The mavens of our sport tell us that to be optimally trained is to walk a fine line between high performance and disaster.
In preparing for my first marathon in St. George, UT, on October 4, 1997, I did everything perfectly until I reached my peak. I set and accomplished goals, put variety in my training routine, watched what I ate, lost weight, ran great long runs, rested well, cross trained, and avoided injury.
My last long run was 24 miles, and I felt wonderful afterward. Two days later I ran my best indoor 10K time ever. By taper time I was one ready dude.
Then I fouled up the taper. My problem was not eating right; I consumed too much fat and junk food, and too much quantity. I mistook tapering for taking it easy, and got sloppy. In the last three weeks I gained back about five or six pounds. Worse, I lost my edge, and left myself vulnerable and ripe for invasion by microscopic organisms. The week before the race I felt puffy and unfit. By Wednesday morning I'd acquired a head cold. It wasn't just a case of nerves and stress. It was germs taking advantage of my weakness.
St. George is within reasonable driving distance of Phoenix, so we planned to make a little vacation out of the trip. On Wednesday afternoon we drove up, passing through Las Vegas for dinner. What a hoot. I'd never seen it. It's mind-boggling how willingly people throw their money away.
The cold wasn't bad enough to prevent me from having a great time the three days before the race. On Thursday it moved into my chest. On Friday, when I climbed to the top of the stairs at the bed and breakfast we stayed at, my heart was pounding, and I was out of breath. After building my confidence to a peak, I stumbled upon an unexpected variable, something that might actually take me out of the race.
On Thursday afternoon we did something I'd been warned not to do lest it scare me off: we drove the course. I'm glad I did. The scenery is magnificent. Driving out and back, and also checking out Snow Canyon on the way back, is an experience I would not want to have missed. After all, we were on vacation, and seeing the sights is about all there is for vacationers to do in southern Utah.
The first c. 24 miles of the course are on highway 18, which runs essentially due south. The last approximately 2.2 miles is in town, most of it still on route 18, until the last 0.9 miles, which goes straight east on a broad residential street.
On Thursday night I slept nine hours, knowing that Friday night I'd likely not sleep much at all. It was the right thing to do. On Friday we drove around beautiful Zion State Park, passing up all opportunities for physical activity. We got back to town in time for the race expo, which included a clinic for first timers, complete with slides of the course, conducted by a local runner who had run it twelve times before.
The pastafest was held on the floor of an indoor stadium big enough for a Rolling Stones concert. They even had entertainment. When we got there I was not very hungry. I dutifully consumed a plate of meatless spaghetti, a couple of other side dishes and a cookie, and headed back to the B&B to prepare for whatever was to come.
I pulled the covers up over my nose at 8:00 PM and waited for sleep. In all I got about four hours, but the rest of the time I at least rested comfortably.
During the night a miracle took place. Somehow the malady that had been plaguing me disappeared completely. I arose enthusiastically at 3:45 AM with a clear head and no cough, ready to go.
The B&B is only five blocks away from where the buses were waiting to pick up the runners to take us to the start. I considered walking it, but instead bummed a ride with another couple staying at the B&B who were both running, and so was able to leave our car for my wife and daughter to drive over to the Mayor's Walk, scheduled to start at 7:00 AM.
When I arrived at the buses I got my first opportunity to see how superlatively well organized this race is. The marathon is sponsored by the town. The residents turn out in droves, not just to watch, but also to volunteer. They even go into the schools to recruit teams of volunteers, offering incentives for those who produce the most. Since this was the twenty-first running of this race, they have the routine down pretty well. The sight at 4:30 AM of seventy school buses neatly lined up in rows, warmed up, fully manned, ready to load and carry 4000 runners away inside the space of an hour, all without a hitch, was an experience in itself.
The start area was beautifully laid out. Gatorade, water, and Vaseline were available in abundance. The music on the PA was loud and up tempo. People on the clothing truck were busy collecting and presorting bundles. The clothing bags they gave us were a part of the package of stuff we got when we picked up our numbers. Each one had a preprinted label stuck to it with our name and number on it, so there was no need to fuss on the chilly ground with magic markers. At the finish all the clothing bags were carefully lined up by number behind a fence, and runners retrieved their bags from attendants by showing their numbers.
There were clear signs on the road directing people where to stand for the start, based on bib numbers, which were issued according to anticipated finishing time. The signs ran only up to about 1800 or so. People like me, with numbers only astronomers understand, waited in the also-ran section.
On the east side of the road was a forest of porta-potties, and on the west side a row of neatly prebuilt campfires, which all suddenly flared into existence just as we got there. I was on one of the earlier buses.
The temperature at arrival time was 52 degrees. The sky was utterly cloudless, and remained so until we left the state Sunday afternoon. The temperature by noon, at the award ceremonies, was about eighty degrees, by my estimate. Yes, this temperature range was a bit too high for runners to make their best times. As an Arizonan I was very comfortable the whole time.
A message on the PA told runners to go to the staging area about eight minutes before start time. Was I nervous? No, not really, believe it or not! Just very ready, and ecstatic that I was feeling as good as I did.
At 6:40 AM the wheelchair division started. I never did hear how many marathoners in wheelchairs there were. And at 6:45, exactly on time, the starting horn blasted and a great cheer went up. This was it! Three years of work, and five months of directed training were about to be put to the test.
Well, that was almost it. It was close to thirty seconds before I could move a step. Eventually we moved out. At the end the difference between my official time and the watch on my wrist was 2:31.
One problem I've had at some races is telling exactly where the starting line is, so I know when to start my timer. At some races there is a big banner you pass under, which is ideal. At others there is just a broad stripe across the road, which is easy to miss if conditions are crowded. At others I've been forced to just make my best guess.
At St. George they had a man in a basket up on a crane with the PA microphone saying to groups of runners as they crossed beneath him, ``You're at the starting line line now!'' I really appreciated that. Also, as I learned at the expo, this year selected runners were carrying those microchips you tie into your laces. They were testing them for possible use in next year's race. So at the start there was an electronic reader strip laid across the road.
Despite my earlier bout with the grunge, I can truthfully say that at least my legs never felt better as I headed across the starting line. The first two miles were so crowded that there was no point in trying to do anything more than act like a lemming. At mile three I was barely warmed up, but having a great time.
During training I managed to do all my long runs up to and including my first twenty-miler entirely without stopping for anything whatsoever, including water. Don't ask why. Maybe I just had to prove to myself that I could do it. Having accomplished that in mid-July, I resolved that from then on I would do runs longer than twelve miles as I would at a race, that is, stopping for water. In training I would stop and drink every 3.5 miles, and walk about sixty seconds.
The aid stations at St. George start at mile three, and are on odd-numbered miles; they also have one at mile twenty-four. Every single one was staffed by an army of volunteers in full motion. I hadn't drunk enough that morning, so before the start I slurped down six cups of Gatorade. It never had time to hit my bladder. Then, at every aid station I drank two more cups, and sometimes a cup of water as well. Toward the end, when it started to get warm, I poured some cups of water on my head. By the end I could barely tell the difference between the taste of Gatorade and bile.
At some races you have to look in the cup before drinking it to know for sure what you're getting. I've known people who've thrown a cup of sugary sports drink over their heads, much to their misery. At St. George, Gatorade was the ``official'' replacement drink, which means that all Gatorade was served in Gatorade-logo cups, and water was in plain cups. They had them on well-separated tables, which also helped.
Just after mile three I acquired a temporary running companion, a woman who lives in St. George. This was also her first marathon. Last year she volunteered and was so overwhelmed by how well this race was executed, and by how much fun everyone was having, that the next week she went out and took up running, and this year was a participant. We ran together, chatting, for about two miles, until she had to stop to see someone about a bush, and headed off the side of the road. About a half hour later she passed me and I never saw her again. I assume she probably beat me by at least fifteen minutes.
St. George is notable for being primarily a downhill course, with a nearly 2600-foot overall descent, the best of it where you really want to see it, after about seventeen miles. What they don't advertise is what you encounter at Veyo. This happens at mile seven. As you look up you see a huge hill, rising sharply, and arching to the left (east), then disappearing out of site. Gulp. This hill continues until mile nine without the slightest letup. At least I knew it was coming, having seen the course two days before, and attended the first-timers clinic.
One of my goals in this race was to run the entire race, with the only walking being just enough to gulp down enough fluids to carry me to the next stop. There were a lot of people at my end of the race who were walking up the hill. Not me! I was determined that no matter what I'd keep on chugging like the little train that could. I both could and did.
What I wasn't quite as aware of as the hill from miles seven to nine was that there is a plateau of only about 100 yards, and then there is another hill that is not quite as steep, but equally unrelenting, all the way from mile nine to mile eleven. Ugh.
People who run St. George typically expect great negative split times because of the downhill parts in the second half. I do negative splits all the time in training, because I train mostly on a flat indoor track. I just pour it on until exhaustion at the end, and the net result is a faster second half.
But the hills from miles seven to eleven at St. George took a large portion of the energy I had available to expend on that day. I don't think I could have done the second half of that race much faster than I did if I had covered the distance by falling out of an airplane.
Professional photographers set up their gear on the road in two places, at miles seven and fourteen (I think). There were signs a hundred yards or so ahead alerting runners. At the first I put my sunglasses up on my head, and smiled and made some typical stupid gesture as I ran by the camera. By the time I got to the second photostation I was less inclined to make a good impression. In fact, if it hadn't been such a pretty lady holding the camera, I might have snarled as I went by.
The details of much of the mid-race are already murky in my mind. Some things I remember well: the utterly gorgeous scenery, particularly approaching Snow Canyon, which we drove out and saw yet again later that afternoon; and the large groups of cheering townspeople as we passed through each of the beautiful little towns on the course. The guy who conducted the first-timers clinic quipped that he thinks coming out to cheer and support the race is a requirement for residency in Veyo.
From beginning to end local residents had put up Burma Shave type signs with personal messages for friends and relatives. There were hundreds of them.
I also remember that from the time I arrived to catch the bus until I limped off to my car, I heard nary a discouraging expression: not one single nasty four-letter word, not one single complaint or negative thought. The culture of Utah was probably a help in that regard. But you'd think that in a group of 4000 people subjecting themselves to monumental physical stress for several hours, you'd hear something testy. The experience served to remind me of what classy and civilized people runners can be. It sure beat what you usually hear when they jam a microphone into a pile of football players. Most of the conversations I engaged in centered around the meaning of carpe viam. Everyone seemed to enjoy the explanation.
 Carpe viam means ``seize the road,'' and is the motto of the Dead Runners Society Internet running club.
My split time as I hit the halfway point was 2:21 and change, somewhat slower than I'd hoped for. However, by this time I was supercharged from the realization that the previous day's illness had not adversely affected me, and the anticipation that I might actually live through this experience. By this time I didn't really care about the time very much, as long as it was reasonably within range.
The only problems I had along the way were caused by what I will describe as occasional emotional discharges. Every few miles the realization of what I was doing overwhelmed me and briefly choked me up. Normally this is a mildly pleasant feeling, but choking is not what you want to do when you are running as fast as you can for over 26 miles and recovering from a chest cold.
Finally the much anticipated long and steep downhills arrived. They are not as radical as I had expected. Last May I ran the Whiskey Row half marathon in Prescott, AZ, where the downhills are both steeper, and much more treacherous, because they are on dirt roads, and a misstep could result in injury.
Having expended myself on the earlier uphill, there was only so much steam left to muster up for the downhill. So I just continued to cruise and enjoy it, satisfied in the knowledge that I had gotten that far and still was not hurting.
At about mile twenty a guy ran past me, and without turning around to look at me as he spoke, said, ``The way I see it, the ones who win don't get their money's worth. They're all done in a couple of hours, while we get to have fun for four and a half hours.'' Whereupon he left me in the dust, and I never saw him again.
I ran 24 ``good'' miles. From 20 to 24 I started to suffer discomfort, but was still handling it. At 24 the fun stopped abruptly, as I crashed noisily through the proverbial wall. From then on I just wanted to be done.
At that point came one of the most memorable moments of the race. I'd been ignoring the cheering people along the road, not bothering to wave or otherwise acknowledge all the compliments, and declining all the stuff that was being offered. When I came to the aid station, scarfed down some more Gatorade, and was about to start again, a little girl about eight years old caught my eye, held out her hand and said, ``Would you like a Life Saver?'' I almost laughed out loud. ``Yesss!!'' I exclaimed as I took it and thanked her profusely for this generous gift. I thought of a verse in the Bible from Jesus' parable of the rich man and Lazarus, that says:
... `Father Abraham, have mercy on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in anguish in this blazing fire.' (Luke 16:24)
Because I'd just walked through a shower and was soaking wet, it took me about two blocks to rip the cellophane off that sucker. But when it hit my mouth it touched off an explosion of orange joy, and the flavor filled my entire soul, obliterating the rapidly becoming loathsome taste of Gatorade and Powerbar. I could still taste the remnants of that manna from heaven when I crossed the finish line.
But at 24 miles, that finish line was still a long way off.
Somewhere before the 25 mile marker they had a school band standing on the corner to play for us. It was a nice touch.
The turn off the main road finally comes nine tenths of a mile from the end. It's a very sharp turn to the left into a steep downhill of about 100 feet, easing onto a broad and straight street that leads directly to the finish line. We were told at the clinic that no matter how well we were doing, that turn was bound to hurt. It did.
For months I had thought about what the final mile of my first marathon would be like, and what I would do. Would I blow kisses to thousands of cheering fans like Uta? Would I surge to the finish the last hundred yards or so, perhaps passing a couple of surprised road warriors? Would I slap high fives with envious onlookers along the fences? Would I stride across the finish with a big smile for the camera, making victorious gestures?
The reality was somewhat less impressive. I just wanted more than anything to stop running. Even as close as 100 yards from the finish I had to force myself not to give up and walk the rest of the way.
Eventually the finish line sign came clearly into view. Because the road is so wide, the hoses operated by residents were too far off the path to bother with going out of my way to run through. So I just kept trudging down the middle of the street.
I never once looked behind me the entire race to see who was nearby. I had no idea if anyone else was close by. For all I knew I was in last place. Suddenly, a young guy with a funny hat and no shirt came storming by on my left, not running normally, but leaping and jumping like a kangarostrich, weaving and waving his arms and moving forward at about three times my speed. If he'd been any closer the wind would have knocked me over. I thought he was going to do cartwheels across the finish or something. A few steps later another young guy came rocketing by me on the other side, and then one more. I lost three places in the overall standings in the last few yards of the race. Oh well. None of them were in my division, I was sure of that.
At last the end came. Thunk, my foot hit the finish line. People around me were hoarsely hollering the same compliments they'd been hollering at the thousands who had finished before me. I recall a slight feeling of elation and relief. Someone asked me if I was OK, and the truth is I was never better, so they pushed me down the chute, a lady ripped the tear-off piece from my bib, someone hung a really cool finisher's medal around my neck (ceramic, I think), and I found myself in a very large fenced-in corral for runners only, filled with lots of good food. I was ready to eat anything that was not nailed down. There was no shortage of goodies, as there is at some races. There was fresh bread, yogurt, fruit, and the usual assortment of Powerbars, waters, Gatorade, and the like.
The first recognizable person I saw was my fifteen-year-old daughter, who was more excited than I was at the moment, but disappointed that she couldn't get a good photograph of me crossing the finish because someone stepped in front of her at the crucial moment. This was important to her, because she is studying newspaper journalism, and prides herself in her photographic ability. No problem; I just bought some of the professional photos when they came.
I didn't see my wife for several minutes. Finally I found her waving frantically at me from outside the fence. She'd bought me a special T-shirt. That was sweet.
Even the awards ceremony was executed well, except that it started about ten minutes late, probably to wait for enough finishers in all divisions. The youngest finisher was a ten-year-old girl, and there were three men all age 76 who completed the race, and all got awards, of course.
So now it's over and what I have left is some great memories that will last a lifetime, a few trinkets and photographs, and a body that is fitter than it has ever been in my life of 54 years. At such a time one is impelled to reflect on the meaning of it all. After a football game, the players they interview say things like: ``We just had to hold on to the ball, and all work together, and got some breaks, and it went well for us.'' But runners tend to wax poetic. I still haven't figured out exactly why.
Regrettably, I have nothing profound to add to the mountain of observations that have already been uttered by the many first time marathoners who have preceded me. In this race I had four goals:
I accomplished all but the third bullet. My official time was 4:44:52, and my watch said 4:42:21. I'd estimated 4:45 on my application, so at least I beat that. If I'd made the third goal, neither my world nor that of anyone else would have changed significantly. I'll run a better time next time around. I believe I'm capable of a 4:15 or even better before age and other circumstances begin to yield diminishing returns. There will be a next time.
The road of preparation for a first marathon is much longer and more arduous than the race itself. Presently I have no desire to run longer distances, and very likely never will. Nor will I be running more than two or three marathons a year. But I've arrived. I'm now a marathoner, something I've wanted to be able to say for a very long time. From now on it's just a matter of doing it.
Life is good.