Becoming a Marathoner....
As each day goes by I am certain of one thing, the older I get, the faster I was as a runner.
In my forty-five plus years of pounding pavement and dirt, sweat and despair, success and failure, I am quite certain of that one realization.
Thinking back on all those miles, I have tried to pinpoint the exact place in time, mind and body, when I had become a marathoner. That term does not make me any more or any less of a runner than one who finds joy in just being out there on their own and perhaps competing, or one who just enjoys the act of movement.
I have now lost track of the number of miles that have led me to where I am today. I do know it is more than the mileage I put on some older cars in my possession at one time. It doesn't matter to me really. I do know it has involved all seasons of the year, dodging numerous cars, trucks, dogs, and cyclists. Being pummeled by rain and snow and the periodic Big Gulp sodas and ash trays. I have been lost in the daytime and dark, cowered on the ground in a lightning storm, gasped in the thin mountain air of Nepal and swore unmercifully at sand dune after sand dune in the Sahara. There have been unforgiving winds in Wyoming that battered my body and stifling humidity in the Midwest that has left me soaked in sweat within 5 minutes. The sun has turned my skin from red to brown and given me sunrises and sunsets to beautiful to recreate and so pure that a picture and filter don't quite capture the moment.
I've seen friends come and go.
Been a follower and been followed, helped, and been helped.
Smiled and grimaced.
Laughed a lot, cried little.
Threw up and prayed often.
Read and learned.
Gave advice but listened to it more.
I once tied the shoelaces to the handlebar of a stroller of every pair of shoes I went through during a run across the country, it took nineteen. That's an investment.
How many shoes have I worn running in my life? I can't even begin to count, but I do know my wallet is empty because of it and Goodwill is happy.
My first pair of shoes were the Nike Cortez, $28.95, an all-leather upper shoe with extra cushioning and a classic red, white and blue look. It was 1975 and my first season of high school cross country.
I wore those shoes till the heels were completely gone and the leather cracked from getting wet and drying out time and time again. The miles didn't matter, just having a pair of running shoes did.
Asics, Adidas, Puma and upstart Nike ruled the world of shoes back then and I invested heavily in each company purchasing shoes, numerous times. It was a golden age to be a runner. Technological advancements were coming so fast and shoe design changed with it and of course with each new pair I got, the faster I thought I was.
I know now when I became a marathoner.
That is what happens when the mind and memory begin a playful serenade. It all comes back......
It was in Athens, Greece, on the hallowed grounds of marathon lore.
I was 19 years old and it was the fall of 1980.
Ronald Reagan would soon be President. The Berlin wall was still nine years away from coming down and we had no cell phones, no laptops and Twitter was the sound birds made in the morning. Queen had the #1 hit "Another One Bites The Dust". "The Empire Strikes Back" was the top-grossing movie and ATM cards did not exist. Gasoline was $1.10 a gallon.
The United States boycotted the Moscow Olympics over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that summer. And me? I was a PFC in the Army that fall building soccer fields in Germany on a bulldozer only 5km from the East German border and running every day preparing for Athens. I didn't know much about running a marathon. I never had. I figured you just ran as much as you could, as far as you could, and on race day say a prayer.
The Athens International Marathon began on the Plains of Marathon, a historical landmark, and would wind twenty-six miles through Greek countryside to the 1896 Olympic Stadium in Athens. For the 1200 runners entered, one was scared shit-less, me.
I could have chosen an easier course for my first, but I wanted the original. I wanted the first marathon from the first modern Olympic Games and I wanted to finish in that stadium, resplendent in white marble and coal-black cinders awaiting the arrival of my footsteps.
Somewhere I have a 35mm film container with cinders from that track, scooped innocently prior to the race and packed away to bring me luck. I believe it helped to some degree but
somewhere on that path to Athens I lost all luck and met the Greek Gods of Marathon Misfortune.
In my training, I never lost. It was amazing. It was visualizing before visualization.
It helped to race my imaginary foes, to feel the strength and power in my stride as I crushed them every time. It helped to really believe there was a finish line just ahead to get me through long days on the road and up the mile and a half hill to the barracks each night after work. Sometimes when I ran, that door to another world would open up, and escaping to it for an hour or two would add to my jar of endurance building my confidence for a distance I had never covered. I could recover quickly back then and hard work came easily. I was young and naive and my body absorbed the load of training like a sponge, so I gave it a good, heavy dose of mileage. I would soon find out if I had been right.
The journey often seemed long and Athens so far away in the future.
Each day my excitement increased and then one day my rebirth began.
It was time to race.
Nervous apprehension awaited me on the bus ride out to the start.
"Surprise yourself," I told myself as the sun rose slowly in the east on an already warm morning.
I looked at my feet and my shoes.
It's funny that in today's world minimalist shoes are or were the rage.
Minimalist? We called them racing flats and that morning in October of 1980 I laced up my Adistar 2000's with cotton socks coupled with my lime green shorts split up the side and a flimsy mesh singlet.
It was hot that morning.
No wonder Pheidippedes collapsed and died when he arrived in Athens. My fate was in my own hands. The body will follow the mind.
"Don't be a dumb-ass, keep the dogs in the yard" I said to myself. Knowing quite well running to hard to early in those twenty six miles could change my outlook on life and pummel my legs.
Off at the sound of a pistol....into the light of a blazing morning sun.
Into Never-Never Land.
From what I remember the roads were dusty and radiated heat from the black asphalt.
There was no shade and the hills were rolling and relentless. There was a slight headwind and the only sound was the soft slap of shoes and rhythmic breathing of those around me.
There were no Aid Stations back then. Nothing. Zilch.
Gatorade? In Greece? Nope.
Water? Nope. My last drink had been at the start from an old bike bottle I had brought on the bus. The thought of going three hours without water was not in my plan and neither was getting punched in the face by a brick wall at mile 20. Drinking water during a marathon back then was discouraged and it was rare to find aid stations at any race. What I do remember vividly at around Mile 16 was an older gentleman standing alongside the road with his arm outstretched, his hand cradling a cup. My god! Angels exist! Slowing ever so slightly, I reached for the cup and taking it from his wrinkled hand, said "Thank You"
In one quick motion I tilted my head back and slammed the liquid, letting the coolness of it trickle down my throat. What relief I had was short lived. I coughed, I sputtered, I spat, I tasted alcohol and then the realization came that I had drank Ouzo, a Greek alcoholic drink similar to Sambuca and widely consumed in the country, but I suspect not by runners in the middle of a marathon.
Well the oh-shit train was about to head south.
"Shoulda wore your training shoes."
Those wonderful "minimalist" light racing flats I was wearing? They were perfect for a 10k but not for a marathon. They felt more like cheap house slippers and were crushing my quads.
Six miles to go.
Damn I was thirsty, really thirsty.
Nobody around me, yet.
"Shoulda wore a hat." I said to myself as one eye closed, burning with a river of sweat.
"Shoulda used Vaseline" as I felt a burning sensation inside my thighs.
There were no shorts with liners back then, just sayin'.
"Really shoulda used Vaseline." Toes were burning and beginning to swell.
No water. "Suck it up troop." I said. Not gonna die. Not yet.
YOU ARE ON THE OLYMPIC COURSE!! The voice in my head screamed.
No other runners. No people...anywhere.... except my bartender friend...from Mile 16.
Four miles to go.
Breathing behind me. "Don't look."
Passed by a skinny, fast, tan guy and felt a breeze.
More breathing behind me. Passed by a guy with a beard. I hated beards and his breeze too.
Quads shot, blistered, chafed, one eye, no hat and buzzing from Ouzo the Stadium could be seen in the distance, the very, very far distance. White marble and beautiful, it was calling me.
"Pay the price to the gods and you shall enter my embrace" it seemed to say.
I felt my shoe loosen.
"Are you kidding me?" a broken shoe lace. Seriously. A quick tie. Damn that hurt bending over.
Bill Rodgers once famously stopped to tie his shoe during the Boston Marathon and went on to win. Me? I tied my shoe and kept slowing down.
So I rolled with that and though my pace and energy juices had been significantly reduced, I smiled. I am a lucky man.
I AM ON THE OLYMPIC COURSE!
And then from somewhere the gods gave me an olive leaf....
I found a sugar cube tucked in my shorts pocket.
Yes, a sugar cube from the restaurant at the hotel.
It was my lifeline. Under my tongue it went. Dissolving into my bloodstream, giving me the boost my blood needed.
I don't remember if I sped up but I do know I didn't slow down.
I remember every step was like a blow from a hammer to my quads but every step was pleasure, every step was earned.
I remember my mouth was so very dry and my tongue swollen.
I remember pain, manageable pain. Pain coming in waves with each foot strike,
I remember being transformed from what I was as a boy to what I would become as a man.
There are no walls. Only those we create. Every wall can come down.
I believe that in those final miles of my first marathon the bar was raised in what I could accomplish and find in my running and my life.
I might not ever win a race but I had found my place in the pack.
I believe I was afforded an opportunity and more importantly, a path to be where I was, running up those steps, through the gate then feeling cinders under my feet.
I believe finishing is really just the beginning for all of us........................
(Third Place Under 20 Age Group...3:05:12)