A First Marathon Story



The marathon run has enjoyed a considerable surge in popularity over the last few decades. Every year there are more organized marathons and every one sees a large number of participants trying it for the first (and often last) time. I find it ironic that this has occurred while on average we are becoming a bunch of couch potatoes.

So you think you'd like to run a full marathon? Think it will give you bragging rights to your friends that you are able to finish (still standing) after completing this ridiculously long distance? Perhaps, but it is more likely that it will reaffirm their suspicions of your mental instability. You're going to run? Isn't that what other sports do for punishment? Do you think running a marathon would be a personal triumph, proof that you can set an almost unfathomable goal and ability to work very hard to make it a reality, even though it will surely be an ordeal by the time you finish? The answer, of course, is YES! You are mentally unstable, a menace to yourself and everyone around you!

But here is the whole point. When you're actually running in the organized marathon, even though there may be thousands there, it is an extremely personal endeavor. You are not racing anyone. It is a battle between yourself and this idiotic notion that formed months ago when you thought this would be a good idea. For many first marathoners, it their Mt. Everest.

563 Stupid Things.  Not too long ago (well after my marathon) I found a little book at a Barnes & Noble that I picked up for just $5 entitled "563 Stupid Things People Do To Mess Up Their Lives" by Dr. Larry. There it is on page 4 in the chapter Stupid Achievements, the 14th entry of the book: Run a marathon. Dr. Larry simply writes, "A classic case of doing something just to prove to yourself and others that you can do it regardless of how stupid it is. Choosing to undergo pain for 26.2 miles should be considered grounds for undergoing a CAT scan."

Is Dr. Larry onto something here? Or is his advice not even worth the less than 1 cent I paid for it? (500 cents divided by 563 stupid things.) I think that calculation alone should give you a good insight.

My story is admittedly long, but then again, so is a marathon! In gleaming as many first marathon stories as I could off the web, I found most were simply too short to give anyone an idea of what the experience was really like. Some were no more than a paragraph which is not adequate space to describe a 100 meter dash! So if you're looking for a concise account, you've come to the wrong place. (You can find some first marathon stories here...)


How Long Is a Marathon?

The reality of 26 miles, 385 yards is hard to fathom. If you don't think it's a long distance, just try driving it, finding the straightest road you can find. (A route with a lot of turns tends to break up the distance making it seem shorter.) At 30MPH, it will take 52 minutes! A typical racing stride is approximately 44 inches. That means an incredible 38,000 strides to cover that distance. The Marathon Run was created for the first Olympic Games in 1896 in Greece to commemorate a legendary run by the messenger Philippides, who as the tale goes ran from the battlefield at Marathon to Athens to deliver the news of victory. When he got there, as the legend goes, he was only able to say, "Rejoice, we conquer!" and promptly died. [Dramatic pause...] So here you are attempting this same distance, armed with absolutely no message, less an important one! But, hey, this is the 21st century, if we had that kind of news, Philippides might have thought it better to simply use a cell phone.

If you're looking to talk yourself out of a marathon, find the straightest road you can find that goes 26 miles and simply drive it. Another suggestion: If you can get yourself to a high enough point where you can actually spot an object 26 miles away, now tell yourself you're going to run to that point.

When we ask how long is a marathon, we're really asking how much time. Sure the best of the best can finish in 2:10 which is a long enough time by itself, but a typical first marathoner will not reach the half way point in that time. It is not at all unusual that a first timer will need 5 hours. So you have to ask yourself, can you imagine exercising continuously for that long? When you're standing at the starting area of a marathon in a sea of runners, possibly thousands, this group did not just decide yesterday they were going to try this run. They didn't decide last week, and almost none them decided just last month. For the most part they decided months ago because a marathon requires significant preparation. 


What I Knew About Training

I always knew the physical conditioning was straightforward but daunting. This preparation involved "road work," endless miles of running over many many months. Over time you build up your stamina resulting in greater distance and faster pace. Various guides I read just before my first marathon indicated you should build up to at least 40 miles a week, this peak occurring three weeks before the event, being careful not to over train. But there is also mental conditioning which is not so straightforward though it's related to your physical training. There's no way around it, your body is not going to like running this distance, or more accurately, running this length of time. You must get your body to become accustomed to being pushed to it's limits and even beyond. This is where the mental preparation really plays into the equation.

If you're looking to properly train yourself for a first marathon, check out the myriad of training guides (you can find these on the web) that will state how much mileage you need to put in order to complete it.

To complete a marathon you must mentally get through a large barrier. Your body will want to shutdown when it's drained of it's glycogen, the fuel your body feeds on during the run. In running this will manifest in a numbness in the legs. A person with any common sense stops at this point, but it rarely stops a marathon runner.  If you're mentally determined (a marathon prerequisite) and continue long enough through this barrier, your body will unleash a more powerful deterrent: pain. It is one thing for your legs to numb and not want to move; it's quite another when every step hurts. I've read that a marathon is about the triumph of desire over reason.

If you're looking to talk yourself out of a marathon, check out the myriad of training guides (you can find these some of these on the web) that will state you have to put in 400 or more miles over several months, running 5 days a week.


A Not-So-Unique Story

In many ways my story is unique, but I've discovered (and surprised) that my marathon experience was very much like others. As I begin the tail of my marathon, let me assure you that I'm not really a runner. I have, however, from time to time got on a running kick for a week or two or three, but that's about it. I did a little better when I was in college, but I never got close to a running addiction, that desire some develop where they just have to run. My problem is and always has been that I find it boring. After about 20 minutes I've generally had it, being pretty exhausted by that time. The reason: I'm running too fast to help overcome the boredom. But still I'd always been intrigued by the idea of completing the marathon distance, mostly because the endeavor seemed so improbable and possibly impossible. At my best, however, when I was in college and less than half my current age, I completed two 15 mile runs, and a 13 mile run. After all of them I was so exhausted it was inconceivable that I could run at least 10 additional miles. This is why I've known for years what the barriers were to completing a marathon.

After college I moved to Phoenix and soon found two mountain trails: Camelback Mountain and Squaw Peak. Both of these routes ascend 1200-1250 feet on about 1.25 mile trail (so a 2.5 mile round trip). I loved these trails: still do. Hiking them I experienced almost no boring moments. I could be totally exhausted and still want to continue on. And here in Phoenix that can be especially challenging if the weather is above 100 degrees. Exercising in 100+ weather is simply hard to describe - and, yes, it's dangerous . Many years later I started doing "laps" on these trails: going up and down several times successively. It would take approximately 40 minutes for this round trip so the decision to go up again after you were at the bottom was significant. After I had built myself up to 4 times (which therefore took about 2:45), I felt I was ready to do the Grand Canyon in only 3-4 hours: about 4800 feet of descent/ascent and a 13.5 mile round trip.

Doing the Grand Canyon from the rim to river and back in one day is highly discouraged by the park service because it is dangerous and many have suffered illness and even death in the attempt. The difficulty is often compared to a marathon. But unlike a marathon, there is absolutely no support. No cheering volunteers handing out cups of water and Gatorade every other mile, no chance of just quitting if you become totally exhausted, and no immediate medical attention. Consequently I never undertook it lightly. I would always train for several months and in any given workout I'd regularly push myself to my limit and even beyond.


I Decide To Run

You're supposed to decide many months in advance to run in an upcoming marathon. It had been in the back of my mind (way back, I assure you), but I only seriously thought about it for a couple of months and decided in less than three weeks! Having just completed a 4 hour canyon dash, I was in shape from that point of view. But hiking, no matter how far the distance, is not running! I had done quite a bit of running (at least for me) to help prepare for the canyon, but my weekly mileage was about 26 miles. My longest single run was only a mere 14 miles. If you've read anything about the minimum training suggested before a marathon attempt, you'll know my training was woefully inadequate. What I had going was my tenacity (regularly going to my bodies limit and continuing on) and the single minded thought that if it was either now or never. As measly as 26 miles per week really was, I honestly never thought I'd be at that level again. There are many guides that state you should be at 25 miles a week before you start your marathon training!  Any amount of logic applied to this shows the ridiculous inadequacy of this figure.  26 miles in one week and now I'm going to try that same distance in 4-5 hours?   

Read more on the journey of serendipity.

So I knew going into this that the actual marathon was bound to be some kind of ordeal by it's end. The only question in my mind was how far I could go. I wasn't even positive that I could finish. But I was going to try... Maybe if I had just seen the book by Dr. Larry? ;)

After you've built your running to 25 miles a week or more, this is the point where you're supposed to decide to start your marathon training.

The convenient event was the 2003 Valley of the Sun Marathon in Mesa, just outside Phoenix, Arizona. On the Wednesday before the race, I signed up for the full marathon via the internet. If I decided to not go through with it there would be a price tag associated - $70. Hmmm... Paying $70 for the opportunity to absolutely torture yourself? Is this not the action of a masochist?? If not, then definitely a crazy person because a sane one bent on running would have gone for just the half marathon, a distance I thought I could easily finish. But is it just me, or does doing half of anything sound like underachievement?


The Expo

Because this Phoenix area marathon is run in early March, Spring temperatures could be in full force so they start the event at the break of daylight which is at 6:30AM. The theory is the race will be over before it gets too hot. Ideal marathon weather is overcast with temperatures not exceeding 60 degrees. The necessity of an early start plus the size of most marathons mean same day registration and/or packet pickup is impractical. Instead almost all marathons use the day before to take care of this important aspect of the event. It's called the Expo because in addition to the packet pickup, there are various sponsors and other vendors set up hawking their wares including bottled water, power bars, power drinks, shoes, clothing, fanny packs, etc.

That Saturday morning I had french toast for breakfast in order to start building up my carbohydrates for the race. I had never worried about what I ate before, but from the limited information I read fueling the body was paramount. I was to meet Ron and Nicole at 12:00 where the three of us (Nicole would be running in the half marathon) would go to the Expo to pick up our packets and then drive the marathon course to get a feeling for the run the next morning. It hit me as I was driving there when I reached for the air-conditioning button in my car. It's warm! Beautifully clear, sunny, and warm! This was not a good sign for a marathon.

It is a good idea to drive the marathon course.

The expo was as I expected. One full room was set aside with tables for registering. There were lines for the marathon, half-marathon, marathon relay, 5k, and wheelchair marathon. The half-marathon line was divided by last names A-L and M-Z, but the marathon only had the one sign; an indication that far fewer people were signed up. And you literally had to sign because it was the waiver indicating that you are in fact crazy and clearing them of all responsibility. I didn't mind. My limited legal knowledge tells me your signature doesn't mean a thing if you're insane. ;) They then gave me the two items necessary for the race: your bib (mine was #292) and your chip.

marathon_bib.jpgEveryone knows what the bib is all about. You attach it to the front of your shirt with 4 safety pins and you have instant identification. Why the front? Studies must show that when runners keel over, they lie face up. But the chip is a relatively new phenomenon to racing. If you're familiar with a proximity device like a security card, it's really the same thing. The chip is very small, lightweight and is contained within a quarter size piece of plastic you attach to your shoelaces with plastic ties. At designated points of the race (like the start, finish, and key points in between) you run over a red carpet that has sensors that will register your chip along with the time. The last station in registration is to verify your chip. I handed it to a guy behind a laptop computer who proceed to run it across a pad and then asked, "Are you Gene Hanson?"


Once you have one of these bibs, wear it on a very long training run. Near the end of when you're tired, sweaty (i.e., you look like hell) flag down someone saying you're running the Boston Marathon and you seem to have gotten off course.

P547.jpgP548.jpgEnter any marathon and you get a bag of goodies filled with samples and coupons from sponsors. You also get a marathon tee shirt with the logo of the event and the list of sponsors. We got a white tee shirt with long sleeves that had a disconcerting resemblance to a straightjacket! My theory: they want the participants to receive familiar clothing.

Though we spent less than 20 minutes at the various booths, I found myself curiously attracted to the various vendors who were hawking shoes, run clothing of all kinds, fanny packs, power bars, power drinks, etc. Do I need any of this stuff? Hey, I've got shoes but I don't have shoes like these! Can these power bars be as wonderfully energetic as they claim, or are my fig newtons (my choice of power bar food) just kryptonite in disguise? I reluctantly left without a single purchase now anxious to see the actual marathon course.


Driving the Course

Ron drove with Nicole in the passenger seat and I navigated from the back seat with the map shown below. I was already a little disturbed by the heat, and now there was this horrendously long trip just to get to the starting line. What have I got myself into? We arrived at Usery Pass Park and found the starting area. Ron reset his trip odometer and we were off. We made various wrong turns because the course seemed to be designed by the pen of Rube Goldberg. He had to reset the odometer many times as a result. During the race they'll set red cones marking the way and traffic control, but for now the only indication we were on course was the blue port-a-potty huts along the side of the road at the mile markers.

2003 Valley of the Sun Marathon route.  Design by Rube Goldberg.

As we drove and the mile markers turned from 8 to 9 to 10, I wondered how I would be feeling at this particular spot during the race.  What have I got myself into? True anxiety set in at the 17-18 mile mark when we climbed a very steep hill; it surely be a killer the next day. I knew this was the mark when my little adventure might well turn into an ordeal. We had driven such a long way already and there was still 8 miles to go and we were in the comfort of an air-conditioned car! The mantra in my mind was now constant.  "This is really crazy. What have I got myself into?" I was tired and wished I were napping at that very moment. I could be having a nice day of rest, but nnnooooooo! The reality of the marathon was now really hitting me. Maybe, I thought, just maybe, I'd feel a lot better in the morning. Maybe if I would have bought some of those power bars. In the meantime it was, "What have I got myself into?" This is surely the worst part of a marathon. I had spaghetti for dinner as part of the plan to load my body with carbohydrates.

It is a bad idea to drive the marathon course.


Marathon Morning

P552.jpgIt was very early in the morning! Though the start of the race was set for 6:30, they wanted everyone at the high school at 4:30 where the all the runs would finish. We boarded a white school bus for the 10 mile trip to the starting area. (Obviously, we'd be taking the long route back!) I got up at 3:00 (My wife, Cindy, too, since she was going to drive me there) to very little sleep. You're supposed to get a good nights sleep, but how can you? This is the worst part of a marathon. I packed up everything I needed: basically drinks, food, and extra clothing since it would be a little cold before sunrise. Cindy was first thinking of making the 50 minute ride back home after dropping me off, but she decided she could sleep a little in the car and then study. After all, if it took 4 hours to complete (I was really thinking optimistically), I wouldn't be back at the school until 10:30. My breakfast comprised of a banana, a couple of rolls, and some fig newtons.

At 3:35 we headed out as I drove the freeway to Mesa. There weren't many cars until we reached the end of the freeway. Cindy said several times that a lot of these cars must be going to the marathon, why else would they be out on the road at 4:00? As we exited the freeway, I knew she was onto something because nearly everyone was making the same turn toward the school and the car in front had a license plate frame that said, "I'd rather be running." The temperature registering on my display panel of the car was not encouraging: 57 degrees! At some locations it went down to 54, but still much warmer than I would have hoped.

P554.jpgI had a plastic bag with Gatorade, fig newtons (some in two sandwich bags that I would carry with me to eat during the race), the race info, and a sweat shirt and sweat pants. Before the start of the race you can get your bib number marked on the bag, turn it in ,and they'll have it for you at the finish line. I would be bagging all my sweat gear since I'm always immediately warm. Other runners will bring older clothing to wear during the earlier, colder stages of the run and discard them as they go. Any clothing discarded along the race route is considered a donation to charity.

As the bus left the parking lot of the school, you could see cars backed up for nearly half a mile waiting to enter the school! I was glad to have been there early. It was still very dark and I actually tried to rest, trying not to think too much about the ordeal to come.

You probably shouldn't refer to your upcoming marathon as "the ordeal to come."

I think the worst part a marathon is this long bus ride to the starting area. It was dark and my thoughts were filled with what's to come and really hoping it would just get underway. The bus stopped well short of the staging area and an official stepped in to announce that we would have to get off here (there was not enough room for the buses to turn around) and walk almost a half mile to the staging area. The actual starting line was approximately where the bus was stopped to let us off. The staging area was a large gravel parking area for the park and they had set out at least 30 of those blue port-a-potty restrooms. The lines for these were so terrible that many people were braving the dark desert, avoiding a lot of cactus, to relieve themselves. And you have to go because you've drank enough to drown a fish because it's important to be fully hydrated.

At any marathon you'll find an incredible number of port-a-potties at the starting line and lines at least a dozen deep. Seasoned marathoners are not shy and will find alternative facilities that may not be very private.  So if you don't want to see something you'll regret, keep your eyes on the ground!

At 5:00 I found Ron, Nicole, and her friend Julie. They and many others stayed huddled together because Usery Park is higher and away from the concrete that keeps nighttime temperatures high here in Phoenix. But it was the wind that was making it just a bit chilly. I knew the wind would probably die down with sunrise, but even if it didn't it was blowing in the direction of our run. Otherwise it was very disconcerting to be just sitting around with an hour and a half to go. Can I say this is the worst part of a marathon? It was also disconcertedly quiet for the number of people.  You could hear conversations going on here and there, but everyone kept their voices down, almost reminiscent of a wake.   I wished we could get started now when it was still relatively cool, but it did mostly take my mind off of how warm it might get in the run. Staying warm became easier as more and more arrived via the buses, providing body heat and shielding from the wind. Nearly 2000 were signed up and looking around it looked like everyone showed up. Only runners were allowed here. I noticed a lot of runners wearing their tee shirts from 10K and marathons past. I can hardly remember what we talked about for the next hour. My mind was virtually numb thinking about the run.  

At 6:00 an announcer gave the instruction that everyone should start moving toward the starting line a half mile back down the road. There was decidedly little movement! Everyone figured they had a lot of time left so why the hurry? Eventually the announcer started saying, "I don't want to treat you like cattle, but, ‘‘Mmmmooooooowwwww!!" He used that several times and I think he was on to something. We all started what I can only refer to as the "walk of death," a slow motion movement toward the starting line like a heard of cattle being lead to slaughter.

At the starting line area it was still dark, but you could see the light of dawn spilling over the side of the mountains and the wind was noticeably calmer. They had temporary generator lights that provided ample visibility but the one thing we could not see was the starting line. The reason: it wasn't set up yet! At 6:25 was supposedly the wheelchair start (they move incredibly quickly as the course starts downhill so they'll be well out of everyone's way - or more accurately should I say we won't be in their way), but that was obviously delayed. It didn't seem like there were more than 5 entries in the wheelchair event and I wasn't aware when that group took off. These minutes just before the gun must be the worst part of the marathon. I wish I could get going! At 6:30 the starting banner appeared and they started hooking up the carpet sensor. We were all lined up sort of jockeying for position. The etiquette is to line up with the group of people who are going at your pace, the fastest to the front. As the time went past 6:30 I was now wondering where the guy with the megaphone was. I was joking that we should all start saying, ‘‘Mmmmooooooowwwww!!"

Continue to the Race