Setting the stage.
My training for the 2012 Kiawah Island Marathon began in August of 2006. While most people need 16 to 20 weeks to train for a marathon, I needed six years and four months.
Back in 2006, I was basking in the glow of my second half-marathon, which was also at Kiawah, in December 2005. I had posted a personal record (PR) 47:02 in the Cooper River Bridge Run 10k that April, so I was feeling good about myself. I’d done two half marathons by that point and was feeling frisky. Let’s go for a full!
I began my training program from the Runner’s World website. Even as an experienced runner of five years, it was not easy. After each long weekend run, it felt like someone took a jackhammer to my legs to break up the concrete of inactivity I’d built up for 30 years.
I continued to trudge through it, and got all the way up to my 20 mile long run five weeks before race day. Despite being the most grueling thing I’ve put myself through up to that point in my life, I felt good. All systems appeared go, no injuries or anything.
However, it all came crashing down the following Tuesday on my short tempo run at Riverfront Park in Columbia. I was about two miles into my run when I felt a shooting pain on the outside of my left knee. I tried to run it off, but it got worse as I went on.
I decided to let discretion be the better part of valor and I called it a day without finishing the workout. I skipped my following workout and tried to run again that Saturday. Same deal. About two or three miles in, shooting pain on the outside of my left knee.
At that time, I was four weeks out from the race. I took the next week off, but I still had the same problem when I tried to run again. After doing some amateur physical therapist research online, I diagnosed myself with Illiotibial Band Syndrome (ITBS).
According to literature (also known as Wikipedia), ITBS is inflammation of the illiotibial band, which is a long stretch of tissue that starts at your pelvis, goes down the outside of your femur, and attaches below the outside of your knee. There are a myriad of potential causes, including weak hip abductor muscles. I’m not even sure I have hip abductor muscles.
Since it can take a month or two for ITBS to heal and the pain was too intense, I felt the best thing to do was to shut it down being so close to race day. Needless to say, after coming so far in my training, I was extremely disappointed.
In the fall of 2008, I got up the courage to try the marathon again. I posted a PR 1:46 in the Kiawah Half Marathon in December 2007 and ran the Virginia Beach Rock ‘n Roll Half Marathon in August 2008. I was on my high horse, ready to bust through some new ground.
I started my program right after the Virginia Beach race. The training was a little easier this time. Apparently, most of the concrete was removed from my leg muscles in 2006, so my long runs weren’t as bad.
During the workout following an 18 mile run, an old, familiar friend showed up. “You’ve got to be kidding me!!!” I exclaimed. There it was again, shooting pain on the outside of my knee, this time on the right leg.
I immediately knew what that meant. I was done. Again.
I began to question my body’s ability to run that kind of distance. Certainly, there was something out of alignment, a weakness or inflexibility somewhere, that was causing this problem.
It took a few years for the memory of my previous two failed marathon attempts to subside enough for me to want to try again. This time, I knew I had to make some adjustments in my training.
I decided that I would run the 2011 Colorado Marathon outside of Ft. Collins on the first weekend of May. It’s an awesome and scenic course. They shuttle you up a mountain 26.2 miles from Ft. Collins and wish you luck as you roll downhill back into town. Sounds perfect! 26 miles downhill (for the most part), how could that get any better?
In preparing for this race, I was doing yoga once a week to increase my flexibility. At the behest of my personal trainer brother-in-law Billy, I also began using a foam roller to soften up my muscle tissue and keep the kinks out.
Once again, the training got easier as I went. I was feeling fantastic, and on a weekend trip to Charleston six weeks before race day, I went out for a 20 mile run on the West Ashley Greenway.
Four miles into the run, I nervously noticed a little tightness on the outside of my left knee. The tightness soon turned into the shooting pain of the ITBS. Knowing that I had to finish that 20 mile run if I had any hope of running the marathon, I decided to hell with it, and kept on running. I was so pissed off, I hobbled the remaining 15 miles on a bad leg.
I’m sure you can guess, but I was done. A third try, another failure. I was at a loss as to what to do. Was I just not built for this? My body seemed fine up to 15 or 16 miles. What happened after that point that caused things to fall apart?
Searching for answers beyond Wikipedia, I checked out Born to Run by Christopher McDougall from the library. It was highly recommended by a couple running friends of mine.
Aside from being a highly entertaining story, the controversial theme of the book is that the human body is naturally designed to run long distances, and then we f*ed it up with running shoes in the 1970s. 10,000 years of evolution and experience, and the founding fathers of Nike decided they could do it better.
Anyway, this is a story of personal triumph, not an essay on running shoes vs. feet. After finishing the book, I bought a pair of Vibram Five Fingers shoes. It took several months to slowly adjust, but I immediately saw an adjustment in my running form.
I was striking the ground with the balls of my feet, not my heels, even when I would switch back to my regular shoes. I felt more upright, lighter on my feet and swifter. Before, I felt like I would slog through my long runs, shuffling along on my heels. Now, I felt like my legs were springs.
Armed with a foam roller, ankle stretches and a new stride, I struck off on my 16 week FIRST marathon training program. The program takes a less-is-more approach, only running three days per week. It relies on speed workouts twice a week and one long run. It allows you to live a somewhat normal life while training for a marathon.
I had a scare in week 10 of the program. After a 16 mile run, I felt a pain in the top of my left knee. The good news was that I could run through it if I wanted to. It also wasn’t the ITBS monster back for vengeance. I decided to take a week off and hope things returned to normal. I missed an 18 mile long run, which may have hurt my performance in the race (more to come later). The good news was that after the time off, the discomfort went away, and I was back on track.
I even made it through my perilous 20-mile run in a shade under three hours. I really felt great, and at that point it was all downhill. I had three weeks to taper and get ready for the race.
After six years of training and three failed attempts, I was finally at the starting line of the Kiawah Island Marathon by 7:40 A.M. on December 8, 2012. It was a great feeling, knowing that no matter what happened over the next four hours, I had made it through the hardest part, 16 weeks of training, and survived.
There was a nervous energy in the air before the start. The buzz built up as it only can among a few hundred people that know how good they are, how hard they’ve trained, yet are faced with what they’re up against. A mix of people about to embark on on a 13 or 26 mile odyssey that is more a test of the mind than of the body.
Eight A.M. sharp, and the announcer sounds the start. Runners pour across the line, tapping the start banner as they passed underneath.
As I began, I tried to keep a modest, yet aggressive pace. I couldn’t help but be nervous about the weather conditions. Foggy and 55 degrees at the start with 100% humidity, sunny and warming to 65 degrees by 11 am. While that might make for a great December afternoon of Christmas shopping on King Street in Charleston, it’s not my ideal running conditions. I’d rather it be 40 at the start and warm up to 52 by the end.
While my ultimate goal going into the race was simply to finish, my competitive nature couldn’t help but want to finish in under four hours. I felt pretty good and ran the first nine miles at an average of 8:40 pace, and that’s when the cramping starting. That was the first ominous sign that this may not be a smooth race day.
I got to the halfway point in 1:54. While I was encouraged I was a full six minutes ahead of my four-hour finish pace, I felt like I was already slowing down. I ran my first over-nine-minute mile at mile 15.
Mile 17 took me 9:49. The cramping was getting worse. My legs were feeling tired. Every time I came out of the shade into the sun, I felt like a scorched, withering plant. I wanted to stop running.
That’s when I launched into a Bobby Knight-esque verbal ass kicking of myself. I was not going to be denied. I didn’t come this far to stop. I will continue! Only 8 miles to go! I can run 8 miles IN MY SLEEP! COME ON!!! YOU CAN DO IT!!! (Just intersperse profanity every-other word, and you’ll have a transcript of my inner dialog. I’m sure people thought I was losing it. Then again, I think I was.) I coaxed myself to run mile 18 in 9:06.
The Wall is the mythical point every experienced marathon runner talks about when the reminisce about their first marathon. The stories vary, “My brain wanted to keep moving, but my body wouldn’t let me.” “My legs just locked up.” “I had to sit down for 10 minutes.”
Since most beginner marathon programs only train you up to 20 miles, the final 6.2 miles of a marathon are all about will and determination. There will come a point when your body stops behaving normally and more or less shuts down. It’s just a matter of when.
I hit my Wall during mile 19. I couldn’t keep running. Looking back, it was strange. My muscles weren’t cramping. I could still breathe. Nothing felt injured. I simply couldn’t keep running. I was totally out of gas. The hopeless part about it was that I still had over seven miles to go.
The inner struggle was greater than I thought it would be. I had trained for four months and endured three previous failures to get to this point. Yet in this moment of agony, all I wanted to do was stop. Everything hurt. This 36-year old body that eight months prior rocketed across the Cooper River Bridge Run in a PR 44:47 was completely broken down. I was close to giving it all up.
Despite the despair running through my head, a faint flicker of my competitive fire kept me going. Even though my pride was broken as people from all walks of life and fitness passed me while I walked, I had to finish.
I continued alternating walking and shuffling through the last few miles. I did manage to pull it together somewhat for the final two miles, averaging about 12:30 pace. The onlookers were great, encouraging the runners and telling us we were doing great, even though I’m sure they were secretly aghast as we looked like death.
The home stretch of the course begins as you round a left turn into the final 2/10 of a mile to the finish. I decided I’d summon what little I had to show a final burst of strength for the crowd. After all, I am a showman.
As I approached the finish line, I was verklempt and overwhelmed with emotion. I’m not sure if it’s because of the accomplishment or that I realized I could finally stop moving. I crossed the finish line, accepted my participant medal and my space-age-silver-reflective plastic blanket, found a patch of grass and fell to the ground.
It was over. I did it. I finished in 4:26.
After icing down my knees, Nicole and I went over to the post-race runner’s lunch. The Palmetto Amber that I drank there may have been the best tasting beer I’d ever had.
Overall, I was in good shape after the race. Despite my hardships during the run, I appeared to be free of any injuries or conditions that required medical attention. Another win!
Now that I’ve had a couple weeks to recover, more so mentally than physically, and gain some perspective, I still feel like this was the hardest thing I’ve ever accomplished. I don’t remember another time when my body more or less shut down with so much more to go. At that point, it totally becomes a mental battle. Do I continue or do I stop? I never felt such a release of relief when it was over.
With all that said, it was an incredible experience. It taught me a lot about perseverance and not giving up. I often struggle with giving up too easily in other areas of my life. I play it safe. “Better not to start than to risk failing.” If I live my life like that, I’ll never achieve anything great.
In the grand scheme of the world, a marathon may not be the greatest accomplishment of all-time, but I just did something that 0.5% of Americans have done. And if you had gone back and told 23-year-old Brian, after he had just struggled to barely jog 20 minutes, that 13 years from then he’d run a marathon, he would have figured you just did a line of bath salts.
So, after three failed attempts and one miserable race, will I ride off into the sunset or will I do this again?
You’re damn right I’m going to do it again. I’m breaking four hours.