The picture above, taken on Sunday, is hopefully sufficient proof that I did indeed finish my first marathon. Proof for myself that is, not for anyone else. That, combined with my sore knees and now legs which are likely sore in large part from compensating for my sore knees, indicate that Sunday wasn’t a dream. Though if it were a dream, I’m not sure whether it would qualify as a good dream or a bad dream.
I’ve been running for exercise for years. I remember the brutal six-mile run my freshman year RA, Ron, took me on through the hills of Newberg, OR. Six was pretty much my peak, until I ran just over ten miles a couple years ago. Then sometime this fall I “just felt like running,” in true Forrest Gump fashion, and cranked out a twelve-miler. I think it must have been then that I decided I seriously wanted to attempt a marathon.
I’m not sure I should be considered athletic. That’s not meant to sound self-deprecating, but self-aware and just plain honest. I guess in some ways, a person who pulls off a marathon is athletic. But then perhaps that’s about the only way I should be considered a good athlete. I don’t think I could win in a wrestling match with any of my friends (I can defeat my wife, though…not to brag or anything). I was called “Sneaky Matthew” by my soccer coach when I was five, though some of my friends have suggested maybe he was actually saying “Stinky Matthew” (they’re good friends, really).
I played baseball growing up, and while I love everything about the game of baseball, actually playing the game wasn’t necessarily my strong suit; I think mostly because I’m not that aggressive—afraid of the ball, afraid to dive, for example. I’ve had stretches in my life where I think I could be considered a fairly good golfer, but I’m not sure that’s universally agreed to be much of an athletic feat.
But what I’ve discovered these past six months, since I began my training program in November, and what was really made evident this past Sunday, is how much running is a matter, not of athleticism, but of the will. Based on my experience, it would seem that while few people are capable of becoming great enough at baseball or basketball to really excel in such sports, maybe based on factors out of our control like genetics, a significantly greater number of people could accomplish what I did in crossing the finish line after a 26.2 mile run. If they are willing.
I was strict in my adherence to a training schedule that enabled me to slowly increase the distance of my runs over the past six months. There would be days where I had no motivation to run, and might normally just permit myself to stay on the couch. But once I had my goal in mind (a May marathon) as well as a training plan which I believed that, were I to stray even a little bit from this plan, I would be endangering my chances of actually being prepared for this run several months down the road.
So I stuck with it, for the most part. Sometime in March I ran 17 miles, and started feeling significant knee pain for the first time, so I scaled back my training, running shorter distances, using the treadmill more often, as well as the elliptical and bike at my apartment’s tiny exercise room, being more intentional about my stretches while also finding a new pair of running shoes. I was able to get my distances back up, and after running 19.5 about three and a half weeks ago, I decided I could go forward with the marathon, despite a lesser but still significant amount of knee pain that seemed to come and go.
And that was mainly what did me in this past Sunday—my knees. I finished the marathon in 4 hours and 40 minutes. My initial goal was 4 hours even. Actually, my main goal was simply to finish, but I really believed breaking the four hour mark was a realistic goal. In most of my longer runs while training, my heart was never the issue—I found I had really built up a lot of cardio endurance. But I was concerned my legs couldn’t handle it. And it turns out, they couldn’t.
My wife will attest that I was nervous the day before and morning of the marathon. Trouble sleeping, frequent trips to the bathroom. Actually, my body seemed more nervous than my mind, if I can separate the two that way. But by the time the gun went off, I felt great. And continued to feel great for the next seven miles, really. Seven miles in, I felt great, felt like I was running at a good and appropriate speed, and was actually on pace to finish at around 3:45 or 3:50.
But whether it was the pouring rain, or not enough pre-run stretching, or the hilly terrain, or an overestimation of my abilities, or nervousness, or not quality enough training, or bad shoes, or old knee problems coming up, my body could not keep that pace. I started feeling some pains in various parts of my knees and around my knees at about mile 9, and the rest of the run was a struggle. The 3:45 pacer (guy running at a constant speed as a guide for other runners) passed me, followed soon after by the 3:55 pacer. The hardest was watching the 4 hour pacer run by. Maybe it’s just a number, but 3:59 looks much prettier than 4:01.
And it was disappointing, honestly, at first. I remember there being a real inner battle every time a pacer ran past, as I wrestled with whether or not I needed to push myself harder or accept the reality that my initial goals were, in light of the new painful situation, too ambitious. That’s hard. Especially because once the accountability of my 4 hour goal was gone, I think it became easier to give myself more grace and take more walk breaks.
But I’m not sure grace is what I wanted here, as much as stern, harsh self-discipline. Which was all part of what I think was a fascinating psychological battle going on within me. I felt a whole range of emotions, especially as I entered the second half of my run. I did not really pass anyone after mile 9, but was passed by a number of people, some much older than me. That was hard. I really had to remind myself that I was not competing with others but with myself. Finishing was the goal.
But at times even finishing sounded like a dumb idea. I was in pain. The ongoing conversation in my head went something like:
“Why keep putting myself through this pain…is it really worth it? This is actually just kind of stupid…no one’s forcing me to do this.”
“Yes, it is worth it! I’ve been training for months for this!”
“But I shouldn’t be so stubborn and proud that I don’t know when to quit!”
“But do I really want all my friends and family to know that I bailed?! And I’ll feel awful for quitting!”
“No I won’t feel awful. Trying is more important than succeeding.”
“But doesn’t quitting early mean you’re no longer trying?”
“Sh** that hurts! Need to walk again.”
“Okay, walk…but as soon as you can muster up the strength, start running again.”
“I can’t run any more. (Five seconds pass). Aw d*** it, okay, I’m running.”
And so on and so on, a similar conversation playing out in my head for several miles. But I did it. I didn’t finish as quickly as I would have liked, but it could have been worse. There were plenty of times when I realized that 5 hours was a real possibility, and I wanted to at least stay in the 4-hour range. That was a partial motivator to keep running more than walking. But the other factor was just a constant scrutiny of my effort: am I really trying as hard as I could be, or am I slacking right now? Am I letting myself off too easy?
I suppose one of the more thrilling moments came as soon as I could see the finish line. Despite my pain, I began to do the closest thing to a sprint I could manage for that final leg, certainly moving at a faster speed than I had all morning. And despite my body’s quick descent after the race into chills and a near inability to walk at all (I’m okay now), I felt without a doubt: “totally worth it.” Absolutely.
It took me a day and a half, but even though I’m still hurting, I said to Joann last night: “I want to do it again.” Obviously not tomorrow, but after one run, I’m hooked. I now feel like I have a better idea of what I need to do, how to train, how to pace, what realistic goals look like, and I have a time that I’m close to certain I can only improve upon. I’m pretty sure I just ran what will be the hardest marathon of my life. And now I’m hungry for more.
I sense some significant parallels in this experience to the other more “spiritual” areas of my life, that I won’t go deeply into, other than to say that I think there are some important lessons to be learned that I am trying to take seriously, especially in regard to the place of self-discipline in the Christian life; the place of goal setting and faithfulness to such goals; the tension between being gracious to myself while also having high expectations of myself; and knowing what dreams/goals/priorities/pursuits to hold on to and what to let go of (and when to let go of them).
But I can save that for another time. For now I’ll close with thanks. Thanks to the amazing Olympians who came out to cheer, chant, blow horns and bang cowbells in support of hundreds of runners they almost certainly didn’t know. Thanks to all the runners who passed me while I was obviously weakening, offering non-patronizing encouragement and support to press on and “keep moving forward” as hard as it may have been. Thanks to family and friends who supported and shared my excitement about the prospect of my first marathon.
And thanks to my wife and your attentiveness to my dietary and training needs, your picture-taking and cheering as you followed me around to various points throughout the run, your cute and clever umbrella/sign thing, and your pampering in the hours following my run—attending to my every need, be it by being a crutch to lean on while walking, baking cookies for me, massaging my knees, or telling me frequently how proud you are of me.
And thanks to God. You didn’t give me the courage to aggressively drive to the hoop or get in front of a hard-hit ground ball, but you did give me some pretty gnarly calf muscles. For that (those) I am grateful.