Saturday October 6th, 2012 will be the 36th running of the St. George Marathon. You may have seen red-faced sweating runners out training for the St. George and other marathons across the country. Thirty years ago I was a participant in Southern Utah. After surviving I wrote the following article. My thoughts are probably as appropriate today as they were all those years ago.
Actually run the St. George Marathon? 26.2 miles. 385 yards. 39,525 steps, 138,336 feet. Senseless, Crazy, Sick. No one would torture his body like that, let alone his mind. You’d have to be brain-damaged, or on heavy drugs. I had long decided that I would never attempt a marathon. And eight weeks later, as I staggered across the finish line, fighting pain in every muscle, joint and bone, I wondered “Why the Hell did I do this”?
I had learned better about running while striving to become a member of the high school track team. I went out for the 440 and threw up at the 330 mark. Running, I well knew, was for health food nuts, deviates, masochism, and “legitimate” athletes.
But my two friends – chicken legs Mark with his fish-white non-tanned skin, and Stan, who had lost 50 pounds and his sense of humor while running, challenged me. I figured that if these two pansies could run a marathon, anyone could, even me. And if I didn’t enter, I knew I would be listening to their exaggerated tales of training hardships and mile-by-mile marathon nostalgia for the next several years. Besides I found myself wondering if I had what it takes to run a marathon at age 40.
The first Sunday in August was blazing hot – 100 degrees plus. I figured if I could run in the heat of the afternoon, there would be some hope for the marathon. I ran and staggered for 13 minutes – one mile. My heart was cracking 200 beats per minute. There was no air left in my lungs. I seriously considered calling the coroner and sparing my family the job. I lay on the floor for 20 minutes before I got up enough stamina to see if there was blood in my sweat.
I must have done some cerebral damage with that first run because the next morning I started eight weeks of training – half a mile the first day, working up to six miles by the third week. Each day got harder. People lied to me; promised me all kinds of euphoria if I’d only keep at it. It never happened. No ectomorphy, no runner’s high, no out-of-body experience. Nothing but pain, stiffness and boredom. Even then, there was always intense guilt if I missed my daily run. I didn’t even lose weight during the first month.
After three weeks, my insane friends talked me into doing a 10-kilometer race, complete with warm-up exercises, breathing practice, even a skating stance. The majority of these people were serious runners. One nasty ultra thin guy ran backwards as he passed me by (just a little intimidation). As I struggled mile after mile, the only people in sight were a 1st grader, an old guy, and two women who needed serious Weight Watchers assistance. Among all men who ran the entire race, I finished dead last. However, I beat the little girl and the two Weight Watchers; but they walked a lot. The old guy just kept pulling away.
I really wanted to quit – the hell with the marathon. Call off the insane battle. You don’t even get a T-shirt unless you hit the marathon finish line within 6 hours. There was no way I would be ready to finish a marathon inside a week. The only reason I didn’t retire from running was that I had opened my big mouth and told everyone within hearing that I was going to be a marathoner. The kind of friends I have could have been counted on to remind me I was a quitter, for the rest of this life and into the next. I kept running. During week five it got less painful – I didn’t feel suicidal after each training run. I made seven miles, then ten, and finally a fifteen miler up a canyon. The 26 miles began to seem almost possible.
The night before the ordeal you are supposed to “carbo load”. A mythical, mystical eating ritual – spaghetti, baked potatoes, bread, or any carbohydrate that will sustain you after mile twenty when you “hit the wall”, and your body refuses to move one foot further. Some other friends, who were too smart to run, regaled me with marathon horror stories – soiling ones self, bleeding feet, thighs, and nipples; vomiting blood and tissue; blood in the urine for months; permanent stress fractures in the legs; and riding the last ten miles in an ambulance while taking oxygen from a paramedic They emphasized that these were the sorts of things that happened in the course of a normal marathon to people who trained properly for a year or more. My stomach churned those carbohydrates like a garbage disposal.
Friday was a sleepless night – the night before the marathon. I arose at 4:00 am to apply Vaseline to my feet wondering why I hadn’t tried it in a practice run to see if it actually worked. And then I went next door to the room of two girls who were going to run. I thought I was in the main street gym. They have everything from eye of newt to tongue of bat, for toughening skin, lubricating working parts and for protection from the elements. While I had been busy learning that I would probably end up with bleeding feet, they were learning how to prevent it.
Everyone but me, on that 5 am bus looked like a greyhound. I couldn’t see a single runner that I felt like I could blow off the road once we got going.
It was 33 degrees at Pine Valley above St. George when we got off the bus. I thought my spit might freeze. Roaring bonfires between long lines of portable toilets provided the only heat. Several companions and I wore large garbage bags as capes trying to keep warm. We looked like part of some “Hefty Bag” cult. I could feel disdain coming from the “real” runners doing exotic stretching maneuvers. The fear of running that awesome distance does weird things to your innards. The lines at the portable johns lengthened as the start approached. People began frantic dives in the undergrowth, yelping as they hit barbed wire or a thorn covered brush.
You start the race according to your past accomplishments as a runner. Of 1750 runners, my number was 1740. Apparently they had heard of my lightning speed and durability. Where I started there were a few people who looked a little less like greyhounds, some with as much fear in their eyes as mine. When the gun went off, we were at the back of the pack. Standing still waiting for the real runners to get moving and make way for us – it was four minutes before I crossed the starting line. The first mile took twelve minutes. I thought, “great, I’ll be there by Thanksgiving unless I pick up the pace.” The first six miles were fun. The three of us laughed joked and made obnoxious and deprecating remarks to the many runners passing us.
Climbing a mile long hill at mile seven, I noticed some people who were walking up were going faster than those of us running, so we walked on up.
At the halfway point I still felt pretty good, though the thought crossed my mind that some real runners had already finished. When a companion needed a restroom break, I ran up the road three hundred yards and back while I was waiting. I got unbelievable looks as I ran against the grain. But after mile fifteen, pain began creeping in everywhere. All talk stopped. I walked a hundred yards at every 2 1/2 mile aid station and drank my Kool-Aid with aspirin for pain. I began to wonder if there was a way to pull a “Rosie Ruiz”. Was there any way to take a short cut, to hitch a ride or just outright cheat?”
Mile 20 began the start of a four-mile slight decline. I hadn’t hit the wall, but my body was deteriorating badly. I could feel squashing blisters, toenails coming loose and hip joints that felt like they had been lubricated with iron filings. Two friends ran back to help us finish the race. They were fresh and merry, and I hated seeing their energy. I thought, “I’ll never do this again. I’ll take my running shoes off and throw them out the window of the car on the way home.”
At mile 24, my left foot felt like someone was driving a truck over it each time it hit the ground after pounding it down 19,762 times – any wonder? Pounding your feet, ankles, legs and thighs into the asphalt as if you were trying to kill these body parts. Every step was intense pain. My teeth ground involuntarily. Then finally the finish line – people cheering and clapping, exultation and total exhaustion as I collapsed on the lawn.
I could barely walk, I couldn’t climb stairs for a week unless I did so backwards. My left foot wouldn’t perform for a month. But I had done it. I had run a marathon. Four hours, thirty minutes, fifty-nine seconds. I had gone from hating to walk a block, to running a marathon after eight weeks of training. There is life after 40 after all.
People have asked me about my life long running career after the marathon. I did do some 5 and 10k’s with my family for a few years – every member of whom also hated running – but I had suffered, why shouldn’t they. But run another marathon, surely you jest.