For those who have run a 5k or a 10k and have ventured into running a half-marathon, the question becomes one of whether they can run a marathon and how hard it can be to do so. The answer, as with everything in running, depends. But I can tell you what is harder than running a marathon – not running one you really want to do.
As I sat at the Niagara Falls Marathon expo, next to running legends Kathrine Switzer and Roger Robinson, the intelligent side of me which said that because of my aching Achilles tendon, not running was the wisest thing I could do began to get pushed out by the side of me that sorely ached to run. My plan for this fall was to have two attempts at setting a new personal best, one at the St. George Marathon and if that did not go well, to try here in Niagara. When I saw St. George was not going well in the first 1/3 of the race, I pulled back and eased into the finish. Then the weekend before Niagara, while running two marathons in one weekend, my Achilles reared its ugly head and put the kibosh not only on the plans for that weekend but for this one in Niagara as well.
I am often asked if I have had a running injury. Again, the answer to that question is “It depends.” I am pretty certain I could run a half-marathon right now. I might be able to slog through the full 26.2 miles as well. But if I were to do so, it would undoubtedly be far slower than I would like it to be. So, is that an injury? What I do know is that if I pushed through the pain and did not heed the intelligent side of things, I am more than positive I would have an injury that none would have to bicker about the definition of.
So, on the 5-year anniversary of the first time I ever ran a sub-3 hour marathon, I decided I would be doing no racing. This decision was made with a considerable heavy heart. This race has always been one of my top three favorite races and for good reason. When I was running the 52 Marathons in 52 consecutive weekends back in 2006, there were a great deal of factors that made it so special. Had someone run a certified weekend every year for one calendar year before? I am sure they have but the number would be very small. That has to do a great deal with the fact that there were not as many marathons to fit the calendar say 20 years ago. In order to fill the year there would be a lot of 26.2 mile “runs” to fill the gaps. But, and what is most important, *I* had never done it before. That is really all that matters.
The fact that I was working full-time, was not sponsored and had just a handful of marathons under my belt when I took on the task is why the task was impressive. I was not a runner with All-American status and past accolades checking off a run every weekend knowing that I could run much faster. I was giving about as much as my talent and experience level could handle, week in and week out.
Which is why the Niagara Falls Marathon was so special to me.
A few weeks prior I had been slogging through a tough summer of marathons. I had no doubt I would finish all 52 but the task was daunting. Then surprisingly, I ran my fist Boston Qualifier of the year at the Presque Isle Marathon in Erie. What endeared this race to me was how it was not only on Grandparent’s Day (my grandparents, who had all passed, were very special to me and very supportive of all the ventures I came up with) but it was the first marathon my mother had ever seen me run. With other family members in attendance, to run what was not only the fastest marathon of the year by three minutes but only another 3 minutes off of my personal best in the 36th marathon of the year was simply delicious. I did not think that moment could be topped.
Then, three weeks later, I ran 5 minutes faster.
At the Johnstown Marathon, on a particularly tiring weekend following my attendance and persistent screaming and cheering at a Penn State Football game, I had little hopes for anything out of the ordinary. But by the 20th mile I could tell I was not only going to run the fastest marathon of that year by far but if I did not blow up entirely, I would be running my fastest marathon ever. It was also at this race I met a young runner named Justin Gillette who I have since formed a great relationship. (Read my interview with him here). While Justin went on to win the race, I ran a 3:05 and finished barely breathing hard. I was astounded. But nothing could have prepared me for the next few weeks.
At the Des Moines Marathon, I was asked to pace the 3:10 group. My hubris allowed me to think that even though I had only run a 3:10 or under 7 times I my life, I would somehow be able to keep those who were seriously depending on even pacing too get them there. Cutting to the finish, upon running even splits throughout the race, I ran a 3:10:12, only not going under 3:10 because I slowed to allow the only runner who had stayed with me to finish all by himself and receive the accolades he so richly deserved.
This brings me to the Niagara Falls Marathon. While I was in Des Moines running, a massive snowstorm swept through Buffalo and the greater Falls area. The marathon was actually in danger of being canceled because of downed power lines, feet of snow and carnage from trees and debris falling throughout. But to the great credit of those involved not only with the marathon, but the public works of Buffalo, the streets, come race morning were clear. Mountainous snow drifts still dotted the medians of the road we were to run on but sprits were even higher. I felt nothing special at all. I was just happy the race was going on.
I ran the vast majority of the first half of the race with a woman who told me the previous year a horrible headwind had hampered any efforts by many to run fast as miles 9-26 go in one direction. When I hit mile 9 and felt no such win this year, I was quite happy. Four miles later at the halfway point I was at 1:28:47 and thought – could I possibly keep this up?!
Mile after mile clicked by. I had roughly 60 seconds of leeway over 13.1 miles. That gave me about 4 seconds to play with per mile. It wasn't until mile 20 that it even really came into play when I ran my first 7 minute (flat) mile. At that point I began one of the most throat-clenching runs in any race I ever ran. Even as the watery plumes of the Horseshoe Falls of the Canadian side of the world’s most famous finishline came into view, I was still unsure what my time would be. In fact, even hitting the 26 mile mark did not allow my mind to do the math well enough to figure out if I would finally have that sub-3. Only when I made the final curved turn and saw the clock thirty yards away did I know I had it.
Two hours, 59 minutes and 48 seconds after the race started outside of the Albright-Knox Museum in Buffalo I crossed the finish in the most memorable finish of any race I have ever had. I can still feel exactly the same feeling I felt that misty cloudy October day in 2006, if I just sit for one second and think about it.
That is why sitting out this race, the last the Race Director Jim Ralston, his wife Ruth and a collective host of others would ever be directly involved with, was more painful than the stiffness in my calf and Achilles.
But I did. And in doing so got to watch one of the few marathons I have ever seen which I was not an active participant in. I was rewarded by doing so as well. First and foremost, it allowed me to rest the Achilles and hold off any long-term potential injury. Second, I was flattered to be asked to hold the finish line tape for the overall marathon winner Brendan Kenny from Dundas, ON. Third, not only did an acquaintance, Meggan Franks from Mississippi win the female marathon, but a woman who ran with me for the first few miles way back in 2006, Nathalie Goyer, took second overall. Not only did Natalie come back from what was a trying year for her, she did so as a master’s female!
As the sun hit the mist of the falls, sending a double rainbow into the backdrop of thousands of finishing photos, I had to smile. I have been to Niagara Falls on four separate occasions and had never seen the sun. That is not hyperbole. But on race morning, as I walked down to the finish from my hotel (and not the start – that was really weird) the sun warmed my face. I also noticed I wasn’t limping for the first time in a week. I am by no way healed fully but I am feeling infinitely better than I would have had I run in the race.
The rest of the year contains a plethora of half-marathons and at least two marathons in new states for me. Then, a break of probably a month where I hope to fully recover from what is ailing me and, as I have the past two years, have the highest mileage total for the entire year in the month of December.
While everyone else seems to hibernate I seem to build a head of steam. And believe me, for what I have planned for April, I am going to need it.