I woke up yesterday morning both excited and apprehensive about my 21-mile long run. It’s become a familiar feeling for me during marathon training. It manifests itself in repeated bathroom visits and an obsessive compulsive routine of checking and re-checking every detail of my run before leaving the house. This includes water, fuel, weather, course details, timing, gear, shoes, scheduling and anything else that crosses my mind.
I usually drive out with a cup of coffee to scout my route and drop off water bottles like Easter eggs. But, my wife generously offered to do that for me, so that I could get a jump on the day. The temperature at 7:30 am was a perfect 68 degrees, but the forecast was for sunny skies and 85 degree weather by midday. After discussing expectations for my return time, and going over my route details one last time, she left to drop off the water bottles and I revisited the bathroom one last time.
I grabbed a pack of energy chews and stuffed them in the back pocket of my shorts. I decided to wear both a visor and sunglasses. I lathered on some sunscreen, grabbed a last sip of water, and set off at an easy pace.
The first three miles were awful. My legs were tight and my joints hurt. I know from experience that this is a product of high mileage, early morning running, and a 44 year-old body. After the engine warms up, things usually get easier. By mile 4 I was starting to enjoy the run.
I cruised along the shoreline admiring the sparkling waters of the Atlantic Ocean. There were lots of walkers, and runners crowding the elevated footpaths and the roads were full of weekend beach traffic. I was contending with late season tourists on beach bikes and spandex covered cyclists for 24 inches of pavement.
Surfers and paddle boarders bobbed in the waves as the morning sun went from warm to hot in a few short minutes. I’d planned an out-and-back route so that I could take advantage of the water bottle drops at 7 miles (15 on the way back) and 11 miles. I approached the stop sign that marked the first water bottle and began searching.
No luck. It wasn’t there. What? I crossed the road thinking that maybe I hadn’t been clear about the drop-off point. It was nowhere to be found. Frustrated, I tried to find a positive spin on the situation. I decided that 4 miles to the next stop wasn’t that far, and maybe depriving myself of fuel and water for the first 90 minutes was a good endurance tactic.
My tech shirt was heavy and wet by the time I reached 11 miles. My visor was completely soaked and I my sunglasses had fogged up. I was grateful to find water bottle number two right where I expected; leaning up against a wooden post at the entrance to Odiorne State Park.
I took a few big gulps of water and chomped my way through the pack of energy chews. I decided to carry the bottle with me for the next ½ mile. I ended up drinking about 10 oz. of water before dropping it next to the boat launch entrance.
Instead of retracing my steps, I turned inland to find the shade of the tree-covered roads. The overall distance was going to be about the same, but the hills would be a little more challenging. I felt good until I hit 15 miles at about the 2-hour mark.
I recognized the signs as I slowly deteriorated to the point where I had to begin breaking up the run into smaller chunks and bargaining with myself. This was a lot like mile 20 of my first marathon in New York City last year. In some obscene way, I was happy to be suffering because I knew it would make things easier on race day.
I reminded myself that I was only 4 or 5 miles from home. The first 15 miles were really just a prelude to the real training run. This is where the magic happens. This is where we train the brain, condition the body, and extend our fitness.
It takes a lot of willpower to push on when you can choose to stop. Just the day before my long run I had seen my wife in tears at mile 16 of her 20 mile training run. She was happy to see me and our two children cheering her along, but also sad that she couldn’t stop and ride home with us in the car. I told my children to remember that moment and be inspired by their mother’s toughness and determination.
Now, a day later, I was in the same spot. Three miles to go. I was running past a picturesque horse pasture and on the verge of dry heaving after inhaling the smells of a working farm. I reminded myself to check my form, check my breathing, and run light on my feet.
As my watch showed 19 miles, I was struggling. My lower legs had turned to wood and I had a layer of gritty salt on my shoulders. A cyclist interrupted my thoughts by asking for directions to the beach. I gave him directions and kind of snapped out of my funk. It’s amazing what a bit of human interaction can do to bring you back to the present.
Soon I was running up the familiar hills towards home. As I passed my children’s elementary school I began feeling better. I was going to finish this workout, and I was going to be better for it. I hit the button on my watch and slowed to a walk just before turning into my driveway.
My son came out with a smile and some words of encouragement, my daughter brought out a cold drink of water, and my wife turned on the garden hose for me to rinse my tired legs. What a great feeling it is to be loved and cared for.
It turns out that first water bottle was dropped at the road sign just 25 feet in front of the intersection where I had expected it to be. I had run right past it. My son asked me if I’d had a bad run. “No, Bud. There’s no such thing as a bad run. Some are just tougher than others. Those are the ones that make us stronger.”