Finishing my first marathon“It sounds like giving birth,” CJ said, after I told her about running my first marathon. “You build up to it for months. Then when it actually starts, it’s pretty boring for a good long while. Then it hurts like hell. And then bam! you’re done, and you can say, ‘Holy s***, I did that!‘”

“Yes,” I said. “And then you’re really sore below the waist.”

So it was, and is, as I recover from the Ocean Drive Marathon – my first ever attempt to run a competitive race. I finished in 4:03:13.8. That put me in 233rd place overall (out of 516 runners) and 63rd out of 99 in my group (male 30-39 years old.) Squarely in the middle of the pack. And sooooo close to my dream goal of breaking the four hour mark.

In all fairness, I never should have made it to the starting line, much less the finish line. Four weeks ago – at the peak of my training schedule – my knee gave out. A nearly imperceptible imbalance in my stride had been putting too much pressure on my left knee. After my 18 mile training run, it started to hurt like hell. Worse, it felt like my shin bone had slipped an inch to the outside – as if it wasn’t in the groove of my knee at all. It popped when I bent it. Uh-oh.

Dr. Rudy Gehrman, my saviorSo I called in the big guns – the chiropractic magicians at Physiologic. To my eternal good fortune, my neighbor is Dr. Rudy Gehrman. Over the past five years, Rudy and his wife Lynda have become a good friends and lifesaving healers for me and Shawna. Together, they run Physiologic, which is best described as a chiropractic-office-meets-supercool-Tribeca-loft-meets-pilates-empire-meets-mystical-healing-abby-meets-supermodel-hangout. Yes, unique.

First thing Rudy said when I limped into his office? “We’re going to get you through this marathon. Then we’re going to teach you how to run.” Pragmatic and smart – I didn’t have time to retrain my body before race day. I needed to patch up, heal fast, and get back out there.

Rudy and his staff put me through a very rigorous regimen of chiro, physical therapy and deep (read: painful) massage. In my fourth visit, they unveiled the secret weapon – Kineseo Tape. You probably saw it during last summer’s Olympics, especially on the women’s volleyball team. I started out very skeptical, given that experts are divided on whether it produces any empirical benefits. My experience went like this:

1. Ran 18 miles. Sustained injury.
2. Did a bunch of chiro and PT work.
3. Ran 3 miles. It hurt enough that I had to stop.
4. Applied Kineseo Tape.
5. Ran 5 miles. No pain.
6. Took off tape.
7. Ran 4 miles. Hurt enough to stop.
8. Reapplied tape.
9. Ran 15 miles. No pain.
10. Took off tape. Just walking around, it started to hurt.
11. Reapplied tape.
12. Ran 3 miles, 4 miles, 3 miles. No pain.
13. Reapplied last round of tape.
14. Ran marathon.

I’m pretty confident the tape gave me a truly physical boost. But even if it was only psychosomatic, I’m sold.

All that brought me to the starting line. The marathon took place Sunday, March 24, in Cape May, NJ. My sister and father accompanied me as my “crew.” Which mostly meant shuttling me around, taking pictures and cheering like crazy. (Note to future runners: Get a crew. It’s awesome.) We got to the starting line around 8:30 am; temperature around 35 degrees F. After few anticipatory minutes of stretching, and a somewhat pained rendition of the national anthem, the starting gun went off at 9:00 sharp. The scene looked like this:

(What’s that you say? Can’t see me in the crowd? Don’t worry, I can’t see myself either!)

For the first mile, we were packed about that close. Lots of dodging and weaving. Not so speedy. But that didn’t bother me. I’d been given some (solid) advice to come out slow, to reserve energy, and not let the pack push me off my desired pace. Remember, my main goal was simply to finish without injury. My dream was to break four hours. I gave myself 10% chance of breaking four hours, and 50% chance of finishing at all. I didn’t want to decrease those odds with an early sprint.

After a mile, the pack thinned. The real running began.

I’ll spare you the video, taken by my dad or sister at various intervals as they chased me up the route by car. Honestly, it was pretty boring. Running is boring. So I zoned out to the unabridged audiobook of Altered Carbon, a hard-boiled sci-fi detective novel in which people can swap their consciousness from one body to another. Decent way to pass the time, though I started wondering whether swapping bodies would make marathons more or less interesting …

Aside from Altered Carbon, I focused on keeping my speed steady. Using the MapMyRun GPS app on my phone, I could track my mile-by-mile pace. (You can see all the details of my run here, including pace per mile, GPS tracking map, and elevation changes.) To break four hours, I needed to sustain a 9:15-per-mile pace. Here’s how I did:

Distance Pace
1 mi 09:35 min/mi
2 mi 09:07 min/mi
3 mi 09:08 min/mi
4 mi 09:08 min/mi
5 mi 09:21 min/mi
6 mi 09:22 min/mi
7 mi 09:35 min/mi
8 mi 08:57 min/mi
9 mi 09:00 min/mi
10 mi 09:19 min/mi
11 mi 09:15 min/mi
12 mi 09:15 min/mi
13 mi 08:59 min/mi
14 mi 08:59 min/mi
15 mi 09:30 min/mi
16 mi 08:55 min/mi
17 mi 09:19 min/mi
18 mi 09:10 min/mi
19 mi 09:09 min/mi
20 mi 09:50 min/mi
21 mi 08:53 min/mi
22 mi 08:40 min/mi
23 mi 08:55 min/mi
24 mi 09:44 min/mi
25 mi 08:56 min/mi
26 mi 09:14 min/mi
26.7 mi 10:05 min/mi

(That last 10:05 reading is irrelevant; the final .2 miles were basically at a 9:15 pace, but then I milled around the finish area racking up time and “mileage” before I remembered to turn off the app.)

You can see that miles 21, 22 and 23 were actually my fastest miles. If you make an exception for a slow water break during mile 24, mile 25 was fast, too. And even though I was thoroughly spent by mile 26, I pushed through on my target pace.

This is called “negative splits,” and I’m glad I read about it in my training book. Basically, you bank energy and speed up as the race progresses. It has one very distinct advantage – you start zooming past everyone. I passed probably 50 runners in the last 6 miles. Zero passed me. Psychologically, that’s a huge boost. I’d set my sights on the runner in front of me, say to myself something like, “You’re mine!” and then steadily gain on them until they were behind me. Then the next one. Then the next, x50.

Most marathoners report “hitting the wall” around 20 miles. Not for me. Yes, my body started to tire around mile 18. But then I switched from Altered Carbon to something a lot more motivational – this pounding drum-n-bass mix from my new favorite electronica artist, Bassnectar. That got my adrenaline going. Miles 21-23 weren’t just my fastest miles, they were my funnest. Runner’s high!

Funny thing about adrenaline, though – you don’t have an endless supply. By the final mile, my adrenal glands felt like they couldn’t squeeze out another drop. It was rough. The finish line was literally in sight, at the end of a long straight stretch. But every time I looked up at it, it seemed farther away. Perhaps the longest 9 minutes of my life. Here’s how I looked coming across the line:

(You can ignore the exact time on the clock. It started when the gun went off at 9:00 sharp, but I didn’t cross the start line for about 3 minutes. An RFID tag on my shoe clocked my exact time, and gave the results here.)

The next few post-race minutes contained less euphoria than expected. My legs quickly tightened. My stomach hurt like hell; I’d been (inadvertently) eating caffeinated energy gels throughout the race – and I’m allergic to caffeine. (Note to self: don’t order your energy gels from Amazon in a rush.) A layer of fine salt, deposited by drying sweat, encrusted my face. I didn’t want to eat, I didn’t want to wait around for race results, and I sure didn’t want to socialize with anyone who wasn’t a blood relative. An altogether unpleasant scene. “Why do people do this?” I wondered.

And about 10 minutes later, I decided I had to run another marathon.

After all, the four hour mark is still waiting to be broken! I totally could have done it. 3 minutes and 13.8 seconds – that’s only 7.4 seconds per mile. That’s nothing! Plus, I could have drank less water before the race and avoided the one bathroom break I made, which probably cost me 90 seconds.

Whether I’ll actually ever run again, who knows? I’m lucky to have had a lot of training time this winter, a luxury I’m unlikely to repeat again in the future. But the New York Marathon is coming up in November … plenty of time to retrain …

Thanks to everyone who made my marathon possible: notably Julia & Bob (my sis & dad), who were the best crew a guy could ask for; Dr. Rudy, Dr. Ken, Erin, Nicole, Megan and the entire staff at Physiologic; friends who encouraged me and gave me good advice (Sam & Antha, Eli, Bill, Jonah); and of course Shawna, who put up with my long afternoon disappearances, old-man complaints and nipple taping stories, all with good humor and encouragement.

And just for fun, here’s the map of the course, as captured by MapMyRun:

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