The Renaissance Man: Running A Marathon
from the Autumn 2007 issue
To be honest, I’d never given much thought to running a marathon before. I’m sure that at least 90% of you out there feel me on that one. Running, in fact, was about on par with flossing for me. I started both of them around the same time, and for about the same reason: because it seemed like something I should do. The possibility of my ever doing either for several hours at a time had never occurred to me.
But as the spring thaw settled on Chicago one year, I started seeing these ads in storefront windows and on train platforms. They told me that, in just a few months, they could train me to run a marathon. Like, the whole thing. I’m not sure in retrospect when or even why I crossed the line from “How about that.” to “How about sure!,” but I did. Perhaps I was sold on the fact that, somehow, my running a marathon was supposed to raise money to benefit the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. After all, if you’re going to run 26.1 miles, it helps if you’re running away from something. For me, that something would be my liberal guilt.
Fortunately for me, Chicago is a great place for a beginner to train for a marathon. The glaciers were nice enough to cut out a nice flat landscape, and the city planners were considerate enough to give me a lakefront trail to run on along the most gorgeous skyline in the nation. Further, almost half of the coeds to graduate from a Midwestern college moved to Lincoln Park to give me something to look at as I ran up and down that trail.
There were a lot of factors working against me as well, not the least of which was that our group training sessions took place at 8 am on Saturday mornings, until, that is, the summer sun got hotter and the lakefront trail more crowded, and this was pushed up to 7 am. I can honestly say that I’ve seen Saturday morning from both sides, because while running that early in the morning, you see several people stumbling home to a bed that they did not see the night before. Whenever we’d run past these people, I would raise my water bottle to them in a silent toast.
The training method we used was developed by marathon runner Jeff Galloway (yes, the Jeff Galloway!) and it involved taking periodic walk breaks. My running class, for instance, would run for six minutes and then walk for one. Some hardcore runners are opposed to this method, and more than one took it upon himself to tell us so as they passed us. Some hardcore runners are dicktards. You would be surprised how, after a few weeks of using this technique, it becomes a simple matter to knock out ten miles in a morning.
Meanwhile, I had other things to worry about. The notion that my completing a marathon would raise money for a charity was not completely accurate. It would be more accurate to say that I would be both completing a marathon and raising money for a charity, because in exchange for their excellent training, I was asked to raise $1400 by soliciting it. This proved to be much harder than my training. As someone in my first year out of college, I was in a terrible peer group to be put in this position, so the majority of my begging was from my parents’ neighbors and my former teachers, the same group of people to whom I would have been trying to sell Boy Scout popcorn five years prior.
What? No, I wasn’t still a Boy Scout when I was seventeen. Shut up.
It took a lot of letters, but I did manage to meet my fundraising goal and even surpass it a little. And if you’re reading this, Mrs. Klinge, I’m sorry that as of early 2007 I haven’t sent a thank-you letter yet. I’ll get around to you, I promise.
By the time the marathon rolled around in October, I was no longer concerned that I wouldn’t be able to finish, despite missing a lot of training dates because of work and, uh, poor choices. That’s not to say that I wasn’t nervous. But I was ready. I was decked head to toe in “wicking” fabrics, synthetic materials that didn’t exist when I was born, with a fanny pack to hold water bottles and PowerBars and a synthetic food appropriately named Goo, a paste that consists of mostly sugar and caffeine.
In the laces of my shoe I also wore a ChampionChip, a microchip, similar to the mark of the beast, which would record my time. The starting line was not wide enough to accommodate all the runners, who added up to the population of a small city. The people who had qualified to be in the marathon started running a full 35 minutes before I squeezed my way to the start. The ChampionChip would record when I started, finished, and crossed checkpoints in-between.
And so I ran. I ran so far away. I logged mile after mile. I drank a lot of Gatorade and ate (if you can call it that) a lot of Goo. I stopped in more than one Port-a-potty, because membership in the marathon club comes with insider experiences like “runner’s trots.” I ran past and around a wide variety of Chicago sights, including the south side home of the White Sox, who were poised to win the World Series in a matter of weeks. I ran past crowds and crowds of spectators, and a lot of them yelled out my name to me (because I had written it on my shirt). Twenty-first birthdays aside, nothing compares to a marathon for having a lot of people around to cheer you on as your hurt yourself for no good reason.
Running a marathon is a surreal experience, in no small measure because of all the pageantry mixed with the indescribable head rush. But finishing it is even more surreal. Having sprinted most of the last mile (having somehow convinced myself that I was “almost there”), I crossed the finish line with my arms held high in victory. High school-aged volunteers swarmed on me. They wrapped me up in a big piece of aluminum foil (to keep my muscles warm) and put a medal around my neck. A table immediately following the finish line offered all-you-can-drink free beer.
I had expected October 9 to be an emotional experience for me, but I had had no idea of the scope. As soon as I was finished, I was crying like a baby who’s just achieved one of his biggest goals. And I didn’t stop crying for over an hour. I couldn’t help it; I was happy but my whole body convulsed with sobs. Apparently, however, this is a quirk of my brain chemistry, because people looked at me like I was crying after a round of bowling.
It took me most of that hour to wade through the crowds to find my mom, who had come to town to support me. She drove me to the north side, where I jumped into the cold waters of Lake Michigan at Montrose Beach. Not only was this supposed to help prevent soreness, it also made me start laughing uncontrollably, which I guess was an improvement over crying. After that, I ate a big meal and slept the rest of the day. After that, I limped around and walked up stairs backwards for about four days.
All in all, I would say that running a marathon is probably not as hard as you think. Some 35,000 people from around the world registered for the 2005 Chicago Marathon, and over 33,000 finished. Of course some of these people were professional or at least elite and highly trained runners, like Felix Limon of Kenya, the race winner. (Kenya has a lot of good runners in the same way that Canada is home to some of the great Canadian football players.) But one of those people was me, who trained four times a week at most.
When I tell people that it took me four hours, fifty-eight minutes, and eleven seconds to cross the finish line, and they ask me what my goal was, I say, “To cross the finish line.” To put it in rhyme, you might say that I was not really “in it to win it,” that I was a “completer, not a competer.” (You might even point out that the correct word is “competitor.”)
But despite how I might have made it sound, running the marathon remains one of my proudest achievements. For Christmas that year, my mom took my aluminum foil wrap and got it framed, and from time to time I glance up at it and think, “I did it. And I never have to do it again.” I would strongly encourage everyone to ask himself when the last time was that you did something for no other reasons than because it was a challenge, and because it might do some good for others. I would further encourage you to check out www.aidsmarathon.org. In addition to Chicago, they offer training programs in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., and they can train you to run a marathon or a half-marathon that takes place in a dozen different locations around the world. For anyone unimpressed to by my 11-minute-plus-per-mile pace, I challenge you to lace up and give it a go.
And Felix, if you’re reading this, you may have won the first round, but I challenge you to a drinking contest. Kenya handle that? -Bryce Wissel
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