19 days, 19 marathons

Today is a significant one when it comes to my training for Boston; I did my last long run this morning.

It’s taper time.

Many took to the roads this past weekend to get that last “biggie” out of the way. I had planned for a 22-miler this Friday, April Fools Day. But I just wanted to get it over with and begin the rest process leading up to the big day. I ran 19 miles this morning, using the hills of Harvard along Oak Hill/Old Littleton Road as a tempo portion. That hill seems to go on forever – just when you think it’ll flatten out, bam! You turn a corner, and the incline continues to unfold in front of you.

I could have gone up to 22 miles or three hours (my time was 2:28), but I wanted to simply put in a quality run, and take the confidence from it into the final weeks of training, rather than run three more miles and feel lousy doing it (which would, of course, help mimic how I’m going to feel in the late going on Patriots’ Day). Nineteen miles ended up being just about perfect; not enough to wipe me out, but plenty to make it a good workout.

I’ve already done two 20-milers; overdoing it is not going to happen. Those last 6 miles on race day are never easy. This year will be no different.

The number 19 is also significant to me for two other reasons: next month’s Boston is 19 days away and it will be my 19th marathon (and fifth Boston). This from the guy who had the following conversation with John Pelton while on a group run with the Batten Kill Valley Runners about 15 years ago in Arlington, Vt.

Me: “Have you ever run a marathon.”

John: “Yes, I’ve done a few.”

Me: “I’ll NEVER run one of those.”


Over the coming weeks, I’m going to write about my previous 18. My thoughts leading up to, during and after each one, from my first one to last. I’ll try to cover a marathon each day. But I make no promises, though I have no excuse for laziness since I’ll have some extra time on my hands (and feet) to do some writing. I did a little research on finishing times and the dates of each race, but so much is still fresh in my mind. Even that first one, nearly 15 years ago…

I lost my marathon virginity in Philadelphia, the week before Thanksgiving in 2001. It was everything I thought it would be – nerve-wracking, exhausting, spine-chilling (for about 16 miles), an achievement like no other. But most of all, difficult.

I’m so glad I finished that first one. When I get into the 20s in a marathon and everything hurts and my brain yells “STOP,” I always think back to Philly: “Well, you finished that one, you can finish this one.”

A little history leading up to numero uno. I was living in Vermont at the time and took up running two years earlier. The beginning of my life as a runner was a bit rough, due to a part of the body you only learn of when you become a runner: Ilio-tibial band.

The pesky ITB (which runs along the outside of your thigh from hip to knee) tightened to the point where I couldn’t run for more than a mile before making the long, shameful walk home. After weeks of PT, new shoes and inserts, it began to feel better. Eventually, at the end of the summer, I completed what felt like a 12-mile run (no GPS back then). My longest run to date. It was exhilarating. It gave me such a buzz. The kind I still chase – and usually achieve about 40 minutes into a run – today.

That buzz led me to pick up the phone and call a local high school track coach (Kathleen Newton) who would soon become my running partner. I inquired about still being able to qualify for Boston. From 12 miles to a marathon. Told you I was buzzed.

Kathleen told me that Philadelphia is a flat course and that another local coach (Jim Dulin) was thinking about using it as a qualifier. I called Jim and he confirmed he was. I was in.

We did all the prep work, adding a half hour to each long run every week. I still remember looking at my watch as we approached the 3:00:00 mark on that last long run. My weekly mileage went up quickly, from 25 to 40, over the period of just two months, and I eventually paid for it. (More on that later).

The race was on a Sunday, and we planned to travel from Bennington to Philly on Friday afternoon. But not before I ran the Stockade-athon in Schenectady, N.Y., the week prior. It’s a 15K. I had yet to run a 10K. Warning: Don’t try this at home.

The ride down was memorable. It was barely two months after the Sept. 11th attacks. I’ll never forget driving past Ground Zero (on the New Jersey side) that night. There was still smoke, dust and large spotlights hovering over the area. Eerie.

The next day, we had lots of time to kill in Philly. We did probably too much walking in the city, but at night, back at the hotel, an inspirational movie was on TV. And it had nothing to do with running.

I couldn’t believe the coincidence. Here we were in Philadelphia and it was the 25th anniversary of the first Rocky movie. The next day, I’d be among the gathering at the Philadelphia Museum of Art – where the famous Rocky statue is located – to run my first marathon. Goose bumps!

The ride the next morning from the hotel to the start was an adventure. Jim and I flagged down a cab, and Jim told the driver to take us to the marathon start. We were on our way down the quiet streets of Philly at 7 a.m. Not long after, the driver grew puzzled. Marathon, what marathon? We thought he’d know. We thought everybody would know. But there was nothing in the paper, and apparently, no one informed the local cab companies that a flood of runners might require transportation to the Museum of Art to go see Rocky (the statue).

When the driver discovered that several streets were blocked off, he grew frustrated. He started gunning it to get around the detours. Soon, we were going 55 on downtown streets. It was an hour before the start and we were maybe two miles away, but in his mind, we were already late. Then he started cursing.

“This is why they have marathons, to piss people like me off!”

The City of Brotherly Love indeed.

A normally five-minute ride took maybe seven minutes. Here was my tip for the driver: chiiiiiiilllll.

The weather was perfect (50s and sunny), a fact I took for granted. I found out in later marathons how heat could kill any training cycle.

The race started out uneventful. It took me a minute to cross the starting line, but the time on my watch was all that mattered. I was shooting for a 3:10 in order to qualify at my age (33 at the time).

The first 10 miles went by quickly. We ran on cobblestones and took lots of turns. There wasn’t a huge crowd presence, however, which surprised me for such a large city.

But the crowd grew larger and louder as we approached the halfway point, which is near the Museum and also where the finish line is. I got to 13.1 miles in 1:32, well ahead of my goal pace. The last 12 miles were 6 out and 6 back, so I eventually started seeing runners come the other way. Those were the elites, though. Upon seeing them, it appeared the end was near. Not quite.

A cramp started to bubble up in one of my hamstrings around Mile 19. “Don’t even start,” I thought. As we hit the turnaround at 22, I started to fade. I was at 2:38. All I needed were four 8-minute miles and I was Boston-bound. (I had been doing 7:15 miles prior to that point). But the cramp persisted and my legs were toast. I ingested my Power Gel (aka frosting in a tube) not because I was hungry, but because I had a couple in my shorts. I brought them, might as well use them.

I stopped to walk a couple of times. But since I was still in line for a BQ, I eventually continued running.

As I approached the finish, the crowd was larger than before. There were clocks at every mile, but I couldn’t find the one for Mile 26. The time wasn’t what I desired. I wanted to know where Mile 26 ended so I could be done. I don’t know if it was because the crowd was so big or that there just wasn’t a mile marker, but I never saw one for the last mile. Because the course turned a sharp corner just before the end, I had no idea how close I was to the finish.

As I took this corner, I looked down at my wrist: 3:10:40. It was the first time all day that I thought I wasn’t going to make my BQ. (Back then you could use the additional 59 seconds toward your qualifying time).

After seeing the time on my watch, I got a pit in my stomach. Disappointment washed over me. When I completed the corner and looked up, there it was, the finish line. Maybe 50 yards away. I “ran” as hard as I could. When I crossed the timing mats, I saw 3:12 on the clock. Remember, it took me a minute to cross the starting line. I had no idea if I made the 3:10:59.

Since it was 2001, there was no way to find results quickly. And we had a long ride home in which to embark. My overwhelming feeling was that I had just missed.

After a cheese steak, we headed home with ever-stiffening legs. The next day, I located the results. 3:11:01. Missed it by that much!

A couple of friends suggested I still send in my time to the BAA. The race didn’t fill up then, but it wasn’t long before my legs grew very tired. There was no way I wasn’t going to run another marathon in five months.

My tired legs lasted well into the following spring, but the disappointment from missing out on Boston by 2 seconds faded within a couple of days. I was proud to run a 3:11 in my debut.

Come the spring of ’02, the rust finally left my legs. It was time to start thinking of planning my next marathon.

Until tomorrow …



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