Ever since I can remember I had always wanted to run a marathon. I’m not quite sure why. I was never much of a runner. In fact, I was never much of anything athletic. I never tried Cross Country. I was on the Track team for about one month as a lackluster discus thrower. Somehow, running a Marathon seemed epic.
I’m not built like a runner. I weight about 185 pounds and most of that is in my torso and arms. I’m not exactly gazelle-shaped. With a bulky upper-body and skinny chicken legs I’m shaped more like a tee with a golf ball on it.
Despite no background in running I attempted my first marathon when I was in college. Not to give away the ending but it was somewhat of an epic fail.
How not to run a marathon:
It was 1999. I trained following a book which took me through increasing amounts on long distance running until I peaked with a 20 mile run just over one week before my marathon. I would guess that towards the end of my training I was running 40-50 miles a week.
During this training I managed to strain what I now believe was my IT band. I ended up with a pretty serious pain from the top of my hip all the way down to my knee. Additionally, my right knee had been aching all through my training. I wore a bulky knee brace to “protect my knee.” I also wore cushy motion-control shoes at the advice of every magazine, book and shoe-store at the time.
The day of the marathon I had not fully recovered and decided to run the half. I believe I ran it in about 2 hours, but my memory is fuzzy. I what I DO remember is the screaming pain in my IT band as I had pushed it way past its ability.
I rode MARTA back with some friends and I had a hard time concentrating on post-race conversation. In fact I was doing my best not to vomit all over MARTA’s (then) upholstered seat covers. It took weeks for the pain to cool off. Both knees took a serious beating from the training, and never fully recovered. My nipples were also totally rubbed disgustingly raw from wearing a cotton shirt. I felt miserable and my desire to complete a marathon ended that very day.
Me and my scabby chest hung up our running shoes for good. This was only 13.1 miles and I was hobbling away bruised and broken. I guess I was too old to run (after all, I was pushing the old age of 22) — I stopped running for over 7 years.
Then I found CrossFit
For those of you unfamiliar with CrossFit, you’ve obviously never spent any time in a confined space with me longer than 5 minutes. For those of you who have… I apologize. It’s not my fault. It’s the cult’s.
Without going into elaborate details of CrossFit (I’ll save it for another post topic), I will say it exposed me a few important things which transformed my ability to run:
Michael Johnson demonstrating bad-assery... and forefoot running. Look at how he lands on the balls of his feet. Sure, Michael is not a marathoner, but the mechanics are the same. Watch the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHG5vB8hX4E
Squatting and Other Natural Movements- Squatting seems simple enough, but I realized I had never taken in very seriously. It really transformed how my legs functioned. Literally within weeks my “chronic” knee pain had gone away and I was running again.
- Fore-foot running. Hunter-gatherers didn’t run in plump motion-control shoes. They ran barefoot. When you run barefoot you naturally absorb the hundreds of pounds of impact you create on your knees and hips with every stride. CrossFit specifically endorses POSE running which teaches you to alter your body alignment so you are landing on the balls of your feet instead of your heels. Similar concepts can be found in books like Chi Running. Not only is it safer and easier on your joints, it’s faster for most of us too.It turns out, the more expensive your shoe is, the more like you are likely to get hurt. I now firmly believe “motion-control” shoes are a commercial driven scam. I switched to a very thin-soled Puma running shoe for training and a super Saucony lightweight track shoe about a month before the actual race.
- Anaerobic training. When done properly, short fast-paced workouts in the anaerobic threshold produce greater benefits to your VO2 Max. Very few of my workouts lasted longer than 20 minutes.
Two Months of Training
CrossFit has an offshoot called “CrossFit Endurance” where your typical CrossFit training is slightly augmented for endurance races. My home gym BTB put together a friendly Endurance program. Along with a handful of others, I trained for 2 months following the CrossFit Endurance:
- 5-6 CrossFit workouts a week (Without going into too many details: lot’s of fast-paced weight-training and “gymnastics” like pull-ups, push-ups and ring-dips. This also included some running and indoor-rowing).
- 2-3 additional running workouts a week (hardly any of my workouts were longer than 2 miles). Mostly intervals, hill-runs and sprints.
I calculated I ran somewhere around 50-60 miles TOTAL training for the marathon. Many marathoners will run that in a week. The longest I ran was a 10k early in my training. There were a lot of Crossfitters who had done this successfully before me – but I still felt a little uneasy as race-day approached. On top of my nervousness, pretty much any traditional runner said the same thing “Uhhh… ok. Let me know how that works out for you.” [said with a dismissive "you're screwed" tone in their voice].
Hitting the Wall
The first 2/3rds of the race I felt fantastic. I felt so good that I had visions of myself running ultra-marathons. Atlanta is fairly hilly and I found my lung-capacity was helping me tear up hills while others dropped their speed considerably. At mile 18 I felt my first sense of fatigue and my speed dropped considerably. By the time I hit mile 23 I hit the proverbial wall. It was miserable. Emerging from Piedmont Park I was pretty sure I would need to walk the remaining 5k.
It’s hard to explain what hitting the wall is. Technically your glycogen stores (basically “carbs”) are exhausted and your body needs to start burning fat. It’s kinda like trying to light a fire with the heavy log versus tiny twigs. Very hard to burn. You have way more fat than carbohydrates stored (well…at least I do). That’s not what you’re thinking at the time. See… running a marathon, you don’t get “winded”. Assuming you’ve trained properly, you’re never really breathing hard. Instead, every muscle is leadened. My calves were burning really hot, and even my biceps started spasming a bit from holding my arms up. At my lowest point I had a heavy feeling of fatigue set in my chest. I remember thinking “holy shit! It would not surprise me if my heart just gave up and stopped beating right now”.
Hitting the wall is a fairly typical occurrence for novice marathoners at that exact distance. In retrospect I was pretty sure I was also very very dehydrated. My urine was coke-colored – that can’t be healthy. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I walked to the next aid station and took down a couple extra cups of water.
I remember the volunteers at the Georgia Tech water station were extra peppy. I felt bad I couldn’t muster the energy to acknowledge their enthusiasm. All I could think about was putting one leg infront of the other.
Then, something clicked. All my energy came back. This was enough to re-energize me so I can finish the race strong. It was good timing too. My wife was there to cheer me in at the finish-line, so I’m glad she got to see me when I was standing tall. 15 minutes before I was a mess.
"I'm only smiling on the outside" -- Photo stolen from Mark Adams Photography who managed to snap it as I approached the finish line. (http://www.markadamsphoto.com)
I ran it in 4:21 – which comes out to just under a 10:00 mile. For those of you who aren’t distance runners, I’ll try to put this in perspective. This was an average time for Atlanta’s marathons, but other cities are far more competitive. In order to qualify for the Boston marathon I would have needed to be 65 years old with that time. Oprah ran the D.C. marathon in 4:27 … so I guess I can always claim I beat her… slightly. G.W. Bush’s Houston marathon time is somewhere near 3:44
Admittedly, I’ll never win a marathon… but I can rightfully have a 26.2 bumper sticker. I don’t think I’ll be running one again very soon. But it did take me through something I’ve never experienced before. To train for the marathon was one thing. Motivating myself to eat right, workout 6-8 times a week, push through pain that I could, rest when I could not. But that type of motivation is pretty familiar to me. The final stretch of the Marathon itself was not. I would say it was a good 3 miles of a mental and physical challenge that few people ever experience. The feeling that is… well… is fucking awful. To push through it proved something to myself.
After I crossed the finish line I saw a lot of people I had kept time with. I spent a lot of times look at their back, passing and being passed by the same people. I thought like we had gone through something together. I wanted to shake their hand, high-five, or plan a reunion or something. I felt like we went through something that few people ever do, and I was proud of it. It was fairly emotional, accomplishing something I wasn’t able to accomplish 10 years prior.
What I learned
- A lot of people ask if I thought I would have done better if I would have ran more and followed a more “traditional” training method. I reply, “No.” I tried that before and it failed me. I am not sure if CrossFit Endurance will ever breed any Boston Marathon winners. But that isn’t the point. I can say I completed a marathon without sacrificing as much as most people do. I heard a quote by the CF Endurance guru: If you look at the guys who win Triathlons and Marathons, they don’t look healthy. They look like Meth addicts. Sorry, that’s not my fitness goal. I’m not a specialist. I want to be able to do anything and everything.
- The one thing that such small amounts of running didn’t prepare me for was the toughness of my feet. I got a blister a mile 6. I had thought ahead and stowed away a change of socks and supplies in a mailbox, on mile 18. But I wasn’t able to address it for 12 miles. By that time it was the size of a couple ketchup packets. Fresh socks felt like a miracle though, and I don’t think it slowed me down.
- I would definitely have drank more throughout the race. I mostly ate gel-packs for fuel. Not sure if I would do it again. About 13 miles in I was seriously craving some salt. At one point I passed a little pretzel on the road and seriously considered doubling-back and eating it off the ground. Yum.
- The aftermath… no pain. I even did a post-race workout at BTB about 4 hours later that day. I was back in the gym 4 days after that. During training I had experienced nagging ankle and calf issues that had me taking regular ice-baths, but after the race I recovered quickly.
- Oh… and my nipples were fine, thanks for asking. Mostly because of better clothing and a miracle product called Body Glide. At least I learned something from my first experience.