On October 7, 2012, in Milwaukee, I ran my first sub-three hour marathon by running 2:57:07.
Training for and running a marathon is a lonely, time-consuming, and selfish pursuit. We marathoners may invoke bucket lists or fundraising causes, but candor requires us to recognize the time we spend away from other life activities while we are running. I had this moment of clarity last Saturday, the night before the marathon. As I tucked in my eight-and-a-half year-old, he spoke accusingly to me about how “selfish” I was for running so much, just to achieve a time. Guilty as charged, right?
I explained to my football-obsessed son that the race was my Super Bowl, and that I had dreamt of breaking three hours since 1999, when I first realized I had some skill for marathons. While this wasn’t easy for my son to grasp, he got it, and was my enthusiastic cheerleader during the race and non-stop congratulator after it was over.
Retelling the story of a marathon can easily feel like a shot-by-shot story of a golf game. Rather than take you step by step through every mile, let me me try to cut to the heart of the tale.
After a too-fast start, I joined a small group of runners who were running my pace. My left Achilles tendon, as a full voting member of my body, threw me off a bit in the first five miles, and in miles 10-12 I struggled with what felt like a post-Thanksgiving stomach ache. I saw my wife and sons near the halfway point (see photo above) and their cheers lifted my spirits.
As the course snaked through tree-lined neighborhoods, I faced the defining challenge of the race. Veteran runners will tell you that at some point in every race, you have to deal with an inner voice that has only two things to say: “Slow down, it will feel better;” or “Quit, think how great that will feel.” At mile 16, it wasn’t just the voice that was in my head…I was feeling the onset of lightheadedness, the awful feeling known as bonking or “hitting the wall.” In a pre-race strategy session, my coach and I had decided that if I didn’t think I could break three hours—in part due to my broken toe this past July— Mile 18 would be the point where I would exit the course; I would call it a day and train for the few additional weeks before the November marathon.
But before I could give in, two thoughts crossed my mind. The first was the race mantra I had prepared to get me through the maddening final 2.2 miles of the marathon – “Today is My Day.” I had been repeating it for weeks during runs and it was helpful. The second was an unexpected phrase from the recesses of my mind. I began conceiving of the voice as an evil enemy trying to subdue me…and then my mind wandered to the movie Toy Story and the character of Buzz Lightyear. The words “Not today, Zurg” formed not just in my head, but on my lips, over and over again. I decided to soldier on and see if I could run through the bad patch…and I did. I ran the next three miles in just under 21 minutes and it was as if a sleeping spell had been lifted. I got my legs back and my head cleared enough for me to fight to the finish.
The last two miles brought exactly the challenge I expected. There was wind in my face, the course was slightly uphill after a massive downhill stretch, and my tank was dangerously low. A scattering of spectators yelled my name (it was on my race number) and cheered me on. Anyone who has ever run a race hates the cheers of “you’re almost there” when you clearly are not, but this time, as I crossed Mile 25, I was almost there. Even if I had walked the rest of the way at that point–although I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing so–I knew I would slay my nemesis, the formerly force field-like three hour barrier.
“Not today, Zurg.” 2:57:07.