Why do I run marathons?
I pondered this question deeply as I nauseously struggled through the last 4 miles of the Illinois Marathon on a warm, very humid race day. During the drive home, I isolated the answer.
The Marathon is an excellent and exacting teacher.
The Gory Details
It's really nice to have a marathon so close to home, not requiring an overnight stay and the associated expense. Up at 4:00am, on the road at 4:30am, my wallet in hand. With the change from Eastern to Central Time Zones at the Indiana/Illinois border, I was at the race site before 6:00am local. I did a very easy one mile jog an hour before the 7:30am gun and enjoyed the atmosphere always present on race morning.
The weather had been a question mark in the days leading up to the race. Thunderstorms had rolled through around 2am but drifted to the east by morning. It was overcast, humid and 65 at the start. And this single fact would prove huge.
About 10,000 marathoners and half marathoners set off together on a pleasant, flat course through the University of Illinois campus and the twin towns of Champaign and Urbana. I jogged the first mile slowly to let the pack thin a bit, then shifted to the run one minute/walk one minute experiment I had planned for the day. Somewhere during the second mile, I noticed my singlet was already soaked with sweat...that should have been a clue.
The early race went smoothly. At mile 5, I was 2:07 ahead of my projected pace, about where I wanted to be. The pattern continued and by mile 10, I was 3:20 ahead of plan.
At mile 11.5, the half marathoners split off and the course opened up considerably. The split is always a funny point, observing the puzzled looks of the spectators wondering just how crazy you have to be to willingly make the turn to run 15 more miles. I hit the half-marathon mat in 2:27:15, still 2:45 ahead of plan.
At mile 15, I was 2:06 ahead but noticed something odd. The temperatures were rising and, so it seemed, was my stomach. At the end of each run cycle I found myself feeling quite nauseous. This was unfamiliar territory for me and I figured it would just "go away" as many other issues often do. This was wishful thinking. I was drinking plenty of fluids, having a Gu at the bottom of each hour and a SaltStick at the top of each hour. Through mile 17, I tried to first understand this queasiness and then, to determine what to do with it. It got to the point I truly wondered if I simply needed to find a gutter or trash soon. But, with nothing in my stomach, I didn't want to try.
So I experimented further, altering my run/walk ratio. By mile 19, after several iterations, I settled on a run 30 seconds, walk 90 seconds pattern. This seemed to work; by the end of each run segment I had a trace of the nausea but it was bearable. Thus, I finished out the rest of the race.
At mile 20, I was 1:49 behind my target pace. By the end of the race, I was 23:07 off the pace. I was encouraged, though that my worst single mile was the 24th; miles 25 and 26 were progressively faster.
The end of the race was nice...a slow build through the U of I campus, into the stadium, under the north goal post and across the finish line at the 50. Marathon #16, in the books.
I must have not looked too good at this point. Within seconds of crossing the line, a medic walked directly to me to ask how he could help me. I convinced him I was OK and he left, though not completely convinced, I suspect.
Finding a seat in the first row of the stands, I sat down to collect myself. The nausea was still real. What to do? I racked my brain and, after about 10 minutes, decided the best thing to do was to get up, get out of the weather and make my way back to the car. The slow, steady movement seemed to help. Swapping the soaked singlet for a dry cotton T shirt once I got to my car, I slid into the driver's seat, flipped on the air conditioning and dug out a jar of cold ice tea I had packed in a cooler. The first sip tasted great. The cool air helped a lot. Two jars of the ice tea and five minutes of A/C made a world of difference. I headed home, feeling much better.
Reflecting on the Question
Why do I run marathons?
The question I posed in the race's final hour continued to bug me. Over those last four miles, I seriously wondered "why" I would continue. Yet, as I drove across the prairie, analyzing what went wrong, comparing this race to other marathons, it hit me just why I run.
A well-known principle in training and teaching theory is the hot stove rule. If you touch a hot stove, you get burned. Doesn't matter who you are, whether an experience cook, a young child or drunken guest; you get burned just the same. It is hot...it gives you warning before it burns you. It is proportional...the longer you put your finger on it, the worse you get burned. It is immediate...you get the message in a hurry.
The marathon is such a teacher, though far more complex and nuanced. And it teaches me so much. That's why I run them. The learning, alone, is worth the pain. It extends far beyond running going to the core of life itself.
Specifically, yesterday's lesson exposed, nakedly, my own stubbornness. From last October, shortly after the Portland Marathon and my conversation with Jeff Galloway, I was determined to do a 1/1 marathon under 5 hours. As I tracked the weather all week, I took no account of the fact that the rising temperatures would necessarily slow the pace I could hold. I failed to take my own advice, which I emblazon on the sidebar of this blog: Run the Best Race Conditions Allow. I wrote about this goal way back on December 15, 2007. But clearly forgot it yesterday.
And the marathon, a skilled, complex, subtle and oh-so-clear teacher, reminded me of it again. That helps. There's a time to stubbornly cling to a certain concept. And a time to see when forces larger than you rule.
That's why I run marathons.