In a lot of ways, this 204-lap event wasn’t a race so much as a convention for marathon collectors. Denis, who lives in St. Louis, came to Goshen to run his 150th. Jennifer, from nearby Warsaw, was running her 99th – her fourth one of the week. She would’ve run all of race director Doug Yoder’s “six pack” last week, she said, “but there’s this thing called work.”
Jeff, from Bloomington, was attempting back-to-back marathons for the first time after having joined the Marathon Maniacs a couple of years ago. He got in, he says, by running three marathons in three months.
Everybody’s amused to learn this is my first marathon. “Why this one?” they ask. Well, it’s close. It’s a Sunday race, which helps when you work Saturdays. And the way this winter’s gone, running indoors seems like a plus. Besides, I’m intrigued by the mental challenge of lap management. Though our progress will be tracked on an oversized computer screen, you can’t really read it without coming to a complete stop. I decide to carry my clicker like a security blanket, to remind me of my mega-lap training runs.
Twenty-seven of us line up for the 7 a.m. start. I fall in behind Jeff and Ryan, a guy from Michigan with a gimpy ankle who says he’ll likely only run 13 miles today. I hesitate to pass a single person, because I know I need to go slow if I have any hope of finishing. But it isn’t long before some people start walking. They act like they know what they’re doing – and they must, since every person here except me has done this before. (One guy never does run; he speed walks the entire 26 miles, getting faster and seemingly stronger the farther he goes. He, like so many others, will finish ahead of me.)
After about an hour, people are chatting less and focusing more on their mission. Jeff’s moved ahead of me, while Ryan’s dropped back. I decide this is a good time to try something I’ve never done before: Use an MP3 player.
I don’t plan to listen to music. I’ve enjoyed the tunes blaring over the speakers, and I don’t have many songs loaded on this device anyway. Instead, I’m going to immerse myself in Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. The topic seems appropriate.
It’s not like I ignore the lap count. I push the button on my clicker every time I come around and mentally note my position in the “timeline” model I developed during training, where Lap 1 starts at the year 1809 and Lap 204 ends in 2014. But I do get drawn into the story, which describes, among other things, a girls’ youth basketball team that goes to nationals despite having no talent whatsoever, and why, statistically speaking, it’s a terrible idea to go to an elite university if you’re not likely to be one of its top students.
This is fascinating stuff – story after story of people with disabilities or disadvantages who beat the odds by “changing the game.” A dyslexic who became a top trial lawyer. Another who became president of Goldman Sachs after bluffing his way into a job.
I’m aware of the other runners — especially the fluid form of the leader, a guy named Grant Steiglitz who runs in an outside lane so it’s easier to pass people — aware of time passing, laps accumulating. But all that’s just white noise as I get absorbed in Gladwell’s writing.
I reach the halfway point roughly on target for a 5 1/2 hour finish. For a while I speed up, hoping to get done faster. Then I slow down again. I get to what I believe to be the 18-mile point – the longest of my training runs – with no real problems. No pain. Never during this race do I experience actual pain. More like nagging discomfort. And even though there are no mile markers, looking back I suspect this begins around mile 20 – about where I’ve always heard “the wall” is located.
Circling the pylon when we change direction every half hour at first came as a welcome relief, a way to measure the passage of time. But now my knees shriek every time they approach the pylon. There is a troublesome sensation in what appears to be my left hip, but it doesn’t hurt so much as feel like a repetitive-use issue that has the potential to throw my gait out of whack. I speed up, slow down, then vow to ignore it. Eventually, it goes away.
My clicker was spot on through the first 100 laps, but now I notice irregularities. Does it matter, I wonder, what lane I run in as to the distance accumulated? I keep adjusting my count to what the computer monitor says, then decide to just stick with my number until I’m told otherwise – judging from what I’ve seen with the other finishers, race officials let you know when you’ve got 10 laps to go.
At the 4:45 mark, I tell myself: I’m going to run for another 45 minutes, and then I’ll be done. Or at least I’ll be close. Bob’s returned and has been taking pictures from all over the track. I try not to grimace in his direction. I want to tell him my “time machine” lap count, like I did during my training runs: “Hey, honey, it’s 1980 – you’re about to graduate from high school!” But since I’m no longer sure if that’s accurate, I refrain. Several times I almost burst into tears. It’s unclear whether this is from frustration or elation – because now I know I’m really going to make it — but I always try to “cheer up” by the time I get to where the spectators are.
The voice in my headphones no longer rivets my attention. All I hear is blah blah blah, so I yank them off and toss the MP3 player in Bob’s direction. Now, having emerged from my audio cocoon, I pay more attention as the other runners finish. I congratulate Denis, who despite walking regularly will beat me by nearly half an hour. Would his approach have been more sensible? It seemed important that I not walk, and I haven’t, except for a couple of quick water breaks. Now my right foot is howling with every step, but who cares? I’m almost there.
My main goal now is to finish before the final direction-change at the 5:30 mark. Not only would that mean I’d met my own personal deadline, but it would give my knees a major break.
“10 laps,” the race director finally says.
Denis begins cheering every time I come around the track: “C’mon, first-timer!”
I’m not quite going to make my deadline. But the race director takes pity on me, noting that I have just one lap to go, and delays the direction-change manuever. Steiglitz, who finished 2 ½ hours earlier, sets down his pizza and jumps up to join me on my last lap.
“You’re doing great!” he says, running effortlessly beside me. Before I know it, I’m crossing the timing mat for the last time.
It’s shocking how, now that I’m done, my legs don’t seem to work. I try to walk as the four remaining runners change direction, but it seems impossible to go more than even once all the way around the track. I can’t even begin to stretch. Finally I decide to brave the stairs to hit the restroom – I managed to hold off all this time, not wanting to take the time or do any unnecessary climbing – and now I feel the pain.
“Race you,” jokes another runner, who’s taking just as long as I am to descend the stairs.
Jeff finishes shortly after I do, having hobbled through the second half of the race. But when I ask him later if he thinks it was a mistake to run back-to-back marathons, he laughs.
“Actually,” he says, “I was thinking I might try a quad.”
Another Marathon Maniac finishes, then another six-packer, and finally Jennifer comes in just under the 6-hour deadline. Steiglitz runs with her, too, and she gets the loudest applause of all. Why not? She’s probably the most exuberant runner here, the most likely to dole out encouragement to others. Earlier it looked like she was having serious trouble. It’s amazing that she pulled it together to not only finish, but to do it on time.
Twenty-four hours later, I’m still having to think through how to get in the car. I can’t lift my left leg more than a couple of inches without grabbing my thigh and lifting it by hand. A groin muscle? Some kind of ligament? I don’t know squat about anatomy. But I think this will go away, so I’m not terribly concerned.
“How do you feel?” my dad asks on the phone. He gives me a long speech about how this was a great accomplishment, but how maybe I ought to stop with just one. “It just takes so much out of your body,” he says.
I can vividly recall Dad crawling up the stairs to bed after all three of his marathons 30 years ago. His knees gave out shortly after that. Was it the marathons — or does he just have bad knees? Grandpa never ran a marathon, and he had to have his knees replaced.
“We’ll see,” I say.
It’s true, I’m more stiff and sore than I’ve ever been, except, of course, for childbirth. But it feels so energizing to have run a marathon. A glimpse into this odd fraternity makes it seem at least intriguing, if not exactly alluring. I love the mental challenge. Already I find myself thinking how I could do better next time.
But would my life experience be enhanced exponentially, marathon by marathon? I can’t say. For now, I hope to do the Huff 50K at the end of the year, just before my 50th birthday. After that, as I told dad, we’ll see.