My own resolution: Finishing a marathon
Far too early on a cold, wet, miserable Saturday morning in December, I stared off into the 26.2 sleet-soaked miles in front of me, and, just moments before the starter's gun fractured the silence I turned to my buddy Kurt and said, "Hey, if I kill myself doing this today, promise me, at my funeral, you won't go around telling people, 'At least he died doing something he loved.' Don't tell people that, OK? Just tell them the truth."
And the truth is this: A year ago on New Year's Eve, I was the idiot who drank too much and pledged to run my first marathon -- even though my speed could be categorized as "glacial," my bones crackle like popcorn on most mornings and the distance I had chosen through a fog of champagne-and-Jagermeister-fueled bravado was exactly 13 miles more than I had ever run in my entire, stupid, flat-footed life.
Now, in a few days many of you will undoubtedly get dressed up, over-imbibe with friends and end up making the same idiotic, glorious and potentially life-altering declaration. But fear not, dear FlemFilers, for as you will see, I am living proof that with minimal amounts of training and just a bit of disfiguring nipple trauma you too can make good on your 2011 New Year's resolution to finally run a marathon.
My story begins exactly where you'd expect with a tale like this: With a massive dose of self-delusion.
Many eons ago I paid for college with a Division I wrestling scholarship, and over the years I had kept in decent shape by playing in a rec hockey league where I kept a solid 2-to-1 ratio of championships-to-emergency-room visits. To keep my skating wind I also started running a bit and, on a lark, had completed a few half marathons, including one just a few weeks before New Year's 2010.
The reason we all hate -- and love -- running so much is that it's very much like life itself: It changes drastically and frequently and often without warning.
And you never know, from one day to the next, if you're going to have a great run or a horrible one -- you just have to start running and take it from there.
Anyway, the 2010 half marathon was one of those rare, magical days where, I don't know, the mixture of Mountain Dew, Advil and my lucky hat all clicked perfectly and I ended up almost breaking two hours after running the final nine miles in 80 minutes.
By New Year's my strong finish in the half made me feel ready to go for the full 26.2. This, of course, turned out to be completely delusional. The reality is that the two distances, and the physical challenges they represent, aren't even remotely related. (Here's a simple reference point I kinda wish someone would have pointed out to me: Hey, you moron, it's DOUBLE THE DISTANCE!) Thinking of it in the context of football would have helped too, like, the difference between getting tackled by a 125-pound student manager holding a sheet of algorithms he invented to grade linebackers and then actually getting blindsided by someone double his size, like, say, Ray Lewis himself.
Which brings us to Lesson No. 1 of Flem's Bucket List Marathon Training Manual: Running a marathon is like challenging Ray Lewis to an Oklahoma drill -- it's delusional and it's gonna hurt you in ways you can't even imagine but, oh, think about the great stories you'll have to tell.
After the decision was made I did what any great warrior/poet/athlete does. I procrastinated like a champion for six months. Late in the summer, with time running out, I formulated a training system based partly on the teachings of former Olympian Jeff Galloway and partly on the minimalist philosophies of my buddy Jak, a Big Ten Medal of Honor winner at Purdue who qualified for the Olympic Trials in 1984 with a 2:19:28 in the marathon.
Jak believes that the farthest anyone needs to train in order to finish a marathon is 13 miles. He says this with a straight face. The crowds, Jak says, the atmosphere and your competitive nature will carry you the rest of the way. Jak thinks the uber-serious, perfectly dressed, early-morning, mega-mile run-a-holics are training away what can be the best part of a marathon: The purely primal human challenge of the endless unknown that awaits us well beyond our normal limits.
The key, then, is to find a sweet spot with your preparation by doing enough training to actually believe you can finish the full 26.2 miles without doing so much work that your body and spirit started to break down in the process.
Starting in July, my plan went like this:
Early in the week I worked out with a personal trainer and then, completely spent, I ran for 30 minutes on the treadmill; later in the week I ran for 40 minutes on some great hiking trails at a 200-acre park near where I live (this was, by far, my favorite part of the entire ordeal and if I ever run again it will be back at this park); and then on the weekends I went for a long run, starting at six miles and working my way up to 15. I did this in three-week intervals where, the first week I maintained (with mileage between 6-9 miles) the second week I jumped (from 10 to 12 to 14 and then 15) and the third week I recovered (three miles or less).
Yes, you read that correctly. That's it. That's all the mileage I put in.
Lesson 2: The beauty of the minimalist plan is that the nervousness you feel by under-training virtually eliminates the normally super strong urge to blow off runs. You just can't miss any miles because in this system there's no place or time to make it up.
Lesson 3: By reducing the wear and tear on your body with half your mileage on treadmills and trails, the less likely you are to develop the kinds of nagging injuries most of us will eventually use as an excuse to up and quit.
Lesson 4: In this plan the longer runs kind of sneak up on you, and so by the time you get to the real work the pain of wasting all the time and energy you've already put in becomes far greater than the urge to quit. Genius, right?
The other major benefit of this program is that so-called real "runners" will hate you. A guy I know who relentlessly slogs through a ton of miles every week was near tears when he found out a smart-ass sloth like me had crashed his sacred brotherhood of marathoners. "But I never see you out running?" he gasped. "Yeah, that's my secret," I snickered. And it's true: One of the benefits of not doing training runs of 20 miles or more is that you don't ever learn exactly how painful it's going to be during the final hour of the race. That's a good thing, I think. Because if you even get a glimpse of what it feels like, trust me, you probably won't go through with it.
By September I had completed my first double-digit training run of 10 miles without too much problem, so I decided to celebrate the milestone by officially signing up for the race in December.
Lesson 5: When doing a bucket marathon run, choosing the race is extremely important.
First, you want to eliminate all the difficult variables you can, like heat and hills. Second, forget about water stations. Instead, make sure the race has port-a-johns at least every two miles so that, if/when nature calls, the farthest you will ever be away from a toilet is exactly one mile. (Although based on the woman I saw who finished the half marathon with her black tights full of poo, one full mile might be too far for some people.) Third, and I can't stress this enough, make sure the race T-shirt is awesome. Because once your bloody nipples heal, the only thing you'll have to show for what you did is the swag you get for finishing the race. (Let's be honest: Constantly putting your superior fitness and mental toughness in other people's face is at least 90 percent of why you're doing this in the first place.)
Lastly, when choosing a marathon, the more fun, the more entertaining and the bigger the crowds the better. I didn't understand just how critical this was until Mile 13 of my own race on Kiawah Island in South Carolina when I turned a corner and the dark, deserted and eerily quiet course looked like something out of a post-apocalyptic Cormac McCarthy novel.
A few weeks later, my training hit its first real snag during a 12-mile run. I huffed and puffed through this one and from the very first step to the last it felt like I was dragging an anchor behind me. Runners call this "bonking" (love that term) although I wonder if anyone's ever bonked with exactly 11 ½ miles to go. When I finished I was overwhelmed by the nagging thought that, good god I'm completely cooked and I'm not even halfway there yet. This thought lingered in my brain for a long, long time and rotted away my confidence until I was able to trace the breakdown back to its source: bacon.
Yes, it's true, I had actually attempted to run for two hours straight on a Sunday afternoon after a gigantic breakfast of bacon, eggs, coffee and grits -- but mostly bacon. Huge mistake.
Lesson 6: The older you are and the less training you're doing, the more attention you need to pay to nutrition.
After my Bacon Bonk I started carb loading the night before long runs. A few hours before runs I would also consume another 50 grams of carbs (a bagel and a banana, for example). Experts say that we have around 90 minutes of carbs stored in our system but for every hour you exercise you still need to take in between 30-60 grams of carbs. (One 16-ounce sports drink, for example, has about 35 grams of carbs.) It wasn't that big of an adjustment, really.
Before taking off on longer runs I would throw three Gatorades into the bushes in front of my house and every hour or so loop back around and down the drinks.
I missed the bacon, sure, but the energy and mental uplift this carb regiment added to my runs was remarkable. Until, that is, I tried to guzzle on the run and nearly water-boarded myself with Gatorade.
Lesson 7: Good god, will you relax about your stupid sacred pace and just go ahead and stop for 30 seconds to drink?
With my nutrition under control I slowly rebuilt my confidence over the next month, ending up with a strong 15-mile run on the day after Thanksgiving.
After this I made two critical decisions in the final weeks leading up to the race.
Lesson 8: Fight the urge to squeeze in one more long run; at this point the extra recovery time will do your body much more good.
And, Lesson 9: Once the marathon is less than a month away do not change a single thing -- not even in the tiniest way -- about your food, your preparation or your gear. This is the best way to avoid three of the top marathon gremlins: Runners' trots (diarrhea), blisters and the dreaded thigh, under-arm and nipple chaffing. Yes, I said nipple chaffing. It's better if you don't ask.
And then, just like that, it was time.
I was ready. I thought.
Then, I woke up before sunrise on race day to the sound of cold, driving sleet rattling my bedroom window. I had prepared for every possible race-day disaster: I had duct tape for blisters, I had a back-up Nano for music, I had Advil, I had Pepto, I had Dew, I had anti-chaffing creams, gels and balms, I had at least 500 carbs in every imaginable shape and form, I had extra shoelaces and a hat and gloves for cold weather. But, somehow, someway, I had forgotten one very important thing.
Lesson 10: Even when you're running on the beach, remember to pack rain gear.
Instead, I dressed myself in several layers and, looking a bit like a hobo, stepped into the sleet and dragged myself to the starting line. Despite the nasty weather the first 10 or 11 miles went remarkably well. Mostly because I followed
Lesson 11: You'll have a very strong urge to run fast at the beginning; fight it and hold back.
At Mile 5 my support crew (my wife, Kim) was waiting for me with my first dose of carbs.
And Lesson 12: Do not even think about attempting a Bucket Run Marathon without a support crew, without someone to monitor, help and cheer for you. If you take away one thing from this epic tale let it be this: The support crew is second in importance only to shoes.
Kim met me again at Mile 9 (where I was still feeling strong and confident) and the plan was to meet up again at Mile 15, Mile 21 and, hopefully, the finish line.
That was the plan, at least. At Mile 13 in the Kiawah race, though, the halfers turn to the left toward the finish line, the roaring crowds, the relief, the accomplishment and -- sigh -- the beer. Lots and lots of beer. At the exact same point, however, the marathoners are turned away and forced to head back out onto the road where the joyful sounds at the finish line fade with every miserable stride. They actually station a volunteer at this critical point who stands there, like St. Peter in front of the pearly gates, smiling and guiding the halfers to their salvation while simultaneously condemning the marathoners to an eternity, or, at least a full afternoon, of pain.
I did as I was told and slogged on through the downpour, soaked and chilled to my marrow. Now, alone on the course for long stretches, crippling thoughts of loneliness and doubt were beginning to find cracks in my confidence and burrow into my brain like ravenous parasites.
Mile 15 -- I am saved, momentarily, by one of the greatest gestures of kindness, love and warmth I have ever received: My wife reaches into her backpack and pulls out a pair of clean, dry, toasty warm socks. It's a marathon miracle, indeed.
Lesson 13: It sounds crazy but, in the end, one of the best things about attempting a Bucket Marathon is that you leave your cushy air-conditioned, cruise-control and fast-food life just long enough to get back to a simple, uncomplicated place where you can fully appreciate the rapture contained in a pair of warm, dry socks.
Mile 18 -- Powered by The Socks, I reach this point in three hours, at a respectable 10-minute per mile pace.
Mile 19 -- The final switch back. The next critical marker will be the finish line. I'm OK until someone yells out "Come on, just seven miles to go." Then it hits me: In my training I had run seven miles or more probably less than 10 times. Mentally, you know you're in trouble when the stuff people yell for encouragement actually makes you want to lay down on the front lawn of someone's beach house and curl up into the fetal position.
Mile 20 -- Bam. Screech. Noooo. Burp. Slam. Ahhh. No! Wam. CRASH.
Flem meet The Wall. The Wall meet Flem.
You two have fun now, 'kay?
Lesson 14: Here's the best way to describe what hitting the proverbial wall feels like: Imagine someone pulling back the skin just below your chest and then filling the inside of your body -- from your toes to your knees, your thighs, your hips, your stomach and your lower back -- with quickset concrete mix that instantly begins to harden into painful, heavy, jagged pieces of rock with every stride you take.
Oh, and then there's the nipples. After nearly four hours of friction at this point they were little more than two raw bloody stubs that, with the slightest touch, would send bolts of white-hot pain up my chest, around my neck and into the bony part of the skull, just behind my ears.
Mile 21 -- Trying to move with the least amount of pain my form now resembles the Patriots' 313-pound kick returner Dan Connolly. The idea of one more sip of Gatorade makes me gag. I know I'm supposed to dig deep and find courage in, I don't know, someone who is hurt or sick or crippled who would love to trade places with me right now. But it doesn't work. The truth is, the thoughts that keep me going -- the ones I have started repeating through clenched teeth while poking myself in the ribs -- are also the Bucket List Marathon Mantras: There won't be a second marathon, it's now or never, all or nothing, there's no other choice, you either finish or fail.
Mile 22 -- My wife sees me eyeing the golf carts marked Medical Staff -- the ones that circle like sharks waiting to pounce the moment I stop and raise my hand, signaling my surrender -- and she saves me by agreeing to run by my side (and not laugh out loud at the weird, pathetic groans that occasionally sneak out of my mouth) for the next three miles.
Mile 23 -- I am forcibly telling my legs to move and the signals are no longer registering. I am on the other side of the wall now, way beyond simple fatigue, in a strange, challenging and ultimately enlightening state. And then it hits me. This is why people run marathons. Because until you are here, in this place, you won't ever know for sure if you will quit or if you will keep going. Me? I haven't made up my mind just yet.
Miles 24/25 -- The course is empty and eerie now, but, at long last, dry. I go 5-10 minutes at a time without seeing another soul. Not wanting to sound crazy, I wonder to myself if, in my state, I've somehow taken a wrong turn and am now moving farther away from the finish.
My wife peels off and heads back to our condo. Finish strong, she tells me.
Instead, I am contemplating the level of shame involved in walking the rest of the way to the finish line, when up ahead on the left side of the path I see a lone woman wrapped in a blanket with her arm extended out into the course. She looks like she's hitch-hiking. What the heck is she doing? I wonder. My curiosity piqued I run to her and as I get closer I recognize her offering: Twizzlers.
I laugh out loud. I take the candy, devour it and thank her, profusely. Then I insert my earbuds and hit shuffle on my Nano -- and Nirvana's Sliver comes on.
These are both signs from the running gods, I am sure of it.
Touched by the Twizzler angel and Kurt Cobain's perfect sense of melody and dark humor I bolt back into a jog, and for the first time I am certain: I'm gonna finish this f---ing race.
Mile 26 -- I turn for home, moving faster now, but there's a woman directly in front of me. I can't explain why but I don't want to pass her down the home stretch and somehow take away from her finish, so I veer to the far side of the course where I look up and -- god love 'em -- five of my friends who finished the half marathon many hours earlier are now lined up, hanging over the barricades, cheering and waving their beers at me the way you wave a dog bone at a stubborn Lab.
I run past, tongue out, hamming it up with high-fives and laughter.
"Was there anyone ahead of me?" I yell. "Did you see anyone? Because I seriously think I may have won this thing!"
The race clock, of course, tells a very different story.
5:04 it reads.
It took me two excruciating hours to cover the final eight miles. Not good. Not good.
I wish, at this point, that I had a big finish for you. I really do.
I wish I could tell you that as I crossed the finish line I felt transformed, renewed, complete -- something. But I can't. In the end, there was no grand epiphany or inspiration, just mostly relief and silent, internal confirmation of things I already knew about myself.
Which is why, I think, instead of triumphantly raising my hands overhead as I crossed the finish line I simply lifted my right arm toward my chest and squeezed my hand into a strong, satisfied fist.
I did it.
I was done.
Now, guess what?
It's your turn.
David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com. While covering the NFL for the past 16 years at Sports Illustrated and ESPN, he has written more than 30 cover stories and two books ("Noah's Rainbow" and "Breaker Boys"), and his work has been anthologized in "The Best American Sports Writing."