Things weren’t looking promising. Less than two miles into the 42km run, my hastily scoffed pre-race breakfast – one banana, one sachet of Justin’s nut butter and two glasses of milk – was starting to re-appear in my mouth. I was also feeling decidedly delicate in my stomach.
I figured I’d have other things to worry about, given I hadn’t done a single training run ahead of the marathon. Sickness / stomach issues were the last thing I needed, especially fifteen minutes into what was likely to be four hours of suffering.
Cramming The Training
Conventional wisdom dictates that a full marathon requires a 16 week training program, comprising shorter midweek runs at varying speeds and a weekly long slow run that builds gradually to be somewhere around 20+ miles. Another solid rule to follow is that you’re adequately prepared if your five longest training runs add up to 100 miles.
In the past I’ve often liked to run the full marathon distance in training, figuring that if I can do it in training, then it’s nailed-on that I’ll be able to complete the course on race day.
But today I was going in blind.
Zero training runs. None. Nada. Just praying that I’d be able to wing it and a bit of ‘muscle memory’ would kick in and guide me through.
No matter how you looked at it, this was an ill-advised idea. And it was proving to be so.
A Little Bit Of Backstory
The reason I was here in the first place was a return to the scene of the crime. Back when I started to dabble with some running, inspired heavily by Dean Karnarzes’ book Ultramarathon Man, I decided to run the New York marathon and raise some dough for charity.
Before I could do this, I decided, I needed to have run another marathon first so that I wouldn’t fail in New York and bring shame on myself, my family and the charity.
So I set about looking for other marathons that I could run as a ‘test’ and combine with a jolly good holiday. San Francisco sounded nice.
So I came to SF, met Dean Karnarzes at a book-signing, completed the race (slowly), and decided to recover by taking in a Matisse / Picasso dual exhibition at the modern art museum, which was both a bizarre decision and turned out to be futile as I could barely walk. So I bailed on the exhibition, went to the movies and watched the first Transformers film instead.
Shortly after that I slipped a disc in my back which derailed the New York preparations badly.
That race itself was both ‘the best of times and worst of times’ (I hit the dreaded ‘wall’, back in the days when gels didn’t exist and ‘the wall‘ was an actual thing. It was fucking hellacious – we’re talking tears, gibbering, a 10 minute rest in a portaloo somewhere on First Avenue) to paraphrase another keen runner, Charles Dickens.
The crowds in New York are like no other (a bold statement given my experience is limited to 10 or so marathons, but I’m happy to stand by it).
As you run over the Queensborough Bridge into Manhattan, you’re greeted by what can only be described as a ‘wall of sound’ as the crowd, at least ten deep, goes berserk. What made this all the more bizarre was that, amongst the cacophany, I heard my brother call out to me from somewhere in the crowd and was able to spot him in the throng of people. Highly surreal and very encouraging.
Now, electrolyte drinks and energy gels mean the ‘wall’ is hard to come by.
Has marathon running gone soft? Maybe.
The marathons led to a few ultramarathons, which were fun until a baby came along. Apparently going out for a three hour run on Saturday followed by a four hour run on Sunday isn’t acceptable behaviour when your baby is a few months old. I ran a 100km race as what I imagined to be a valiant tribute to #superfitkid when he was six months old.
It was a great effort, no doubt, but equally doubtlessly my efforts belonged elsewhere. That story sort of tells itself, sadly.
Full circle / Back to the scene of the crime
Now I was back pounding the pavement in San Francisco, ten years after my first marathon in the very same place, ten kilos (at least) heavier than when I last ran it, and 10 x less prepared.
The plan was to treat it as a casual, long, Sunday jog; enjoying the sights of a cool city. With 10+ marathons in the bank, this wasn’t my first rodeo so a lot of the nerves and newbie-ness wasn’t going to affect me.
But, still, not a single training run. Not cool and definitely not sensible.
What I had done was try and stack the deck in my favour. And this simply meant consuming a savage amount of food in the 48 hours ahead of the race to turbo-charge my glycogen levels and ensure I was fully carb-loaded.
This meant one thing: unlimited Chipotle! With a sushi side-order.
You see, I’d read in another runner’s account of running a marathon sans training that he dosed up on burrito bowls before the race; them having the perfect mix of protein and carbs.
I was also hammering down between-meal snacks comprising a banana, a sachet of Justin’s nut butter and two glasses of full cream milk for a 500 calorie smash-and-grab, the same as my good friend, Jim, consumes in a entire ‘fast’ day.
I’d force down four of these a day for the three days pre-race.
If I wasn’t going to be trained physically, I wanted to give myself a fighting chance nutritionally.
Race Day Breakdown
The course map – you can probably see me still out there somewhere.
Aside from the aforementioned stomach wobbles, this was steady cruise along the wharves and out through Crissy Field heading up towards the bridge. Steady miles off the base training you’ve done to prepare for the marathon. Oh, wait.
Running across the Golden Gate Bridge is the key drawcard of this race. It looks so elegant and stately in the pictures, right?
Doing it at 5am – not so much. It’s dark and drizzly and the wind bites through you, making you wish you’d worn a ski jacket. Luckily I tucked in behind a chap running with a portable radio so could distract myself with some Flo Rida and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis tunes. If it wasn’t for this musical altruist, I’m not sure what I would have done.
At the 10 mile mark I thought I was at 80 minutes but that may have been wrong.
Lulled into a false sense of speed by my Aldi watch, at this point I thought I was home and hosed.
For about five minutes.
In actual fact, this was where the wheels started to come of the wagon. A little niggle in the ITB led to a loss of power in the right leg.
In runner’s parlance, I was dragging the leg. If you’re a non-runner, the only thing I can liken it to is when you see a three-legged dog running. The heart is willing but somehow it just doesn’t look quite right and your heart pulls for this poor creature.
Right now, in this moment, I was the three-legged dog.
At this point, I had 15 miles to go, well over two hours of running (at best) and with each step my mind was telling me I couldn’t carry on.
I began to consider ways of bailing but was so deep in the Presidio park that I wouldn’t have known how to exit the course. Plus, if I stopped whilst still wet from the bridge, I’d be chilled the bone in minutes.
So I plodded on, lamenting the stupidity of the idea whilst trying to appreciate my good fortune to be there.
Six miles of zig-zagging through the Golden Gate park – a truly beautiful place I should have stopped to photograph – punctuated with some two-minute walking bouts. This was truly interminable, each step seeming to get me nowhere fast and each turn revealing more of exactly the same, no matter how beautiful the scenery.
At each aid station, of which there were plenty, I glugged down a cup of electrolyte drink. Sometimes I took in a water, too. I was also depleting my stock of GUU gel blocks. If there were any crumbs of comfort to be taken from this God-awful experience, then at least I wasn’t going to hit the ‘wall’.
I also hit up the medical table at three aid stations and asked them if they had anything for an inflamed ITB. They gave me 2 Tylenol which, I’m fairly sure, is useless for inflammation in medical terms but the placebo effects were miraculous, if only for fifteen minute bursts.
Exiting the Park after 6 miles, the relief at seeing something metropolitan is palpable and not even the two, 1-mile straightlines through Haight-Ashbury (centre of the hippie and counter-culture movement in the 1960’s) and the Mission district can deflect the fact that you just have 10km to go.
One measly 10km run and we’re home.
What could be simpler?
Well, quite a lot, as it turns out. However, the painful steps are now attritional. You’re fighting back. This isn’t fun and it sure as hell isn’t pretty, but you’re fighting back. Embracing ‘the suck’, as those with a penchant for hyperbole (and, probably, an American passport) are apt to say.
Make no mistake, the miles are dragging and each (even) slight downhill is greeted by a cacophany of displeasure by your quads. The uphills are perfectly fine (it’s all relative, after all) – simply shorten your stride and shuffle away. But now, at least, the end is in sight and there will be a finish. We’re actually going to finish this thing. And we’ll be running as we do it. Wow.
It’s a case of so-near-yet-so-far as miles 23-25 are a dog’s breakfast of construction sites and hastily constructed apartment buildings. Nobody really wants to be here, as evidenced by the DJ set up to provide some noise on the eerily empty streets.
Things change as you head towards the baseball stadium, the scene of one of the greatest and yet most tainted achievements in sporting history. Barry Bonds and his’ roid-assisted (allegedly) home-run record must be eternally grateful that Lance Armstrong is head and shoulders ahead of the pack when it comes to drug-fuelled sporting villains.
Anyhow, if ever someone could use a little performance enhancer, it was me, right now. I even started scanning the boardwalk skirting the stadium for any of Barry’s dregs.
And yet you know at this point you’re on the home stretch and the end of your suffering is nigh. And, somehow, bizarrely, from nowhere, you perversely want the pain to continue. It could be the crowds, who, by now, are thickening out, ringing their cowbells and calling out the name on your race bib.
Jeez, this is fun. And excruciating at the same time. Everything a marathon is supposed to be.
The finish is a mercifully manageable trip back up to the Ferry Terminal. The celebration is muted, the feeling is one almost of disbelief. And a sense of pride that you kept going, one foot in front of the other.
I grab whatever food I can – a fruit cup, 2 protein shakes, 2 bananas, a nut bar – and sit down against some barriers, wrapped in my foil blanket. Then it’s back to the hotel and into the gym to get my legs moving to minimise the inevitable pain and stiffness to follow. I’ve still got two days to explore SF and I’m not keen to be bed-bound.
This hurt. A lot.
More than any race I’ve done. Yes, I was cruising. Yes, it was an hour slower than my fastest marathon. And if I was trained that should’ve made it fairly comfortable.
But I wasn’t. So it wasn’t.
Yet, if you’re of the mindset that growth comes from challenging yourself to be uncomfortable, then this kind of thing might be your jam. I lean towards this viewpoint and so punishing myself mentally and physically for four hours, and overcoming something that I was very sure had overcome me, well, that’s half the fun, right?
Ben Ford is the author of SuperFitDad, a lifestyle blog that focuses on health tips for busy dads.