I was inspired by the marathon in the 2004 Olympics. It seemed like the pinnacle of human achievement. (This was of course before I'd ever heard of such things as ultra-marathons and Ironmans.) The distance itself has a magical history: the legend of Greek warrior Pheidippides running from Marathon to Athens to deliver news of victory, then collapsing and dying from the feat. I put the idea of running a marathon in the back of my mind. At this point, I was a poor 5K (3.1 miles) runner.
In 2005 I learned that one of Elise's friends had done a marathon, and I realized the distance was within the realm of mortals. I scoured the web for information, and read most of the Runner's World Internet archives. I found a training plan that would take about 8 months. I bought some running shoes and started training.
The first test was a half-marathon in Parkersburg, WV. It was a hot August day, a very hilly course, and I ended up wilting in the heat, requiring ice and some IV fluids to get back on my feet. That was an obvious sign to me that there would be no marathon in 2005.
I bounced back in April 2006 with a half-marathon in Charlotte. The weather was cooler and my performance was greater. Despite an unimpressive time of 2:21, I felt that I could handle the distance. I set my sights on two new targets: vengance of the 2005 Parkersburg race, and the Philadelphia Marathon in November.
This time around, I was the master of the hills. Another unimpressive finish (2:20), but I felt good after the race and proved I could handle 13.1 difficult miles. With three months to train and in the best shape of my life, the Philadelphia Marathon and its flat course sounded quite reasonable.
Unfortunately, I suffered a hamstring injury in early November and had to cancel my race plans. I rested and rehabbed over the winter, and discovered the Poconos Marathon on May 6, 2007. Training was becoming a drag, since I was approaching two years of training for my original marathon goal. I never felt as good with my training as I had the past October, but I still thought I could handle the mostly downhill course. Race day approached, and the weather prediction was cool and breezy. At least there would be no danger of overheating!
I started the race with a goal of finishing in 5:15, which approximates to a 12 minute mile pace. The plan included frequent walk breaks, including walking any hard parts. I held my goal pace easily for the first hour. At the turnabout, I counted that I was in 495th place out of 500 runners. No problem, because I'd just slowly pass the people who started out too fast. At least there was no threat of getting passed -- all of the runners behind me were at least 50 years old, and several appeared to have stiff joints. All of a sudden -- WHOOSH -- as a grandma let herself fly down the hill. Make that 496th place!
The second hour also went according to plan. I saw my family at the 8 mile marker, and then ran down the race's steepest hill (one mile long also) around mile 9. The scenery was nice and I could still enjoy it. In the third hour I started to feel tired in my legs, and decided to walk on all the uphills. I saw my family again at mile 16, very early in the fourth hour. Within a half mile, I noticed a stinging pain in the side of my left knee. It went away when I walked, so I decided I would walk all or most of the remainder of the race.
This walking time is when it became most apparent that a marathon really is 90% mental. I knew I would be walking about 10 miles in 3 hours on tired legs. There were several times I thought about looking for a "rescue wagon" to ride to the finish line. Whether it was mental toughness or plain stubbornness, I kept walking, watching the mile markers approach ever so slowly. I kept checking my stopwatch for my pace. The marathon closed the course after six hours, and to officially finish you had to beat that time. At mile 17 I was walking fast enough to easily make the mark, but my pace steadily slipped as I went on. It wasn't until mile 24, when I realized I had 40 minutes to go 2.2 miles, that I was sure I would officially finish. With my first bit of good news in over two hours, it became easier to keep going.
Prior to 1908, the official marathon distance was somewhat less than 26.2 miles. The organizers of the 1908 Olympic Games in London extended the race to 26.2 miles, so that the race would finish in front of the royal family's viewing box . This kind of trivia can really bug you late in the race. The good part of this is that many marathons, including the 2004 Olympic marathon that inspired me, run the last .2 miles around a track in a stadium, so that the runners can be cheered at the finish. My lap around the track felt as good as I dreamed about two years ago.
My official time was 5:54, good enough for a finishers medal (and the last "official" finisher) although wholly unimpressive for a 27 year old. I'm glad I did it, and I'm in no hurry to put in the effort needed to do it again. I plan on sticking with half-marathons and "Olympic" triathlons.
As for the 26.2 reasons to run a marathon, I was just kidding. There is only one reason to run a marathon - to prove to yourself that you can do it.