Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Road To Boston

When I was a kid, I was like a fart in a skillet. I never sat still. I probably had undiagnosed ADHD or simply consumed too much sugar. It would be a lie to write that I completely grew out of it.

Around the time I was in middle school, I realized that I was an above average distance runner. Regularly in gym class, we had to run around two giant fields. I have no idea how long of a run it was, but I always raced it and always came in first or second.

For some reason that's still unknown to me this day, I didn't run cross country or track. I grew up around a very fit father. I can't think of too many days from my childhood that my dad didn't work out. He lifted weights every day. He had washboard abs and was built like Rocky.

In high school he tore his knee so normally his cardio was limited to a rowing machine at home. We didn't have a garage so our house was pretty much my father's gym. My dad never ate junk food and he drank a lot of milk. Consequently as a child, I didn't eat junk food and also drank a lot of milk.

My dad eventually started running during my middle school years. We lived in a rough area of town, so he would drive to a nice park for running. Over the summer between my 7th and 8th grade years, I went with him. I have no idea how fast either of us ran, but I could never keep up with him.

In those days, I didn't even have a watch or proper running shoes. I just ran. And I don't know why.

Because I was a normal boy of my generation, I was a skinny kid. In the summer I was forbidden to be inside during the day except for the hour or so I spent doing household chores, like washing dishes.

Being outside all day, all summer, I played a lot of baseball, rode my bike, climbed trees, traded baseball cards, and cut grass here and there. But I never sat around and did nothing. I was constantly moving, like an electron.

I went through high school and again didn't run cross or track. Overall I was less active, but still skinny. I spent most of my high school years chasing girls and playing my guitar.

I joined the Army the summer after my junior year. It was that summer that I started running again. Because I took so many classes my first 3 years of high school, I got to graduate in January my senior year. A week later I was in boot camp.

But that last summer, I ran almost every night before I went home. I don't remember how far I ran. I never timed it, either. I ran so I wouldn't be out of shape when I got to Ft. Benning, GA in January.

In the Army I was a pretty decent runner. For the 2 mile run I used to come in at around 13 minutes. That time put me in the top percentile but still a couple of minutes behind the fastest guys.

It wasn't until I was stationed in Hawaii that I did any real distance running, however. In the barracks room next to mine lived a Mexican guy from East Los Angeles. He was older than myself. He loved 2 things. Jack Daniels and running. In that order.

Most nights during the week he would go out and run a 9 mile out and back course that went up a small mountain at the back of Schofield Barracks. I remember thinking he was insane. Run 3 miles in the morning. Then run another 9 at night? Stupid.

One day the challenge was laid down. He said I couldn't make it up there and back. A couple of nights later, I ran with him. And I almost died. But I made it. When I got back to the barracks I collapsed on my bunk, lit a Marlboro light, and asked my body for forgiveness.

The word quickly got around that I had made the running journey to Kole Kole Pass and returned alive. Some people started looking at my differently. I admit I felt some pride. And that's probably when I was hooked. Right there. Right then.

I started running with Gonzo almost every night. Then I started running with the fast group at PT runs.  Our company runs were split into 3 speed groups: fast, normal, and geriatric. The second two groups resembled a normal military formation run. Side by side running and yelling cadence.

The fast group was an entirely different story. It was generally less than 10 men. There was no formation. There was no cadence. It was hit the road, run as fast as possible, and try to hold on.

The first time I ran with the fast group, I doubt I made it more than half a mile. I don't think anyone had an idea of the pace, but I guess well under 6 minute miles. Well under. Within a few months, however, I was able to go the entire 3 miles at ludicrous speed.

My first real road race came in 1991 when I, along with a few others from the fast group, ran the Oahu perimeter relay. I was an E-3 or E-4 at the time, but on my team were a couple of officers and some senior NCO's. I admit it felt awesome to be part of that team.

I don't remember where we placed or how fast we ran. I know we did well. I still have the medal from that race and the memories of not being able to walk for 2 days solid. If memory serves me correct, it was an 8 person team over a 130 mile course. I think each runner ran 4-5 legs ranging in length from 3 to 6 miles.

Imagine if you will, racing a 5k full out, crawling into a Chevy Suburban for a few hours and then getting out and doing it again. Then repeat a couple of times. That is a recipe for having angry legs. Mine were no exception. Here is a picture after we finished. I am all the way to the right and that's Gonzo to my right. I only count 7 in the picture but I thought we had at least one more runner. I was 19.

And that race would be my last race until 1996. I got out of the Army in early 1992. Like so many ex-soldiers, I got fat. Really fat. I stopped working out completely. I was still smoking. My diet was crap. My body was a glaring reflection of that lifestyle.

On February 1, 1996 I stopped smoking. And I ran for the first time in 4 years. I was able to do 2 miles at a decent pace without dying. I also cleaned up my diet. By March I had decided to do the Chicago Marathon that fall. And by April I had already lost almost 35 pounds and was doing 15 mile long runs.

In August I signed up for and ran my first 5k in 17:45. I was 50lbs lighter but still knew absolutely nothing about racing or how to train to run fast. I bought 1 book to prepare for the marathon, but I did no speed work. No mile repeats. No tempo runs. Nada. I just ran.

I was probably averaging a little over 50 miles per week. Some days I ran faster. Some days I ran slower. I took a day off here and there, but still ate almost no crap food.

That October I ran my first marathon at age 25. Because of how I am, just completing the race wasn't going to be enough. I had to have a time goal. So, I thought it would be cool to qualify for the Boston Marathon, though I couldn't have afforded to go do that race.

With one fairly recent 5k under my belt, I headed up to Chicago for the big race. It was a great day until around mile 18 when someone threw a piano on my back. From there on my pace got slower and slower. My legs heavier and heavier. My nipples left red trails of blood down my white singlet. The pain was excruciating. I wanted to stop.

I finished in 3:10:XX. Crap. My qualifying Boston time was 3:10. Almost. Until about a month ago, I thought I missed qualifying for Boston by less than 1 minute in my first marathon. But I found out that if 3:10 is the qualifying time, anything under 3:11 gets in. WHAT? I did make it? HOLY SH*T!

From 1996-1998 I worked at a running store and did tons of road races, mostly because they were free and I am a t-shirt kind of guy. 

In 1997 I found triathlon. In 1999 I did the Ironman Florida. Again just doing the race wasn't enough for Mr. Mental Case here. I wanted sub 12 hours. I made it with 15 minutes to spare.

Then I was done racing. I was sort of burnt out. But I didn't stop running, per se. I just had no purpose, or so it seemed.

During my first semester of law school, I woke up early every morning. I ran about 30 minutes. Then I went to a field and did push-ups and sit-ups. That lasted until first semester finals, when all hell broke loose.

For the next year and a half, I was the victim of a series of medical problems that damn near killed me, both in body and spirit. Most of law school is a blur due to heavy use of narcotics. How I made it through is a mystery. But I know I came out the other end a changed person forever.

During my illness I had stopped working out. I simply couldn't. I spent most of my time in agonizing pain and then stoned for days. I fell into a downward spiral that took me to the darkest places of human existence.

When the illness finally gave up trying to kill me, it took a solid year for me to feel like myself. I was left a drug addict. The week I spent on my mother's couch kicking the drugs was beyond anything that can be conveyed from one person to another. I wouldn't wish that utter hell on anyone. I never prayed so hard I would die and quickly at that.

Once again, I was seriously overweight. But I eventually got my butt into the gym. And within 18 months I was back to my old self, only now reborn and better.

I am not built like a distance runner. Not even close. I have the upper body of a light weight boxer and the legs of a tailback or soccer player. They grew during my Army time. It seems carrying a massive rucksack with a radio strapped to it up and down gulches in the jungle causes leg growth. When I began cycling, they grew even more.

I spent most of 2007 lifting heavy weights with my upper body in an attempt to balance me out. Through a very dedicated system of diet, cardio, and weight training, I added about 25 lbs upstairs. I didn't like it. My face looked ballooned. And I felt like I was carrying some other dude's body.

Before I had bulked up, I lost all of my sick weight. In November and December of 2007, I ran off all of the extra muscle I spent months gaining. By January 2008, I looked like myself when in shape.

Somewhere around early February something got me interested in racing again. I was running almost 100% indoors on a treadmill at my gym. In March I ran my first race in 9 years. It was a 5k. I ran it in 18:50. Eh. I think I took 3rd in my age group so I was happy. A couple of weeks later I ran another 5k in very cold, windy conditions. I was a little slower but still took home an age group medal.

I could tell I was getting in really good shape. I have always wanted to go run the Boston Marathon just because. The qualifying time for my age is 3:15. Bah. That's not fast enough for el stupido. I declared no Boston for me unless I go sub 3 hours, officially.

I signed up for the Rockford Marathon scheduled for mid May 2008. In early April I went down to Springfield to run the Lincoln Memorial Half Marathon. This was to be my first real distance race since 1999. I had no idea what to expect. I didn't know what my fitness was like over a long distance.

I ran it in 1:21 finishing in 10th place overall. Based on that time, a sub 3 hour marathon should have been a slam dunk. Here is a picture of me running through a cemetery on the race course.

The next week I was recruited to run with a team doing the River to River relay in Southern, IL.

River to River is an 8 man, 80 mile race from the Mississippi to the Ohio River. The course is crazy hilly and 100% rural. As it turns out, I was the only person on my team that didn't run in college. The man who had won the St. Louis marathon the same day of my race in Springfield was on my team. He's stupid fast.

For this race, each runner ran 3 legs. I will let you do the math. But it reminded me again of the Oahu relay back in 1991. The big difference was there was less time between legs because we were so damn fast. 

We took 2nd place out of a couple hundred teams. I was happy that I wasn't the slowest person on that team. The next week I ran about 70 miles, finishing with a 22 mile long run that Sunday.

On Monday morning when I woke up I knew I was in trouble. I couldn't have ran 10 feet. Fast forward through injections in both knees, months of no running, MRI's, failed physical therapy, and at the end of July, I had right knee surgery. As you can see from the picture below, it wasn't anything drastic. I just needed some cartilage shaved down.

Though I was supposed to wait 6 weeks before running, I waited 2. I was registered for the Chicago Marathon just 8 weeks away. But I had given up on doing it. There was no way I was going to be able to get ready. Or so I thought.

Even though I wasn't able to run for 3 months, I kept working out in the gym. I did lots of elliptical work to maintain my aerobic base. I think it was probably my second week of running again that I felt maybe I could still do Chicago.

I went into the 2008 Chicago Marathon having no clue what my racing fitness level was. I knew what it was back in April, but standing there one morning in October 2008, I had no idea.

I know people that pace themselves during races. They have time goals. They know what their mile splits need to be to meet that goal, etc. I have never raced this way once. I just show up and run the thing as fast as I can.

I read a book last summer about how the brain knows how fast you can run over a distance. I believe this to be 100% true in my case. At any given race, my brain and body know what my max pace is for that race on that day. It just happens. And I go with it.

My time for the 2008 Chicago Marathon was 3:04:XX. I finished in the top 2%. I was well under 3 hour pace until about mile 21 where my training deficiencies caught up with me. I simply hadn't put in the miles. But I walked off the course that morning knowing that I had nothing left. I had given that race all I had in the tank. Here is a picture from that marathon.

The next month, November 2008, I went to Nashville to run the Harpeth Hills Flying Monkey Marathon. I was again injured from doing too much before Chicago the month before. This was a really cool race, however. Actually it was a social weekend and we just happened to run a marathon on Sunday morning.

The Flying Monkey race is in Percy Warner park and has to be one of the hilliest marathons in the country. I don't recall one portion of it that was flat. At that time of the year, the park is in full fall colors and it's really a beautiful course. Here I am on the left as you're looking at the picture. Neither of us 3 were racing the course that day. Instead we all ran together and told jokes. Runners are weird.

I know the weirdo that created the Monkey race and administers it every year. He usually only lets 200 runners in and the post race party was more like a pot-luck with beer. The best post-race food anywhere. The best race medal ever (it's made of wood). See below:

After Monkey 2008, I took off most of the month of December to heal up. I did run a couple of days after Christmas on a treadmill at the Monte Carlo Hotel/Casino in Las Vegas. 

Fast forward to spring 2009. Once again I am getting into pretty good shape with an eye on the Chicago Marathon that fall. But much like 2008, I trained unwisely. I added too many miles too soon. And again, I would be forced to sit down for 90 days while my body healed.

I never had an official medical diagnosis for my problem in 2009, but I suspect it was bilateral tibial stress fractures. A big difference between 2009 and 2008 was that in '09 my 90 days of no running, were the 90 days immediately before the marathon. Shit.

I did go out last October on a very cold morning for the marathon. I decided two days beforehand that I was actually going to do it on zero training. I ran it that day with a very special person and it turned out to be my favorite race of all time. Never before had I noticed what a spectacle this race is. I never saw the faces or heard the cheers before.

By taking my head out of super competition mode, I was able to open up and really experience the race. It was cold as hell, but I really enjoyed it. The rib dinner that night was the icing on the cake. Here is a 2009 Chicago Marathon picture. I was too cheap to pay for them since it wasn't a glorious race.

In the quest to get to Boston on my terms, 2008 & 2009 were failures. It took 2 major injuries to teach me that I am no longer in my late 20's. 2 years in a row I trained incorrectly.

As soon as I start to feel my body getting into shape, I just want to pour more on. More miles. Tempo runs. 400's. Going from 40 miles to 60 miles a week in 7 days isn't smart. And I know I knew better. But feeling good is addictive. And if running is making me feel that way, than surely more running will make it even better. Wrong.

Much like December 2008, the last month of 2009 saw me running very little. I entered 2010 with a new approach. This year I wasn't going to race. I didn't care. I would rather run all year slowly than a couple of months here and there fast. I realized that I just love to run, at any speed. I wanted 2010 to be injury free.

I spent early January running slowly on a treadmill. I had no real speed. Then I got roped into doing a stupid half marathon in late January. It was a very small grass roots race called: The Fu*king Freezing Frozen Half Marathon. The course was unmarked. There was no water on the course. No volunteers. The race went along the lake and partly on ice.

Unofficially, I won the race. I wrote unofficially because there was no race clock and it was on the honor system. I was the first person back to the start, thus the winner. I hadn't planned on racing it. Less than 50 or so people started the race. I ran up to the front where there was a small group of about 8 men running.

I tried to say hello and make some small talk. None of them were nice. I was an outsider. They must have been some sort of little club or something. So, I grabbed a gear and left them all well behind me. I was so disgusted after the race that I went immediately home.

Next came the Lakefront 10 miler. Then the Magellan Half Marathon. And in June the MC200, a relay race from Madison, WI back to Chicago. Awesome race. Here is a picture of my team gathered at the finish line. I ran the last leg from Evanston to Montrose Harbor, thus I am wearing no shirt.

During the MC200, I ran 3 legs. My second leg started around 4:30 am somewhere in Wisconsin. Though it had been extremely hot the day before, by the time my 2nd leg was starting I was cold. In fact, I was shivering.

The weather was very spooky. It was foggy with tons of moisture in the air. And I could barely see 5ft in front of me. I waited at the transition area for my teammate. For safety, we had to run with lighted vest and a light strapped to the head. It was odd feeling and looking.

As it turned out, my teammate ran the last part of his leg with a runner from a different team. They both came through the transition area, made the exchange, and we were off. I wasn't planning on running with the guy from the other team, but he told me to come on. So I went.

I have no idea who he was, but we flew. Though I was wearing a Garmin that displays pace, I was afraid to look at it. My body told me I was clipping. I wish I could recreate that morning as I ran through it.

There I am with a light strapped to my forehead running 6:15 miles in the middle of no where through a dense fog. And talking to a total stranger every step of the way. He and I were racing in a way. I don't think either of us could have dropped the other. He would pick it up for 200 meters or so and then I would do it. It was strange because neither one of us said anything about the pace, but I think we were thinking the same thing.

When we finished that leg 5 miles later, we shook hands and thanked each other for pushing us beyond where we thought we could go. Looking back on that early morning just a month later, it seems as if it was a dream. A very surreal dream. I had no business running that fast based on fitness level.

Though I did these races, I wasn't really training hard. No speed work. Just running when I could. I joined the Chicago Area Runner's Association (CARA) and volunteered to lead a weekly long run pace group.

CARA has a marathon training program that builds towards the Chicago marathon. I figured it would be fun to help some others train towards their race goal since I wasn't planning any fall marathons. 2010 was supposed to be an easy year for me.

Last year at this time I was injured. Same in 2008. It's almost August and my legs feel great. Over the last month my easy pace has gotten faster on its own with no speed work. I have been running in the middle of the afternoon when it's hottest. This might sound stupid, but I have my reasons.

I like to run because it's the only time of the day I am truly alone. No people. No pets. And no phone. It's my time. I feel free when I run. I am also a sun lover. I suffer winter depression due to a lack of it.

Apparently, I also like to sweat. A lot. This might sound gross, but I simply love running along the lake in the hot sun wearing almost no clothing (shorts and shoes, of course) and watching the sweat bead up on my skin. It tells me I am working.

And when I finish that 60 or 75 minute run, hose myself off, and sit outside until the sweating stops, I am rewarded by a tremendous feeling of contentment. And it's addictive. Really addictive.

Running is my stress reliever. I know some people like a stiff drink after a rough day. I prefer an hour run. A good run can balance out a terrible morning and keep me mentally healthy.

I wish I had words to describe what it feels like to be in really good form, go out on a run, and just fly. When you're in outstanding shape, every now and then you experience a run that's just short of magic. Or it might be magic. 

The stride is light and not forced. It seems as if the feet are barely touching the ground. Breathing is steady but relaxed. And the really weird part is that it seems as if it's just happening on its own. Or to put it another way, like your body is off for a run on auto-pilot and your senses and consciousness are along for the ride but doing none of the work.

I would have never predicted but running has become the glue that holds the adult version of myself together. There are other ways to keep me in shape. I am no stranger to cycling, swimming, and various other cardio machines. But minute for minute, running pays off the best. For me.

I have decided to register for a fall marathon after all. Why not? With my current fitness level, 10-12 more weeks of training should bring a sub 3 hour race if I am smart about it, meaning I don't get injured.

My fastest marathon has not been run yet. I have yet to get to the starting line 100% prepared, in peak form and ready for that race. My first marathon back in 1996 was about as close to meeting that criteria as I have experienced. But I hadn't worked on being a fast runner.

And I will never be fast. Well, Kenyan or Ethiopian fast. Compared to elite runners, I am as slow as a glacier. Here is an example. My 2008 Chicago Marathon time was 3:04:43. That's an average per mile pace of 7:03. By way of comparison, in Berlin the month before, 35 year old Haile Gebreselassie destroyed his own world marathon record of 2:04:26 by running a 2:03:59. That's an average per mile pace of 4:44. I can't run even one mile at that speed.

He did 26.2 of them and finished like this...(notice the guy on wheels behind him)

Runners run for different reasons. Some are fast. Some slow. Some run lots of miles. Some not as much. Some race. Some don't. Some are old. Some are young.

But all runners, run.


  1. Its true that we are all runners and if you are not walking then running is the only other option to be fit. You may not be as fast as the 3:04 Kenyan finishers but speed is always relative. Congratulations on kicking my ass running any day.

  2. Great mess of words here Marcus. Nice to catch up with you.


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