From Couch to Marathon in 35 years

JWT-finishAt the age of 21, long distance running was not part of my fitness plan. Sure I had to run for some of the HS and college sports I played, but nothing more than a mile at a time. 35 years later, I am wide awake at 4am, the morning after I completed my first marathon.

When I started distance running in 1980 my goal was always to complete a marathon, of course. It was another one of those things that never happened. The greatest distance accomplished was a 20K race in Oriskany, NY – or about 12.4 miles – in 1981.

This year, December 1st, the Space Coast Marathon was held in Cocoa, FL, over a route I was very familiar with – on a bicycle. Running this route had never been an option I had considered. It was hard enough on a bike.

Some perspective is called for here. 3 years ago, December of 2010, I weighed 287 lbs and would have had difficulty running a mile. I weighed 232 lbs after the marathon, and that was after a week of “carbing up.”

Dave Brillhart and I before the start of Space Coast Marathon 2013

Dave Brillhart and I before the start of Space Coast Marathon 2013

In February of this year I tried my first Half Marathon, The Xtreme Half, put on by Epic Sports Marketing at Orlando Wetlands Park. I had run a few 10Ks around the neighborhood and figured I should be able to stretch it out to 13.1 miles. After walking the last 4 miles, with severe pain in my feet, I realized I was not ready. Oddly enough I finished at 2:52 which put me on the podium in 3rd place for my age group. I had some issues to work on though.

First thing to do was get some good running shoes. After trying the popular “running” store, which didn’t give me what I needed, only what I wanted (big difference there) I ended up at Foot Solutions with Corinna Dexter, wife of my running buddy Patrick. She got me in to the correct running shoes with special inserts that were suited to the shape of my feet. They were not really comfortable to walk in initially, but she knew that as I broke them in they would fit my feet and she was right. Made a big difference in the marathon. My feet hurt at the end but not nearly as bad.

Coaching was essential. Brock Brinkerhoff helped me correct my running form. During the marathon I thought constantly about what he told me: “When you get tired your form will be the first thing to go. Don’t let it deteriorate. When you start feeling pain, slow down and concentrate on your form. You will recover more quickly.” He was right. Other members of our fine club, Orlando Runners and Riders, were also a big help, not only in inspiration but in tips on form, fitness, nutrition and training regimen. Special thanks to Dave Brillhart, Patrick Dexter, Janine Vance, Mike May and Brian Young, who all supported our running efforts. Also a big thank you to Crockett Bohannon for introducing me to “Injinji” socks, which fit your toes, very much as a glove would. Reduced blisters incredibly.

Injinji socks, or "toe socks" feel a little weird at first but they are excellent for running.

Injinji socks, or “toe socks” feel a little weird at first but they are excellent for running.

The most important and essential support came from my wife Kathleen, who made special meals for me, shopped for me and most of all, put up with me during the last month of training, which was very stressful.
Nothing meant more to me than seeing Kathleen waiting for me at the finish.  I am so thankful for all that she did to support me.

Nothing meant more to me than seeing Kathleen waiting for me at the finish. I am so thankful for all that she did to support me.

Training Challenges
In the early summer I started developing a burning pain in my right knee. Brock’s rule was always “Sore, keep going. Stop when it burns.” I stopped running for a while to see if it would go away. Although it subsided, it would come right back any time I tried to run. Finally, I visited Orlando Orthopedic for x-rays and other analysis and was told by the doctor that all was well, it was just the way my knee was adapting to a new running style. There was no bone or cartilage damage and the muscle pain would not cause any permanent harm. Good to know but I had lost about 2 months of training.

So when November started the furthest I had run since the Half in February was 6 miles. The plan was to get a 15 or 20 miler in before tapering off. That didn’t happen. 10 miles was as far as I got and the holiday schedule interfered. I still did a lot of smaller runs, 5Ks mostly, and one 10K. So the morning of December 1 arrived with only a 10 miler as my “longest run.”

My strategy was to run the first half, and try to beat my time from the Wetlands Park Half (2:52). Shouldn’t be that difficult as an 11:30 pace was expected, or about a 2:30 half. Since I had not trained for a longer run, I would “wait and see” what to do with the second half, but I expected a run/walk method would be necessary.

Brock (left) and Dave (right), shown here with Jerry Hertzler before a Hal Scott trail run, were tremendous trainers and motivators.

Brock (left) and Dave (right), shown here with Jerry Hertzler before a Hal Scott trail run, were tremendous trainers and motivators.

The Race
The first thing I noticed besides the large crowd, the crazy costumes and the incredibly loud music (why do the play loud music at 6am? Do they really want non-runners to hate us that much?), was the several “staging” groups with banners stating the expected finish time. It started at 3:15 and went up in 15 minute increments right up until 7 hrs. I had no idea where to start. I stood at the side of the road and wished I had read up on my Galloway running method a little more. Granted, the method works but it is annoying for people who want to run the whole thing to be constantly weaving around and through large packs of walkers, and then get overtaken by them as they sprint by in 2 minutes, only to do it all again. Safety tip: Please move to the side if you are walking? Please?
Dave took this photo of the crowd.

Dave took this photo of the crowd.

After working my was around several groups I got in to some clear space and settled in to my pace. Too soon, I had to pee. I just went before the start! This became an issue for the first 10 miles. I lost count but I think I had to dodge behind a bush 8 or 9 times in the first 10 miles. So while others were doing the run/walk method it seems my body had chosen the run/pee alternative. I still do not know why that happened as I had not had any unusual amounts of fluids other than normal hydrating procedures. Probably nerves.

I intended to run the entire first half, but it was impossible to drink from the cups given at the water stations without walking. I tried at the first one and spilled Gatorade all over myself. From then on I would walk a few feet while drinking and resume running ASAP. It slowed me down some, but not as much as all the pee breaks. I was conscious that I was running in a mixed crowd and had to go quite a distance in to the mangroves to pee without offending anyone. At least I hope I didn’t offend anyone.

I also noticed that the mile markers seemed long. In my experience, the Garmin runs behind actual mileage. It was the opposite on this course. I hit the 10K timing strip showing 6.5 on my Garmin. This continued throughout the race, as I crossed the 20 mile strip at 20.4, and the finish showed me with 26.7 miles. Others have confirmed that the course was long, although not everyone came up with an extra half mile.

Anyway, I made the quarter distance turn and began heading back to Cocoa. The weather was turning out to be perfect. Overcast, breezy and temps between 62 and 70 made for perfect running weather. Even on the “downwind” leg, with the breeze behind me, over heating was never an issue. I was watching my heart rate to judge my speed and it only got a little high when I was climbing up hills. Fortunately in Florida there aren’t many of these.

My Garmin shows me hitting 13.1 in 2:44:30. Of course, I crossed the timing strip in 2:48:28, showing 13.4 miles on my Garmin. Either way, I had managed to set a new personal record but was nowhere near my goal of 2:30. This made me change my goal of doing a 5+ marathon to just finishing. I began the run/walk right away with a 2 on / 3 off split. A few miles later I switched to 1:30 on / 3:30 off, hoping that when I turned around and headed back in to the wind for the last quarter that I would be able to cool off quicker and go back to 2 on / 3 off. While that was true, and I did so for a mile or two, once I got to mile 22 my feet were starting to hurt, and even with the Injinji socks on, I was feeling an impending blister on the bottom of my left foot. I looked at my watch and realized I had almost 3 hours left to beat the 7 hour time limit. It was time to relax a bit.

So I didn’t run the whole thing. In fact, I pretty much walked the last 4 miles (although at this point walking hurt a lot, like a real lot). Is finishing with a 4 mile walk still an accomplishment? I keep asking myself that. The time limit was 7 hours, and that wasn’t going to be a problem so why beat myself up more than necessary? I made a decision to walk the rest of the way, even though it was painful to walk, it caused less damage to be recovered from over the next few days. It hurt my pride a little to walk 4 miles, but my legs and feet are grateful today. 6:34:55 is nothing to shout about for a marathon finish, but it is a finish, and that is what matters. If at sometime in the future I decide to run another one, I will train better and be ready to run much more, and I will worry about a better time when it happens.

As it stands, I am different than I was 24 hours ago in at least one way. Back then, I hadn’t completed a marathon.

They had beer for the finishers.  I really thought it would taste better.  Even though it was good beer I couldn't even drink half a glass.

Patrick Dexter, Dave and myself with a FREE post race beer. Really. They had free beer for the finishers. I really thought it would taste better. Even though it was good beer I couldn’t even drink half a cup. Training has ruined me as a drinker.

My split times: