19
Apr
10

My First Marathon Story

On Saturday the 17th of April, 2010, I completed my first marathon. The full story is below, but let’s start out by quickly reviewing how I got here.

Before the Beginning

The first time I remember having any sort of desire to run a marathon was circa 2005-2006. I remember talking with Bruce Miller, my contact at Bank of American Fork (a former client of my web development firm), and he was talking about marathons and I remarked that I’d like to do that someday. I also remember talking about it with Shaun Christian, now at Telos, but whom I know from the Slate Canyon Youth Detention Facility (he worked there and I volunteered there–neither of us was detained there). Shaun is a ultra-distance runner, Ironman, etc., and I remember telling him the same thing, that I was interested in getting into running someday, and I remember asking him for some advice on shoes. But at the time I had these brief discussions with Bruce and Shaun, I’m not sure there was any real intent backing up my statements. At the time I weighed around 230 lbs, had never run over a mile in my life, had difficulty walking up a flight of 12 stairs without wheezing, enjoyed spending time with my best friends Ben & Jerry, and despite having been disgusted with myself for several years had not taken any substantial steps towards doing anything about it.

Helpful Friends

In December of 2006 I hit rock-bottom and decided to start going to the gym. I had done this before, but this time I got my friend Ben Smith to go with me. I told him I’d pay for his membership as long as he promised to get me to the gym. This worked out well and I started to slowly get into some semblance of shape and lost about 10 lbs within the next few months.

In April of 2007 I went and watched my friend Te Koi Smith (no relation to Ben as far as I know) race in a short triathlon. At the time I knew nothing about triathlon, but afterward as we stood talking I told him I’d love to do something like a triathlon, but I also thought it was too expensive and time-consuming. I had some desire, but not enough to make me actually do anything. Doing triathlons seemed a bit too much. But something inside was telling me “You’re going to get sucked into this, one way or another.” Within a few months I had gone from being a spectator to telling Te Koi I was going to start training for an Ironman, the longest of the standard triathlons comprised of a 2.4 mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a full 26.2 marathon.

The Beginning

I bought Te Koi’s old bike, the other gear I needed, got Lasik surgery, and started training. I finished my first triathlon (sprint distance) in September of ’07. It was incredibly hard, but I was already feeling like I was hooked. I did my second triathlon (another sprint distance) a month later and felt such an improvement over my first event that the hook was set. My plan at the time was to do a half-Ironman early in ’08 and the full Ironman later that year. I did the half-Ironman in Oceanside, CA in April ’08, but financial pressures caused me to postpone more triathlons and sell my bike and much of my other gear. Plus we had just adopted our first child and I wanted to be a good dad and spend time with her. I figured I could focus on running, my worst of the three disciplines, and then return to doing triathlons later.

Getting Hurt

That year I didn’t do any more events, but kept on running with the plan of doing my first marathon in April of ’09. But during that year, I started having a rash of injuries, starting with what I thought was a pulled hamstring which, upon further research, appeared to be a pinched sciatic nerve. I tried to figure it out on my own since I didn’t want to pay a physical therapist, but by January the pain was still there and I was forced to downgrade my marathon registration to the half-marathon. I just couldn’t see that I would have enough time to get in shape given the pain I was having.

Eventually I did go and see Steve Orrock on Te Koi Smith’s recommendation. His diagnosis was that I had a bulging disc which was causing the sciatic pain. He recommended I get an MRI to find out for sure. I never got the MRI because I found out it would have cost me $1,000 out of pocket, and so to this day I’m not sure exactly what the problem was. All I know is that I went through about $350 worth of physical therapy during a six-week period, which seemed to help, but then it came back, and when I asked my physical therapist whether I should spend another $350 on his services or get back in the gym (I had canceled my gym membership for the same financial reasons that prompted me to sell my bike) he said I’d be 10 times better off getting back in the gym so I could get some cross-training and weightlifting than if I continued doing physical therapy. I returned to the gym, and my back pain went away in two weeks and has never returned.

But this didn’t happen in time for me to train for the Salt Lake marathon in April, so my wife and I ran the half-marathon together. I did pretty well, finishing just behind the guy who came in 1st place…well, he came in first in the full marathon, which means he ran twice as far as I did in the same amount of time.

Focusing on running alone seemed to cause me a lot of injuries, and I was glad to get back in the gym, per my PT’s recommendation. But it was hard to take swimming seriously without training for something, and I still didn’t have a bike. I really wanted to get back into triathlon and while our financial situation had improved (I own my own business and there were a lot of ups and downs around this time) I couldn’t justify spending several thousand dollars on equipment. It was way down on the list of priorities. But a solution presented itself soon enough, and I see it as proof that there must be a God, and that He likes me.

Triathlon Comeback

On one of the days I was talking to my physical therapist he mentioned a triathlon store that had opened nearby. I decided to check it out and see if the owners were interested in doing some sort of trade deal for the web development services my firm could offer. Turns out the timing was perfect, and long-story-short–we worked out a deal in which they got a new website and I got credit for the triathlon gear I needed to start training again. Not only that, but one of the owners was a triathlon coach and I was able to get this advice as part of the deal. I was back in the triathlon business after almost a year and a half out of it.

In August of ’09 I was able to get back on a bike for the first time in over a year, and I started swimming and running with renewed purpose and enthusiasm. I strategized with my coach and we decided I would try to fit in two smaller triathlons before the end of the season, just to get me back in the game, and then I would train for a full Ironman in 2010.

My comeback-triathlon was the Daybreak Triathlon, which turned out to be fun, but with a very short swim course (75 meters) because the lake was infested with a parasite and so they had to move the swim to a small pool. I had almost no time to train and get back in shape, but it was fun nonetheless to be back doing something. I then trained for and completed my first-ever Olympic distance triathlon down at Lake Powell. This was the same triathlon I had done as my second triathlon ever, only this time it was twice as long. I didn’t have much training time for either of these events, but I was feeling great doing them, and with my coach’s advice I felt I was progressing much, much faster than I had before when I was on my own. I was learning so many things I had chosen to ignore the first time around because it seemed so overwhelming. But with an expert like my coach it was easier to get my head around.

After the two small triathlons were over, we started planning out 2010. I knew I wanted to run a marathon before doing a full Ironman, but I didn’t know which one. I also wanted to do another half-Ironman if possible, because I really didn’t know what I was doing on the first one and in some ways I feel that my finishing it was a bit of a fluke that had more to do with my indomitable will than my smart training plan, which was nonexistent. I should say it was nonexistent, but my training plan at that time consisted of swimming, biking, and running a little farther each time I went out, and that was it. There was no other science to it. I hardly knew what a taper was at that point (for you non-athletes a “taper” means you scale down your workouts the last week or so as your big event approaches, which gives your body time to rebuild the muscles you’ve been abusing and puts you in peak shape for the event).

Based on the available events, my desires, and my schedule, we settled on me doing the Salt Lake marathon in April, the Boise half-Ironman in June, and the Panama City Florida Ironman in November. That meant I would train throughout the winter and early spring for the marathon, I would then have 6-7 weeks to train for the half-Ironman (a bit short, but enough time given that I would keep swimming and biking while I was training for the marathon), and then I’d have plenty of time to train really well for the full Ironman.

Marathon Training

As I trained for the marathon through the winter and spring things mostly went well. I was relatively injury free and feeling better than ever on my runs. Tips from my coach helped me to run faster than I ever had before, and we did things I had never done before in preparation for an event like speed drills and focused weight training. I also started to learn a lot about nutrition and fueling my body. I was feeling great and every time I passed a construction site the ladies working there would whistle at me. But seriously, I was losing weight while gaining muscle and I really was feeling healthy. From my peak of 236 lbs I was down to around 205 lbs and edging in on 200 lbs.

Then I made the mistake of ignoring some advice my coach gave me. He had told me to start doing calf-lifts by standing on the edge of something (like a curb) and lifting myself up onto my toes and then back down again. This would stretch out my calves and make them stronger. But I didn’t listen, and about a week and a half later, at the beginning of March, I was out running and strained the soleus muscle in my right leg. I cursed my inattention to my coach’s advice, and hoped it would just get better. The next time I went running, it felt good, but after an hour I got strains in both legs in the soleus area. Apparently things were getting worse. And it was bad timing. There was little more than a month before the marathon, and if I didn’t get this injury taken care of, I’d have to miss the marathon and chances were that would mean I’d just have to skip doing a marathon before my Ironman. I really, really did not want the marathon in the Ironman to be my first marathon ever.

I returned, reluctantly, to my physical therapist, where I was brutally tortured. If I needed any more motivation to pay careful attention to my coach’s advice, this was it. My PT engaged in a practice called “a-stem” which I’m 100% positive would land its practitioners in prison if they were applying it to say, a captured terrorist, instead of a poor athlete. During this treatment, specially designed plastic utensils are used to scrape your skin off–at least that’s what it feels like. I’ve had three broken arms, including a compound fracture and another case where they had to break my arm all the way through after it broke partially, and a-stem is worse. The idea is to put you through such intense pain that your injury doesn’t seem like that big a deal…or maybe it’s to stretch out all your muscles and loosen them up so you don’t strain them again. Whatever the case, it seemed to help.

But it was hard to say whether I was ready for the marathon because during the last month of my training I wasn’t running outside very much. I ran on the elliptical machine at the gym to maintain my cardiovascular fitness, and as my legs felt better I would go out and run on a very flat jogging trail, unlike the hills I’m used to running on (and unlike the mostly downhill course of the SLC marathon). I would go to the gym, run on the elliptical for about 20 minutes to get really warmed up and sweaty, and then I would go outside and run as far as I could. That generally meant about an hour outside before my soleus would start tightening up on one or both legs, and I would then come back inside and finish up on the elliptical machine.

On April 8th I had my last long run scheduled. At this point I figured if I couldn’t do this long run, then I wouldn’t pay the $100 for the marathon since it seemed unlikely my soleus strain would allow me to finish. I warmed up for 20 minutes on elliptical, and then went out to do a two hour and twenty-five minute run. Amazingly, both legs felt great the whole way, and the only reason I stopped was because I was done with the workout. Not only did my soleus muscles feel great, but my fitness level felt great too. Even though I hadn’t been running much outdoors and had been confined to the elliptical and some treadmill, I didn’t feel like I had missed anything. I signed up for the marathon and a few more physical therapy appointments.

The Day Before

Everything went well with my training between then and the night before the marathon. I decided the night before that I wanted to be in bed by 8 pm so that I could be up at 4 am with a full night’s sleep under my belt. Instead, the day was super busy with all sorts of activities, I didn’t get home until 7:30, and I found myself having dinner at 8. And then I wanted to get everything ready for the next day before I went to bed. I didn’t get to bed until around 9:40, and then I lay awake with my mind racing, trying desperately to go to sleep, then trying to distract my mind by counting goats being put in a boat and crossing a river, and then getting distracted and going back to all sorts of thoughts racing through my head. I finally fell asleep, but woke up a little while later when my wife came in to go to bed. After an hour or so I fell asleep again and slept fitfully.

Pre-Race Morning

I woke up at 2:40 am, on purpose, to go eat breakfast. I was back in bed by 3:00 am, but didn’t fall asleep until about 3:30 am. Then I woke up at 4:30 am to get ready to go. I didn’t feel too tired, but I didn’t feel well-rested either. Luckily, I had prepared everything the night before, so it was quick work to get dressed, grab my gear, poop, and run out the door at 4:55 to meet Ryan Witzel with whom I would carpool.

As we rode the light-rail train up to Salt Lake, I noticed Ryan had his running clothes, his Garmin watch, his phone, and a plum. I had my running clothes with a warm-up suit over them, my Garmin, a fuel belt with three full bottles of drink, 8 Gu packets, my phone, three protein bars, a 20 oz bottle of protein/energy drink, and possibly some other things. I wasn’t planning on running with all that, but I was planning on running with most of it. The fuel belt with the three bottles was a good 2 lbs of weight by itself that would be bouncing around my waist. I was really worried about that, but I was more worried about the race running out of of liquids, since the race doesn’t have the best history of good management. I figured I couldn’t really depend on the aid stations to have what I needed when I got there, and I’d rather carry the weight than risk cramps, fatigue, and dehydration.

When we got to the starting line I got out, took off my warm clothes, filled my gear bag and gave it to the volunteers, and started walking and jogging around to try and get warmed up. There was another reason I was jogging around–I hadn’t really pooped yet. Sorry to talk about poop, but if you’re involved in these types of events it’s a real issue. Jogging gets “things” moving, and if you had a big meal the night before, like I had, and you’re 3 miles into the race and things start moving and the next porta-potty isn’t for another two miles, then you’ve got a big problem. I had a BIG meal the night before, plus a big bowl of oatmeal that morning, and I knew most of it was still inside me somewhere hiding.

After 10-15 minutes of walking and jogging around, I started to feel like I would be able to vacate my lower intestine, so I went to stand in line for a porta-potty. The lines are quite long, and I missed the race start. Not that it matters. Your time doesn’t start until you cross the starting line with your timing chip, plus I was going to go off my Garmin anyway rather than my timing chip since I wasn’t going to count potty breaks if I needed to take them, so I didn’t care much about that.

When I got to the front of the line and into the porta-potty, I discovered that some sad person who had occupied that spot before me had evidently been raised in a barn, or possibly in the jungle. Wherever they were raised, it was obvious they didn’t know how to use a toilet, because they had pooped everywhere but in the spot where poop is supposed to go. Then, in an attempt to clean it up, they had smeared it everywhere they hadn’t directly pooped on. It was a horrible mess, and it stunk. I certainly wasn’t going to sit on anything in that porta-potty, but without going into any detail I’ll just say I did my duty while maintaining my virtue.

Race – The First Half

After the unpleasantness of the porta-potty, I walked up towards the starting line. I got my iPod and belt ready to go, made sure I felt comfortable, tried to ignore what I was getting myself into, and jogged across the starting mat that would detect my timing chip and I was officially in the race.

It was a delightfully cool morning. Not cold, but very cool and comfortable. There was just enough of a breeze to take away the sweat, but not enough of a breeze to push against you.

The course started out with mild downhill and I was flying along doing an 8:30 mile (fast for me) but feeling as though I were taking a walk in the park. Nothing was hurting. Nothing felt tight. Everything felt just perfect. It was a perfect start and I had high hopes for doing a sub-4-hour marathon on my first marathon. I knew that to make it I needed to maintain a pace under or around 9:08 per mile, and as the miles quickly clicked away I was having no trouble staying under 9:00 per mile.

The first 4 or 5 miles disappeared without a thought. I was passing lots of people, and hardly anyone was passing me. I felt like the fast guy on the course (especially since most of the really fast people had probably started 20 minutes earlier than I did). We parted ways with the half-marathon runners and suddenly I was mostly alone. Apparently there are a lot more of them then there are of the marathon runners. I ran along the course and into a park, where I had to run down a steep hill. I don’t like running down steep hills, but I didn’t have the presence of mind to realize what this hill and the mostly downhill course would mean to me later on.

Oh, there was one thing. My left foot started hurting, right in the middle where my full weight was placed. This had never happened in training, but it started within the first mile or two of the race. It wasn’t bad enough that it affected me at that point, but it was bad enough that I was worried it would get worse and force me to stop. As I left the park and was turning a corner I said a prayer and asked God to help my body make it through the event. I felt like I needed divine intervention if I was having problems this early in the race.

Somewhere around the first quarter of the race I stopped to use a porta-potty again. It was fast work and I was quickly back on the course. The second quarter of the race went as fast or faster than the first. I found myself at an aid station just past the 13th mile, and I stopped to use the potty again. I figured what’s the use of holding it for another two hours when I can spend 30 seconds here and be rid of that weight and strain? I entered the porta-potty and as I turned to lock the door the thing almost tipped over. I think somebody had set it up on a log or something. It could have been real ugly. I regained my balance, did my thing, and as I stepped out the door to start running again I stepped on my left foot and almost collapsed.

My left ankle wasn’t working. It was working 30 seconds earlier. It had worked fine to stand on while in the potty. But now I couldn’t stand on it without it feeling as though it were entirely out of joint. I hobbled, hopped, and limped for a few steps, thinking it would snap back into place, but it didn’t. This had never happened before to me–ever. I had no idea what had caused it, or what I should do. It didn’t feel like a cramp, it just felt like something was out of place and needed to snap back into place. Finally I hobbled over and sat on a curb and started shaking my foot around and wiggling it with my hands. I did this for a while, stood up, and it was fine and I took off running again.

At this point the course had effectively finished the downhill portion. It wasn’t uphill, just flat and easy, but certainly not as easy or fast as running on a slight downhill plane. Still, I was keeping my pace in a zone that kept a sub-4-hour marathon a reality, or at least it seemed like a reality to me if I could keep it up. But having never run more than 16 miles in my training, I didn’t know what reality might look like at mile 20, or mile 25.

I have always heard people say that around mile 20 is when you start to really feel it. I’ve heard this can be due to your glycogen stores being used up which causes your body to fatigue, or due to your muscles simply being pushed beyond their normal limits. At mile 15 I felt as good as I felt at mile 3. 16 felt pretty good too. It was between miles 17 and 18 that I started to feel it. In my case, my energy levels, my hydration, and my breathing all felt great. But my muscles were starting to fail me. Not my soleus muscles, which felt better than ever, it was my quads.

For the past month, I had been running on an elliptical machine, a treadmill, or on a flat course. But the first 13 miles of this marathon had consisted of slight to steep downhills, and that pounding had taken its toll on my quadriceps, or the thigh muscles in my legs. I was no longer running downhill, but I was using those muscles with every step, and those muscles were starting to get very tired, and very sore. My pace slowed from 9:00 to 9:15, then to 9:30, then to 10:00, and the mile markers started coming more and more slowly. By the time I got to 20 miles I was hurting pretty bad.

To this point I hadn’t walked, other than through the short aid stations (it’s hard to drink while you’re running). But now I was feeling like I might need to rest those quads. I realized that at 10 minutes per mile, I had an hour to go, and for the first time in the race, it seemed like there was quite a long time left before I would be done. Around miles 22-23 I made what, in retrospect, was a mistake. I stopped to stretch my quads. As I started to run again, I realized I couldn’t. My legs felt like lead. Very sore, throbbing lead. I pushed myself, and gradually was able to get back into a jog, but now I was doing 11-12 minute miles and feeling it every step of the way.

Around mile 24 I started walking again, thinking that I would just take a short rest, let my legs recover, and then start running again. But walking hurt just as bad as running. And when I started trying to run again, it hurt worse than walking, and worse than how bad it hurt to run before. It seemed I couldn’t win. I would walk a ways, then try to start running, and then quit and walk again. I think it looked pretty pitiful whenever I would start trying to run. I mostly tried to do that through intersections to get out of the way of the traffic the cops were stopping for me as I walked/jogged along, mostly alone at this point. It’s not there was no one else in sight, there was a large group about 200 meters ahead of me, and another large group behind me, but I was in the middle feeling like I was all by myself. I wasn’t lonely, it just felt kind of weird, as though all these cops were out there directing traffic just for me. I felt very visible.

I’m not sure there was more than a flicker of thought going on during the last six miles. Early in those six miles I realized that even if I ran 8:30 miles for the rest of the way I wouldn’t be doing a sub-4-hour marathon. But that didn’t bother me. Somewhere in there I also realized that barring something strange happening, I was going to finish, even if I had to walk the rest of the way. But mostly I was just listening to the audiobook on my iPod and in a sort of hypnotic state in which I didn’t really know I was running. I felt pain, but it didn’t matter. I just kept on moving.

Right around the last mile there is a small hill. It’s not big, and it’s not very steep, but it’s a hill. Last year, in the half marathon, it took all my mental power to run up it. This year, I walked to it, up it, and past it. I didn’t dream of trying to run up it. But I knew that once past it, there was no more uphill parts. I also knew I was just a few minutes from the end, so I started to job slowly, and as my muscles softened up I moved faster and faster. The Gateway shopping center, where the race ended, came into view. I reached it, turned left to run south alongside it, turned the corner, ran a hundred feet, and then turned into the final run. Suddenly I was surrounded by a cheering crowd and I started running faster and faster. I kept scanning the sides for my family, but they were on a bridge above the course and I didn’t see them. But by the time I crossed the finish line I think I was doing a 9:00 mile or better, once again. How, I don’t know.

I walked to the refreshment area, took a bite of an apple, drank a small chocolate milk, ate a chocolate creamsicle, and then felt like I better not eat another bite of anything or I’d throw up. I got my gear bag, and limped back to look for my family, my wife, two kids, and my parents, who were there waiting for me.

Aftermath

“Was it easier or harder than you thought it would be?” is a question I’ve heard several times in the past 48 hours since the event. “Both” is my response. I thought my cardiovascular system was going to have a harder time with the race than it did, and I thought my muscles would have an easier time. Mostly, I didn’t realize how sore I would become within a few hours of finishing.

As my wife drove us home, I wanted to pass out in the car, but couldn’t. I came home, took a shower, fell into bed with sore legs, and didn’t wake up for four hours. When I woke up, I could barely move my legs, and now, 48 hours later, I’m barely starting to recover. Standing up from a sitting position is almost impossible without assistance. I groan every time I move. Taking two Alleve doesn’t seem to do anything. Ice and hot showers feel good, but it’s hard to tell what effect they’re having. The same goes for compression tights. I’m wearing them out of faith, not works.

Soon after getting home, the right side of my right foot started hurting quite a bit. I was worried I had a stress fracture or something, but upon talking with a long-distance runner in my neighborhood he told me it was because I was running on the side of the road too much where it sloped off. That seems to make sense, and my foot feels almost entirely better today.

The only other injury I suffered was from my shoes. I had trained in these shoes since September, but apparently there are things I couldn’t learn about them until I ran 20 miles in them. One of those things is that the top of the heel rubs the back of my achilles. It was never a problem on 15-16 miles runs, especially since I often wore long socks on my winter training runs, but after the marathon and running with short socks, I had no skin left where the shoes were rubbing on my achilles area. It wasn’t merely a case of blisters–there was no skin left.

Overall, I would say that 48 hours since the marathon has been more painful and difficult than the marathon itself. But if there’s anything I’ve learned from the experience, it’s that the marathon itself is not the accomplishment. The marathon is easy. What’s hard is the months and months of preparation that go into being ready to run a marathon. There’s a good quote out there somewhere about the “courage to prepare” that would go really well here, but I don’t remember it and can’t find it. How about if I just tell you to “be inspired to do great things and think great thoughts” at this point, does that work?

Looking Forward

This is a big year for me. It’s the culmination of a journey that started at the beginning of 2007. The “culmination” consists of completing three events, one of which is now finished. The next one is really a repeat of an event I’ve already done. And the last one is going to be much bigger than anything I’ve done before. I say “culmination” but in reality it’s only a step towards something more important, the same way this marathon is just a step towards the Ironman. What will come after the Ironman, I don’t know exactly, but it feels good to be moving in that direction.

  • Eric Layton

    Very cool read. I’ve been thinking of doing a marathon myself. Thanks for the tips.

  • Peter

    Amazing! The run, the writing, and the pain! (TMI on the porta-potty scene though).

  • Bill Allred

    Is this the quote you’re looking for?

    “The will to win means nothing without the will to prepare.” Juma Ikaanga of Tanzania – 1989 New York Marathon Champion

    Congrats on your 1st mary, time to get training for Florida. Ironman is all about the bike…

  • Lawrence James Steimle

    We were there and were impressed as you came in to the finish line. You looked great and showed no sign of having endured what you describe in your well written account. Almost thou persuadest me to run. Dad and Mom

  • Walter Steimle

    It is good to hear you made it. Sorry I didn’t make it through your description here. How did the baby blessing go the next day?

  • Sunny

    You’re awesome, Josh! The culmination of so much work brings tears to my eyes. And now you’ll always be someone who actually ran a marathon, no longer “I’d like to run a marathon someday”. And I have real life proof that for some of us, maintaining a healthy weight is harder than running a marathon, without actually having to run a marathon myself. Though unlike a marathon, I think the actual losing weight is more difficult than the preparation . . .

  • http://www.best-running-gear.com Best Running Gear

    It is very inspiring to read the post. you never backed up from the race. That’s the most important things.

  • Josh

    Ran my frist marathon also this year Dublin City 25th October, unbelieveable feeling, its a great club to be part of! great course, support on 95% of route and excellent support stations!