If someone would have told me in the spring of 2010 that I would run a marathon before my 40th birthday, I would have had them checked by the nearest psychiatrist. I was not a runner and had no desire to become one.
However, thanks in large part to the inspiration of my wife, Carla, who had already run two half marathons at that point and now has three under her belt, I started on a running journey that has really changed my life and led me to the starting line of the 32nd annual Nationwide Columbus Marathon on October 16, 2011 - less than a month before I will turn 40.
My journey to get to the starting line had its ups and downs and I went from hoping to run a Boston Marathon qualifying time (BQ) of 3:15 to fears of not even being able to finish the race due to injuries. With all of those emotions weighing on me and about four hours of sleep to my credit, I made my way into Corral B with one of the other members of the Mount Vernon Running Buddies, Donald Cobb, with about 10 minutes to spare on race day after needing all the extra time we had allotted for traffic just to get to our parking lot. (Folks, when the race director tells you to get to the race by 6 a.m., he is not joking!)
The plan going into the race was to run with the 3:25 pace group (7:49 per mile) for as long as we could. Both Donald and I had posted half marathon PRs this year in 1:34 with Donald's coming when he recently won the Millersburg half on his 39th birthday and mine coming in the Cap City half back in May when I was really at the peak of my training as it turned out.
On a perfect morning for a race with temperatures hovering right around 50 degrees at the start, I stole a minute right before the race started to just quietly soak everything in and got a little choked up in the process as the magnitude of what I was about to do hit me. I gave Donald a fist bump and said "we've got this" and then the gun and fireworks went off at 7:30 a.m. and we were under way. It took us nearly a minute to get across the start line as the sea of people surged forward. We were in the very back of Corral B and the plan was to slowly work our way to be right with the 3:25 group which was on the opposite side and slightly in front of us while we waited to start.
The first mile came and went in an easy 7:51. A year ago when we ran the half together we started out way too fast (at least I did) and used up a lot of energy trying to weave through people and get out in the open a little bit. We had learned our lesson and definitely did not duplicate that error this time around.
By the end of mile #2, we had settled in at the back of the pace group after doing a 7:35. The next three miles ticked off like clockwork (7:37, 7:36, 7:38) as we realized by mile #5 that the pace group was just slightly ahead of pace, but we were ok with that.
Between mile #5 and mile #6, Donald convinced me that we wanted to run just ahead of the pace group so that the water stops were not so congested. I was ok with that because I knew that somewhere around mile #8 I would need to be looking for my wife and it would be a little easier to spot her if I was out in the open.
So, we picked up the pace and did a 7:22 to mile #6. The first post from @TweetMyTime came out and said that "I passed 10K with a time of 47:28. On a 7:39 pace toward a 3:20:16 finish". Great! Way ahead of the goal, but not feeling like I went out too fast at all.
Miles #7 and #8 were perfect at 7:41 and 7:42. I was drinking water at every water stop after the first one and I had taken a Gu gel about 35 minutes into the race. I was feeling pretty good. We were at 1:01 after the first eight miles of the race.
Somewhere between mile #8 and mile #9, I saw my wife and the Sims family who are part of our group and had come down to support us and cheer their son and brother, Chad, on as he also ran his first half. I zig-zagged across the course so I could give them a quick high five and say thanks for being there. It re-energized me and mile #9 ended up being a 7:26.
We wound our way around mile #10 (7:37) and mile #11 (7:45) and started up the nearly four-mile stretch of High Street that I was dreading after last year's half marathon. See, as I said before, I started out way too fast a year ago and ended up telling Donald to leave me around the 10K mark as I felt like I didn't have anything left. High Street had seemed like I was climbing Mount Everest.
However, this time around, my training kicked in. I had purposely found hills to run up whenever possible. Even these last three weeks leading up to the marathon when I was only running the long runs on the weekends due to injuries, I still found some good inclines for me and the rest of the group to run with this particular stretch of the road in mind the whole time.
Mile #12 came and went in 7:50 as our pace didn't change much at all. The growing crowd as we approached mile #13 pushed us to a 7:39 pace as the half marathoners veered to the left and finished their race. "Don't look over there," I told Donald as I forced myself not to look down to where the finish line would be. "We don't want to see that yet. You know...kind of like seeing the bride before the wedding."
So, we pushed on as we both entered uncharted territory for a race distance. @TweetMyTime posted this as we passed the 13.1-mile mark "I'm halfway there with a time of 1:40:51 at a 7:42 pace toward a 3:21:41 finish!" Wow, we were still a little over three minutes ahead of our goal!
We reached mile #14 in 7:54. I had planned to see my wife there as I had purchased that mile marker in honor of my grandma, Olive Mahaffey, who has inspired me with her comeback from a broken leg earlier this year. However, because Donald and I were so far ahead of our planned pace, she was unable to get there in time. I knew then that I wouldn't see her for another 12 miles when I got to the finish line, so I just set out to see how quickly we could make that happen.
We were still ahead of the 3:25 pace group for mile #15 (7:53), mile #16 (8:06), and mile #17 (7:59). Somewhere during that span, Donald started to struggle just a little and we slowed slightly to see if he could work his way through it. I was still feeling pretty good, but I knew that miles 17-19 were the toughest on the course according to race director Darris Blackford.
Donald began to perk up and he commented that the 3:25 pace group was starting to catch us. We did mile #18 in 8:19 and then they passed us before we got to mile #19. It was during this stretch that I really started to feel sick to my stomach. I'm not sure what caused it, but my best guess is that it could have been the Gatorade on the course as I started to drink it around mile #15 instead of using the G1 pouch I had in my pocket, which is what I was used to doing on long training runs or races.
Anyway, by mile #19, I had slowed to an 8:40 pace for the mile. I told Donald that I was probably going to need to stop and walk to see if I could get the issue to pass. He told me that he was worried that if he walked that his legs would cramp up and that he would be done. I totally understood and told him to go on his way. I tried to keep running slowly, but definitely got some walking in as I did a 10:41 pace to mile #20. Even still, @TweetMyTime sent out this message "20 miles in with a time of 2:39:40. On a 7:59 pace toward a 3:29:19 finish!"
The next five miles were really rough from a time standpoint, but honestly were some of the most fun miles of the race for me. I had promised myself that I would do whatever I needed to do in order to enjoy the race. That meant high-fiving kids, thanking spectators and volunteers, and encouraging other runners. Well, starting with mile #21, the encouraging other runners part is what got me through. I would look for someone who was kind of in the same shape as me and get alongside them and just encourage them to keep moving with me. Sometimes we would run for short stretches and more times we would walk and talk. Mile #21 took 11:22 and mile #22 took 10:59.
I did notice, though, that it was getting harder and harder to do much running because my calves were cramping up really bad. With my stomach hurting and very empty, I was fearful of drinking any more Gaorade or eating another gel. I began to look for possible food from the spectators or restaurants along the route. With no money, I was needing some kind soul to help me out.
As we approached what I think was the 19th water stop on the course at roughly 22.75 on my Garmin, I saw what to me was a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. A box of donuts!!! I asked the guy at the water stop if they were fair game. He looked at me like I was out of my mind, but responded "Yeah, sure." I quickly opened the lid and much to my delight saw a fresh glazed blueberry cake donut. I grabbed it and continued walking while I ate it. It was AMAZING!!! The runner I was walking with at that point grabbed one, too, and we enjoyed them while runners started laughing as they passed two guys eating donuts while running a marathon. (It would be entertaining to see if that scene made it into someone else's blog.) Remember, though, my running mantra is "I run to eat!" :)
Despite the new-found energy from the donut, my cramped up legs limited me to a 13:02 for mile #23, an 11:32 for mile #24, and a 13:20 for mile #25. I kept telling myself that I wanted to save what energy and strength I had in my legs to try to run the final mile.
That plan worked pretty well as I did mile #26 in 9:47 and then finished the final two-tenths to the finish line at an 8:43 pace. It was great to see my wife again down that final stretch, and I even zig-zagged once again across the path to tell her "Thanks!" and "I love you!" I'm still not sure whether I actually told her or one of our friends who was next to her, and I've been getting teased about that.
I ventured on down to the finish line and crossed with my hands in the air. I had done it! I was a marathoner!!! My final time was 3:52:04 or an 8:52 pace for the 26.2-mile race. I know a lot of people probably thought I would be frustrated with that time after doing so well for two-thirds of the race, but I had just as much fun in a different way over the final third. I made sure to soak up the entire experience and part of that is the fact that a marathon isn't easy. If it was, then everyone would do them. Just weeks before I was worried that I might not even be able to finish due to injuries. Other than the normal soreness associated with a run of that distance and a queasy stomach, I was fine. I ended up 1,463rd out of 4,740 marathon finishers (which made the race the largest marathon in the state). I was 1,116th out of 2,852 men in the field overall and 171st out of 434 men in my age group (35-39). And, by the time that we left after taking advantage of a free post-race massage, I was ready to take advantage of the buy one, get one free Chipotle coupon on my race bib!
There are so many people to thank for making this not only possible, but so much fun, too. My wife, Carla, and daughters, Ashley and Kylie, have been so supportive. The girls had the sign below waiting for me when I got to Grandma's house to pick them up. My Mount Running Buddies Donald, Teri Pokosh, Chad Sims, and George Hartz, who each ran the race with me and the other members who have trained with us all year. Ed and Sue Sims, Pam Rose, Lisa Cobb and the kids, Gwen Hartz and the boys, and Brad and Tricia Pokosh who met us at mile 20 and cheered us down the homestretch. Plus, other Mount Vernon folks who were there to cheer on their friends and family and the Run DMC crew who also did a great job running the race, volunteering at water stops, and cheering others on. And honestly, there was nothing quite like getting home later in the afternoon and having over 150 texts/e-mails/tweets/Facebook messages/Daily Mile comments to read through. I was floored and definitely got emotional reading through them. You guys are the best!!!
One final group of thank yous. Darris Blackford and the entire crew of the Columbus Marathon do an amazing job with this race. If you haven't run it, you need to. If you can't run it due to physical limitations, you need to come out and just watch it. I guarantee that it will move you as a spectator. Thanks also to Heather Whaling for the great interaction through the Columbus Marathon Facebook account and the @CbusMarathon Twitter account. And finally, a big shoutout to @TweetMyTime because they helped thousands of people follow this race live. I can't wait to come back next fall and do this all over again. I hope you'll join me there in one way or another.