On Sunday, October, 12, 2014, I completed the Chicago marathon in 2:59:45. This was not only my first sub 3:00 marathon, this was my first sub 4:00 marathon. I PR’d from my previous best of 4:05:58 by over an hour and I qualified for Boston by over 10 minutes. Last year when I started running again my goal was to qualify for Boston within 5 years. I never expected it to happen so soon, and I have learned a lot in the last 22 months, about running, about life, and about myself.
I should first say, I have no natural running ability. I am not naturally an athlete. I smoked for 14 years. The sports I played growing up I didn’t play well. Running was punishment for me, not enjoyable. I am not tall, I do not have a perfect running stride. I spent a lot of my life overweight, eating horribly, and not taking care of myself. On January 13, 2013 I ran my first mile in almost 4 years, and I was at my heaviest weight of 225 pounds, little of which was muscle. That mile took me 15 minutes and I puked.
In the months that followed I got faster, stronger, lighter, and began racing. I dealt with setbacks, injuries, etc., and I never raced terribly well but my times were respectable enough. I was all set to change that on May 4, 2014. I had trained hard and had my eyes on a finish time of 3:45 or better for the Pittsburgh Marathon. This was going to be the race where I finally broke 4:00 and made significant progress towards qualifying for Boston. I crashed and burned. I finished in 4:05:58. I wasn’t prepared mentally. I didn’t run my race and I didn’t leave it all on the course. When my race went south I checked out mentally instead of pushing through. I was disappointed in myself. Plenty of people told me it was a good time, but it wasn’t good enough for me.
I had 5 months to train for Chicago, and I was going to change everything. I researched training plans. I found the Hanson’s training method and decided to modify the advanced plan to add intensity and mileage. Instead of peaking at 55 weekly miles like in my old training plan I was going to peak at 90. I was going to run over 300 miles a month. I was going to lose over 40 pounds by changing my diet. I was going to cut my marathon finish pace by at least 1:30 a mile. I was not going to cross the finish line in Chicago and be disappointed again. No junk miles. Hills, speed work, long runs, high miles, limited rest. I needed to perfect my hydration and fueling. I needed to learn to focus. I needed to stop being so afraid of failing so I could finally succeed.
So training started. And I ran. And ran. And ran. And I learned something. It only gets easier if you let it. There were no easy days. I wouldn’t let them be easy. It was grueling at times. There were nights I would run a 17 mile tempo run and have to travel for work the next day, so I would sleep two hours and then run another 11 miles before heading out. I ran early in the morning, late at night. 60 mile weeks, 70 mile weeks, 80 mile weeks. Started seeing a chiro for some pain in my ankle (missed two runs). I ran when everything hurt, when my legs screamed, when I felt sick, tired, it didn’t matter. I saw one of those motivational videos once, and what the guy said stuck with me. “When you want success as bad as you want to breathe, then you’ll be successful.” That’s how bad I wanted it. I work 60+ hours a week, sometimes more. I have kids. I sacrificed my life outside of that to run. Because I learned the only way I was ever going to get what I wanted was to give up a piece of me to get it. On October 10 when I left for Chicago I had logged over 1450 miles in 23 weeks, and my weight had gone down to 148 from 195.
I will share a secret. I decided I was going to try and qualify for Boston a few weeks before Chicago. I didn’t think I could honestly do it, but I knew if the conditions were right I would try. Five people told me they thought I could, fellow sponsored athletes Addie, Andy, and Megan, my friend and fellow runner Tom, and my best friend Brian. I shrugged it off whenever they talked about it or brought it up, usually changing the subject. Partially because I didn’t believe I could, and partially because it scared the shit out of me. I did have one conversation with Brian about it, and I told him as a joke that I was going to break 3 hours and then put a post on Facebook telling everyone kiss my ass. We both had a good laugh. Then I told him, in all seriousness, if I was under 7:00 minutes a mile after 3 miles and it was under 60 degrees I could give it my best shot. Registration for Boston 2015 is closed, so the earliest I could qualify for was 2016. I’d be 35. I needed 3:10 to qualify, 3:08 to realistically get in, and 3:00 to sign up “week 1, day 2” and not have to sweat it out. The thought of that seemed impossible, and scary, but I was ready to try. I told everyone my "race plan" was to split the race into 4 sections like I did my long runs: 7:30 pace for the 1st quarter; 7:15 pace for the 2nd quarter; 7:00 pace for the 3rd quarter; sub 7:00 for the 4th quarter. This was a lie. I had no intention of pacing myself. The legendary Pre said "The best pace is a suicide pace, and today is a good day to die". My goal was a suicide pace from start to finish and a BQ. I didn't train for 5 months to not chase my ultimate goal. I didn't have the guts to tell anyone that, because then I could fail. If no one knew, there would be no pressure. Before the race I had never held a sub 7:00 minute pace for longer then 8 miles. No matter how the race ended, I was leaving 150% of what I had to give on the streets of Chicago.
The trip to Chicago was a nightmare. My flight was delayed, cancelled, they tried to fly me out on Saturday instead of Friday. When I finally got in late on Friday night Hertz didn’t have a rental car for me. I got to the hotel after 1 a.m. I overslept, lost my room key for the hotel, got stuck in traffic on the way to the expo, missed meeting up with some friends because I was late, hit a pole in the parking garage, and got lost trying to find a restaurant for dinner. I went to bed early, and to my surprise, go my first good night’s sleep in weeks. I was up at 3 a.m., packed my room, loaded the car, got breakfast and headed downtown. For the first time ever I was comfortably early for a race. No rushing. Relaxed in the car for a bit and and headed to the start line. Got a pep talk from a good friend and the best advice I have even been given "don't think, just run". I made my way up to the front of Corral C and put my headphones on. No rain, about 50 degrees, and the city looked beautiful.
For some reason they didn't stagger corrals B and C by much more then a minute. The first mile was an anxiety filled disaster of trying to weave through traffic at every available opening. My pace for the first mile was 7:52. That wasn't good enough to get to Boston. After the first mile I picked up my pace and was able to pull away from the crowd. Between 1.5 and 2 I went under an overpass. When I came out the other side I was alone in the middle of the road. The sun was reflecting off the buildings above me, and the city looked beautiful. I thought about how lucky I was to be there, running, at that moment. My pace for mile 2 was 6:48. During the third mile I took an inventory of how I felt. My legs felt good, I was breathing good, my mind was in the right place. Mile 3 was at a 6:48 pace. Under 7:00 after 3 miles, weather was perfect, and I felt great. Time to go for it. This was one of two times in the race I thought of breaking three hours, because I knew if I kept this pace I would be close.
There was not a lot of thinking going on in my mind from miles 3-10. I followed my hydration and fueling plan I had been using during training. Hydrate at 3 mile increments, fuel and hydrate at 6 mile increments. I did not slow down through aid stations. I yelled thank you, grabbed my drinks and drank the best I could while maintaining my pace. I did not read signs, high five anyone, take in the scenery, nothing. I zoned out and checked my pace, that was it. When I hit mile 10 I realized I had held a sub 7:00 pace for 9 miles for the first time ever. I also realized that from my torso down my entire body was in an amazing amount of pain. I told myself the paint meant my plan was working. I passed the half marathon point at 1:31:13, and I realized I had just PR'd a half marathon by over 13 minutes. This was second time in the race I thought of breaking three hours, because I would have to run a negative split on the back half to do so. I passed the half way point at a 6:25 pace.
Miles 13-22 were all under 6:40. At Mile 16 I was in a considerably higher amount of pain. This feeling intensified at mile 18. My hamstrings, calves, quads, and abdomen all felt like they were ready to cramp. I refused to slow down. My body would have to force me to slow down before I let it. Too many times in my life, not just running, I had given up when things got tough. Not today. I didn't run 17 of the fastest miles of my life to get conservative with 8 left. I thought about my family, my friends. I thought about how much I would regret slowing down for the rest of my life. I picked up the pace. At mile 20 I closed my eyes for a few seconds. I felt like I was flying. I have never felt so alive in my life. When I opened my eyes I realized this was why I was a runner. For the chance to fly. For the possibility that for a moment in time, it could all come together, and for an instant you could outrun everything, even yourself, even your soul. The last 6.2 miles had been my Achilles heal in my previous marathons. Not today. I was in intense pain but I wasn't going to let up on my pace. I couldn't.
At mile 22 I decided I needed to stop looking at my Garmin. I was starting to get anxiety about the final miles, and I knew how far off I was from gun time so the timing stations at the mile markers would be good enough to let me know I was on pace to finish a BQ. Everything was a blur at this point. My head was pounding, and every part of my body was in some type of pain, even my eyes. But I was dialed in. Each step hurt more then the last and it didn't matter. At mile 25 I looked at my Garmin and it was frozen without a satellite, but I knew from the timing sign I was going to qualify for Boston barring a catastrophe. I started crying and sprinting as fast as I could move my dead legs. I hit the hill at 25.7 at a full sprint and didn't slow down. At the 26 mile sign the course heads downhill for the last .2 miles. Everything felt like it was in slow motion for the final push, even though I was at a full sprint. I knew I was about five minutes off of gun time, and when i crossed the finish I knew I had qualified for Boston. I don't think I have ever screamed so loud or been in so much pain. I didn't know until I turned my phone on that I had broken 3 hours. 2:59:45. I qualified for Boston by over 10 minutes. 1,020 out of well over 40,000 runners. I couldn't stop crying. I couldn't think. Exactly 21 months earlier on January 12, 2013, my ass was on the couch weighing 225 pounds and getting out of breathe walking a flight of stairs. Now I was a sub 3:00 marathoner. My Garmin was working and my splits confirmed, 25 sub 7:00 miles after the first mile. I had held my suicide pace for the last 25.2 miles. After the first mile I didn't see anyone pass me. As my friend Robert would later say, I successfully shot the moon.
In the days following the race it hasn't really sunk in. It still doesn't feel real. I have tried to think about what I learned. You know what I learned? Let go. Of everything. Fear. Pain. Failure. Control. Clear the mind and let your legs do the thinking for you. Just run. That's what it had always been about, but I didn't realize it until I was told not to think. People run for a lot of different reasons. I run for days like Sunday. I will run for a lifetime for the chance to feel like that again. I was asked by a co-worker what the race was like. I had to think. I don't remember much other then what I posted. I don't remember any signs, any faces, I don't even remember what Chicago looks like except the view at the start and the fountain in Grant Park at the finish. I told her it was perfect. I learned that you have to want it. You have to be willing to give up everything. Sleep. Time with your family. A social life. Your body. And a piece of who you are. I learned to believe in myself. Some amazing people taught me how to do that by believing in me. Karma, fate, a god, none of those things helped me accomplish my goal. Hard work, dedication, sacrifice, blood, sweat, and tears did. You have to give up control in your mind, and trust you legs to carry you. 99 times out of 100 I don't think I could run that race in Chicago. But I'd run it another 100 times for the chance at reliving it once.
To show how out of my element this race was for me:
My fastest 5k race to date is 22:35. All of my 5k splits were under this time.
My fastest 10k race to date is 46:52. All of my 10k splits were under this time.
My fastest half marathon race to date is 1:44:49. Both of my half marathon splits were well under this time.
I PR'd by over 1:06, and by 1:52 from my full last November.
21 months ago I was a lazy fat guy on the couch. I am not an elite runner. I don't even know what I am doing most of the time. Everything I know about running came from a few select friends, a couple of books, Google, and trial and error. I have a lot more I would like to accomplish with these legs, a lot more running left to do. I was told every runner has their day, and I am not going to stop pushing until I earn another one.
Forget about what you think you can't do. You will never accomplish anything if you tell yourself you can't. Forget about what you're afraid to do. Fear will only hold you back. Decide what you want to do. Then run until you do it.
There is no finish line.