April 27, 2008 - 6:00am
Jennifer and I arrive at downtown Oklahoma City and make our way to a free parking garage where I finish my oatmeal and sports drink. As I’m standing outside the van rubbing Vaseline onto my nipples, a girl drives up and asks if the parking is free. I tell her it is and she pulls in several spaces down, not so much as flinching at my prerace ritual. To anyone else, I guess the humor might be in the fact that I am rubbing Vaseline on my nipples while having a brief conversation with a stranger. But to a runner, the humor lies in the universal acceptance and understanding of rubbing Vaseline on my nipples. You see, it is almost certain that the stranger with whom I was conversing has experienced the after effects of an 18 mile run when rubbing Vaseline on her critical chaffing areas was forgotten.
It’s 41 degrees, windy, and a light rain is falling - miserable conditions to a spectator, but ideal to a runner. We begin our long walk to the starting line and both agree that we should have brought trash bags to wear just as most everyone else had done to stay a little drier. We find a spot in the ever increasing crowd near the starting line where I begin to try and stretch. At 6:15am, a moment of silence was observed, lasting 168 seconds to pay respect to the 168 victims of the Oklahoma City bombing 13 years ago. Soon after that was the national anthem, followed by the start of the wheelchair marathon. Jennifer wished me farewell and went to the sideline while I shoved my way toward the start, trying to inch my way through the sardines.
At 6:30am, the gun went off and the race was on. It was finally time to see how much all of my hard work would pay off. I had worked up to running about 45-47 miles per week, and my training was peaking at just the right time. My times had been consistently improving, and it had become much easier to run 16-20 miles at a time. It only took about 50 seconds to make my way to the official starting line. As I crossed the mat and heard the beep from my timing chip go off, I pushed start on my GPS watch and began my second marathon. Special attention had to be paid during the first mile as it was still raining slightly and people were shedding clothes, gloves and trash bags as their bodies started to warm up. The runners were still packed together pretty tightly, so with the slippery conditions and flying obstacles, the risk of tripping and falling was especially high at this point.
My strategy was to go out the first 6-7 miles at about a 9:00 per mile pace and then assess my body and decide whether to kick it up a gear, stay put, or ease off a little. During the week leading up to today, I had gone from hoping to finish in 4hours 10minutes down to 4hours 5 minutes, and finally thinking I had a long shot chance at a 4 hour marathon if everything went perfect. With regard to my 4:44 time just 4 ½ months prior, I knew my goals were ambitious, but I was feeling very strong. Trimming off 44 minutes would be huge, but it had become my goal.
I spent the first 2-3 miles trying to settle in to a good rhythm. At around 2.5 miles, the 4 hour pace group caught up to me, marked by an experienced runner with helium balloons attached to her that read “4:00”. I decided to run with them for awhile and see how it went. Somewhere in there, to my right I hear a “Hey Kirk!” It was my friend Daniel from Wichita Falls who I knew would be there. He’s faster than I, so we didn’t plan on running together. Knowing this, I wish him well as he passes by and tell him I’ll see him at the finish line. In a gentlemanly gesture, he replies “I bet you’ll pass me.” I shrug it off and feel comfortable with my 4:00 comrades. About 3-4 miles down the road, I’m still keeping up with the 4:00 pace group, feeding off their company and the coaching of their leader, when lo and behold, I hear a “Hey Kirk” to my right again. I look over and as Daniel passes me he says “Told ya you’d pass me.” Confused, I say “You must have stopped at the bathroom.” This was followed by a “Yep.” I proceeded to leave my 4:00 group and pace with Daniel for a bit. We chit chat for a few minutes about our goals and strategies, and after about a half mile of running at a 7:30/mile pace, I tell Daniel to go on ahead and have a good race as I drop back to an 8:30 pace. I have become so spoiled with my GPS watch because it constantly tells you what your current pace is, and that is key to having a good run. You have to know what your pace is. It was too nerve-racking trying to stay with the 4:00 pace group, so I was much happier being a few minutes ahead of them. I hated the pressure of knowing that if they passed me I would be playing catch up the whole time, or kissing my goal goodbye.
I studied the elevation map ahead of time and knew that there were 2 3-mile stretches of almost constant uphill. The first began at the 8 mile mark, so as it approached, I hunkered down and tried to get ready for it. The second one would come between miles 21-24, which I thought was very cruel. I had been pushing my pace pretty good the first 8 miles, so I was already starting to feel worked over a little bit. I sucked down an energy gel and felt the burn in my legs pick up as the hill came. My pace slowed a little over the next 3 miles, and when I finally topped the hill at mile 11, I felt pretty worn out. I was actually concerned at that point that maybe I had pushed it too hard and would end up gassing out in the 2nd half of the race. I decided not to worry too much and just kept running. The relief after the hill was surprisingly enough that I recovered pretty quickly and felt good again.
I have a Texas Longhorns visor that I wear when I run, and I didn’t even think about wearing that in OU country until the first Texas-hater told me I was brave for wearing that hat. HA! It was in fun, but that’s when I realized I may end up getting more attention than I care to have. Surprisingly though, I ended up getting way more comments from Texas fans than OU fans.
I was coming up on the half marathon mark, which I also knew was about the point in the race that would take us through about 3 ½ miles of trails. I was looking forward to that. Last week on a training run in Georgetown, I shattered my previous half-marathon time by over 5 minutes for a new PR, and I knew in this race I was on pace for another potential PR. I ended up missing my PR by 34 seconds. I did a quick assessment at the halfway mark and felt pretty good so far. My legs were definitely feeling like I was pushing them, but I had a lot of juice left in them. My cardio was fine, my overall body felt ok, and mentally I was doing great. I knew I was having a good run, and a 4:00 marathon was still a possibility, so that kept my spirits high. I was somewhat haunted by the fact that I knew I was only a couple of minutes ahead of the 4:00 pace group. I would not allow myself to turn around and see how far back they were as I knew that could be devastating mentally. Once we hit the trails, we were greeted by a nice view of Lake Hefner and a very nasty headwind that slowed everyone down. A half mile down the trail, the course turned a 180 and that headwind became a very nice tailwind that ended up pushing us most of the way back to the finish. It was beautiful.
At the 15 mile mark, I did the math and realized that “mathematically” I was on pace for a 3:50 marathon. In fact, I knew that as long as I averaged 10 minute miles or faster from this point forward, I would finish in 4:00 or less. I was so pumped, and I concentrated probably a little too much on my pace over the next few miles as the excitement carried me on. I knew my pace would slow down late in the race, but I thought I had enough of a buffer that I would be ok. We exited the trail and started the journey back through town after about 17 miles. I was still pushing it pretty good at this point and was surprised to still be kicking out some 8:30-45 miles. As I got closer to 18, I tried to mentally prepare myself for the 21-24 uphill stretch, which would time itself perfectly with the wall. Maybe that’s a bad choice of words – there’s nothing perfect about the wall. Anyway, I decide to start eating a little at each aid station, so I would grab a few pretzels and slices of banana from here on out. Hopefully this would lessen the blow of the wall, which I knew was unavoidable. I long for the day when my body becomes more accustomed to switching its fuel source from glycogen to fat, though I don’t think anyone ever completely avoids the pain of the wall.
I was on autopilot as I cruised through the 20 mile marker, feeling tired but still pushing it pretty strong. I glanced up and noticed my wife cheering me on, which was a nice surprise and a good mental boost. Of course, she didn’t offer me a ride back to the finish line – HA! That change of pace pulled me out of my spell and I started getting ready for the last 6 miles that I knew would get progressively harder. They say the first half of a marathon is the first 20 miles and the second half is the last 6.2 miles. There’s a lot of truth in that. Your body can carry you pretty easily through the first 20 miles, but it’s the last 6.2 that really tests your fortitude. How well will you be able to battle the pain and keep pushing on? I was about to find out.
I started taking energy gels at mile 8, and my plan was to take one every 3 miles. The course description said they would have energy gels at the aid stations, beginning with mile 16. I had my last one at mile 17 and was ready for another at 20, but what they failed to mention is that there would only be TWO aid stations with energy gels, and I hadn’t made it to the second one yet. I did not bring anymore with me. Hopefully that wouldn’t affect me too much, but I knew my body was used to that little shot of energy every 25-28 minutes. At mile 21, I had already started to slow down, but I didn’t feel like the wall had really hit yet. I had wanted to stop and walk since about mile 18, but I hadn’t felt the overwhelming desire yet. I ate some more banana, which helped wake me up a little, but it didn’t last long. I was drinking powerade at every aid station, which is a challenge while you’re running, but if you fold the paper cup in half and hold it to the side, you can usually get a decent drink without choking or sloshing the water up your nose. The powerade was starting to be too sweet, so I switched to water.
As I crossed through the mile 22 marker, I remembered that this was only the second time to be running beyond 22 miles, so it was still relatively unfamiliar territory. Looking at my watch I knew I had been slowing quite a bit and was getting nervous that a 4:00 time might be a little out of reach now. I expected the 4:00 pace group to catch up any moment, which made me want to pick it up a little, but I was giving it all I had. I still would not allow myself to turn around and look for them, but I finally reconciled that if they did pass me, I had to be ok with it because I’d had one heck of a run so far and I was giving it 100%.
I think around 23 is when I really slammed into the wall. Mentally, it became a major struggle to keep running. My body wanted to walk, but my mind wanted to run. I had to play little mind games and not think about how I still had 3 miles to go. I would pick a street sign 50 feet ahead and just tell myself all I had to do was run to that street sign. When I did, I would celebrate for half a second and then tell myself I only had to run to that tree 50 feet ahead. This cycle continued for the next few miles. At one point, the body almost won. For a split second, my mind realized that my body was stopping to walk, so my mind had to force the body to keep moving. It was a strange sensation, like I wasn’t in control of my own body. I knew it was going to be very difficult to make 4:00, but I just couldn’t find the energy to speed up. I was sucked dry of everything. All I had left was willpower, but luckily my tank was full in that department. I remembered from my first marathon that this was the point where you have to dig down deeper than you have ever had to in your entire life to win the battle against the marathon beast. However, I had an advantage this time…I knew I could.
Coming up on mile 24, I could hear the familiar voice of the 4:00 pace group coach coming, barking out her encouragement and words of advice. I instinctively picked up my pace, which was very painful, and I tried to keep pushing to stay ahead. I knew they were on my heels but I would still not turn around and look. Up ahead, I saw an aid station, which could help me out if they walked through it. I didn’t know if they would or not since time was quickly running out for a 4:00 finish. I snatched a cup of water as I ran through the aid station and moved back out to keep running. It sounded like I may have lost them for now, but I wasn’t sure. I just kept on moving one foot in front of the other with painful tenacity. About a half mile later, I heard them coming again and when I tried to pick up my pace, nothing happened. I was at top speed and couldn’t do anything about it. So, with 1.7 miles left in the race, I moved over and conceded my position to them as they slowly passed me by. The competitive side of me felt defeated, but I didn’t beat myself up. I knew I had run to the best of my ability and I gave everything I had. However, I couldn’t help think that their last minute strength could have come from conserving early on, and had I stayed back and ran 9:00 miles instead of 8:00 – 8:45 through the early to mid miles, maybe I’d be right there with them cruising to a 4 hour marathon. Or maybe not…
Normally 1.7 miles is about how long it takes to get a good rhythm, and it goes by quickly without even really noticing it. But when it’s the last leg of your second marathon, after pushing hard through 24.5 miles, time seems to stand still. I knew I was getting close to downtown and could feel the end coming near, but it just wouldn’t get here. I remember in my first marathon getting mad at this point, feeling like the finish line was afraid to show its ugly face to me. I didn’t feel that way this time. There was actually a part of me that felt like the finish line was encouraging me to finish strong and cheering for me to beat the 4:00 mark. I trudged along as hard as I could without causing myself to fall down or throw up or die, and I was still under 4:00 when I could finally see the finish line down the road. I knew it would take a miracle to make it happen, so I just hunkered down to see how close to 4:00 I could get. About 30 yards in front of the finish line my left foot cramped up. I felt a little twinge in my Achilles tendon and my big toe curled up under my foot and just locked in to place. I let out a groan and kinda limped along trying to release my toe, but it wasn’t happening. However, I didn’t make it this far to have a weak finish, so I picked it up and tried to run as fast as I could until I crossed the timing mats at the finish line. Luckily, when I stopped, the searing pain went away as my toe released and the cramp went away. Finish time: 4:01:10. I’m very happy with that. In 4 ½ months, I shaved 43 minutes off my marathon time. Who can complain about that!
I walked down the chute and someone put a foil blanket around me and someone else congratulated me and put a finisher’s medal around my neck. I thanked him and found my way to the refreshment tent where I began to guzzle a powerade down when I suddenly felt very faint. I expected this to happen since it happened at the last marathon. I walked over to the side and sat down. I knew I just needed to get some sugar in my blood. Two medics came by and tried to put me in a wheelchair and take me to the medic tent, but I convinced them I was ok, I just had low blood sugar, just like everyone else that just finished. I kept drinking, and after 2-3 minutes I started to feel better. So, I thanked them and they moved on to other finishers who needed help. I found Jennifer and then went and got my finisher’s shirt and a cheeseburger. I didn’t see my friend Daniel, so I called him and learned that he had an incredible run, finishing in 3:34:26. Not only was this a new PR, it was only 3 minutes and 27 seconds away from qualifying for Boston! That is heartbreaking, but he will do it in the fall at his next marathon. I, on the other hand, because of my age, have to finish a marathon in 3:10:00 to qualify for Boston. To put that in perspective, I finished this marathon at a 9:12/mile pace. To qualify for Boston, I would have to shave off an entire 2 minutes from every single mile to qualify. It requires a 7:15 pace. Unbelievable. Maybe one day I’ll be old enough to qualify for Boston since they increase the time as you get older. HA! I went to the massage tent, got a leg and shoulder massage, and we left.
Overall, it was a great experience, and I learned that I can push my body harder than I think for longer than I think. I will continue my training now and start working on my first ultra marathon in October. A 50 mile trail run in Palo Duro Canyon. Bring it!
"If you want to win something, run 100 meters. If you want to experience something, run a marathon." - Emil Zatopek