The Marathon

The 2008 Chicago Marathon was yesterday. A number of acquaintances from the local Second Wind Running Club ran it, along with 40,000 others. Seven years ago I ran the Chicago Marathon. It was one of the most miserable experiences of my life.

To put things into perspective, I used to be a very good runner. I’m not going to say I’m bad now, but I used to be much, much better. My freshman year of college, when I was running cross country and track at the University of Illinois, I did a 20 mile training run in around 2h06m (6:20-ish pace) and it hardly phased me. The following day I did 5 x 1 mile intervals at 5:00 pace. If I had run a marathon when I was in this peak condition I probably could have done it in 2h45m or so.

I continued running even after my collegiate career ended. I ran relatively well, but I still foolishly held myself to the same standards as I did at my peak, so I was never really satisfied with my performances. My last year of college my friend Mike Perry decided to run the Chicago Marathon and I trained with him a couple times each week. He ran really well, finishing in a time of 2h55m.

Shortly after that I got a job. I worked insane hours for the first 6-8 months. I ran almost every day, but I was no longer walking 4 miles to and from class each day. I ran less. I sat more. I gained weight. By early summer 2001 I had had enough. I decided to run the Chicago Marathon. I roughly followed a training plan I found on the internet that lasted 14-16 weeks or so. I worked my way back up to running 17-18 miles.

As the race approached, I thought I was ready. People would ask how fast I thought I was going to run but I didn’t have an answer. I had no idea. I now realize this was a bad sign, but at the time I didn’t think too much of it. I thought I was going to cruise through this race, just like 100 other races I had previously run. I didn’t have the respect for the marathon distance that it deserves. And it bit me in the ass.

The morning of the race I was so nervous I couldn’t eat anything. I ate nothing. My stomach felt like it was filled with vomiting butterflies. I put an enormous amount of pressure on myself. After all, this was my marathon debut.

I started fast. The first 8 miles I cruised, exactly as I intended. One third of the way through the race I was on pace to run 3h00m. By mile 10 my stomach was growling (a lot). At mile 14 I ate a banana at an aid station, but it was too late. I stopped to walk for the first time. I was barely half way through the 26.2 mile race and I had bonked.

By mile 16 my hamstrings started to cramp up. I couldn’t run farther than a quarter mile before having to stop to stretch out. The last 10 miles of the race were truly miserable, and they lasted an eternity. I had to stop in the middle of the finishing straight in front of the huge crowd to stretch out a cramp in my calf. The calf cramped again about 10 meters from the finish but I couldn’t stop at that point, so I hopped the last 10 meters across the line. I finished in 4h18m, about an hour slower than my (somewhat unrealistic) worst case scenario estimate. I now have a much greater respect for the distance.

Rob, hobbling back to car, beaten

I ran a much faster time (3h50m) in my second marathon (which I ran in a snowstorm), but the experience was almost as miserable as the first. I have also run two 28.4 mile ultramarathons since then, both of which went much, much better. If my knees hold out I will probably run another road marathon next April at the inaugural Illinois Marathon. I think I’m due for a good one (i.e. enjoyable) someday.

2 thoughts on “The Marathon”

  1. Oh yeah, you’ve got to have respect for the marathon. Now training for my 8th, my respect for the marathon only keeps growing. I’d like the Illinois Marathon to be my 9th, but we’ll see what life has in store for me.

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