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At Last, the Marathon
After four months of grueling training, the Big Day arrives. The final installment in a series of essays.

  
At Last, the Marathon
After months of rugged winter training, Hank is greeted by humid, foggy weather on marathon day. Photos by Ernie Dickson.


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By Hank Brown
Posted Thursday, 6 March, 2003

This is the final installment in a series of essays following columnist Hank Brown in his march to the Myrtle Beach Marathon. The first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth articles are also available.

We arrive in Myrtle Beach Friday afternoon and immediately head to the Expo to pick up my race packet. I walk stoically through the Holiday Inn lobby and into the vendor area. This is it. This is the real deal. No backing out now. What started as an "itch" a few months ago while I was following my friend Tyler around the Richmond Marathon, evolved into 15 weeks of grueling training for my own marathon - The Myrtle Beach Marathon. It's here. It is tomorrow morning.

Tyler is along on this trip. He even signed up for the marathon way back when, but he won't be running. He injured his foot shortly after the Richmond Marathon and is now part of the Hank Brown Support Crew. My wife Natalie is the pit crew leader and head cheerleader. My good friend Ernie is also part of the crew. He is a physical therapist and once upon a time ran 2:40 for a marathon, but two serious knee injuries keep him in the 3-4 mile jogging category these days.

After dinner at Olive Garden, Natalie and I drive out to Coastal Federal Field just to see the start. I think Natalie is almost as nervous as I am, and I'm in a semi-coma right now. We head back to the hotel to prepare for the next day. The rest of the group is out on the town. Why not? They're not running. We probably won't see them before morning.

We study the map and decide the best places for Natalie and her crew to meet me. She wants to get in a good run tomorrow, so she has decided to run the first 3 miles on her own. Tyler and Ernie will then pick her up and meet me for the first time at mile 7. That is my first break point. The remaining pit stops are at miles 12, 16, 20, and probably every 2 miles (depending how I feel) to the finish. Tyler and Ernie have offered to run a few miles with me late in the race. That will be a big help. I want Natalie to be with me at the end, and the final mile is reserved for her.

 

As I'm walking through the hotel room barefooted, the unthinkable happens. I go down.

 

We're set. We're ready to go. Then, as I'm walking through the hotel room barefooted, the unthinkable happens. I accidentally slam into the metal frame of the bed with my little toe. I go down. I'm screaming words that even Popeye the sailor man has never heard. I'm on the floor grabbing my foot, biting my lip, and burying my head in my chest. I don't want to look. The pain is so severe tears are coming down my face. Natalie looks at me in horror. Finally, the pain subsides enough to relax a little. I think it's going to be okay. I can at least move it around. Man, that hurt! We put a pillow over the frame so I won't kick it again!

The weather forecast is, well, just as frightful. Severe storms are highly likely. Whatever happens, the temperature will be well above my body's acclimation tolerance. Twenty-mile runs in 20 degrees do not translate to a marathon in 60 degrees. Oh well, I can't worry about the weather. We'll just have to see what happens. Time for bed.

Pre-Race

I wake up early Saturday morning and immediately look outside. Well, I try to look outside. It's so foggy I can barely see the beach outside our hotel window. The good news is that it isn't raining. The bad news is heavy fog means heavy humidity. It's so dense it actually looks like it rained overnight. When we arrive at the starting area inside the baseball stadium I ask someone where the starting line is. He points in the general direction, and duh, the starting banner is practically right in front of me, but almost completely veiled by the misty air.

Ernie and Tyler are doing their best to pump me up, but everything they say is falling on deaf ears. I'm in a zone now. Everything around me is a blur. Natalie is also doing her best to motivate me, giving me her version of a pep talk. I'm way ahead of her. I have plenty of inspiration. In fact I have a list.

My mom and dad went with me to my first marathon in Huntsville, Alabama many years ago only to see me drop out at mile 16. I've been haunted by that memory ever since. I owe it to them to finish this one. Mom called me just before I left for Myrtle Beach and gave me a telephone "hug" and made me promise to call her after the marathon. She said it didn't matter if I finished or not. "I'll be praying for you," she promised. "What time does the race start?"

"6:30 in the morning," I said.

"Oh" (silence for a few seconds)... "Well, the praying will start a little later than that."

"That's okay, Mom. I can use it whenever it starts."

I also have thank-you notes for all the people who helped me through my training. Jimmy escorted me through a few of my early long runs; patiently staying at my side during a 20-miler when I was waving the white flag. Then there is Natalie's uncle Danny, who died just days before Christmas. It was his toughness in his long bout against cancer that rubbed off on me and gave me the inspiration to tough out my first 19-miler. And I haven't forgotten all the people who sent me notes of encouragement, revealing to me that reading about my struggles actually helped them through their own marathon training. I can't let them down.

But my inspiration is really and truly coming from one source: Natalie. That's why her pre-game speech is now somewhat ironic. She's trying to find ways to psyche me up, but little does she know that she is the only rationale I need. Since we met three years ago she has been a constant breath of fresh air in my life. True to form, she has been encouraging and positive throughout this marathon ordeal, which is refreshing for me to have someone right at my side every step of the journey. It means so much.

If you remember, during my 22-mile training run she left me a note on the front porch, which I found after one of my breaks. The message was simple, but exactly what I needed at just the right time. I love you! I'm so proud of you!

I kept the note. It is now folded up and inside the little pocket of my running shorts. It will go with me the entire marathon. I will finish this marathon. I will make it.

It's time to wake up from my trance. It's about 30 minutes before the start. I get in line at the Port-a-John one last time. The line is moving very slowly. 15 minutes to start. I'm still 4th in line. I'm cutting this close. 10 minutes. 2nd in line. Hurry people! I don't want to be sitting on my you-know-what in the you-know-where when the gun goes off! Finally, my turn. I take care of business and hustle out to the starting area. I have a few minutes to spare. Okay, I cut that just a little too close.

 

I don't want to be sitting on my you-know-what in the you-know-where when the gun goes off.

 

The Start

I maneuver my way near the front, but after the gun goes off it still takes about 30-45 seconds before my chip chirps at the starting line mat. I settle into a pace that feels pretty comfortable. My goal today is to finish. Seriously. But, yes, I do have a time in mind. I think 3 hours and 20 minutes is pretty reasonable, and if things go extremely well, then maybe even 3h, 10m. I figure my running pace needs to be about 7:30 per mile, counting breaks, etc.

The first mile is a little over 8:00. I don't panic because I know it took some time to get to the start and then to work my way through the early congestion. I'm more worried about the sweat that has already soaked through my singlet. I notice right away that the air feels heavy, almost muggy. Not good. I know today is going to be a battle against dehydration - can I replace the fluids I'm losing fast enough? It doesn't help that I'm a sweat machine either. I know I must take water and/or Powerade at each fluid station, which is about every two miles on the Myrtle Beach course. This is in addition to what Natalie will have for me at my scheduled breaks.

I pass a bank sign that gives the temperature reading - 62 degrees. I also notice the wind is pushing me around quite a bit, though it's favorable at the moment. Okay, Brown, today is warm, humid, and windy. This is not a combo I would order at the Burger King drive-thru.

The next several miles go as planned. I'm hitting 7:20-7:30 each mile. I see Tyler and Ernie at mile 3. Tyler would remark to me later that he couldn't believe that my hair was already matted down with perspiration. They will wait for crew chief Natalie, and then dash off to meet me at my first break (around mile 7).

Photo of Hank's first pit stop

I stay focused on the first part of the race. Don't think too far ahead, Brown. The miles are clicking off nicely. Soon after mile 4 we turn south onto Ocean Boulevard and smack into the wind. The wind will be my nemesis for the next several miles.

Just past mile 7 (still on 7:30 pace) I see Natalie up ahead holding up big signs, Go Dad (with a picture of a dog), Run Baby Run, Go Hankelope (her nickname for me), and several others. I smile. That's my girl. She has Gu and water ready for me.

"How's it going?" She asks with a worried look on her face. She can see the sweat saturating from my body.

"I'm ok. It's windy."

"It's really muggy isn't it?"

"Yep." I down the Gu, take a few swigs of water, stretch a little, give Natalie a kiss, and take off for the next leg of my journey.

The Feel-Good Miles

Just past mile 8 the course turns north on King's Highway. I figure we'll now have a tailwind for a long time, maybe until about mile 18. I'd better enjoy it now.

I have joined with a small group running about the same pace. Nobody is talking much. A spectator yells to one of the ladies in our group, "You are the 23rd female!"

We kind of look around at each other, all thinking the same thing... is he really counting? I finally break the awkward silence and speak to the group, "How can he know with all the relay runners and half marathoners?"

Then one of the guys in the group yells out, "What am I in my age group?" We all laugh, and it starts a chain of similar fun scenarios:

"How am I doing against Maryland females?"
"I think I'm 5th male over 175 lbs."
"How am I doing against middle-aged males who voted for Al Gore?"

Okay, okay, so we're getting a little slap-happy. We're running 26 miles for cryin' out loud... anything to break the tension!

I eventually stray from the group and end up on my own for a long time. I'm feeling pretty frisky now, with the wind at my back, and the sun staying behind the clouds. It's still warm and sultry, but the fog is lifting. Several splits are under 7:20 (my fastest is 7:10). I approach mile 12 and my next break. Natalie's Navy is right there. Tyler and Ernie are giving me the thumbs up. Natalie has the Gu and water ready.

"How are you doing?" It's the question of the day.

"Okay. Hey, how did your 3-mile run go?" I had forgotten to ask at the last break and it just hit me that Natalie was running too. Excuse me for being a little self-centered today...

"Great, all my miles were under 8:00!" Natalie was jazzed.

"Awesome." I'm now walking back out on the course to get started again.

"Hey, a reporter from the paper has been asking us questions about who we are and who we're cheering for. He saw our signs. We'll be in the paper!"

Photo: Tyler offers some much-needed company

I laugh. I'm the one running the marathon and she's the one who gets in the newspaper. Another kiss and I'm off again. I pass the half marathon checkpoint in 1:38 something, which is dead on 7:30 pace. Not bad. The plan is working. 3:16 - 3:20 is in range, even though my ultimate goal is still just to finish. I check and feel the note in my pocket. I'm going to make it.

Tyler is a welcome sight around mile 14.5. He jumps in just as I'm turning north onto Ocean Boulevard. Tyler has not been able to run much since his injury so he told me earlier that if he couldn't keep up, just to go ahead. Don't worry, Tyler, I'm not waiting!

We pass 15, which is around 7:30. "You only have 11 to go," calculates Tyler.

"I'm just trying to get to 16 right now. I'll worry about the rest later."

"Attaboy."

We break at 16, grab water and Powerade, walk a little, stretch a little, and proceed on. Tyler hangs on for about another mile, at which point he starts to fall back. He shouts encouragement as I gradually chug on down the road ahead of him.

As Tyler fades into the background, I give him silent thanks. He was a big help right when I needed it. Can't look back now. I have a long road ahead.

 

Can't look back now. I have a long road ahead.

 

The inside of my left foot has been throbbing since the early miles. The course is laid out to run almost entirely on the right side, so the crown of the road, sloping down toward the outside of my foot, rather than sloping down toward the inside, is working against the point of pain. I'm not worried about my foot. It's the least of my problems right now.

As I pass mile 18, I notice my breathing is becoming more and more labored. I know I must keep my breathing and heart rate under control if I am to avoid the dreaded bonk. I make a conscious decision to slow the pace a little (about 20-30 seconds per mile) to see if I can get my breathing back in order.

Hamstring Don't Fail Me Now

I see Natalie and Ernie up ahead, at about 18.5 miles. The original plan was for Ernie to shepherd me from 18 to 21, but when he jumps in I ask if he can make it to 22. He says he can.

I'm trying to make it to 20 without stopping again, but when we pass the fluid station at 19, I stop to walk. I down some Powerade and we press on. Just before 20 my left hamstring twitches. It's a marathoner's nightmare... muscle cramps. The inevitable dehydration is setting in. I stop to walk a little to make sure it doesn't lock up. We continue. Ernie, the physical therapist, tells me to shorten my stride a little. I obey.

Between 20 and 21 my hamstring grabs me and says STOP! I obey. I limp off to the side of the road. Ernie has me lay in the grass and he starts working on my leg. Can I plan or what... not many guys can bring their personal PT along!

After a few minutes of rubbing, he has me back on my feet again. I have already thrown out the idea of running anywhere near 3:20. It's a battle for survival now.

About a mile later, my calf muscle joins in the fun and cramps up along with my hamstring. I literally cannot move. Ernie walks me over to the side and puts me on the ground again. He works his magic on my entire leg. I'm lying on my back in the grass on the side of the road as runners are streaming by. This is not a vision I had for my marathon experience, and certainly not a picture the Myrtle Beach Marathon organizers would put on their race poster. Right now, I don't care. I just want to get back up and keep going.

 

This is not a vision I had for my marathon experience, and certainly not a picture the Myrtle Beach Marathon organizers would put on their race poster.

 

A race volunteer witnesses my prone position and comes over to my side. "Do you need any help? I have transportation if you need it."

"I'll be okay. Thanks. I'm gonna make it." I reach and touch my note.

Ernie helps me up and we shuffle down the road. Ernie has a plan. "Let's try running 4 minutes and walking 1. Sometimes if you run and walk it won't lock up so bad."

"Ok." Right now, Ernie is in charge.

Ernie is running in front of me, trying to block the strong headwind we're now facing. I also know we're pretty much near the end of Ernie's 3-4 mile stint. That's about all his knee can handle, which means I'll be on my own from 22 to 25. Right now, that seems like an eternity.

Ernie must have read my mind, because right about then he says, "If you want, I'll keep going with you. I can go to 25."

It's like someone just handed me the keys to a new Corvette. "That would be great, but what about your knee? I don't want you to hurt your knee."

"It'll be ok. This will be a good test for it. Besides, your hamstring might cramp up again."

Ernie is what friends are all about. They don't come any better.

We pass Natalie and Tyler at 22. She knew I was in trouble because of the length of time it took me to get there. She was afraid something really bad had happened. I give her the short version (I'm cramping badly), give her a kiss and tell her I'll meet her at 25.

She offers me some Gu but I refuse. Unless it can patch up this bum hamstring I don't want to see any more Gu. I'm sick of it.

4 and 1 To Finish

Ernie is timing me like a high school track coach. We jog 4 minutes, walk 1 minute. Jog 4, walk 1. Over and over. The jog is extremely slow. I think I saw a racewalker pull away from me. Who cares? I'm not even looking at the race clocks anymore. I'm on a mission to get to the finish. It might be the 4th of July before I get there, but I will make it. With every 4 and 1 segment, I'm that much closer to the finish. Just keep moving, Brown. And it's working... the leg cramps are in remission for the time being.

During one of my walk segments, a race volunteer asks me if I am okay. I smile at her and just say, "I'll be fine. I'm gonna make it." She claps and waves me on.

Spectators are cheering. "You look great!"

I know better. I turn to Ernie and remark, "They're lying. They say you look great but they're really thinking you look worse than Tom Hanks in Castaway after 4 years on the deserted island."

 

They say you look great but they're really thinking you look worse than Tom Hanks in Castaway after 4 years on the deserted island.

 

We methodically work our way along King's Highway. I feel like the race has been switched to super slow motion. Every step is an endeavor. Every groove and imperfection in the road is a major problem to maneuver. I think someone dropped a bowling ball on my left foot. My underarms and upper thighs are chafing from the sweat. My shoes, socks, shorts, and singlet are sopping wet. The wind is picking up strength and starting to bring chills to my soaked body. I feel like I weigh 400 pounds and I'm pushing a sofa up the road. We're inching along.

But we're moving. I reach and feel the note in my pocket. I'm gonna make it.

Finally, I can see mile 25 ahead. Natalie is nervously striding up and down the road looking for me. Ernie says he can go on to the finish. He has run his own marathon today. Natalie joins us and Ernie fills her in.

She turns to me and asks the question of the day, "How are you doing?"

"Terrible." I'm not going to lie anymore. I feel terrible. I look terrible. I just want to stop running.

We finally approach the Coastal Federal Field baseball stadium. We're near the finish! I tell Ernie and Natalie I want to try and run the rest of the way. Up ahead I see a guy stop dead in his tracks. His legs are locked. He is cramping really badly. Race workers grab him and try to walk him around. He can't move. He needs help. I turn to Ernie, "Go ahead and help him. I'll be okay." He does.

It's now just Natalie and me. It's interesting how running a marathon, as cliché as this may sound, mirrors so much of what our life is all about. We have plans for all the great things we want to accomplish in life. Those plans get altered along the way and we adjust to the changes. We have bad luck, lousy weather, poor health, and all kinds of other events that are outside of our control. We can either decide to give up or get tough. We have friends who help get us through the difficulties, but at the end of the day, the one person who is always at your side, is the one you love the most.

Photo: Natalie and Hank after the marathon

Natalie and I approach the 26-mile marker, but just before we do, my hamstring twitches again, reminding me that I'm not home-free just yet. We slow down and walk for a few seconds, and then I'm back to jogging. No more walking. Just a quarter-mile to go, one lap on a track. Natalie has to break away, but I know she'll be there waiting for me at the finish line. I turn the corner and see the finish line banner. What a beautiful sight! Where have you been all my life?

I cross the finish line. I can stop running. The time is 3:49:something. It's the slowest marathon I've ever run; almost an hour slower than my best, and about 30 minutes slower than what I planned to run. I don't care. I'm here. I made it. I stagger around a little (okay, maybe a lot) through the finish line corral. A volunteer puts his arm around me and walks me. He asks if I'm okay (the question of the day). I'm great!

I exit the corral and Natalie is there. I put my arms around her and give her the biggest (and sweatiest) hug she's ever had. And then, I start to cry. I've been in full toughness mode for almost 4 hours, but now the tears flow. Why not? Everything else on my body is wet; my eyes might as well be too.

Natalie walks me over to the food area. She looks around at the spread of food and asks me, "What do you want? They have oranges, bananas, bagels, cookies..."

"I want a hamburger."

"We'll get you one, baby. We'll stop on the way back to the hotel."

 

 

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