Your mileage may vary

I guess my first clue that this was going to be interesting was my first few days of research for marathon training plans. The shortest one I found was 12 weeks long, and presumed you could already run 12 miles comfortably (read: not me). Most others were for 16 weeks and beyond. Recently PBS aired a show on a group of people who spent 9 months in a marathon training program. No matter how you cut it, things were not looking positive for being able to prepare in 8 weeks time. Not only that, but these longer plans were developed by respected veterans in the world of running. These were guys that knew what they were talking about, and guys that made me feel like I was about to do something horribly, horribly wrong by not listening to them. But I had a goal – run the marathon – and I had a constraint – 8 weeks – so that’s what I was left to work with. I knew I wouldn’t have enough time. My best chance was to try and mesh pieces of some plans together with others, and basically invent my own 8 week marathon training program. So that’s what I did.

My plan was to run three times per week; basically Monday, Wednesday, Friday. Mondays would be 6 miles, devoted to exploring a different part of the marathon route. Wednesday would be a tempo day, running an arbitrary 6 mile route around town at a higher pace than Monday. Friday would be a long distance day, building slowly week after week, culminating in a long run of 18 miles. The every-other-day schedule was designed to offer ample recovery and avoid injury. Any injury during this program would mean no chance of running the marathon. There simply wouldn’t be enough time to recover, given the mileage expectations. Hopefully the strength I had in my legs from riding would give me an advantage in some way. It’s not going in cold necessarily, but on the other hand, it is, and I was about to find out. Prior to beginning this program, I hadn’t run once this year. I ran only three times total in 2006, and truly have not run with any regularity since 2005, when I did so for three months.

The 8 weeks of training were full of demoralizing lows and cautiously optimistic highs. One thing I learned very early on was that temperature had everything to do with how I performed, and if a run was slated for a hot day, that run was not going to end well. While my best training runs were near 60 degrees under light rain, anything near 70 and beyond was a recipe for complete moral defeat. I had such a hard time determining if I was simply not doing well, or not doing well because of the weather. The only things that reeled me back in were those colder days; days when I went out and felt like I actually had a shot at doing this. Were it not for those days, I would have probably quit halfway through the program believing I had no shot whatsoever at completing a marathon. And the thing is, in such a short period of time, you need nothing but confidence-building runs, one after the other, to keep you believing that this is possible. When those don’t come your way, especially on the long-mileage Friday runs when you really need them, you second guess yourself. It’s hard enough to battle through the mileage. Battling negativity and self-doubt on top of the mileage makes everything even more difficult, and it was very hard to get away from it.

My highest mileage training run was 18 miles, and this came at week five. It was an epic day. After weeks of grinding out the schedule, this day it rained like hell and I had the best training run of my life. Averaging just about 11 minute miles, this was the first time I truly believed the marathon was possible. My feet and legs stung like I had never felt before, but I knew I had more in the tank. And I knew I ran very conservatively. It was just a question of how much more strength I could get into these legs over the next three weeks before the real thing. And herein lies the fundamental problem with an 8 week schedule: there is not enough time. As these long Friday runs increase in distance, your body requires more and more time to recover from them. Recovery and strength building just can’t happen at the same time; you’re either abusing your body to make it stronger, or you’re taking it easy on your body to give it a chance to recover from punishment. But pressed for time, I made a judgment call and deemed the week following the 18 miler to be my final high-intensity week before beginning a 2-week tapering period into lower mileage runs. Needless to say, that week was absolutely humbling. I was exhausted, and I went into the taper weeks knowing there was nothing more I could do, and that rest would be the best thing I could do for myself at this point. I wanted so badly to do more hillwork, more negative splits, more of anything that would be quicker paced and strength-related, but I was absolutely petrified that I wouldn’t recover in time. And you know you’re in a strange and desperate place when you actually want to do hillwork.

The week before the race was full of small low-key runs and I really did feel ready to do this. I felt ready to do something. After weeks and weeks of runs no shorter than an hour, it was kind of relaxing to be out and back inside of 40, 30, 20 minutes. Then two days off. The day before the race, I didn’t even leave the house. I never got out of my pajamas, watched Rocky 1,2,3, and 4, and went back to bed. I was ready to go 18+, hit the wall, and rely on my iPod and the crowd to take me the rest of the way.

Here is the map I used during training. The day before the race, I went through all of my training runs and tried to plot out my splits based on my average long run pace. All total, I was looking at just under five hours.

Sunday I woke up, and it was race day.

We start. For the first 15 minutes, my heart rate monitor is stuck on 133; it won’t move. This happens now and then during training, and not because I’m the model of human physiology and have amazing control of my heart rate, but because the contact on the chest strap is too dry. I want to squirt some of my water on my chest, but petrified of wasting water, and really not feeling up to dousing myself with water in 30-degree weather, I let the problem work itself out. Which it did. But this is one decision I wish I could take back, and here’s why.

When I run, I absolutely require a heart rate monitor (HRM). For casual runs it is purely optional, but in training and competition, it is your only measure of how hard your body works. Several times I would be out on a training run and feel “weird” or “off”, but without a HRM telling you that your level of effort is normal, it is almost impossible not to give into those mixed mental signals and let up on the pace, ultimately derailing the purpose of the training run. And my brain is pretty messed up as it is; I need all the help I can get. But an HRM is vital to letting you know if you’re running at a sustainable fat-burning pace (one that will take you very very far) or something much higher that, if kept up for too long, will ultimately burn you out and leave you with nothing left to finish the event. It tells you if you’re cruising at the right speed, if you’re climbing well, and if you’re recovering properly. When my HRM malfunctions, I am temporarily running blind, and when it doesn’t work for the first mile+ of the marathon, you have no idea if you’re setting the right pace for yourself. Which, as it turns out, I did not. I ran a 12+ minute first mile; well off my planned pace of 11. Multiplied out, this would tack on an extra half an hour to my expected finishing time, and I started to panic a little. When it finally came around and started working again, I toyed with upping the pace and maybe trying to get back on schedule. But here’s where the mind games set in: do I try to reel in that time, knowing I’m burning precious energy I will need to finish? As it was, my heart rate was settling down no lower than 150, which wasn’t bad necessarily, but I had trained to run this event in the 140s. Already something wasn’t quite going according to plan. I was already nervous as it was, and now I had this little stressful situation to sort out. And a much larger one that I should tell you about.

On October 7th, six weeks into my training program, Chad Schieber dropped dead during the Chicago Marathon. I am typically not phased by stories of athletes dying during competition, particularly in the sports in which I participate, but Schieber’s story was a little different. Chad had a heart condition called mitral valve prolapse (MVP); a scenario in which the mitral valve in the heart, on occasion, does not function properly; sometimes the valve folds back inward and permits a small amount of blood to flow backwards into the heart. As condemning as that may sound, many people have MVP, and for nearly all this is an absolutely harmless condition. There is of course a small majority with an advanced form of the affliction, and for those unfortunate few, they can die instantly, for no good reason. It seems senseless, but that was the fate of Chad Schieber on October 7th. And again, ordinarily I wouldn’t have thought twice about this entire story, were it not for the fact that I have something awry with the mitral valve in my heart, and in a few weeks, I too would be running a marathon.

In 2005, I was diagnosed with what I now understand to be a heart arrhythmia known as PVC – premature ventricular complex. PVCs feel very strange, like a single deep heartbeat, or someone pushing on your chest and quickly letting go. They emerged during the three months of running I did during the fall of that year, and the feeling concerned me enough to undergo testing. I wore an EKG recorder for 24 hours, underwent a stress test in a lab, and had an ultrasound of my heart performed. The PVCs were explained to me as “skipped” heartbeats, and I was told that they are nothing to worry about and are absolutely benign. Medication was presented as an option to control them, and let me tell you, being free of this feeling would be absolutely fantastic. They happen almost every single day, and at times can be annoying and frustrating. But there are no good medications for heart arrhythmia. And by “good”, I mean drugs without toxicity and side effects that are worse than the actual affliction. And no doctor I have spoken to about these medications presents them in any way that seems appealing.

Anyway, the strange heartbeats were explained, and that should have been the end of it. And at the time, it was. I requested the results of my tests for my own records, and I went over them at home on my own time. I definitely wanted to check out my minimum and maximum heart rates. I think I had a 43 at one point during sleep, and they projected my maximum to be 193 (pretty close, it’s 194). But aside from all of the “fun” stuff like that, I remember at the time one particular detail stuck out. “Mitral valve is redundant but no clear prolapse”. I am positive I looked it up on the internet, I’m sure I read all about it, but I never thought twice about it again. I put everything back in the envelope, stuffed it in a drawer, and kept on running. Never thought about it ever again.

But I tell you this, I read about Chad Schieber, and now I was thinking about it big time. I tore a desk drawer apart looking for that envelope. And I read through the contents over and over again. And I looked up ‘mitral valve redundancy’ again. And this time it meant something to me that it didn’t two years ago. From what I have read, this redundancy is basically what causes the prolapse – the folding inward – in MVP. I am to gather that my valve has some redundancy, but not enough to complete the equation. “No clear prolapse”. But let me tell you, we’re talking about my heart here. “Somewhat” and “no clear” are hardly concrete terms; concrete enough for me to believe that nothing could possibly go wrong as I prepare to attempt the single most difficult and demanding event of my life. I needed someone to tell me exactly what they found two years ago, what the hell it really meant, and whether or not I need to go around wondering if I am even going to survive this run. They never did that in 2005 but someone sure as hell was going to have to do that now.

So I called my primary care physician. He never called back. I called the hospital and tracked down the doctor who did the analysis on my test results. He did call me back, but was completely annoyed with the fact that I had contacted him, instructed me to work through my PCP, and that was essentially the phone call. He demonstrated no real interest in my results or my concerns, and provided me with nothing more than a recap of what I already had sitting in front of me in an envelope. And that was it. I was pissed off. No one gave a shit that I wanted answers. This doesn’t even make sense, but I was so frustrated that I just dropped the whole thing. I kept training. And every single day I thought about the Chicago Marathon, and MVP, and my test results. And every single day I wondered if I would live to see the marathon. And if I did, would I survive it. And I trained scared. From the beginning of week 6 on I ran in fear. You can call the fear justified or irrational, but it was there, every single day, and I fought it just like I fought the weather and the self-doubt and the negativity. I truly think that is why I never had another solid training run after my 18-miler. I was so physically and mentally exhausted that I never had a chance of catching up.

So you can see that I already had a lot of anxiety bouncing around in my head. My HRM not working wasn’t helping very much. When it sprang back to life, I had to make a call whether or not to pick up the pace and recover time, or just chalk it up to lost time and keep going. This sounds like a no brainer, but I’ve already settled into a pace that I now don’t feel like leaving. Plus, today we will be moving into uncharted territory. Anything past mile 18 is a whole new experience for which I will have no basis for comparison. Today I need to be cautious and conservative, and finish the race. So that’s what I did. I kept plugging along, running 12 minute miles or so, saving as much energy and effort as I could. It was going to be a long day, but I wanted to be there at the end. It would be too easy to pick it up here and crash too early.

By mile 5 I already had a police car right on my ass, signifying the end of the traffic control. I let him by, and that was it. I was on my own. From here on in, select roads would be blocked off from cars, but I was primarily running in a breakdown lane, on a sidewalk, between parked cars, or wherever I damn well felt like given that I was running a marathon and paid $60 to be a part of it. I knew I would be slow today, but this was not something I expected at all. From this point on, of the 1700 people who started the race, I was nearly at the back, and we have been running for only 45 minutes.

I remember a line of cars stacked up on Union Street, and some b*tch was absolutely screaming at someone through her cellphone. It went right to the center of my brain, and I yelled back “WOULD YOU SHUT THE F*CK UP? I’M TRYING TO RUN A MARATHON!”.

About a half mile later on Union, there was a group of people on a front lawn. This one asshole yells to me, “This isn’t last place”. “Okay, you’re at least second to last”. I turned around and flipped him off. All you can do is hope his wife kicks him in the nuts. At least that’s what I was envisioning. And it made me feel better.

Webster Street was effortless. As we turned up Smyth Road, an elderly woman cut me off in her Buick as she drove through runners to merge into a line of traffic that wasn’t moving. I yelled “JESUS CHRIST IT’S ONE DAY A YEAR CAN YOU WAIT 10 SECONDS!”.

At the top of the hill, someone was playing the Rocky theme on a boombox. I was pretty happy about that.

By the time I got to the Bridge Street climb, it was a free-for-all. Wide open, no traffic control, cars coming up and down, and all I could think about was how bullshit that was. How could they have simply opened the roads already – we’re not even 2 hours into the event yet. Bridge was a breeze. I slugged through the rest of the front half, which is positively boring as all hell. I was running alongside two girls, and one asked me if I was doing “the whole or the half”. I told her “The whole thing baby”. She said “You’re my hero”.

I came into downtown on Hanover Street, and I turned the corner to start the second half of the run. 13 miles are over. Elm Street is wide open, and I’m the only one on it. It’s all blocked off, and it’s all for me. The street is huge. It is so wide. There is no other runner in sight. The only thing I am left to do right now is take inventory of how I feel and convince myself I feel fine enough to do this whole thing all over again. I felt pretty good. This might actually happen.

I turned onto Bridge Street and headed to the west side. Kristen ran alongside me and handed me the water and gels I needed to finish the route. She said, as we were running alongside each other, “Run in the middle; Grampie wants to get a picture”. I move into the middle of the road and I see Gramps in the distance, snapping away. As I get closer, tells me to get out of the way, and behind me I can hear a car approaching very quickly. Seems like they weren’t interested in letting me get across the bridge before they re-opened it to traffic. F*ckers.

The west side was supposed to be my happy place. I had run this section of the marathon many times over the past 2 months, and always had a positive experience. It was my hope that by the time I got here, I would be cruising in familiar territory. I wanted to be. But it just wasn’t working out that way. No one was on the streets. Nobody. It was just another training run, dodging traffic, with the occasional traffic cop standing at an intersection. I turned onto Jolliet, and this woman emerges from a sidestreet. And definitely a sidestreet that is not part of the course. “I got lost” she said. She would run, and walk, and run, and walk. “We drove the course yesterday, but it was raining and we only did the first half”. This was infuriating to me, as I had memorized the route months ago. It’s called preparation. I positively cannot stand people who are not prepared. She tried to make small talk, tried to offer me ibuprofen, and irritated the hell out of me with some kind of audible beeping device she was wearing in her fanny pack. I wanted so badly to pull away and leave her in the dust but the energy would not have been worth it.

About a mile later, there’s a man standing on the side of the street before the next bridge. He’s waving a worn black bible in the air and yelling in what I think was either Italian or Latin. No idea.

As I crest the hill and turn onto 114, I realize something. There hasn’t been a water stop for miles. There was supposed to be one every 2 miles I thought, but I hadn’t seen one since before the second half started. And immediately I panic. What if the water stops have already been broken down? If there is no more water, I am completely and totally screwed. It is getting hot in the sun and I am already down a bottle with only 18oz left on my belt. I am getting really thirsty but I have no choice now to ration water. I am getting really pissed off, but it seems very clear that the race has chosen to pretty much stop supporting the back of the field. Not only am I getting pissed off, but I’m still a little worried because now my heart rate is leveling off at 160. Something is happening. Either I’m dehydrating, or running out of gas. I’m at mile 16 and we’ve still got a long way to go. Mercifully, there’s a water station halfway up the final big hill, which is Daniel Plummer Road. As I grab two cups I demand to know the location of the next water stop, which the volunteers explain is at mile 19. I feel a little better. I pour one cup on my back and another into my mouth.

Somehow the irritating beeping woman is still with me. Now she’s asking me questions about what’s ahead, how long the hill is, and what’s around the corner. I am getting really pissed off. I had planned to put on my headphones at mile 18, but now was close enough. I cranked up the volume and picked it up. I could hear her still trying to talk to me as I pulled away. She must be out of her mind.

The music makes me a new man. For the first time in hours I am running like a runner. My posture is upright, I feel springy, and I know I am going to finish. The finish is 8 miles away, and I know the average gradient is downhill the whole way. This is going to happen and I am kicking ass.

I stop off into the woods and water a tree. My pee is very yellow, confirming my suspicion that I am dehydrated. I need to drink at every opportunity now. I run up an embankment and back to the road and keep it moving. I’ve made it to the St A’s campus. I turn right onto College Drive, and something seems wrong. This is the turn on the map but it feels all wrong. They’ve changed the route. I look behind me quickly and Kristen is waving to go further down the road. I peer into the distance and think I see a race volunteer. I’m totally stressed out. I have no idea what the hell is going on, but I continue on toward the volunteer and sure enough, they’ve changed the route. It doesn’t add any more distance or climbing, but it’s not what I’ve practiced and not what I was mentally prepared for.

As I approach the athletic fields, there she is again. The beeping lady. Someone is handing her a bottle of water. I wonder if they will give me one. I really want one. They don’t. She takes a sip or two and tosses the whole thing to the ground as a girl just ahead handing out Clif Shot Bloks gets her attention. I pass them both, and there’s the mile 19 water stop, staffed by the St. A’s field hockey team. They’re yelling my race number through a traffic cone, and I feel pretty good. For some reason I felt like I knew they would be there, and it was reassuring. I took two cups, one down the back, one down the hatch. My music is still on, I still have plenty of food, the water stops are here again, and things are working out.

Somewhere just after mile 20, things are changing. I look at people in their yards, and they are disinterested. There is nobody out here. I haven’t seen a race volunteer for what seems like a long time. It is extremely boring.

Ahead is a small rise in the road, and somewhere about halfway up this completely benign change in elevation, something very frightening happens. I feel my heart skip. My pulse is rising. My left hand is tingling. I tear my headphones off. I’m still running, but I am starting to freak out. I think I am going to die. I am scared. I want to stop. I have no idea what is or is not happening to me right now. I have a massive, massive inner conflict going on. I am trying to calm myself down and talk myself out of freaking out. It is working, at least according to my HRM. My heart rate comes back down to 160. I keep telling myself that everything is okay. I consider stopping. I feel like I almost have to. I try to reconcile how I will explain stopping with five miles left to go. People are never going to understand, no matter how hard I try to explain. I picture Kristen understanding, but I’m not okay with it. I picture her going to bat for me every time someone makes a comment about me not finishing. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life explaining. I can’t stop. There is no way I can be okay with stopping. I keep running.

I am in a bad place. I am getting massive cramps in my sides, and they are so painful that I can barely keep upright. I am running hunched over, and I feel like I’m barely moving. I alternate squeezing each side with my hand, and it helps for a little while. Then the pain switches sides. I squeeze my abs and try to fight off the pain. It seems to work, but I look fragile and hunched over. Because I am. I’ve been on the road for about four and half hours now, and I can already tell at this pace I won’t be home for about an hour. It’s a difficult thought to come to terms with. I keep taking water from random kids standing out in front of their houses. Thank God for them. I see what has to be the final water station on the west side, and again I take two cups. For the first time all day, I take Gatorade instead of water. For a few moments, I feel like its doing something positive. But I have no idea what I’m feeling anymore. Every time I eat a gel it tastes like pure sugar. I feel my legs moving but I have no idea what is making them go. They feel numb and solid, and I cannot feel my knees. I am going out of my mind. I must look like a zombie and I start to wonder what people on the street think about when they see me.

I approach a small hill near West High School. Somewhere halfway up, it happens again. I feel my heart skip again. I think I am going to die. I start to panic. I should stop. I cannot die today. I am not ready to do that. I want to collapse. I want to lay in the road and have someone notice me. No one is out here.

I turn the corner and there it is, the Bridge Street Bridge. Beyond this bridge is three miles to go. I have never run on this side of the bridge and it feels like the steepest bridge I have ever crossed. I think I see Grampie again. It’s him. He’s walking alongside me as I run next to him. I look like shit. No matter what he’s saying I know I look horrible. I have no idea how I am moving. I see Kristen ahead, and then a water station. I take more water. As I turn up Elm Street, she tells me that we will meet on the other side – the return leg down Chestnut Street. That is 3 miles away and I do not believe I will make it. I stare up Elm Street and keep moving. This will be the longest 3 miles I have ever run. Race volunteers are talking amongst themselves at an intersection, and they see me coming. One of them offers a token pick-me-up and then resumes his conversation, wholly disinterested in what I am doing. I wonder why no one has taken me off the road. I look like I am going to die.

In Rocky 4, Duke says to Rocky near the end of the fight, “This is your whole life”. The whole way up Elm Street I kept hearing that over and over and over in my head. How can I keep going. This is my whole life. This marathon is my whole life. Everything I have ever done is for today. I can’t accurately tell you how motivating that is or precisely what it even really means to me. It was the last thread I had left to hang on to.

The Elm Street climb is brief and I round the corner. People are in their front yards and they have absolutely no interest in me whatsoever. I turn onto Chestnut, and I think I see people ahead. I am not positive, but I think I have less than two miles to go. I convince myself that it will be over in twenty minutes. I am out of water and food. Ahead is a group of kids with a homemade water station, and I take two cups. I think I thanked them. I poured one cup down my back and it was like a shot of electricity. My posture got a little more upright, and I tried to see downtown in the distance. I am confused because I just passed Webster Street and can’t remember how I got there so quickly, which doesn’t make any sense since I am running so slow. Over a small rise, I see a blue jacket. It’s Kristen. I must be close. She runs alongside me and offers to take my belt, my sunglasses, and my iPod. For most of the last mile, she runs alongside me as Grampie takes more pictures. I can only imagine what I look like at this point. I encounter three consecutive race volunteers who each tell me I’m a half a mile out, which frustrates the hell out of me because all of them are more than a block apart.

As I approach Bridge Street for the final time, there is no one stopping traffic at the light. I don’t give a shit. I’m going through that intersection no matter what color that light is. Cars are going to have to stop for me. I know I am inside of 1 mile to go. The light stays red, and I could care less. I start to tell myself that I did it, but I can’t say it yet. I think I’m starting to cry. As I pass the Red Arrow, I pick it up. Kristen can’t keep up and she peels off. My heart rate climbs and I know it doesn’t matter now. A right on Hanover. It’s a wasteland. No one is out here. The street is empty, and there’s a lone race volunteer at the end waving me left. I know this is it. I pass the 26 mile marker on Hanover and for a moment try consider what I’ve just done. But I’m too exhausted to even understand.

I turn onto Elm and I see the Finish banner. It’s closer than I ever thought it would be. The street is virtually empty. I close my eyes. I run most of the way down Elm with my eyes closed, knowing soon I will be able to stop. I see the clock. 5 hours, 35 minutes. I cross the line.

I can’t believe it.

It’s finally over.

No elation. No excitement. No fists in the air. No crowds of people lining the streets. I see Kristen and Grampie and I want to collapse. They keep me upright.

For two months I pictured crossing that line, thinking about what it would feel like. What it would be like. How completely unbelievable it would feel to finally do this. But I never, ever imagined it would feel like this. It’s not even exhaustion, or relief, or sense of accomplishment. I still don’t really feel those feelings. I feel like I didn’t die. I think about how close to death I felt and it makes me never want to go there again, ever. It was the scariest, most awful place I have ever had to be in. I will never be able to fully articulate it.

That’s it. That’s running a marathon – the Manchester City Marathon – with 8 weeks of training.

Photo by Grampie (Kris Dobbins)

3 thoughts on “Your mileage may vary

  1. Chris,

    I read this post after linking to it from the FC website last night. Frankly, you made me laugh AND frightened the crap out of me. The laughing part was your conveyance of the utter disrespect for your position in the race with regard to closures. Um, so much for public safety!

    I found the frightening part to be the medical issues you may or may not have and the dang non-issue/non-response from your physicians. That's just not right.

    I'm training for a half-marathon and it's going pretty well. I am actually running 3-4x per week and staying off the bike. I have 7weeks to go, so I think I'll be okay. Running not to be competitive, but just to complete it.

    I don't mean this to be a back-handed compliment, but your report does help inspire me to finish the training and race (I so want to ride my bike!). I will not be going to the doctor between now and the end of Feb. (race day) to discover any unknown maladies. Better to not know right now.

    Thanks for sharing your story.


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