The Itch: Don't Say 'Never' Ever Again
After swearing off the marathon, columnist Hank Brown begins to feel the itch again. The first in a series of essays.
Posted Friday, 22 November, 2002
I remember it well... mile 22 in the 85-degree heat and 90 percent humidity of New Orleans in 1999. I was staggering around like the rabid dog in "To Kill A Mockingbird." I swore to a higher being that if I could somehow miraculously make it to the finish line with the majority of my brain cells intact, that I would never ever do another one of these crazy things. I also had a vision of Atticus Finch mercifully dropping me with one shot while Jem screams, "Oh no, Mr. Tait, he can't shoot." Bam! Misery over.
I also remember making the same promise at about the same location in Boston in 1996 as cramps gripped my legs and turned me into a grimacing running statue. And for weeks after the Kiawah Island Marathon when I was walking around like Tim Conway's "old man" character from the Carol Burnett Show. And all the other ones before that... just let me finish and I'll never do this again. So, why do we forget the torment and pain, go against our solemn vows, and ever decide to do another one? I don't know. Why does a woman forget the pain and illness of 40 weeks with 40 extra pounds, and the ensuing torture of hours and hours of labor and delivery? Millions of moms have four-lettered their way to "never ever again" in the heat of the moment, only to make retractions before the father hands out the first cigar.
So, here I am bouncing around the marathon course of the Richmond Marathon, and as I see skinny runners march by, I start to get that itch. Ignore it Brown. Think about something else... football games, work deadlines, drinking beer after the marathon, anything. I drive to mile six where I am to pick up my wife, Natalie, whose job is to pace (slow down?) Tyler, who is attempting his first marathon, on the pace I had set for him. She is running the first six with him, and I'm the escort for the final eight. Suddenly Tyler appears, about three minutes faster than my plan, and... without Natalie!
"I feel great!" He looks and sounds guilty. He knows I'm going to fuss.
"Tyler, you're too fast. Where's Natalie?"
He shrugs. "Don't know. I lost her awhile back."
Natalie shows up a few minutes later, exactly on the pace I had set.
"I lost him at a water station at mile two. I'm sorry. I tried to stay with him."
I tell her not to worry. She was dead on pace. He's too fast. We see Tyler again at 13, still in good spirits, still too fast. Natalie remarks, "Wow, he's doing great. He might just breeze right through this thing."
I wasn't as impressed, "Everyone feels good through 13."
We navigate over to 18 where I strip down to shorts and t-shirt, and begin stretching. We wait. We wait some more. I'm getting stiff. Tyler finally shows up looking like a kid who has been lost in the mall for an hour.
"I hit the wall." That's about all the energy he can muster.
"We'll make it. Don't worry."
I kiss Natalie, and whisper to her, "This could take awhile. See you at the finish."
The final 8.2 miles is a long and winding journey. Tyler's legs are cramping badly. He runs when he can, but has to stop repeatedly to stretch and rub out the knots that were once muscles. He is in severe pain and is afraid he may not finish. I try to stay positive and keep talking to him. "Just keep plugging away. Walking is okay. Don't worry about that fat lady who just passed you."
Anyone who is considering a marathon should be required to experience the final miles first hand, just like I'm doing with Tyler. I think too many people today don't respect the marathon. "I'm going to run a marathon." It's sooo easy to say. It seems almost romantic. You gain the respect of your office mates immediately. But people forget that Phidippides, the Greek runner who ran the first 26 miles from Marathon to Athens, dropped dead moments after announcing the dramatic victory over the mighty Persians.
Tyler's a tough guy so he eventually finished the marathon, but not without lots of blood, sweat and tears along the way. The finisher's medal around his neck was worth the pain, but he admitted to me that it was the hardest thing he had ever done. I'm glad I could help, but somewhere along the final stretches of the streets of Richmond, that itch of mine had returned. In the midst of this battlefield of tired, limping, shivering runners I make a private promise. Maybe. Ok, maybe. Now go away. That's all I can promise right now. That's better than "no way, Jose, never ever again." I don't tell anyone, because once I do, I'm committed.
A few days later I call and check on Tyler. He's recovering nicely, and his legs are almost back to normal. In other words, he can walk again.
"Hank, I just signed up for the Myrtle Beach Marathon in February. I know I can do better... if I had just drank more fluids." It usually takes me about 3 years to forget about my last marathon. It took Tyler 3 days.
"Why don't you and Natalie go? I already have the rooms and everything. There's a half marathon and a relay too."
"Uh, maybe (there's that maybe word again). Let me check with Natalie and see if we can go."
I hang up and start calculating. I have enough time to work up to the distance. Even though I hate training through the winter, I could do it. Actually, cold weather is better than hot for long distance runs. What am I thinking? Stop now. Remember New Orleans? Remember Boston? Tyler, remember Richmond?
I call Natalie.
"Tyler's already signed up for another marathon. He's crazy."
"Are you kidding? Which one? When?"
"Myrtle Beach. Feb 22. Want to go? He has a room. There's a half and a relay too."
"Yeah, sounds like fun. Let's go. Are you going to run or just pace him again?"
I hesitate, because I know the moment of decision is here. Once the words are out of my mouth, it's done... no turning back.
"Well, I'm thinking about doing the marathon."
Next: Into the Rollercoaster