Well, here it is February 2011 and I never completed the blog post for the Marine Corps Marathon. There are many reasons for the delay in reporting how it went, but I will try to not bore you with much detail. The next several paragraphs were written over a few hours on a couple of evenings just a few days following the marathon. I have resisted editing it for anything other than grammar and punctuation to give all a sense of what I was feeling when I wrote it. Please read on.
The 2010 Marine Corps Marathon After Action Report
Following just over a year of training, six months of which was pretty intense, including some 1300 plus miles of running, training in at least 41 zip codes, 25 states and 3 time zones my quest to run one more marathon as a 60th birthday present to myself has been satisfied.
While my performance was a bit below my personal expectation, it was certainly respectable in that my 4 hour 49 minute 11 second finishing time landed me in the 12,252 position and 345th in my age group of 709 men between the ages of 55 and 59. Had I already been 60 then my age group place would have been 135th out of 398. I mention this last statistic only because on race day I was exactly one month shy of my 60th birthday. The one statistic I am unclear on is how many people really started the race. According to Active.Com the official record keeper, there were 21,898 finishers. Somehow I don’t think there were over 8,000 no shows for the starting line. In fact, one of the really neat things about this marathon is that up to just a few weeks ago anyone with a number who could not participate could give their number to someone who was on some sort of wait list. Therefore, the no show statistic should be a pretty small number.
My average pace for the race was 11 minutes and one second per mile. Again, not the pace I had trained for, but it is what it is.
So, why did I do this? What did I learn? What was the experience like? What is next? I hope to adequately address each of these questions below.
But first, I have to spend a few bytes to thank everyone who supported me in my effort to get to the starting line. The moral support and the financial support to Operation Homefront were absolutely incredible. Knowing that so many people were out there keeping up with my training and wondering about my health and physical condition really helped to inspire me to get out and run on many a day when sleeping in seemed a better option for temperature, wind, hilly terrain or a variety of other excuses. I cannot thank all who provided that inspiration enough.
The biggest thank you has to go to my number one fan, moral supporter, fluid distributor, counselor and worrier, Connie. Without her at my side none of this would have been possible. She made sure I got the rest I needed, the nutrition I needed and the kick in the butt that I deserved from time to time to stay grounded. She was continuously tweaking our travel schedule to make sure I got my runs in as scheduled. She provided medical advice, sometimes even when I didn’t want it. When we got to the marathon weekend she was juggling phones and e-mails trying to coordinate our little group of supporters who were to attend the race. That was no small task given the varying directions from which all came and the personal schedules of each. While I am certain Connie often feels that I take her support for granted, nothing could be further from the truth. While many cannot understand why I would even contemplate another marathon after a seventeen year hiatus, I cannot understand why anyone would want to be the spouse or significant other of a marathoner in training, especially as a non-runner. Connie’s support was and always has been unfailing even though I think she worries too much about me while I am out on the road alone. Of course, I was really happy she called the police in Lincoln, Nebraska, as I really did need a ride home that night. She is the best and I am very fortunate to have her not just as a runner supporter, but as the love of my life.
So, why did I do this? I have never let the big birthdays get to me like some people we all know. I only hope that with each passing year I can look back and say I did something that counts. As I was approaching me 59th birthday it occurred to me that prior to my 40th I was talked into training for a marathon, my first. Well, I survived that first attempt without a lot of knowledge as to how to train other than run every chance I had. In fact I was able to complete the run in just less than four hours. That really put the bug in me to press on the next year to try to do better. On my second attempt at the same marathon I improved by nearly fifteen minutes. The third year was a disaster in that I was sick with a cold but I ran anyway and finished about an hour later than the first one. From then on my career got in my way and I was lucky to be able to run enough to pass the Navy’s semi-annual physical readiness test. After we retired I tried to step up my running some, but it was more recreational than anything. While we were in California last spring I entered a 5K run because of the cause being supported. While we were in Alaska I entered a Midnight Fun Run of 10K length just for the fun of it. Well, those two events put the bug back in me and I decided why not see how well I could do at the marathon distance as a 60th birthday celebration. When we left our volunteer job in Colorado last fall I set out on my informal quest to slowly start building a base of miles. By the time the New Year rolled around I was nearly committed. Following a really tough half marathon in the spring in Texas running over some of the most daunting hills I have ever attempted I was no longer quite so sure. Therefore, I decided to wait a few days following the opening of the application date for the Marine Corps Marathon (MCM) to test myself over another tough stretch of hilly terrain. Pleased with the results I went to the MCM website to apply only to learn that the race was already full. I think that was the sixth day after the race opened. They had sold out in less than four full days as I remember it. Therefore, in order to get in I needed a charity to support. There were 30 different charities to pick from. I read through most of the charities biographies and found that there were several, as in 30, who deserved being supported. I finally settled on Operation Homefront and never looked back. It was the correct decision.
When I was much younger and competing in every 5K and 10K race that came around I was always what we referred to as a pack runner. There was never any worry that I would need to hang around for the awards ceremonies as I was always right in the middle of the crowd. As I have gotten older I have learned that in small local events it is a good thing to hang around to see the results. I managed to collect a few trophies along the way in some of those small town events. However, for me the thrill wasn’t so much from where I placed, but how I did relative to my expectations for the specific event. Of course my expectations have always been based on several factors. The most important of those factors being how well the training has gone. Other things that play into the equation are the environmental conditions on race day, any injuries that may exist, and the length of the course relative to the amount of training I have achieved and the course profile pretty well round out the list of things I would take into account when establishing my personal expectations. One thing I never took into account was the size of the field. The biggest race I ever ran in was the Gate River Run in Jacksonville, Florida. That event is a 15K event that crosses many of the bridges in Jacksonville. The start was always pretty crowded, but it thinned out relatively quickly with all the artificial uphill runs over bridges. Therefore I never had to worry beyond the first mile or so what other runners were doing. The fun run I ran in Alaska last summer was a crowded event run on a rather narrow course, but it was really more of a party than a race. While I didn’t appreciate that fact during the run, it was short enough at 10K that I didn’t suffer much other than a little slower finishing time than I had expected.
The MCM is an amazing event in that not only are there thousands of your closest friends involved, but for most of the race many of them are around your feet making it absolutely impossible to get into anything that resembles a groove. Going into race day I had made my personal plan based on my perception of my training status, the environmental conditions to be expected at the start and throughout the morning, the course profile which I had not only studied on the internet, but had actually driven and discussed with another competitor, and I had even tried to account for the awe of running through downtown Washington, DC past the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building and all the other attractions this great city has to offer. Connie and I had spent some time in town getting “used” to the feel of the city in part to allow me to be able to concentrate more on my run than my surroundings during the race. I thought I had arrived at the start line prepared in all aspects.
However, there were two things I had not prepared for. The first and most important has to be the mass of humanity that moved around the course with only occasional bits of separation. I found myself dodging left and right and moving sideways to get between people who suddenly slowed without reason or notice. My marathon was 26.53 miles due to all the lateral movement from curb to curb necessitated by the crush of people. For the first time in my running career I suffered significant foot pain during and after the race. I attribute that to the fact that my training was done in straight line running with minimal lateral pressure applied to my feet. The result was that my feet lacked strength in all but the forward working motions. I am not sure how to train one’s feet for that sort of condition other than running a lot of crowded races. The second thing worked in both the positive and negative. That was the crowd watching the race. Thinking back to my Gate River Run days, there were always plenty of people along the streets, but not the bridges, to keep the runners motivated. And certainly any small town event will have family and friends of the runners and anyone else who happens to be around to give a hearty cheer now and then. The MCM is as much a spectator event as it is an event for the competitors. There were few gaps in the crowds and in many areas the crowds were three or four people deep on both sides of the course. The cheering was absolutely amazing. The signs were really something.
I read one sign that said “Mortuary Ahead, Keep Moving”. Several others said “Run like you stole something from a Kenyan”. There were hundreds of Run Mom or Run Dad signs. Of course the ones that meant the most to me were held by Connie and our great nieces that said Go Frank and Go Uncle Frank. At one of the hardest places along the course to remain motivated, crossing the Rochambeau Memorial Bridge in the late part of mile 21, there were several signs reminding us that we were almost done and that we had beat the bridge. However, there was a young woman with one of those inflatable sex dolls, fully clothed, on a stick that she was waving back and forth. I am not sure what her message was, but I can say that I was in a lot of pain about then but when I looked up at that doll I laughed and some of the pain went away. There was one huge surprise for me. I had of course expected to see Connie, our good friend Trish, our great nieces times three and one boy friend and my very close friend Pat and his girlfriend Marie. They had all committed to come to the race and cheer me on as much as the conditions would allow. However, as I rounded a corner at 15th and Constitution our very good friend Michele from the United Kingdom literally jumped off the curb and yelled “Frank, go Frank go! You look great!” or something like that. I yelled a quick hi, but truth was it took me two steps to realize who it was. I knew that Michele was traveling to the states with her husband Jim for business and vacation, but I had no idea they would be in Washington on race day. Michele told me via Facebook later that she was as surprised as I when she saw me come around the corner. I was already suffering from sore feet and seeing Michele and realizing her enthusiasm and the odds of her picking me out of the crush of people making that turn really gave me a great boost that lasted a couple of miles.
The spectators with their great enthusiasm and neat signs for the most part were a positive contribution to the experience. However, there was a negative side to them as well. As well as having to be concerned about being cutoff by other runners we also had to contend with spectators unexpectedly crossing the course to get to their next checkpoint for their specific runner. In some of the narrower areas of the course the police and marines were actively moving people off the course to keep it as wide as they could. These impromptu hazards and choke points contributed to the inability to run a smooth pace.
So, what was the big lesson? All of these factors are real for any race with several thousand competitors. I should have realized this and planned and trained for it. The way to train for it is to run more large races of shorter distances so the feet can get conditioned, the elbows sharpened and the senses tuned to allow for quick responses to the unexpected. Having not done any of this, I was less than prepared for this rather large element of this type of a race. So, does that mean I want a do over? No, I am satisfied with my performance and wouldn’t trade the on course experience for anything. I think part of the fun was experiencing the unexpected. I think that is one reason why so many people run these large marathons. I can say with certainty they are not being run to become winners. I cannot count the number of conversations I overheard between fellow competitors where the topic was how long the longest training run had been. I heard everything from 15 miles to six miles. I wouldn’t have wanted to be in the shoes of any of those people. They could have only had a good time if they went into the race knowing the bus was going to pick them up. There is no way a six mile trainer could get to the 20 mile mark without really hurting him or herself.
Based on my training log I am more than satisfied that I more than adequately satisfied my original goal to get back into marathon shape. It would be somewhat unfair to judge the adequacy of the training based on one event. That said, I do not want to run another marathon. The human body is very capable of running to distances of 20 miles. To be successful beyond 20 miles requires opening the cells in the muscles to accept greater quantities of glycogens. The only way to get to that point is to run, run, run. You have to deplete the fat to make space for the glycogen. To maintain cardiovascular condition and even to improve it one does not need to run the great distances required to prepare for a marathon. Since my long term goal is high quality of life with better than average cardiovascular condition, I do not feel that another marathon would be necessarily a smart thing for me. One of the things I noted while studying my per mile splits from the perspective of pace and heart rate is that the half marathon is a much better fit for my running style and speed. Had my feet not failed I would have finished the half in less than two hours. In fact another factor that got in my way this Sunday past was my bladder. In all my years of competitive running I cannot remember having to stop to relieve my bladder. I had to do just that just after the halfway point. However, the truth is I needed to stop for a few miles before then. I waited to see what my half marathon time would be. That was a mistake as the pain from having to pee really slowed me down in miles twelve and thirteen.
My plan for the future is to continue to run for fitness and throw in some races now and then just for fun and motivation. My marathon days are over and I have no regrets.
Okay, here we are back in the near present. I have had some, as in a lot, of time to think things over as well as a few visits to the doctor and therefore have acquired a few more facts to supplement this story. Read on for a few more paragraphs to get “the rest of the story”.
Shortly after Connie and I got to Kings Bay, Georgia my Aunt Lena Patz (one of my father’s sisters) passed away. I immediately set to making plans to get to Sheridan, Wyoming to attend her funeral. After a bit of internet searching I was finally able to put together a string of affordable flights and hotel rooms that afforded me the opportunity to not only make it to the funeral, but spend some time with my younger sister and brother by flying into Denver and driving from there to Sheridan with them. The night before I left Kings Bay I noticed a narrow band of a rash on the left side of my chest just below the breast. Connie and I wondered what it could be and decided it might be a slight infection from my heart rate monitor that I wear while running. I share all this with you to relay the fact that even though the marathon was in my past, the preparation to get the motorhome road worthy again and the trip from Maryland to Georgia complete, the stress in my life was not yet over.
As it turned out, the rash was the early symptom of a pretty good case of shingles. Shingles is a disease not for the faint of heart. By the time I was starting the return trip from Sheridan to Kings Bay via Denver and a two legged plane trip to Jacksonville, Florida I was in a full blown outbreak and entering the “Misery Zone”. I spent the next ten weeks taking an anti-viral (seven day regimen) and heavy pain medication along with a large daily dose of ibuprofen. As I write this, I am happy to report that I am only taking ibuprofen now and while no longer living in the “Misery Zone” I am constantly reminded that I am not yet completely healed.
During all this post marathon time I was not running much. In fact for an experienced runner it would be difficult to call the few attempts I made at running real runs. The first few were intended to work out the lactic acid from the marathon. After the shingles appeared I had trouble running and controlling my heart rate, so I chose to not run. So, with just a few exceptions I would have to say I took over two months off from running following the marathon. On January 3rd I set out for what was planned to be a six mile run. From the very first step I had a terrible pain in what I thought was my lower abdominals. This was a problem I had experienced since last spring. While training for the marathon I just kept pushing through the pain and doing more core strengthening exercises to try to resolve the problem. Nothing I did seemed to work too well, so I just ran in pain for a long time. After taking so much time off I fully expected this “little” injury to be healed. Not convinced by one painful run which was terminated after only four miles, I gave it another go a few days later only to feel much worse.
That was when the light came on and I made another appointment to see my primary care guy. He quickly diagnosed the problem as bi-lateral gracilis muscle strain. For those who are as anatomy challenged as I, that means groin pull. The gracilis muscle originates at the pelvic bone and travels down the inside of the leg, nearest muscle to the surface, and inserts below the knee. The purpose of these muscles is to provide stability to the knee and allow for rotation of the thigh. It is a rather long narrow muscle. If you sit on the floor and bend your knees while spreading your legs like a frog, you can feel this muscle high in the groin. It feels like a cord.
While training in the Texas Hill Country last winter I shortened these muscles due to the shortened stride necessitated by the many up hills that were followed by not stretching my stride on the down hills. Later, I managed to strain both muscles while stretching my stride either on a long downhill or during a speed session. I really don’t remember the event that caused the strain, but I do remember that I spent most of the summer and the entire fall running in pain.
Based on the diagnosis, I was referred to physical therapy where I was able to complete six sessions as well as a medical massage prior to our leaving Kings Bay for Texas. During my time at physical therapy and from my research on the internet I have come to realize just how seriously I was injured for most of my training time. Because of the strained gracilis muscles, I altered my gait and that caused tightening of other related muscles including many of the muscles across the lower back and the gluteus muscles. Following my medical massage which was focused on releasing my hips and lower back, I was surprised to realize that my walking stride was lengthened by about three inches. At my last physical therapy session I was monitored while warming up on a treadmill and the therapist was shocked to see not only how much longer my stride was, but by how much smoother the transitions were.
Taking all this into consideration while taking another look at my marathon performance makes me wonder just how well I could have done had I had two healthy gracilis muscles and all the associated muscles loose as they should be. However, it doesn’t make me wonder enough to want to try for another marathon. I will just have to visualize what it might be like. However, I bet I can run a pretty quick half marathon on healthy legs!
Finally, the big lesson learned by this experience. I was out to prove to myself that age is as much in one’s mind as in the body. In my quest to do so as well as to uphold my commitment to represent all my donors as well as I could, I did in fact fail to pay enough attention to what my body was telling me to avoid a fairly significant and potentially running career ending injury. After undergoing some painful rehabilitation I have relearned the rule about listening to your body and taking the appropriate action immediately. You cannot wait until next week or until after the event. You need to find and fix the problems when they first appear.
Connie and I left Kings Bay on Saturday, January 29. We have worked our way to Beaumont, Texas and we intend to arrive at Balcones National Wildlife Refuge by Thursday. We are waiting out the big storm that is screaming across the country. We have gotten a lot of rain here as well as some impressive winds which I would never drive the motorhome in. It is now really cold from the perspective of an RVer. We are approaching 24 degrees as I write this and it could get into the teens tonight. Our next few nights will be in the teens for sure. Then we jump back into the seventies for the weekend.
I have not been able to work on my rehab too much since we got on the road. I have only completed one session of home therapy, but we have done a pretty good job of walking as much as possible, especially given the not so wonderful weather we have encountered.
In my next post I will gloss over the non-medical adventures we have had since the marathon as well as set the stage for the rest of our winter here in Texas. Hopefully you will be reading about those fun things soon.