Five years ago, I underwent knee surgery that kept me on crutches for three months.
Three years ago, I quit smoking, a steady thirteen-year habit that had sometimes burned through as many as three packs a day.
A year and a half ago, I was effectively housebound with daily headaches.
Six months ago, after a lay-off, I took up running the trails of Lake Chabot near my house. I would charge through a two mile loop, spend the next two days hacking up my lungs, then head back for more on day three.
Yesterday, I ran a marathon.
The Skyline to the Sea Trail Run was a wonderful, if ambitious, choice for my first run of this length. The course was absolutely gorgeous, winding down from the crest of the Santa Cruz mountains through Castle Rock State Park and Big Basin Redwoods State Park to finish just off Highway 1 along the Pacific coast north of Santa Cruz. Sometimes the only thing that kept exhaustion from overtaking me was looking down the embankment, through the redwoods, to the rushing, sunlit, jade river below.
Trail runs are harder than road runs in general, as hiking trails mean paying careful attention, navigating obstacles, mud, and stream crossings, working with steeper grades, and limiting your speed. Thanks to recent storms, this time we were dealing with washed out paths and downed trees, including a hundred year-old plus redwood that had fallen with its roots dead across the trail. I haven’t run very much on pavement, but every time I do I’m surprised by the contrast: despite being harder on my body in the long run, it’s deceptively easy, and five miles can feel like what I’m used to from three.
In spite of being a downhill course, there were 2200 feet of climbing involved (the Boston Marathon’s infamous Heartbreak Hill, for comparison, rises all of 88 feet). And while being able to go with gravity so much might have improved my overall time, by about the fifteen-mile mark it had pretty well trashed my quads, the frontal thigh muscles needed for every kind of stride a runner takes. I had no illusions or intentions of being able to run every step, as I had in my previous races, and walked the steepest hills from early on.
The last five miles or so weren’t pretty, but then, I hadn’t really expected them to be. Even though the course had flattened out considerably by this point, I was spending more and more time walking.
It’s common on these runs to hear, as you’re being passed, “Good job,” or other words of encouragement. This becomes increasingly true as the day wears on, you continue to slow down, and the bulk of those passing you are the ultramarathoners who have run an extra five mile loop. It seems to be commonly recognized that the newer you are at long distance running, the worse your time, the sloppier your form, the harder you’re working to finish and the bigger the accomplishment when you do. True, the winner of the 50Km (a marathon is about 42Km) might have set a new course record in just over half the time it took me to run my marathon, but for him it was probably closer to the experience of a great workout. He already knew he could do it, the only question was probably quite how fast. That’s impressive as hell, but it’s got to be a different kind of challenge altogether.
Somewhere around mile 22 I drifted to the side of a flat, easy trail to catch my breath and stretch my thighs for a few seconds. As I stopped, the woman who passed me said, smiling earnestly, “You’re awesome.” At that moment I could only smile back, but I can’t remember giving such a heartfelt smile to a stranger. It helped.
Not much farther down the path, I realized I’d run farther than I ever had before, and that I was going to finish a marathon. Tears came to my eyes. I pulled off my sunglasses to wipe them away, but couldn’t find anything that wouldn’t just make them sting with sweat and trail dirt. I jogged on, amazed that I could still manage better than five miles an hour between my walking breaks.
When I heard the cheers from the finish line around the bend, I just picked up and ran. I have no idea how fast, for how long, or how much of a train wreck it looked like.
I crossed the finish line in 5 hours and 56 minutes.
Most of all, I crossed the finish line.
I don’t know what’s next for me as a runner. One day after an experience like that, I won’t lie and say I’m raring to live through it all again, let alone to train for longer distances or faster times. I know now that I can run 26 mountain miles, however, more than I’ve ever even hiked (save a four-day backpacking trip), and no matter how arbitrary the marathon length might be, that’s a hell of a thing.
Oh, and I know one other thing: I’m taking next weekend off from running, thank you very much.