I’ve read enough personal running blogs over the years, where people publish incredibly in-depth recaps of their race weekend experiences, that it brings me, and probably only me, great joy to start this next paragraph like so many I’ve seen before:
I arrived in Chicago with my wife and two daughters on Friday afternoon—some of us took naps; one of us made encouraging signs for race day with all the materials the Nike folks were kind enough to leave in our room. I went to the race expo, which is huge and awesome and a financial nightmare for anyone who loves merch as much as I do. I got a quick dinner with the family, which was immediately followed by a second, not-so-quick dinner Nike had arranged.
I was fortunate enough to wind up sitting next to the evening’s guest of honor, Joan Benoit Samuelson, the Olympic gold medalist and all-around badass runner whose current goal is to run a sub-3 marathon in five decades, so, in her 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. She was supposed to be running Chicago but had dropped out just a few days earlier because of a knee injury. I asked her a million questions about her career—about how she would have benefitted, if at all, from today’s technology when she was younger; about how she’s managed to stay mostly injury-free all these years; about what she eats. She was gracious and open and, like any good running nerd, perfectly content to talk about running and nothing else for as long as she could get away with it.
And in fact, I could have peppered her with questions all night, but she wouldn’t allow it—the best part of talking to her was that she was as intent on asking me questions about my running as I was about hers. I told her about my goal of going sub-4. At a certain point she started calling me Michael instead of Mike, which struck me as such an endearingly maternal move, and she assured me and everyone else at our table that she knew I was going to hit my goal. I don’t know how, exactly she came to this conclusion, but I’d had more wine and Double IPAs than I should have, so I let it get to my head. I went to bed on top of the world.
Saturday morning! 24 hours to go. We had a 3-mile shakeout run scheduled to start at the Nike Chicago store, so I got up early and hit Starbucks for a pre-run coffee. Sitting outside in the hot, humid morning air, I saw Galen Rupp walk past me, and I figured it had to be some sort of good omen.
Along with what seemed like hundreds of other people, we started our run from the store down to the famous Lakefront Path. We got through our first two miles at a relaxed pace, 9:25/mile or so, chatting about our race plans and all that. I felt great — no aches or pains to speak of, and my legs were fresh.
And… then things went downhill. Quickly.
My phone vibrated in my hand, with a text message I felt like I had to read. So I turned to my right and mentioned to my Nike running coach, Jes, that I was going to duck off the path for a second and then catch up when I was done. In one unfortunately fluid motion, I identified a bench on the far left side of the path, at about a 45-degree angle from where I was and immediately veered toward it.
Just as quickly I was fucking crushed by a cyclist. The serious kind, decked out in all sorts of fancy kit and just absolutely flying.
Now, to be clear, this was totally, 100%, without question all my fault. I essentially sprinted into oncoming traffic without looking, and it was super dangerous and careless and I felt terrible about it. I knocked the dude off his bike; fortunately he was unharmed.
But, back to me. As far as I can remember, or deduce based on the injuries I sustained, I made contact with him on my right side and at some point wound up parallel to the ground, eventually falling on my left side. The first real pain I felt was on the side of my left leg, up by my hip flexor or whatever, but it wasn’t terrible. I noticed my hands were all cut up, and that my left shoulder was also hurting. After a few minutes, I told everyone I was ok, and we finished the last half-mile of the run. It seemed like my shoulder had gotten the worst of it, which I figured I could live with. But as we hit the home stretch, there was an uphill on an overpass, and my hip started to scream.
I finished, did a bit of stretching, and with each passing minute started to feel worse and worse. I grabbed an Uber back toward the hotel and met my family for brunch—by the time I got out of the car, I could barely walk.
I then proceeded to spend three hours in the hotel room by myself, applying ice to my hip, on and off, for 15 minutes at a time. I should take a moment to thank the Nike people one more time for having literally every form of Icy Hot sent to my hotel room. Bandages, creams, roll-on sticks, which I didn’t even know existed.
I walked around the city for a while, trying to convince myself I was ok. Then I ran a few blocks, which was when I realized I was pretty much done for. I also realized I was just gonna keep telling everyone I was ok, hoping that by morning I would be.
As I wandered, it struck me that the great irony of all this is that, as some of you will recall, this was my third attempt at running a marathon, the first two having been derailed by injury, and yet I was about to make it to the starting line 100 percent injury-free. I’m not going to say my training went 100 percent perfectly—I skipped runs, cut runs short, stopped too much on long runs—but it was my best cycle ever, and it’s largely because of my Nike-appointed coach, Jes Woods, who helped customize a training program for me, and Rachel Bugner at Finish Line PT in New York, who somehow kept making my legs not hurt for just long enough that I could get through another week of training.
Anyway, I couldn’t sleep at all that night—a horrible combination of nerves and intense pains shooting up and down the entire left side of my body. I was up for good by 4:30 A.M. and headed to the starting area by 5:30. Every step I took hurt like hell. Once I started running—four, five, six, seven miles, I told myself—it would loosen up.
After a quick breakfast and a light warmup, I crossed the starting line at roughly 7:50 A.M., breaking into a light jog and trying to enjoy the huge crowd. I ran my first mile in 10:01, already way slower than my goal pace. The pain wasn’t going away. Midway through my 10:12 second mile I realized it was getting worse. 2.3 miles in I was walking. Limping, really.
And then came rock bottom: at some point during the fourth mile, I was outside the ropes, completely off the course and sitting on a bench near an office building or a bank or something. I called my wife and told her I thought I was done. “Ok, she said, “But we’re standing here with our coats on, about to go meet you at mile 13. The girls have signs.”
The thought of making it even nine more miles at the rate I was going seemed insane. But more than insane, it seemed pointless. My 4-hour goal was obviously out the window, as was anything even remotely close to it. I didn’t come here to run a 7-hour marathon, I remember shouting into the phone.
But all of this aside, I made the decision to get to mile 13, meet up with my family, and make the call from there about whether I’d finish. At some point around mile five or six, I figured my sad run/walk routine needed some structure, and as crazy as this sounds, I started running and walking in tenth-of-a-mile increments, occasionally trying to stretch the run portions to .15-mile or even—gasp—entire quarter-miles. Every time I stopped and started, I was in agony for a few seconds.
When I finally made my way to mile 13 and found my family, it was perhaps the greatest feeling of relief I’ve ever experienced. My wife told me how proud she was of me for not quitting, somehow managing to strike this perfect tone where she assured me she’d support me in any decision I made, while also making it clear that she knew very well how much I’d regret it if I stopped. She did this again at mile 17, mile 20, and then again at the finish, lugging around a 2-year-old in a stroller and 7-year-old who had probably never walked so far in her life. I can say with 100% certainty that there is no way I would have finished without her. But, then, other things that also helped:
1) The thought of spending all that money on plane tickets and having it all be for nothing.
2) All the energy the Nike people had put into this whole ordeal and desperately not wanting to let them down even more than I already had.
3) Feeling like, if I didn’t finish, I’d never be able to justify wearing all the dope Chicago Marathon gear I’d procured.
4) My God, I’d been trying to finish a marathon for over a year and it took over my life in a way that was extremely unpleasant, and I just needed that shit to be done.
5) I’d planned on indulging in at least my fair share of adult beverages afterward, and I very much wanted them to be celebratory in nature rather than, well, the opposite of that.
I’d also started thinking about this whole idea of the breakthrough, which Nike had been bandying about—identifying your own limitations and then finding the strength to surpass them. It was a play on the Breaking2 attempt, tailor-fit for us regular folks and brought to the light of day with a crack team of coaches and physical therapists there to make sure I was given every possible chance to succeed. The 4-hour breakthrough I’d had in mind obviously wasn’t happening, but I had only to shift my perspective ever so slightly to see another one on the horizon.
I’m still not even sure what I was doing was particularly smart or admirable, but if you had laid this scenario out for me ahead of time and asked what I thought I’d have done, based on everything I know about myself in pretty much every facet of my life? It would have taken me about half a second to tell you I’d have quit right there on that bench during mile 4. And if you’d asked me how I’d have felt were I to “run” a marathon in 6:20, I’d have told you I’d be damn near suicidal. But neither of these turned out to be the case. I discovered a well of self-determination and resolve that I had not known was available to me, and this alone started to feel like enough. Or, like something, anyway.
It’s been almost exactly a year since I started marathon training, and I’m thrilled to finally have one, albeit a very ugly one, under my belt. But I’m even more thrilled to be able to move on from the distance for now. I’ve got a Turkey Trot on the schedule, and a half-marathon coming up in December, neither of which I’m planning on racing all that hard. But after that, I’m setting my sights on a half-marathon PR in May. Sub-1:50 is the goal, which I figure is where I really should have been for my 4-hour marathon goal to have been realistic. So, that’s where we are: Sub-1:50 in the spring, maintain fitness through the summer and then immediately pick up training again for fall marathon season, during which I will turn 40.
I’ve been thinking, “Sub-4 Before 40” has a nice ring to it, no?
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