Rocky Run

^z 22nd March 2023 at 9:42pm

Today's Montgomery County "Marathon in the Parks" (aka MitP 2002; see [1]) was definitely an educational experience for me — quite a positive way to spend a Sunday morning, but far from the most pleasant 26.2 mile jaunt I've undertaken.

First, some kudos. All the MitP volunteers did a splendid job; as a friend (CR) commented, of the marathons he has experienced this one was notably the best organized. Race packet pickup was managed efficiently, and the low entry fee included a high-quality cold-weather running shirt. Event day featured a comfy-warm tent before the start, a well-marked route, accurate mileposts, precise timing technology, and bountiful food and drink, both along the way and at the finish. Spectators were not numerous, but the ones who ventured out were enthusiastic. ("Hooray, it's Santa Claus!" several greeted me. "Merry Christmas!" I replied.) First aid stations were frequent and professionally run. Police protection was meticulous at major road crossings.

The MitP course itself is beautiful. It starts on wide city streets, branches onto residential lanes, and then curves past Lake Needwood. At the 10 mile mark it turns to follow Rock Creek through forested parklands, leaving the water at intervals to venture over small hills, across meadows, and past fractured gray rock outcroppings. I've often trained along these trails during the past year and have been pleasantly startled by deer, rabbits, and countless squirrels and birds. Neat paths, in short, delightful to experience.

So with all those factors going for it, why did today's excursion turn into such a tough test for me? I had fantasized that my familiarity with the course plus the usual race-day magical aura might let me maintain a 10 minute/mile pace — "Plan Ten", I called it. The weather was better than forecast: cool but not frigid, light winds rather than a Nor'easter gale, and intermittent sprinkles instead of heavy rains. I wore new (but sufficiently broken-in) shoes, a full size larger than those that pinched my toes a few weeks ago. My feet were well-coated with grease, my head and hands and torso were warmly clad, and I had a comrade (SA) to run alongside me. I was able, without much trouble, to skirt even the hugest of puddles left on the course by yesterday's showers. Wet shoes and socks didn't faze me. I felt rested and ready at dawn.

Yet I finished in pain, and slightly slower than at the Marine Corps Marathon three weeks ago which had seemed such a piece o' cake. Why? I don't know exactly, but I have enough data to suggest several hypotheses.

Early this morning I felt some twinges on the bottom of my left foot. They faded away, for the most part, but during the initial miles of the race my left knee began a serious ache. I ignored the pain and pressed onward. The first half of the marathon flowed by smoothly; and Plan Ten was right on target. Then things unraveled — or as they say in military affairs, "No plan ever survives first contact with the enemy". I met The Wall.

I suddenly began to feel tired and started walking. Initially I did it only on uphill gradients, through water stops, and when crossing the mud wallows churned up by earlier passers-by. Then I had to start scheduling walking breaks by the clock. I tried taking it easy one minute in every five. But the breaks soon grew longer — to one in four, one in three, one in two, and more. Plan Ten quietly evolved into Plan Eleven, which became Plan Twelve, which eventually transformed itself into Plan Z: finish, regardless of time. My fellow-traveler (SA) passed me, with my blessings, and ran on ahead.

But hope springs eternal: at about mile 22.5 I found myself walking near a young woman, a first-time marathoner she told me, who seemed to feel somewhat more chipper than I did. We chatted and walked and jogged and played mind games on ourselves: "Let's run to the next corner" ... "Just to that big tree" ... "We can start running again at the sign"... and so forth. It worked, briefly — until near mile 23.5 when my upper left leg muscles began to cramp. Ugh! I told my companion to carry on while I stretched and hobbled along. Attempts to start striding just brought the cramps back worse, and spread them to my left calf.

After executing an ignominious stiff-legged crawl for half a mile I found a compromise that both body and mind could accept: I would jog (slowly!) for 50 to 100 paces, then pay the piper by walking for an equal number of steps. My left knee hurt again, especially during the transition from the walks to the runs. But I could stand it. My speed increased slightly, and I estimated that I might at least finish the ordeal in slightly under five hours, preserving a small shred of honor. Thus passed the 26th mile.

That left me in a quandary. How to cover the remaining 385 yards? Pride played the trump card: I conserved my energy and walked through the course's final tunnel, where hardly anybody could see me, and then bumped the pace up to a staggering run as I emerged and turned toward the goal. My wife and daughter were there to cheer me on. The announcer read my number, called out my name, and made a ZZ Top joke about my beard. I shambled across the finish line, accepted my medal, ate, drank, and came home to type this with a bag of frozen peas balanced on my sore knee.

Lessons learned? Many, including:

  • the utter unpredictability of the marathon (see SlowerRunnersGuide (30 Oct 2002))
  • the wisdom of setting modest goals (see PleasantSurprises (8 Aug 2002) and LoseTrack (11 Nov 2002))
  • the value of conservative pacing, and especially of husbanding one's energy (see TwoGreatSecrets (9 Nov 2001))
  • the importance of listening to one's body, early and often (see JogLogFog (9 Jun 2002)

I also speculate that a Zimmermann Conservation Law may govern Z-familial total running comfort — since, on this very morning of my suffering, my brother Keith was setting a pleasant personal record on a half-marathon race half a continent away. Our positions were reversed at the Marine Corps Marathon on 27 October when he he had to tough it out while my spirit soared. (see Bless the Leathernecks (28 Oct 2002))

And for those who want mile-by-mile statistical details, plus brief impressionistic commentary:

010:09:2909:29my typical too-fast start
020:19:1509:46still ambitiously brisk; left knee begins to hint of serious trouble to come (time approximate — I missed the mile marker)
030:29:3510:20first water stop accounts for the slight but sensible slowdown
040:39:2509:50my knee issues further warnings, which I continue to ignore
050:49:2510:00"Plan Ten" proceeds apace (10 minutes/mile)
060:59:1609:51knee complaints intensify, esp. on downhill stretches
071:09:4310:27great views across Lake Needwood
081:19:5610:13migrating geese honk hello
091:30:2710:31as the course hooks back, SA & I see that we are not quite last in line
101:39:4609:19a steep downhill segment concludes the county-road-dominated part of the course and sends us onto Rock Creek Trail — terra cognita for me, as I've jogged here many times in recent months
111:49:1909:33gentle rolling hills; no animals seen today, unusual but explained by the flocks of noisy 'thoners storming along
121:58:5509:36first of many major encounters with flooded areas of the path — wet feet and muddy calves commence
132:09:4310:48we pass the Sue Wen Stottmeister memorial glade, with its flowers, flags, and race medals (see SueWenRun (29 May 2002))
142:20:3310:50big puddles turn the trek into an obstacle course
152:31:1410:41the last of the major hills, though enough ripples remain to challenge us
162:42:5011:36The Wall, bane of overconfident marathoners, knocks and announces its presence to me ...
172:53:3110:41... I try to ignore it ...
183:05:3112:00... but it insists — so I start taking deliberate walks every five minutes
193:17:2411:53my walking breaks lengthen
203:29:3012:06I fail to note the mile marker in my bonked state (time approximate)
213:43:1013:40my running duty cycle shrinks further, to ~50%
223:57:0013:50a truck protecting the road crossing is playing Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" on its speakers, for which I thank the owner
234:10:1413:14jog-walking with a new acquaintance, the pace improves ...
244:24:4814:34... until my left leg seizes up in cramps of the quadriceps and calf muscles
254:38:5514:07slight improvement, as I learn to alternate short jogs and walks
264:52:2613:31further refinement of my desperation strategy gains a few seconds, until ...
26.24:55:09... The End!

People have said that if the pain of childbirth were properly remembered there would be far fewer brothers and sisters. Similarly, if the agonies of (some) marathons were not so quickly forgotten, repeat performers at that distance would be scarce. Alas, amnesia is already setting in: health permitting, I'm thinking about trying some more long runs soon ....

(for pointers to generic ^zhurnal entries on pavement-pounding see TopicRunning; for specific GPS latitude/longitude measurements along the MitP course see CoordinateCollection (19 May 2002) and MarathonCoordinates (3 Oct 2002))

TopicRunning - TopicPersonalHistory - 2002-11-17

(correlates: Comments on TwoComicNovels, UpsideDownShadows, Comments on Mad Dog Zimmarathon 2007, ...)