Note: This is the final part of a four-part series on running a marathon by frequent guest and friend of the show, Stephen Stephano. In this series he will detail his real-life experiences in running ten marathons, and he will give a four-step process on how to run one yourself.
Marathon 2019 Part 4 – Race Day and the Aftermath
Welcome everybody, this is the final tell all of my series on the 2019 marathon. Very quickly, let’s recap where we’ve been.
Part 1 – The Buildup: a period of general fitness and cross training activities that included running, cycling, swimming, basketball, and soccer. June-August 2019.
Part 2 – The Peak: the period of intense running training that took place starting 10 weeks out from race day. September-October 2019
Part 3 – The Taper: the time of backing off from the hardest of workouts in preparation for the race, generally the final 2 weeks ahead of race day. 1st half of November 2019.
Best half marathon – 1:32:54 – October 23, 2019
Longest run – 15 miles – 1:48:49 – November 1, 2019
Best 10k – 40:18 – November 6, 2019
As you can see from the above highlights, my training in the peak phase led me to peak fitness, or very close to it. The half marathon I ran on the Towpath Trail on Oct 23 was only 4 minutes off my personal best, while the 10k on Norwalk’s Northcoast Inland Trail Nov 6 was just 47 seconds removed from my all time best. In terms of fitness, I was probably still behind my top form from 2014 and 2015, but not by much.
Following the nerves and jitters of The Taper, there’s really only one thing left, and that’s the race itself. For me, the target race in 2019 was the Richmond Marathon in Richmond, Virginia. This race was to be contested on November 16, a date that would generally be quite chilly in the CLE, but would likely be more pleasant in the northern half of the South. But as race week progressed, Mother Nature threw a surprising variable in my path as Cleveland was hit by an early winter storm on November 11 and 12. Having done my last workout of any consequence on November 10, an 8 mile run, I had just two little 3-4 mile jogs left scheduled for the 12th and 14th. Faced with the prospect of having to do my second to last pre-race jog that Tuesday afternoon on icy streets and 15-20 degree temperatures, I decided on what seemed sensible at the time, to move the run indoors onto the Strongsville rec center’s indoor track.
This would be one of the most unfortunate, untimely mistakes I’ve ever made in my running career.
Early on in this jog, I felt an abnormal amount of pressure in my left calf. It almost seemed as though I hadn’t warmed up properly. I stopped after 6 minutes and decided to stretch it out anew. But when the pain continued a few minutes later, I came to the conclusion that the tight turns of the indoor track must be the culprit. I switched over to the treadmill, which is a piece of equipment you’ll almost never see me on. But there too, the pain continued. Utterly befuddled, I abandoned the run after just 17 minutes. I proceeded to go home, put the ice pack on, and started praying that this was all a fluke.
During the day on Wednesday I felt a little bit of tightness, but it had pretty much gone away by evening. Having felt good throughout Thursday, I hit the Northcast Inland Trail for the final pre-race jog. But after about a mile, I could feel pulling in my lower calf. I prayed that it wouldn’t get worse but it did. The tightness didn’t feel normal either — it was almost a tugging feeling unrelated to fatigue. I had strained my other calf, the right calf, back in May playing soccer, and I had a very strong feeling that this was a similar situation.
Once again I went home, pulled out the ice pack, and it was there that I considered my options. I had basically 3 options. The first option was end the season and not even make the drive to Richmond. The second option was to shut it down for a few weeks and then try to regroup for a different race in December. Neither of these two options was desirable, option 1 because it meant I would fail in my goal of completing my first marathon since 2017, and option 2 because recovering fitness quickly after an injury is always very difficult. So I decided to go with option 3.
Distance running, when you think about it, is most similar to football and soccer in terms of team sports. You generally have one or two key workouts each week, and maybe you run a race on the weekend, with the season building up to your peak event. The marathon is effectively the Super Bowl, or Game 7 of a playoff series. It’s the ultimate pass/fail. You work hard and put yourself in the best position you can, and then it all comes down to one shot at glory. Richmond was my Game 7 in 2019. When I arrived in the city and got to the race expo, I saw people taking pictures in front of a brick wall display that read “The Hardest Race is the One to the Starting Line.” I got rather emotional as I saw this, and I actually had tears in my eyes. Never has this quote been more true for me than in 2018 and 2019. In fall 2018 I planned to race in Las Vegas, only to be felled by injury. In spring 2019, I targeted Louisville only to suffer the same fate. Now after having been so strong all year, the injury bug had bitten me once again. Only this time, I was not about to take this lying down. This was my moment.
On race morning, I carefully taped my calf up with K-tape, grabbed my Gatorade and frosted mini wheats, and went to the starting line. The weather was much cooler than expected, just 40 degrees. Given that I expected to have to walk most of the way, I bundled up more than normal, electing to wear a long sleeve T-shirt underneath a hoodie with my #LOTL Living off the Land basketball jersey overtop. The jersey had the #11 on the back, representing my 11th career marathon. I also had my hat and gloves. I honestly looked more like somebody who was going skiing than a distance runner, but I was sure I was going to be out there for quite a while. The starter’s gun went off at 7:45 a.m. that morning, and away we went, nearly 5000 strong, through the streets of Richmond.
The leg felt good through the early part of the race. I covered the first 4 miles of the race in just over an hour as the course went westward into the historic neighborhoods and then into the suburbs. At mile 7 we crossed the James River going southbound and then turned east through a park area by the river. This was a very scenic part of the course. But it was here that I noticed a problem, my left foot was starting to develop a blister. I decided to take off my shoes and air out my shoes and socks for much of mile 8. I did this again at mile 10. You talk about the truly bizarre, going barefoot in a long distance race. I never thought I would ever do that. The move stemmed off the inevitable for a little while, but by mile 12 my left foot was in pain. It would continue until I reached the bridge leading back into the city at mile 15, which I crossed at about the 4 hour mark.
At this point my left foot was bad, but a blister is just skin surface pain, it is annoying but it isn’t going to kill you either. During miles 10-15 I had started to feel much warmer as the temperature rose toward the daytime high temperature of 47 degrees. I had considered doing away with my hoodie. Thank goodness I didn’t because we turned directly into a fierce north wind. For the next mile I battled gusts of 25-30 mph. The winds abated as we again turned west into Richmond’s “Fan District”, an area that included many bars and was adjacent to the Virginia Commonwealth University campus. This area was more or less the Ohio City of Richmond, and included lots of good fan support even for those of us in the back of the pack.
After going through the Fan we turned north back into the wind and went directly into the howling gusts from mile 18 to 21. In most marathons, this is usually where the race starts getting vastly more difficult. Your legs start to get heavy. Eventually your muscles feel like they are going to spasm on you, especially if you’re dehydrated. Since I was at a walk pace and the weather chilly I didn’t have to worry about cramping up, but as I made the final turn back to the south just before mile 22, I could feel my left calf finally starting to tighten up. It was very tight throughout the 23rd mile. For a period of about 2 miles coming back south I had to periodically stop to stretch out my calf. The mood had darkened, and I became much more nervous. To use a sports analogy, this was starting to feel like a game I had been winning but the opponent had tied it up with a few minutes left. Making matters worse, at mile 24 I started feeling bad pain in my right heel/Achilles tendon. This was going to be close. I was wondering if my calf was going to explode on me. I slowed my pace just a bit and held my proverbial breath, hoping somehow I could hold out for 2 more miles.
We made the 2nd to last turn just before mile 25, heading east into downtown. By now pretty much every muscle in my lower body was hurting and the blister on my left foot had literally been squished. It was me doing the athletic equivalent of shooting first and being prepared to deal with the aftermath later. The only thing that mattered was the finish line. I didn’t care that it was taking me twice as long as normal and that I was finishing amid the 50-something year old ladies and the token 81 year old man near the very back. In fact, I even conversed with some of these good people during the latter half of the race. I gained such an appreciation for them. These folks are truly doing it for the love of the sport. They know ahead of time that they’re going to be out there 5, 6, 7 hours and that the crowds that cheered on the leaders and mid-pack runners will be gone by the time they reach the end, and they don’t care. I also gained a greater appreciation for the race organizers and the volunteers who literally gave up their entire Saturday to help us on their way to the finish. Some marathons do have time cutoffs, usually 4, 5, or 6 hours. This is understandable. I may have been unlucky to pick up a calf strain 4 days before the race, but as unlucky as that was, I was very lucky to have picked a race that was so accommodating to first time marathoners, walkers, and beginning runners.
At long last, I reached the final right turn leading down the final hill toward the finish line. With the James River ahead, I could see victory beckoning. At long last, on one good leg, I made it all 26.2 miles, crossing the line in 7 hours, 3 minutes. I have never been happier to finish a race in my entire life. As I entered the chute and collected my finisher’s blanket, hat, and commemorative medal, I realized what I had done was very unique in my list of athletic accomplishments. It’ll go down as by far my worst marathon time ever (my previous worst was 3 hours, 36 minutes in Detroit in 2017), but the fact that I even made it to the finish was a testament to the never-say-die attitude I had adopted. I earned every bit of my 11th finisher’s medal, and the story it will tell hanging on my wall will forever be one of a kind.
So as I write this, it’s December 1st. I just had my first workout since the race a few days ago, oddly enough coming in our annual Deerfield Gridiron Turkey Bowl football game. On Thanksgiving morning I was able to not only run but sprint hard, my left calf clearly already healed after 11 days of rest. That just tells you what an awful fluke that injury on the indoor track was. But as I look down at my half-healed blisters, the lone remaining battle scars from Richmond, the question becomes what’s next? What will be my next goal? What might I do differently in the upcoming spring season?
Honestly, I had my best season in years this fall. I ran good times for 10k and half marathon and completed a full training program, ultimately finishing a full marathon and beating some awful bad luck in the final week of the season. I don’t think I will have to change much. Preparing for a race in the spring is different in the buildup phase because unlike this season where the buildup was in summer, this time it will be in winter. Wintertime training is more difficult. Even if you have a high tolerance for cold temperatures, there will inevitably be days of snow, sleet, and freezing rain, making running outside impossible. Incorporating indoor activities like swimming in the lap pool, riding a stationary bike, or (eek!) running on the treadmill, will be important buildup activities. The next phase, the peak, will likely commence either in late February or early March, with the weather hopefully being through the worst of the winter by then.
My intention as of now is to try to run right here in the CLE next May, which would mark the 10th anniversary of my first marathon run, which was also right here in Cleveland. The Rite-Aid Cleveland Marathon is extremely well put together, and has distances of 26.2, 13.1, and 6.2 miles, allowing runners of all skill levels and experience to participate. To anybody who has read this series and is thinking about trying to do a long distance race, I invite you to follow my lead and join me on the roads of Cleveland this May. You can follow me @stephano.stephen on Instagram or at Stephen Stephano on Facebook. Let’s connect, and let’s crush it in the CLE in 2020!