Running 26.2 miles without training

Originally published, Oct. 3, 2006

With both legs cramping and my left ankle beginning to swell, I didn’t think I would make it. I probably didn’t deserve to.

Who knew running the Akron Marathon would be so hard? Then again, I hadn’t put much thought into it.

Experts say runners should train for at least eight months before attempting to run 26.2 miles. I chose to train for only eight days.

It may have been foolish, but before you ridicule, hear my story.

Motivational start
We began running at 7:30 a.m. Despite misty drizzle and numbing sub-50 degree temperatures, thousands of spectators crowded the streets of downtown Akron to see us off. I only knew one of them, but it felt like they were all cheering for me.

Finding a group to pace with wasn’t difficult. For the next two hours, I ran and became friends with nine fellow marathoners, all committed to running the same pace – eight and a half minutes per mile.

The tempo was fast, but I was sure I could keep up.

Before I knew it, we were nearly a quarter of the way through the marathon and I was still feeling fine. I decided to try to get to know a few of the runners in my group. We talked about sports, our hometowns and our jobs.

Talking to Lisa probably slowed me down the most. Later, she became my motivation to run faster.

Lisa was in the midst of her 24th marathon, but her heart was someplace else. She wasn’t running for personal gain or to brag to her friends. No, ever since her husband Matt died in combat, she has been running for love. Lisa’s husband, an Army officer, was serving in Iraq when his helicopter was shot down by enemy fire last year. Long before that fateful day, he had told his wife about his goal to finish 50 marathons by the time he turned 50.

At the age of 40, she said she has taken on the goal in his memory.

As I began my first marathon, she was an inspiration. Then I shared my story.

After explaining my minimal training regimen and my goal, she, as politely as possible, told me I was a fool and that she was concerned I might die. She then offered me a baggie full of painkillers and prescription anti-inflammatory medication.

Encouraging.

Minor setback
Fatigue set in earlier than I had hoped. The night before the marathon had been rough. All runners had been instructed to pick up their running packet, which included their running bib, the day before the race at the Akron Health and Fitness Expo.

I didn’t catch that bit of instruction until 11 p.m. the night before the race and, according to the Web site, no runners could pick up their packet the day of the race. Also, no person could run without his or her bib. It seemed I was out of luck.

Anxiety kept me awake until after 2 a.m. and limited me to less than four hours of sleep. Luckily, I was able to pick up the packet just before the race started, but if I were to finish it, I would have to run for a longer period of time than I had slept the night before.

Marathon volunteers gave me instant energy gel supplements, which kept me going most of the day.

I want to go home
We crossed the halfway point of the race while treading through the scenic portion of the course. The Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath is beautiful in the fall. I might never want to go there again after Saturday. I finished the first half of the race in approximately one hour and 55 minutes. My pace fell from there. The friends I had made along the way began to fade into the distance ahead of me – all of them except for Lisa. We drafted and paced off each other for another five miles before she pulled away.

She went on to finish the race in just over four hours.

Meanwhile, the lower half of my body was shutting down. My mind began to wander. Sure I had made it halfway, but it seemed like such a long run. Could I finish? My confidence faded. It was soon replaced by pain.

My left leg went first. After only 16 miles, full leg cramping accompanied a stabbing pain in my left ankle that had me running with an awkward limp. In the rush of trying to register the morning of the race, I had forgotten to apply deodorant. Severe armpit chafing had me swinging my arms like a robot out of a cheesy ’70s sci-fi flick.

I probably shouldn’t have worn casual K-Swiss tennis shoes. My feet ached.

Just as my right leg joined the left in muscle spasms, I looked up and read one of the many motivational signs the Salvation Army had placed along the course. It read, “If it starts to hurt, make it hurt more.” I wasn’t sure how the slogan was supposed to inspire me. Perhaps they thought I should stab a steak knife into my thigh and finish the race like that.

I considered it.

I hadn’t brought a knife, so I persisted.

Real men cry
The end of the towpath led me to the most difficult stretch of the race, and one of the most grueling experiences of my life. For nearly four miles, the course was a gradual and consistent uphill climb.

Both my legs had locked up, I could feel my left ankle swelling, and now I was running uphill. After two miles on the incline, I was feeling the most excruciating physical and mental pain of my life.

I began to cry.

There, I said it; I cried. It was very brief.

Don’t judge me.

Eventually I escaped the hill, but the damage was done.

The rest of the race is mostly a blur. I remember still having the energy and focus to yell, “Kent sucks” at a man sporting a Golden Flashes T-shirt around mile 19. I also vaguely remember a little boy handing me a banana after mile marker 22.

My body and mind had both checked out, but my legs kept moving. I knew if I stopped running I wouldn’t be able to start again.

I was going to complete the marathon if it killed me.

After 4 hours, 21 minutes and 45 seconds, I hobbled across the finish line in Canal Park. I finished the race in 550th place out of over 1,000 runners and 24th out of the 36 men in my age range.

Three days later, I need crutches to walk properly.

Signing up on a whim to run a marathon was possibly the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. Finishing will be one of the greatest.

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