A Run in the Desert

Idiot marathonBANG!! In the cold and dark of a February desert morning, the Phoenix Marathon 2018 has begun. Even in February, it is unusually cold for Phoenix, 34 degrees. The 6 AM start time means it is also very dark in the east valley Usery mountains. As we begin the stampede of 3,000 runners, the butterflies in my stomach begin to calm down and I shake off the mental cobwebs from a sleepless night. I take a deep breath, “I am finally running” I say to myself. Like the 2,999 runners around me, I wonder if I am truly prepared for the long run ahead and achieving my goal of a sub-four-hour finish. I turn to my running buddy Jeff and give him a fist bump, “we got this.” This is Jeff’s first marathon. In fact, the only other competitive race he has run was the 10k we ran together back in Colorado just two weeks ago. His preparation for this run has been amazing. He is psyched up and ready.
This journey started just 5 months ago in September as I was having knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus in my right knee. When I scheduled the surgery, I decided that I would run the Pikes Peak marathon 11 months after surgery. Pikes Peak is considered one of the toughest marathons in the world. I figured that would provide the motivation to get me through rehab and running again. My wife figured it was the musings of a deranged 51-year-old going through a midlife crisis. She may be right, but I have never let common sense get in the way of a challenge. Shortly after surgery, I discovered that the Pikes Peak marathon also required a qualifying marathon within the 12 months leading up to the event. Since I had only run one other marathon, 15 years ago, I would need to complete another marathon before March 10th, when registration opened. That did not give me much time to get ready!
Rehab went well. I ditched the crutches the first day after surgery. I refused to take any pain meds and by day 7, I was riding a stationary bike, but ever so slowly. Progression was very slow and I became worried that pain and swelling was limiting my ability to get my heart rate to a meaningful level during exercise. Finally, in early November, I was able to run again. I started running with a running group at the local brewery. The benefits of running with a brew crew is that no one focuses on how fast or slow you are running. The goal is not achieving a pace or overall time, it’s getting a locally brewed IPA in your hand as soon as possible. Early on, the distances were short and I was trying hard to balance the inevitable knee swelling with pushing the runs a little faster each time. By Thanksgiving, the leg was feeling stronger and I convinced my family to join me in a Turkey Trot 10K. 13 members of my family signed up. My niece even made T-shirts that said “Feast Mode.” While I have no idea what that means, it did seem to motivate the whole group and gave us a rallying cry during the run. I felt great during the run and even finished in 3rd place in the 50-59 division. My 20-year-old daughter ran with me and finished 2nd for her age group. The running during the month of November taught me two things; 1) I was ready to begin a marathon training program, and 2) Beer and running go well together as long as you do them in the right order.
The week after Thanksgiving, I determined that the Phoenix Marathon on Feb 24th would be the ideal qualifying marathon. The problem was, it was only 12 weeks away. All my research suggested that you need at least 18 weeks to prepare for a marathon. So, I did what most men would do in this situation, I researched 12-week marathon training programs, found one that I liked, and called it good. About that time, one of my brew bros, Jeff, declared that he would run both the Phoenix Marathon and Pikes Peak with me. He also declared that he had only run longer than 5 miles once in his life. Since the 10k was my longest run since surgery, I figured we were a good training match; damaged goods and Mr. Naïve. The first run of this 12-week program started with a 7-mile run, followed by a 12-mile long run that first weekend. Nothing like jumping right in! Each week we added 1 mile to the long run, and each week Jeff declared, “this is the longest run I have ever done!” As we added miles, the recovery from the long runs became quicker each week. Over the next 12 weeks, we ran through cold weather and high winds, the flu, and even a strained calf muscle in my right leg. Through the process, I learned that dry needling and deep muscle massage is both painful and amazingly effective to get your muscles through injury. I asked my physical therapist if PT schooling included a class called “Torture 101.” I considered ice baths to help with recovery, but I decided that cold beer was better.
Despite the setbacks, we worked up to a long run of 20 miles with the marathon still 4 weeks away. 20 miles was tough, but we still had 4 weeks to go. We were feeling optimistic that we were going to be ready. To prepare for the mental aspects of racing, we decided to enter a local 10k that was 2 weeks prior to the marathon. It would be Jeff’s first competitive race. On race day, we had a cold front come through that dropped the temperature to 15 degrees with snow at start time. What a great simulation of the Phoenix desert! We both ran well and finished 1st and 2nd for our age group. Even better, I managed a 2nd place overall finish. We were feeling great. The 10k run convinced us that we were ready to run and really boosted our confidence. We started to joke that we might win this thing and we even considered contacting Depends to see if they would sponsor a couple of “old” guys for the marathon. At this point, bladder control might just be our biggest obstacle!

Chuck NorrisAfter months of training, we were finally here running the race in the dark Phoenix early morning. The cool weather was welcome to a couple of boys from Colorado. We decide to fall in with a pace group targeting a 3:45 finish time. This equates to an 8:30/mile pace. Based on our training, we decide this would be a comfortable pace that would keep a little gas in the tank for the last 6.2 miles. This proved to be a good decision and had the added benefit of a pace runner that acted like a coach to help us through the mental aspects of the long race. We learned a few things from our pace runner: 1) relax and don’t push the pace early on, 2) let the course do the work (I’m still trying to figure this one out), 3) get in and out when getting a drink at the drink stands so you don’t get run over, 4) trying to catch up to your pace group after a potty break is extremely difficult! We slowed a bit for miles 23 & 24, but by the time we crossed the finish line, we had shattered our goal of sub 4 hours, finishing around 3:46, which is an 8:39/mile pace overall. Family and friends were there to cheer us on at the finish. We made it! Step 1 complete, next goal, Pikes Peak!
As I board the plane the next morning, I am very happy with the race result. Even though my legs are incredibly sore, my spirit is high and I am starting to think about my next goal of Pikes Peak. The training will be very different and will involve a lot more power hiking than flat out running. I am also thinking about friends and family that have asked me why I would want to run a marathon, especially Pikes Peak. My first thought is that I live near the base of Pikes Peak and the peak calls out to my soul every morning as I see it across my windshield as I drive to work. Actually, that’s not the reason. It’s much simpler than that. We set goals to push ourselves to achieve things that are hard and require some level of effort to prepare. We do this to prove to ourselves that we can and to achieve personal satisfaction from the journey and inevitable good results of our hard work. The level of difficulty and time it takes to be ready can vary based on personal preference and circumstances. For me, I like to target things that are physically demanding, but very achievable, with the right training. At least 2,999 other people in Phoenix on Feb 24th seemed to share this perspective. I saw many nervous faces at the beginning of the race and as many happy faces at the finish line. I also made friends along the race course and saw people supporting and encouraging each other throughout. It was a great display of hard work and preparation, human endurance, camaraderie, and personal success. Challenges like this can help to break up the routine of everyday life and give us something to strive for and achieve. For me, this run had the added benefit of helping me to overcome an injury and get back to a high level of fitness. The mental and physical benefits alone seem worth it, at least for me.

“Most men take the straight and narrow. A few take the road less traveled. I chose to cut through the woods.”

– Unknown