Surviving a Mile at a Time (The Marathon Chronicles, Part V)

IMG_2157.JPGThe bicycle is wonderful for a near-infinite number of reasons, but perhaps the most extraordinary is the fact that, when properly built up, a bicycle can coast.

When you are going downhill, you can stop working and yet keep going; perhaps you’ll even go faster. You can take short breaks on level ground, too. You can, amazingly, even coast uphill briefly.

You cannot, on the other hand, coast at all when running. A fact I, until this past weekend, never really fully comprehended.

26.2 miles is a long way to go without getting to coast. Really long.


The last Saturday before the marathon, The Runner and I decided that we’d try to get in a big run mileage-wise, but would skip the big climbs and descents we’d been focusing on. By doing a flat 18 miles, we thought we’d have a good idea of what kind of day we’d have when running the marathon. And we did fine, finishing the eighteen-mile run in exactly three hours.

But the next day I was sore. Left hip flexor pain. And it hadn’t gone away — not really — by Friday night.

Also, the weather was a little uncertain. Normally a hot, dry place even in the dead of Winter, Death Valley had been getting rain and snow. So I brought a huge amount of gear — the clothes I’d need for a Summer run, a Winter run, or anything in between.

It rained most of the drive — through Saint George, through Arizona, through Las Vegas and into Death Valley.

The cactus looked very confused.

Auspicious Beginning

The morning of the marathon was overcast and humid, but not raining. Not yet, anyway. Independently, The Runner and I arrived at identical dressing decisions: long sleeve light wool base layer, Fat Cyclist vest, wool socks, and shorts. I also wore a light wool beanie. The Runner did not, seeing as how she has hair.

We figured we’d be good in cold or rain with that combination. If the clouds cleared and it got warm, we were screwed.

We boarded the bus to the start of the race, and then the wind picked up. And it got cold. We huddled together, wondering if maybe it would be OK if we just started running a little early. Nobody would begrudge us a head start, right?

Then, almost exactly one minute before the race began, I needed to pee. Badly.

“I’ll be right back,” I told The Runner. “These things always start late anyway.”

When I came out of the outhouse, it was to the sight of everyone running down the dirt road. I had missed the start of the race.

I swear, this has happened to me in dreams, but I would never have thought that I would ever miss a race start in real life.

With the odd thought that I was currently in last place, I began chasing the field. Juking left and right, I passed the back of the field, looking for blue shorts, a white vest over a black wool shirt, and a white cap with a ponytail coming out the back.

There she was. On the left side, slowly running so I could catch her, and looking back often, wondering whether I’d ever catch up. It was her first kind move in what would eventually be a countless number of kind moves during the race.

Settling Into a Groove

The first mile of this otherwise flat course is downhill. The combination of gravity, embarrassment-fueled adrenaline, and start-of-race eagerness made me ramp up the pace. “Slow down, Fatty,” The Runner said. “This race has just begun.”

Yes, she really does call me Fatty sometimes. In spite of the fact that I’ve asked her to please call me “sir.”

I slowed down, and we settled into a comfortable — or what passes for comfortable when one is running — nine minute pace, where both of us are able to talk.

We had decided during the bus ride to the starting line that the theme of the conversation for this race would be “early childhood.” So we traded stories about friends, where we grew up, and pets. The miles slipped by quickly, and I was happy to note — several times in fact — that I was enjoying myself

Looking at my virtual training partner on my GPS (we had set them for a 4:30 target time), I could see we were ahead and building a strong lead.

A few drops of rain fell on us. Maybe ten, all told. But it was cold enough that I was glad for the Smartwool baselayer the whole day.

Looking Around

I have an assertion to make now. All wilderness, no matter what kind, is interesting and beautiful. I do not believe there is such a thing as ugly wilderness. Based on things I had read about this course and Death Valley in general, I halfway expected to come upon the first exception to this rule.

But Death Valley is no exception. Running through the bed of an ancient lake that stretched flat to the horizon, with salt crystals growing up at crazy angles, was remarkable to look at, and gave an impression of vastness that is entirely different from the vastness mountains or the sea convey. And it was definitely beautiful.

Then, as the lake bed gave way to desert and tenacious scrub, then to wiry, sparse trees, I was just amazed at the changes in scenery that had happened in just a few miles.

This wasn’t the landscape I had wanted to see. But it was definitely worth seeing.

The New Order

For the first eleven miles or so, The Runner and I ran side by side, talking most of the time. I made frequent optimistic speculation on how well things were going and our projected finishing time.

“We’re not even halfway there, Fatty,” The Runner reminded me.

“Can’t you please call me ‘Sir,’ as I’ve asked you to?” I wheedled.

Then, just after mile eleven, I noticed a change. It was about then that we started seeing the fast guys coming back on their return trip. The Runner would greet them with enthusiastic cheers. I would silently wave. Conserving energy.

And then The Runner began pulling away. “What’s up with that?” I thought. “Why would she be accelerating away from me?”

I checked my GPS. She wasn’t pulling away. I was dropping off.

I stepped it up, nearly catching her, and then falling back. This game of yo-yo continued all the way to the turnaround and beyond.

Still, in spite of my evident slowdown, I had good news: we had done the first half of the marathon in just under two hours. We were well ahead of the pace necessary to finish under 4:39. Heck, if we could just hang on to this pace, we’d finish the whole race in about four hours flat.

Keeping It Together. Sometimes.

At mile 15, I fell apart. My hip flexor had begun aching, and my legs were just so tired. I began formulating excuses for why I couldn’t finish the marathon. I highly recommend this technique, by the way, for a way to motivate yourself to not quit a race. Just try to come up with a good explanation for why you should quit. If you can’t put one together that sounds so good that you prefer it to the story you might be able to tell if you did finish the race, well, then you probably shouldn’t quit.

Still, I needed to stop running, even for just a minute. So I slowed to a walk, and hollered out to The Runner: “I need a break.”

Then, a tenth of a mile later, I started running again. Well, “running” is perhaps a little bit of a euphemism for what I was doing. Whatever it was, though, it was faster than walking, and I was able to turn in consistent eleven-minute miles with it.

And thus began my new marathon-completion strategy: run nine-tenths of a mile, walk a tenth.

And try to ignore the pain while I did it.

Honestly, I don’t believe I have ever looked at my GPS so frequently and so desperately as I did during the final ten miles of that run. Every third of a mile or so, I’d check the display again; had i got to my next walking break? No? OK, how about now? And how about now?

How To Fix Fatty. And How Not To.

The Runner had told me that she intended to stay with me for the entire marathon, and to her credit, she did. Even as my miles got slower and slower.

This, naturally, had the effect of turning the marathon into a bit of a lazy stroll for her. And she had energy to burn, which she expended in the following ways:

  • Sticking her arms out like wings and zigzagging across the dirt road, making airplane engine noises.
  • Running backward so she was facing me, and cheering me on by doing “a round of applause” for me (executed by sticking your arms straight out and waving them in a circle as you clap).
  • Doing the “Watermelon cheer,” which is accomplished by pretending to eat a large slice of watermelon, then spitting out — rapidly — the pretend seeds.

As she did this, I discovered something valuable about myself, which I had not known before: Sometimes I have no sense of humor whatsoever.

“Please,” I said. “I need to do this my way.” I then went on to explain that I was in the pain cave, and that I would be retreating deep into it and not coming out for a while.

Adopting a new tactic, The Runner asked — around mile 17 or 18 I think — if I would like to hear her life story. “Yes, that would be great,” I said.

And so, for the next ninety minutes, The Runner babysat me to the finish line, just taking my mind off the run by talking to me.

If she hadn’t done that, I’m pretty sure I’d still be out there.

Big Finish

A strange effect of this course is that because there are no trees or hills for a big part of it, you can see huge distances. So at mile 23, I could see the buses at the start/finish line. It is so strange to be able to see things at that distance. It made me feel like I was much closer to the end of the race than I knew I actually was. I resolved to ignore them.

Which was a good resolution, because buses two miles away don’t look a lot closer than buses three miles away.

Little by little, we made it to the finish line. The final mile was uphill, and I had resolved to try to finish strong. The Runner and I accelerated.

And then, about fifty yards later, I decelerated. The Runner, however, kept going. “That’s good,” I thought, “She deserves to finish at least a little ahead of me after dragging me this far.”

But then she slowed to a walk until I caught up with her.

We crossed the finish line together, and I’m pretty sure I heard a spectator say, “Good one Fatty,” as we did. Thank you, whoever did that.

Our finish time was 4:27 — three minutes faster than our target time, and twelve minutes faster than my previous (i.e., seven years ago) finish time.

After I caught my breath, I asked The Runner why she waited for me at the end. “I waited for you the whole day,” she said. “It seemed silly to shoot ahead of you at the end.”

When you consider all this, you will probably not be especially surprised to learn The Runner and I are now engaged.


By the end of the day after the race, I was sore. By Sunday morning my hip flexor was so sore I had a difficult time walking. I didn’t really feel injured per se — just sore; after a few minutes standing and walking, I would loosen up and could get around, easily walking like I was no more than ninety five years old.

By this morning — Monday — things have improved even further; I can now walk as if I were no more than eighty.

But I daresay it’ll be a few days before I run again.

PS: Those of you who bet or otherwise incentivized me (you’ll find your bets here), please click here to donate to my 2010 Seattle LiveStrong Challenge. Thanks!

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