When I was a little guy the thing that I enjoyed the most was listening to Harry Kalas on the radio as he did the play by play for my favorite baseball team the Philadelphia Phillies. I could never sit back and relax though because my team always seemed to take it down to the wire. When the game progressed into the later innings I would begin to act out the game myself. It wasn't uncommon for me to find one of those big supermarket balls lying around the house and pretend that I was Mike Schmidt or Greg Luzinkski. As I walloped the ball for what seemed like a million miles I had hoped that Schmidt or Luzinski would follow suit. I can remember distinctly two or three times over a several year period that it did indeed happen. I could not only hear the cheers of the fans in the stadium but I could feel the excitement churning inside the player's body. It was a feeling that I yearned to have thus my desire to become actively involved in the sport. While I had my days in the sun I was never good enough to play beyond Little League ball so the cheers from fans in a big baseball stadium would never come.
Cheers? Is that another reason that I run? I sometimes ask myself that question because in fact the roar of a crowd motivates me and inspires me to do my best. A good road marathon or even a good ultramarathon provides fan support, which I look forward to as the race progresses. The hardest part of running for me is convincing myself that indeed I can succeed in whatever I'm attempting. There are times that I allow my mind to wander so far off track that I forget the simplest things. A fan cheering from the sidelines reminding me of the hard work that I've done to get to this point can be a big boost at a difficult time. A little boy or girl smiling while reaching out to hand me a cup of water at an aid station helps to put things back into perspective. The fans help me relax and stay confident while keeping me focused on what's really important. Oh and how could I possibly forget to mention the Rocky Theme, which inevitably seems to be played on several parts of all road marathon courses. Rocky may be a fictional character but the story depicts a believable scenario which can generate the strength for all of us to attempt the impossible and even succeed. The chemicals released into my body produced by theses outside sources give me a feeling of euphoria that is not identifiable by words. Yes I love the cheers and even though I will never have sixty thousand people cheering my name for hitting a game winning homer I can make due with what I get when I run in road marathons.
Seeking out yet another emotional high I made the choice back in December to make my seventh attempt at the Shamrock Marathon. My decisions never seem to be timely or well thought out, in fact I do most things on a whim with little thought of the potential consequences. The interesting thing about my decision to run Shamrock was that it was made right smack dab in the middle of a five-week period of time that I was not running. I was still feeling the frustration created from the injuries of the current year when I submitted my on-line application for the March event. However I ignored those feelings and looked toward the future and the new year to come. I took a moment during my downtime and devised a training strategy that I was certain would get me back to feeling good in time for the race in mid-March. It looked good on paper but everything hinged on how well my leg would respond to the five-week rest period.
When I resumed running I felt frustrated early and often because I now not only felt pain in the injured leg but also felt pain in the other as well. Despite the pain early on I followed my plan through the month of January running only every other day while slowly ramping the mileage up. In February I started a routine of running five days a week but never more than three consecutive days in a row. In March I loaded up the miles in a short period of time in hopes of gaining fitness quickly. I prepared aggressively and because of that felt the affects of muscle soreness in areas that weren't ready to be pushed so quickly. I was concerned but never considered revising my plans. That being said I leaned on a few friends for support as race day approached and they didn't let me down.
There was a major storm brewing on the East Coast when I left my home the Friday before the race. The 240-mile drive down to Virginia Beach would put me in a safe haven away from all the bad weather. The region I live in is commonly an area where storms change rapidly from snow to ice to rain. The further North the more snow but as the storm progresses South it gradually changes to all rain leaving the central part of the area where I live generally covered in ice. I wasn't too excited about the prospect of driving in wintry conditions so the decision to drive south two days early was one that was made easily.
I arrived in Virginia Beach late in the afternoon on Friday where it was raining hard but the grass was green and the flowers were already blooming. The surroundings brightened my spirits and put me in a good mood. I used the extra time over the next two days to reflect upon why I was there and how I would motivate myself to run in yet another race. It has taken a long while but I'm now certain that I've finally come to my senses. I've been running on emotion created by past experiences for so long now and it is time to let them go. Most of the energy I use to run is produced from events, relationships and actions of the past that can not be changed yet I continue with my inner battles. Running is a good outlet for the negative energy that has been generated through my thoughts but running would be so much less stressful and more productive if I did it for the right reasons. That being said I made a promise to myself that Shamrock would be the last race in which I allowed the past to produce the energy from which I run.
I spent Saturday afternoon doing a short workout in my hotel room while watching the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Later in the evening I went to a local shopping mall where I ate a sandwich at Subway and watched a movie at the cinema. While I'm not a movie critic I will say I was quite disappointed in Eddie Murphy's new film "Norbit". It was okay and kept me somewhat humored but in no way was it comparable to his works of the past. Anyway I got a bit lonely around 9:45 p.m. when I returned back to my hotel room after the movie so I gave my mom a call. I've never been much of a mommy's boy but over the last couple of years when I've needed her the most she's been there for me. In fact Saturday evening phone calls have almost become a regular occasion. This particular Saturday I released some pent up emotion. There were no tears or laughs but instead a release of raw emotion. If my mom and I have one thing in common it's that we both understand raw emotion. We both shake constantly because of the emotion that is built up inside of us. There are few that understand this and in fact most are confused by it. No big deal because we have each other and we can relate without fear of being judged. While my mom has had her times where I am the listener and she is the talker recently it has been me doing most of the talking. I let it fly and by the time we said good bye I had lost every ounce of emotion that I had stored. My last words to her were I hope I saved some emotion for the race because I think I'm going to need it.
Before calling it a night I prepared my clothes for the next day's race. I had about a one and a half-mile walk from my hotel room to the start line in what was predicted to be a cold morning. In preparation for this I set out a long sleeve shirt, long pants, gloves and a jacket. I then pinned my race number onto my shorts and lay them on the bed next to the tank top that I also planned to wear despite the forecast. I intentionally planned to wear three pairs of socks on each foot but not because of the cold weather but instead to protect my left heel and my right leg. I prepared the socks for my left foot by placing one sock on my foot and then placing an arch support band in proper position. I then followed by taping the arch and the heel with duct tape. I placed a second sock over the foot and then a third before taping in the same manner. I've been successful in reducing the amount of pain associated with the collapsed arch in my foot by using this method. The purpose for using three socks on the right foot was to keep an even balance on both sides and also to insulate the impact on my leg where I land after each stride. Finally I set out the products I planned to use as pain relievers, energy sources and supplements. Earlier I had purchased three small bottles of ginseng, four packets of Power Gel and a small bottle of Rocket Short energy fluid. I planned to place these products along with a couple of aspirin and a half dozen Succeed tablets in an empty water bottle that I thought I had brought along with me. HmmmÖ..first real trouble of the night. Seems I had forgot to pack the water bottle. This is where my inability to understand the potential consequences of not thinking things through properly came back to haunt me. It was still early enough where I could have found a store to purchase a water bottle yet I concluded I could do without the products I had planned to carry. It was one of those decisions that I could feel was wrong but I followed through with it anyhow. In the end I suffered because I lacked energy that could have been provided through the products I planned to carry.
My preparations for race day were now complete so after a quick shower I placed my timing chip on my left ankle and called it a night. I slept restlessly waking up every hour to check the clock. As the second hand ticked my heart beat faster making it even more difficult to sleep. As I tried to sleep the pressure mounted, which produced tension and anxiety. I am responsible for the pressure that I place on myself despite the fact that I sometimes blame the hype of the event itself. I place expectations upon myself that are sometimes unrealistic and fear that if I donít meet them that somehow I've failed. I demand certain times in certain distance events and if I fail to achieve the time than I've failed. I've failed myself, I've failed my family and I've failed my friends. I demand my best effort despite my condition, the elements or any other factors that may have an impact on my performance. I also concern myself with thoughts that are irrational which most times generate a great deal of anxiety. A marathon is a grueling event, which can take a toll on both the mind and body. I never disrespect the distance or the effort it takes to be successful. I couldn't help but hear the words of others repeated over and over in my mind when they say marathon? That should be a piece of cake for a guy who runs in one hundred-mile races. In fact that would be true if my only purpose was to go out and run 26.2 miles without any effort at all. However that is not the case with me nor is it the case with anyone who participates in a race of any distance. We all give our best effort whether we run, walk or crawl and in the end we feel the effects through sore, aching muscles. The part that is hardest is meeting our own expectations. No matter the effort there are times when we ourselves question the outcome. We wonder why we didn't or couldn't do better. As you can see my thoughts Saturday night were not of success but rather failure. They were irrational, inaccurate and totally misguided. Those same thoughts produced enough pressure to give me pains in my head and butterflies in my stomach, which kept me up most of the night.
My alarm sounded at 6:45 a.m. leaving me enough time to get dressed, pack my remaining things and check out of my hotel room. Since I had stayed in the same hotel in 2005 I knew that the walk to the starting line at 33rd street would take exactly twenty-five minutes. As I walked I ate my breakfast which consisted of a blue berry Pop Tart, a bagel and a bottle of water. I knew it was not a good idea to deviate from my normal diet on race day but for some reason I always seem to do so and it has never come back to haunt me. However I did have some issues with my stomach as the race progressed. I don't attribute the pain to my diet on the day itself but instead I attribute it to my overall diet. While I've done my best to improve my eating habits I have never been able to maintain a diet that includes the correct percentages of the nutrients needed to sustain my activity level. I recognize that this has been an issue for awhile and slowly I've been progressing in the right direction. The only time that my eating habits have been a real issue in a race was at Badwater and luckily for me I had a crew that recognized my needs and tended to them. Hey it's distance running and we all search for what works best. I'm still looking.
I reached 33rd street at 7:30 a.m. and quickly located the vehicles where finish line bags could be stored. I stayed within close proximity of the vehicles so I could keep my warm clothes on for as long as possible. In the meantime I drank a bottle of Ensure that I had brought along and chased it with some PowerAde. I took three aspirin, two Succeed tablets and put Vaseline on all areas of my body susceptible to chafing. I removed a bottle of ginseng, a pack of Power Gel and a can of Starbucks Double shot from my bag that I would carry along with me. Around 7:45 a.m. I removed my long pants but opted to keep my long sleeve shirt on since it was still very cold outside. As soon as my bag was secure in the vehicle I walked down the street a block or two in order to find room to warm-up for the race. I ran casually for a few minutes as a way to see how my body would feel. I was a little concerned at first because I felt some pain in my left shin. Yeah not the injured right leg but instead the left. Seems the increased mileage over the first weeks of March created problems for the other leg as well. Oh well nothing I could do now and honestly I was certain that the adrenaline from the start would eliminate all of my pain anyway.
At 7:50 the National Anthem was played which always makes for an awesome atmosphere and at 7:55 the three participants involved in the wheel chair competition were given the okay to start. Once we were within a couple of minutes of our start the race organizers instructed the participants to move forward toward the starting line. I placed myself a few tiers back in a position where I felt most comfortable and sensed I would not interfere with the faster runners. Just before the start I glanced over to my left and saw fellow ultrarunner Jenn Shelton unbelievably dressed in a bikini. I remember when I was her age and felt no pain but at that moment as we stood in the same conditions I had forgotten that time. After being side tracked for a few seconds I looked straight ahead and with a blank mind waited for the start.
The horn indicating the marathon start sounded at 8 a.m. sharp. The road ahead opened immediately as the frontrunners exploded from the gate headed south from 33rd and Atlantic toward 5th. The course has changed three times in the last ten years due to some construction on the Pavilion and issues entering the military facility. The fact that I did not have experience running the new route left me without a mental edge in which to gauge my pace.
Normally at the start of a marathon I try to settle into a pace and relax without making conclusions too early. The stress and anxiety prior to the race had taken a toll so instead of having pent up energy at the start I was worn down. I immediately started reminding myself of what I had to do in order to be successful. I had to make myself relax and be patient to allow my own body too naturally fall into a pace that I would feel comfortable with. I found that as I approached the first mile marker that I was breathing heavily through the mouth and that I was tiring quickly. I had a plan drawn out which included a quick first mile but not one in which I felt depleted. My one-mile split of 6:20 was okay and if I were feeling better it would have fit my plan perfectly. I'm not ashamed to say that my ultimate goal was 2:52 and my
back-up plan was sub-3. It's a difficult thing to go into a race with very high expectations knowing that the odds of succeeding are slim. However if I didn't try I had no chance at all. Yes already I was allowing the feelings of failure to enter my mind. My number one rule in running is to think positively but for some reason I struggled this entire race to do so. Regardless of the fact that I felt tired very early I had no doubt there was time to recover as long as I responded quickly. I slowed to chug the can of Starbucks Double Shot that I was carrying hoping it would give me the kick-start that I so desperately needed. I maintained the slower pace even after I finished the drink and tossed the can in the trash. It was only a matter of finding my pace and then maintaining. It's something I normally struggle with but very rarely to this degree. I peeked at the two-mile clock as I passed by and noticed that I ran a 6:38 split. It was slower but still I was weak. I reacted by trying to convince myself not to make judgements until I reached the five-mile marker.
Jenn Shelton caught up to me just as I past the two-mile point of the race. This would be an excellent time to make some small talk, which I had hoped would allow me to fall into a comfortable pace. I congratulated her for her 100-mile performance at Rocky Raccoon and we talked about our experiences at Badwater in 2006. As we chatted about Death Valley we approached what would be the biggest hill of the day. A short seventy-five yard jaunt up a bridge that leads over an inlet. I joked with her as we ran up saying the ultrarunner in me wants to walk this thing. She kind of laughed but I don't think she really heard me. She was lighthearted but also very focused on a goal and it wasn't long before she moved on ahead.
Now that Jenn was gone it was back to my own race and dealing with my own demons. Despite my early struggles the numbers were still on target at the 5K point where I reached in 19:40. At this point I was on an out and back section of the course which led runners on a flat road a little past mile 5 before looping back around down the same road in the other direction. Mile 5 in a marathon is a point where I take the time to analyze my condition, which allows me to have a better understanding of what it will take to realize my goals. In 2005 I was disappointed in my 32:30 split for 5 miles but I still ran a sub-3 so that would be the number I would use to evaluate my progress on this day.
The weather up to this point was not a factor. The wind could not be felt and the temperature was cool enough where I could leave my long sleeve shirt on. The aid stations were sufficient and the volunteers were plenty and very kind and supportive.
The energy I normally spend in these events is produced from outside sources as I explained earlier in my story however I never found a way to use that to my advantage in this particular event. I constantly devised ways to maintain positive thoughts that would allow me to stay confident and focused. I desperately tried to find ways to make myself relax and understand that I would be okay no matter what laid ahead.
The first indication that a personal record on this day would be a struggle came at mile 5, which I reached in about 33 minutes. I never gave up hope, but reality sank in closer and closer when I reached every target mile marker off pace.
The course continued on the same road (General Booth Blvd.) until we were directed to the right just before the seven mile marker into Camp Pendleton. There were no spectators and the road was flat and boring. I have to admit I was so focused on convincing myself that I was okay that I barely looked around but it was hard not to notice how uninhabited the area was. The road in the Camp looped around for about one and a half miles before we exited back onto General Booth Boulevard. At this point we followed the exact same road that we used going out but now in the opposite direction toward 5th and Atlantic.
The wind became a major challenge around mile 8 as it blew consistently and strong directly into our faces. It would continue in this manner for the next eight miles until we reached the turn off onto Shore Drive. Now my concern became legitimate because I was in trouble early with virtually no challenges. I was familiar with the course that lay ahead and knew that I could potentially falter even more having to face the strong headwind. In spite of my struggle to find a comfortable pace I found my way to mile ten in 1:08:40. I knew immediately that my goal was in jeopardy but still I calculated what it would take over the next ten miles to bring me back on to pace. It didn't take long before I realized that I needed to pull off a negative split over the next ten to give myself a legitimate shot at a sub-3 hour finish. The plan that I devised allowed for a forty five-minute buffer at the twenty-mile mark which is normally enough to give me the confidence to easily attain a sub-3 hour finish. In order to pull that off on this day I would have to run the next ten miles in 1:06:20. That would be difficult on a good day but facing the strong winds and feeling depleted I felt my chances were quickly slipping away.
When we reached 5th and Atlantic the course veered off to the right leading us onto the boardwalk for the next two and a half miles. The winds coming off of the ocean never ceased. The challenge wasn't the force of the wind itself but the consistency of the current. I've faced strong headwinds at Shamrock in prior races but never for eight straight miles. I gained strength because I knew I wasn't alone out there, as we all had to overcome the same challenge in order to cross the finish line. It was now a battle of the mind, the body and the elements.
When we left the boardwalk at 22nd street and headed back toward Atlantic I recognized it was time to reevaluate once again. The course would lead us directly into the wind from 22nd street until we reached 84th street where we would turn left onto Shore Drive. Time was still a goal but what time I wasn't certain. Times from 3:10 to 3:25 circulated through my mind before I finally settled on the goal of just running the whole dam thing without stopping and accepting whatever the clock read. Running twenty-six straight miles on a flat road would not be much of a challenge if I slowed the pace to eight-minute miles. I can't say for sure what my pace was because for three miles I never looked anywhere but straight ahead. I was focused on moving straight ahead and overpowering the wind with my mind. I constantly reassured myself that everything would be okay. It was comforting to know that the headwind that I was facing now would be a tailwind for at least the last three miles back. A thought now and then that people in general can accomplish anything they want if they put their mind to it was also reassuring.
I reached mile sixteen feeling no better or no worse than I had earlier but it was mentally uplifting to know that I had beat the wind. I still ran slowly over the next mile to the seventeen mile marker before I felt a surge of confidence lift me off of my feet. It wasn't energy but rather confidence that boosted me down the three-mile section of Shore Drive. At the end of our journey on Shore Drive we turned right into Fort Story
where the conditions swayed back into my favor. The wind had ceased so I now felt that I was back in control of my finishing time. I wasn't going to push it too hard because I knew it wasn't my day but I was going to run consistent and use the tailwind that I picked up at mile twenty-one to my advantage. I planned a relaxing yet strong finish without stopping along the way.
We passed the signature windmill in Fort Story where the photo opps take place. The road then veered to the right where we would exit Fort Story. I was virtually alone most of the race but a group of guys pulled alongside me as we passed the windmill. In a way it was nice to have some people to chat with but at this point I honestly didn't want too many distractions so when they continued on by I wasn't too sad. I did enjoy a good conversation with one of the guys, Matt Kappen from Pennsylvania. His New York City Marathon shirt prompted me to talk with him. Our conversation led us into the topic of ultramarathons when he mentioned that he would be running the HAT Run 50K next weekend. At the same time he gained my interest he wanted to slow the pace but I was feeling comfortable so I continued on ahead without him. I figured a few more miles and we could finish our conversation in the tent at the finish line.
I was now at mile twenty-three with the wind at my back and it was time to enjoy the experience as much as I could. The 7:20 pace would be pretty easy to maintain as long as I remained focused and positive. It was so much easier to look around and enjoy the sights on the way back. The beautiful homes that line Atlantic Avenue from 84th to 47th streets are spectacular. The encouraging people cheering on the sidelines are fantastic and the grand hotels are magnificent. The atmosphere at the beach, no matter the season, is awesome.
Around the twenty-five and a half-mile mark and upon reaching 38th street I was directed to turn left off of Atlantic Avenue towards the boardwalk. Once on the boardwalk I could see the finish line but it was still five blocks away. After seeing the distance between where I was and where I had to go I looked straight down and refused to look towards the finish line. I made it a matter of time instead of focusing on distance.
By looking down it took the distance out of play and allowed me to relax. I could run forever like that but put a final destination in front of me and watch me tire quickly. I was about 150 yards from the finish line when the clock first came into sight. I could see clearly that it read 3:08:50. The thought of pushing to break 3:09 went in and out of my mind quickly. My goal wasn't 3:09 or 3:08:59 and the difference between the two meant little. I continued my pace, put a smile on my face and finished in 3:09:08.
My feelings upon crossing the finish line were mixed. I didn't reach my goals but I gave my best effort.
I had hoped for a better finish but after losing 4.5 months of running time last year due to injury I think that what I posted was realistic. The elements were harsh but part of running is facing whatever Mother Nature dishes out and overcoming the challenge. My body responded well to the constant pounding the roads offered. I had no pain in either leg and the minor pain in my heel did not affect my performance. Mentally I was sharp and physically I was fit as ever. I did my best.
My feelings were mixed because I was concerned that I had not met the expectations of others. Those feelings were quickly eliminated as my friends and family came to my rescue early and often. My friend Rick brought me back to reality only hours after the race when he called to tell me he thought I did great. His comments made me feel 100% better. My friend Lisa wrote a note of congratulations to me, which included a line of my final results. Her note was enthusiastic and very uplifting. My friend John wrote a note to the members of the local trail running group of which I am a member acknowledging my effort. Finally my dad, my biggest fan, treated me as though I was a hero.
I conclude my story by acknowledging that I ran the 2007 edition of the Shamrock Marathon in remembrance of a childhood friend of mine who tragically died at the age of 15 on March 25, 1977.
My decision to leave the past rest will finally allow me to let my friend rest as well.