Cornfield Meet

Things collide here.

Seventeen Saturdays: The Towpath Marathon

Sunday, Oct. 11

Ninety minutes or so after the Towpath Marathon, I double-limped through our front door, desperate to take a shower and stretch out on our bed.

Standing in the family room, I have never looked at a half-dozen stairs with such trepidation. Maybe I can crawl up there using mostly my arm muscles…

My morning started at 5 a.m. I toasted a bagel, smeared it with not-too-much cream cheese, and sipped water. Jenn and Kelsey got up, and we left at 6:15.

About an hour later, we were pulling into the Boston Mills ski resort parking lot. I walked around to get my bearings and eat a banana.

I’d decided that with sun in the forecast but only a 50-degree high expected that I’d run in my shorts but wear my Akron Marathon shirt beneath a long-sleeved Hall of Fame race shirt. I brought gloves for the early part of the run. Jenn and Kelsey caught up with me, and we hung around in the lodge for a few minutes while I got my things in order, strapping on my belt and my mp3 player, making sure I knew how to work the stopwatch Keith gave me.

We headed out toward the starting line at 7:45.

This was more than 24 hours ago, and thinking about it still stirs the nervousness almost back into reality. I was jittery and chilly and even though I’d spent 71 of the last 125 days going through these same motions and doing the same thing – running – over and over, and even though, as my brother’s voice said in my head, “It’s just distance,” I was still doing my familiar race-day freakout.

The starting line was about halfway down a south-facing hill just north of the Boston Mills ski area. I said goodbye to Jenn and Kelsey at the bottom, and walked uphill toward the back of the pack, not wanting to start off too fast or get in the way of runners going for faster times.

It was a far smaller crowd than I’d ever raced with: fewer than 500 people. I’m sure it had to be someone else’s first marathon, but I felt like the only person there who wasn’t relaxed and ready and comfortable with what was coming.

They announced one minute to start time.

And then it was here.

Up toward the back, of course, we didn’t move right away, and even after I did start jogging a bit, we came to a mass of almost dead stoppage while the crowd bottlenecked over the timing sensors in the road. I held back and let things clear so I could cross the timers at a jog, and then I was over them, looking for Jenn and Kelsey one more time, waving at them off to the right, and looking south to the longest run of my life.

It stayed crowded, and though I felt like I was at a comfortable pace, if a little slow due to the cold and nerves, I was also aware that my speed was still basically being dictated by the people around me. I didn’t want to weave and dart through the field for fear of getting off to too hot a start, so I just went with the flow.

We crossed a bridge and then turned off the roads and onto the narrow towpath itself, thinning things out somewhat. And though I felt a little more comfortable passing people at this point, when we hit the first mile marker and I looked at my watch, it was a punch in the gut:

TEN MINUTES?!?! You are freaking KIDDING me!!! My admittedly ambitious 8:23 pace goal and its 3:40 total time suddenly seemed insurmountably distant. I was alread a minute and a half further back than I wanted to be, and my pace-marking temporary tattoo felt like a taunt and a mockery. So much for my visions of letting off some steam at the start and then being able to afford slow-downs in the late miles.

I tried to push a little harder to see what ground I could make up. It didn’t happen quickly or easily: I got faster – though I remained slower than my goal pace – over the first few miles, and by the five-mile mark, I was between four and five minutes off the pace that had once seemed so reachable.

“It’s a long way to go, ” I told myself. “Get back a few seconds here and there, when you can.”

It was a beautiful morning for a run, and the scenery in the Cuyahoga Valley was fantastic. Certain stretches, you’d hear the river rushing shallow over rocks, other places fields on the opposite bank spread out, dotted with flocks of Canada geese. Highway bridges towered far overhead. Marshes and swamps were still and misted.

I wasn’t listening to my mp3 player yet, wanting to save it for the later miles, when I’d really need the distraction.

The southern turnaround – the marathon started and ended at points near the middle of a single stretch of the towpath – came somewhere between miles seven and nine, I think, and I felt like I was hitting my stride.

In fact, in the tenth mile, I had the crazy thought that I was actually feeling pretty good. I’d been checking my progress at every mile, and by now, I’d run a few in the low-eight-minute range, a bit faster than my goal pace. When I saw the Mile 10 sign ahead, I realized that I’d be able to pass it before the 90-minute mark, making for a nine-minute average, and gaining back a big chunk of what I’d lost in those first few miles.

Nearing a tunnel beneath a railroad line at around twelve miles, I couldn’t help but grin when I heard a horn blast and saw the engine coming toward the crossing just as I was passing through. (Trains and bridges hold special places in my heart, as anyone who’s read Crossing Decembers knows.)

The miles started catching up to me around the race’s halfway point, though, so I cued up a couple recorded podcasts to pass the time. I wasn’t panting or exhausted or anything, but I started to kind of feel the weight of the race piling up on my knees and upper legs. And during this stretch, the run became a solitary experience. I passed – and was passed – infrequently, and slowly, like when you’re on the highway on cruise control and you come upon someone else who’s got their speed set at about one mile per hour faster or slower than you.

Here’s where I also lost total track of my time – while hitting the play button and selecting the tracks on the mp3 player, I had somehow inadvertently reset my wrist clock. So it was just me and the miles ahead.

I’d been warned about the dragging miles between 17 and 20 – seems like they were hitting me a little early, maybe, but nothing that made me doubt that I could finish.

Not long after I passed the finish line area, southbound runners began appearing on the left side of the path, nearing the end of their races. I was jealous.

I found myself taking note not only of the mileage signs on my side of the path, but noticing the north-facing ones on the other side, which all started with the number 2 and trying to think of Future Me passing those markers instead of those on my side, which still began with those infuriating 1s.

At 18 miles, though I was feeling pretty whipped, I was able to tell myself that I still felt better than that terrible day I ran my 18-miler in training.

At 20, I told myself that every step from here on out was a whole new frontier, and all I had to do was just keep going.

It was hard.

My lungs were fine, and I had no side stitches or other cramps, but my legs were turning into squish.

During this stretch, I’d finally started piping my musical (and other) inspirations into my right ear. (My left earpiece had gone dead during the start of those podcasts earlier.)

They ranged from a clip of a Spongebob Squarepants episode culminating with a genuinely stirring bit of triumphant pop-metal to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” to The Cyrkle’s “Red Rubber Ball” to U2’s “Desire.” Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” music was in there, as was Yellowcard (“Way Away” and “Ocean Avenue”) and the oh-so-1980s song “Runner” by Manfred Mann. I was saving “Through the Fire and Flames” for the last mile or so.

During training, and as I had assembled this playlist pre-race, these songs and soundbites had gotten my heart pumping and my adrenaline skyrocketing.

By the time I turned around and headed south for the final five miles, the best they could do was just take my mind off the remaining distance.

Five miles, which I’d run so often and with less and less effort, was all I had left, and I was struggling.

I started closing my eyes, opening them every few seconds only to keep myself on the path and make sure I wasn’t running into anyone.

Every time I came around a bend and didn’t see the next mile marker, I felt like screaming or crying, neither of which I could afford the energy to do.

Look, other people are walking, part of me said, and you’ve run more than twenty miles, which is something not a lot of people can say they did, so why don’t you call it a day here and –

-because I don’t freaking WANT to walk. I wanted to RUN a marathon and KEEP running it and FINISH it running, and Future Me, who’s already up there at the finish line somewhere even though I can’t see him, he’ll be awfully pissed off if I quit now.

You know what, though? I just didn’t care.

I couldn’t make my legs work any harder, go any faster, or take any longer strides. I couldn’t shake my head and clear it and think, “Hey, you’re still breathing, so you’re in good shape.”

I just wanted to be done. I just wanted to be finished. Outside of the pain in my knees and legs, I was numb to everything else, and stopping seemed like a good way to start healing.

But I didn’t.

At mile marker 22, I told myself, “All that’s left is one more run around the block,” and I tried to look around and replace the woods and the towpath and the river with my neighborhood and its landmarks.

At mile marker 23, I thought of the place where there used to be a big barn that my friends and I snuck into as kids, and which they tore down a few summers back – it’s three miles from my driveway, going the long way around the block.

With 2.2 miles left, I imagined the halfway point of my four-mile route at home, a spot at which you can look across a field and a horse pasture and see our cluster of houses.

Somewhere just before I saw the mile 25 marker, I finally let myself listen to Dragonforce and though I had no adrenaline left to rush, “Through the Fire and Flames” at least chewed up almost eight minutes of time. I decided to listen again, and halfway through the first verse, the black-and-white sign crept into view ahead: Mile 26.

Beyond it, I could see people lining either side of the path, faces turned in my direction, arms waving and hands clapping.

I knew I wouldn’t stop now. Not this close. For the first time in miles, I remembered that I could do this. I allowed myself to know, in fact, that I’d already done it, and I’d be catching up with Future Me in just a few more steps. Not stopping to walk during the last few miles had been probably the hardest physical thing I’d ever done, but it was behind me now, lost there in the woods down in the valley.

When I reached that mile marker, in my mind, I was at the end of my street, and the mailbox at my driveway seemed closer than ever.

I yanked the earphones free and tucked them in my left hand, and I heard people yelling encouragement.

I leaned forward, incapable at this point of the full-on pumping charges I used to manage on the final stretch at home, but enough to give me a little burst of speed.

When I saw people looking past me, north on the trail, I thought, “Someone behind me?” And I pushed a Little. Bit. More.

A white-gloved man ahead waved me to my right, and I veered off the course and saw the finish line right there with the clock above at 3:56-and-something-I-think, and I pushed once more and then I was there, and someone handed me a medal, and I saw a big bin of orange wedges, so I grabbed one and shoved it into my face and it was the Best Orange Ever so I had another one. And then Kelsey and Jenn had rushed into the finishing area and thrown their arms around me with ferocity and I’m pretty sure they were holding me up at that point, like they always are, and I am through and I’m finished.

I have a couple more orange quarters and then go sit on the grass, swigging from a big plastic bottle of Gatorade and eating the peanut butter crackers Jenn brought for me.

When I take my shoes off, I dump a few small pieces of gravel from the right one. There’s a blister on the ball of my right foot where one of these has been rolling around for awhile, but I never wanted to stop and take it out.

We grab fast food drive-through for lunch on the way home. As we get closer, I think of all the running I did on these roads, and the mailbox as viewed from the end of the street doesn’t look quite the same anymore.

I gingerly made my way up the stairs inside the house, leaning heavily on the railing. After a shower, I took a long nap.

Later, I looked up the final official results: I finished in 3:56:07.14 – sixteen minutes longer than I’d wanted to run, and 12 minutes behind my little brother’s first marathon time. My pace was nine minutes and one second per mile – only six seconds per mile slower than I’d done my 20-miler, and at any rate, almost a full minute faster per mile than that 18-mile slog back in September. Still, it was under four hours, and I placed 192nd out of 488 competitors – so, hey: top half, right? – and smack in the middle of my division, 21st out of 41 men age 35-39. (And just to make myself feel better, out of the 20 guys in my division who finished ahead of me, only six were my age or older. The rest of ’em? Whippersnappers.)

And I never stopped running.

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October 12, 2009 - Posted by | Ohio, running, Sports, writing | , , ,

18 Comments »

  1. Congratulations on finishing the marathon and on telling a great story. I’m sure the family is very proud of you, as they should be. I know marathons are not easy, and it’s been interesting following your training process.

    I raise an orange wedge to you. ;)

    Comment by Cindy | October 12, 2009 | Reply

  2. Congratulations! You did it! How do you feel today?

    The story I tell, although I only ran a mere half marathon, is that for about 24 hours I had a dull headache that wouldn’t go away for any sleep or medicine.

    Oh yeah, I have a more embarrassing story on that end. When I looked at my shirt at the end of the race…there where two spots of dried blood. Someone later told me I should have/could have taped them up.

    Comment by Ivan | October 12, 2009 | Reply

  3. Thanks!

    My upper legs and knees are VERY sore – navigating the steps is no fun today – but other than that, I’m fine. And as for that particular chafing, Ivan, it was never an issue for me, though I know it is for many runners. (By the way, you could still TOTALLY DO THIS, and if you do, I’ll run it with you.)

    Comment by jrbooth | October 12, 2009 | Reply

  4. Yeah, John! You got my heart pumping as I read. I’m still looking forward to my first full marathon. But a 9-minute pace, not to mention 8 minutes … that sounds like what I could have done when I was 22. Thank you for renewing my determination to do the fully monty — er, marathon. It MUST be done.

    Comment by Burton Cole | October 12, 2009 | Reply

  5. I’m so proud of you, Mr. Booth!!! Major cross off the old bucket list. I can only imagine how yummy the orange quarters were…I was with you in spirit b/c as we all know, I only run when chased :)

    Congratulations on your achievement!!
    xoxo-
    Sniffer

    Comment by Jen | October 13, 2009 | Reply

  6. John, thanks for putting into words the amazing highs and lows of running. Your descriptions of the physical and emotional impacts are spot on! So what’s next? :) congrats on an amazing finish time.

    Comment by derek w | October 14, 2009 | Reply

    • Thanks, Derek – It’ll be awhile, but I’ll do it again: I’d still like to shoot for that 3:40 time; and my brother and I would like to try to run one together sometime.

      Comment by jrbooth | October 14, 2009 | Reply

  7. Hal Higdon knows what he’s doing!
    Way to stick to the plan, and way to execute a smart race even when your pace plan turned against you.
    Welcome to StormRunners, my friend!

    –Kink

    Comment by Kink | October 14, 2009 | Reply

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