swallowed enough gel that my system has energy, but all of me below the waist hurts.
More research yielded a training schedule. There were plenty to choose from. I eliminated options that required extensive record keeping and/or seemed to be aimed at competitive runners. I liked the basic method that the schedules shared; a gradual increase in mileage, especially the LSR, the weekly Long Slow Run. At peak, the longest would be 20 miles. This seemed far.
My Sundays thus became dedicated to progressively longer LSRs. I live near the junction of several trail networks, so I was able to plan and achieve my distances without crossing streets or dodging traffic. I enjoyed the early morning starts that the LSRs required, before the heat of the day. The trails were empty, save for other runners and packs of cyclists. The population gradually swelled with time, as more people went for morning walks/runs/rides/skates/motion on other contraptions.
I’d set an LSR pace goal of 10 minutes per mile. This is slower than I naturally run, so I timed myself against the mile markers on the trail. This was hard when my mind got fuzzy, due to heat or exhaustion. I then discovered a smartphone GPS app that tracked average pace, split times, calories burned, and other ephemera. Much easier than using a watch, once I got the volume set low enough to not startle myself or other trail users.
The LSRs were hard. Each one pushed me further mentally and physically. I always finished; this persistence built confidence. It was great to get back to my house, shed my wet clothes, swallow my recovery drink, down a couple energy bars, and stretch thoroughly. I learned to be careful in my routine; if I got on the floor to stretch before I’d recovered enough, I was too tired to get back up. I had to crawl to the bathroom more than once. Actually, the hardest part was the day after the LSR, when I woke both decrepit and tired. No amount of stretching and nutrition seemed to thwart this. Then I read about ice baths: a 10-15 minute soak right after an LSR. I tried it: agony. Then, the next morning – huh, I was tired, but moved with ease. I was instantly converted.
I tired over the weeks of training. It was harder to accomplish tasks at home and the office. I was fatigued and unmotivated at the gym. These sensations were familiar from intense Aikido training periods. I knew a solution was to eat more, but eat what? I’d gotten a book on endurance sports nutrition. I read it in a week, learning the basics of physiology and metabolism for marathoning and other long duration sports. Complex carbohydrates and protein were good. Fat was ok: I’d burn it on the LSRs and the marathon itself. This examination was also a basic check-in on my diet, which I knew was pretty healthy and balanced. My research was confirmation: I just had to eat more! Based on calculations from the book, I needed 4.000 calories a day, in a specific ratio of protein to carbohydrates to fat. Trying to eat this much was more intimidating than ice bathing. However, once I upped my diet, basically eating four meals a day, my energy returned. It was a delicate balance; whenever my intake dropped or went off balance, my performance decreased. It was fun to be able to eat pretty much anything, knowing that I would burn it one way or another.
One Sunday morning in April, I did an eight mile LSR, an out and back along the Contra Costa Canal. This was not my longest run to date, but was pretty close. When I got home, my feet felt strange: not painful, not sore, just sensitive, centered on the ball and big toe of both feet. It was more intense on my left foot. Something had happened. I hadn’t gone particularly fast; maybe I’d let myself relax and speed up from my intended LSR pace. I’d also been experimenting with a less pronounced heel strike, trying a more rolling contact with the ground. These new foot feelings persisted. The sensations moved around, and began to resemble the faint burning feeling I associate with nerve pain. I researched runner’s foot pain on the internet; nothing seemed to fit my symptoms.
I worried. Were my feet damaged? The sensation and tenderness were not the pain I associate with injury. I took a week off and cross-trained; the sensations decreased. My next long Sunday run brought them back. What to do? I had to run.
I visited family In Maryland, and ran a half marathon in Philadelphia. My feet were not a problem; the sensations faded as the race progressed. This seemed to be evidence that I was not incurring serious damage. My anxiety lingered.
I went to my favorite running store and had my stride analyzed. This suggested a solution. I tried on several pairs of shoes, eventually choosing a pair of Sauconys. I’ve been wearing the same type of Asics since 2000; the latest incarnation, which I’d just switched into my shoe rotation, lacked sufficient forefoot support. The Sauconys relieved my foot sensations. More internet investigation turned up a diagnosis: metatarsalgia, i.e., lack of forefoot support causing nerve sensitivity. Ball of foot inserts were a suggested fix. I ordered a pair. It felt funny to run with a blob under the ball of my foot, but it seemed to help.
The sensations came and went throughout the weeks. Icing my feet after every workout helped too.
I had not run a timed race in several years. As training for the marathon, I participated in three events: the Western Pacific 10k in Fremont, the ~12k Bay to Breakers in San Francisco, and the Oddyssey Half Marathon in Philadelphia (13.1 miles, 21k). Besides getting me medals and t-shirts, I learned a number of things from these races. First, I get distracted easily by looking at scenery and activity that’s not on the course. I actually got lost on the Western Pacific and ran a couple extra kilometers on the marathon course. Oh well. Second, running with others did not bother me as much as in the past. By focusing on my pace, form, and inner race, I was fine. Third, none of these events were hard; my training was working.
At mile nineteen, I’m getting stupid. I plod. Not gonna stop. Can’t think straight, can’t do the math to figure my splits. I bull onward, not much more to get done and home.
Gel, Water, Electrolyte, Beer
July 31st, 4:18 am, I was in my car en route to The San Francisco Marathon. I had been flummoxed to discover that there was no viable mass transit. Well, driving was an opportunity to focus. Parked, peed, my sore left adductor coated in warming cream, and in the Wave 7 Corral, I began to run around 6:24, in the pre-dawn light. Along the Embarcadero, up and down through Ft. Mason and another flat stretch along the Marina. My first experience was frustration – the corral was packed, and my pace was slowed by the crowd. Most of the others were doing the First Half Marathon: only around 5,800 of the 24,000 participants were doing the full. Note to other runners one: don’t stop to fuss with electronics in the middle of the course. Well, this is the way of races. Note to self: start further towards the front of the corral next time.
Mile 3. Mile 4. The SF Marathon attracted a very diverse group. Based on gear, I saw participants from Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Brazil, England, Ireland, France, Italy, Iran, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Also plenty of domestic jerseys from races all over the States. In my part of the crowd, people of all shapes, ages, and sizes.
I felt pretty good at Mile 5, ascending the grade to the Golden Gate. At daybreak, the weather was about ideal; overcast, upper 50s. I’d picked the right layers. Across the bridge, more crowded lanes, more pulses of slow runners. Note to other runners two: if you are going to walk and talk, don’t do it in the middle of the course. I started passing clots of slower runners, jinking along the edge of the course.
Running the bridge was FUN. Looking towards Marin, then making the loop and running back towards the city was when it hit me – I’m actually doing the SF Marathon.
The usual body feelings arrived and joined my sore adductor: feet, legs, and a sudden ache in my left knee. A bit late at Mile 8 or so, but in time for the long climb up through the Presidio and the downhill along Baker’s Beach. Note to other runners three: thank you for getting off the course to take pictures of Land’s End. Focus and continue, the only impact of tiredness being spilling sticky electrolyte drink on myself at the next water stop. Inevitable.
Left and more up and down through the Sunset District. Waving to spectators, high-fiving a course monitor or two (members of Harley-Davidson clubs, all in their leathers). Persisting telling my legs and feet that they were strong, healthy, and relaxed. Mile 11, Mile 12, Mile 13. Into Golden Gate Park. A sharp right turn; the First Half Marathon crowd turned left. Ah, a suddenly tranquil uncrowded course, as I wound a long downhill and its uphill payback. Time to really check in with my body and mind: pace, pain, presence of mind.
I’d actually been talking about this with my qi gong teacher earlier in the week. I’ve experienced dropping my qi – running from a centered place – pretty regularly. I can engender it with proper attention. He reminded me of the other part of the equation: raising awareness, being present in the surrounding environment. Now, when I dropped into this mode, it was a nice moment of smelling the eucalypts, watching the motion of other runners around me, and feeling the sensations in my body; aches but also aerobic comfort, and general ease in motion. More evidence that training worked.
We joined the Second Half Marathon crowd for a lap around Stow Lake; back to a dense course population. Near the polo fields an unofficial beer stop had been set up; I downed a couple ounces for the heck of it; gotta be some reasonable combination of carbos, electrolytes, and pain killer. Up JFK Drive and left onto Haight. Here was another moment of wow I’m doing this, as I ran the rises and falls of Haight-Asbury. Mile 17, Mile 18. Beginning to feel the deep tiredness throughout my body. I’d eaten well in the taper period before the race, and certainly downed enough gel so far; some of it was on my face and shirt. I’d been sweating consistently, but drinking too. This was the accumulated fatigue of repeated motion for almost four hours. No need to stop. Mile 19. Body now getting numb; aches and sorenesses dulled away.
Down Guerrero, the last major decline. Using my downhill stride to recapture some time and energy. Mile 20, Mile 21. Almost to the flats by the Bay, a left hand dog leg and a wildly cheering mob of – cheerleaders? I dunno, but they were all young, female, fit, and enthusiastically loud. This cheer station really helped me. It came at the only point when I thought - do I have to keep running? The crowd on the course had thinned out: a lot of people walking now, especially on the hills. With a push from this group, I resisted my loss of focus and kept running. Around the east rim of the baseball stadium, past a series of DJs: loud pumping music amused me and told me to keep moving. The Bay Bridge loomed closer. I knew I had to go under it to the finish, but my focus now was just on moving, staying with my pace. Mile 25. I inventoried: I had enough juice left to kick it up. I ran the last 1.2 miles in under eight minutes.
Through the finish line and into a chute to get my finisher’s medal. Pushing the buttons on my watch and GPS. My time was just over 4 hours, 28 minutes. I was tired, close to incoherent, but happy.