Totally Off Topic

I just about died yesterday in the Toronto Marathon. At least that’s what one medical study suggests was happening to my heart during the marathon when I went into meltdown mode at 35 kilometers (22 miles).

Up until 30 kilometers, I thought I had a chance of running the marathon in less than three hours. This is one of those weird holy grails for marathon runners, a boundary that seems impenetrable, and yet we all know that people do it, not just the pros, but regular people like us. I know two men who’ve nearly made it on multiple occasions. I was only one minute shy in 2010.

So at the beginning of the marathon we all lined up at the front and started sizing one another up. Who should be there and who shouldn’t? What I like about the Toronto Marathon is that it’s pretty easy going, and the organizers trust runners to line up at the start according to their skill with no qualifying races for proof. For the most part people are good, although usually one or two runners join us three hour guys even though they have no hope of running the race that fast.

But we’re not checking out other runners because we want to be marathon police.  We’re looking for potential pace partners–people you can run beside because they’re going for a three hour marathon too and have a real shot at getting it. I listen to the banter to find that person who says something like, “This time I’ll make it.”

The horn sounded before I could identify my pacer, so I had to run for a few kilometers to see who dropped away early. It’s usually the really young men, the 20-25 crowd, who misjudge just how much training you need to run a marathon. This excludes the pros of course. They know. So do we old guys–anyone over thirty. We all know that our bodies need training and that they will fail us if we aren’t careful.

But searching for a running partner was my undoing in this race. My first 2k I ran way too fast because I wasn’t in with the right people. One marathon expert says that for every minute too fast in your first 5k, you’ll lose two minutes in your last 5k.

By 5k we’d all settled down, and I’d picked out two men and one woman that I felt might go the distance in less than three hours. I even asked one of the guys, and he stated he was shooting for under three hours, but his tone warned me to be wary. It was arrogant. It said, “I’ll see you after you get to the finish line.”

Marathons are one of the most humbling experiences I’ve ever had, and I think that’s why I run them. I like the challenge, and when I fail to run the race I want, I just want to try it again as soon as my body is able.

Yesterday I tucked in with these three runners and went for it. I would crack that three hour nut! But at about 15 k a trickle of sweat ran down my neck, and I knew I was in trouble. The sun was over the trees. I don’t run well in sun. I’ve been lucky so far because a lot of my marathons have been cloud covered, and it makes a hell of a difference. During my first marathon the sun peaked out, and it was as if someone had dropped a wool blanket over my head. Fortunately the clouds came back that time.

This time it was a beautiful blue sky for the whole race, and I cursed that yellow orb. In the Rosedale Valley I lost my second running partner. The woman had already fallen behind, but this would later prove to be temporary. The arrogant man, the one who was sure he would beat me to the finish, suddenly announced that he had a stitch.

“Don’t panic,” I said. “I know it’s hard, but take deep breaths and hold them. Breath slower. It’s just because we’ve been running down hill and you’ve been breathing too fast, essentially hyperventilating. Just slow down your breathing. You’re getting too much air.”

He had the grace to reply, “Good luck. I’ll see you at the finish.” He dropped away and I never saw him again. He had been humbled.

But I was next. The other guy I was running with had been only 30 seconds shy of cracking that 3 hour nut last year in another race, and he said we should stick together, should push each other. But by now we were really feeling the heat. Oh, it was only 16 degrees C (61F) but with the sun it was intense. Runners began throwing water over their heads after a few sips. I saw one guy even do it with Gatorade. I think his brains were already fried.

For a short while downtown saved us. Tall buildings with long shadows provided shade, and my pace picked up. We turned south for the lake and the water front was cool, but the sun was merciless. At 30 k I had to confess to my running partner that I was done in.

“No stay,” he said, and he sounded panicked. It was more like like a guy in a horror movie saying, “Don’t leave me to face this ugly monster alone!”

“Sorry, dude.” I didn’t stop running, but I dropped back at the next water table, taking my time with my pace and my Gatorade. I did my best to keep him in sight, but by 35 k I knew it was hopeless. I wasn’t going to come in under three hours. It just wasn’t in the cards today.

So I had a crazy idea. Why not walk occasionally? I’ve NEVER stopped to walk in a marathon before, and this is my sixth. But today I decided to do something radical because I was at the end of it, and a plan had started forming in the back of my skull. What if I treated this as a training run? What if I got through this and tried again soon, taking a chance on finding a cloudy marathon. You think strange things when you’re at the end.

So I walked occasionally. I ignored the people passing me at speed. The woman I’d counted as one of my running buddies earlier now surged ahead, and I had to just watch her go. I was done.

But I was happy. The last three kilometers were the most fun I’ve ever had in a marathon. The crowd was cheering, and I was alone, other runners way ahead and others way behind. I joked with the crowd, asking questions like, “How long is this race anyway?” My smile proved that I knew the answer, and people would laugh and hoot while others hollered, “Almost there! Almost there!” and, “Go! Go! Go!”

For ten minutes I knew what it was like to be a celebrity. I loved it. And then I came around the corner and there was the clock. I would finish at 3 hours 13 minutes and 56 seconds. Not too shabby. Certainly not my personal best, which is 3:01, but totally respectable.

I didn’t see my wife in kids in the confusion of that last moment, but they saw me, and later they told me I’ve never looked so good at the end of a marathon, so happy. I have to agree. Slowing down worked for me.

But since I didn’t die of a heart attack, I’m thinking about that little voice in my head that said, “Make this a training run.” Now I look at the calender and I see that the Ottawa Marathon is on May 27th. Is this crazy? Have I lost my mind?

Maybe. But if I’m lucky and it’s cloudy…


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Mike is the author of the 1000 Souls series that includes: Sacrifice the Living, Generation Apocalypse, and Heretics Fall. Warning: they contain violence, adventure, fast-paced action and hopeless love.