My First (and probably last) Marathon
After my snowboard career came to an end I played poker for a living. I stumbled onto poker in Reno and fell in love with the game. So it might be strange to know I’ve never been a gambler. I am, however, a sucker for the romance of the history, colorful characters, and lifestyle of people that made a living playing poker and gambling. The mantra of many early poker players was that if something is worth arguing about then its worth betting on. This mantra has led to many a wager on just about everything from human feats of endurance to which sugar cube a fly will land on.
This summer I spent three weeks playing poker in Vegas. I was there to play at the World Series of Poker which originally was a gathering of the traveling poker professionals. While I was in Vegas I was watching the final table of an event which was won by Ted Forrest. When i first started playing poker, about ten years ago, Ted was among a handful of known names in the poker community. Ten years ago poker really hit the mainstream huge. The known players were on tv every other day. Books about the poker’s history and personalities were being churned out as fast as a hand of hold’em could be dealt. I was brand new to the game and devoured all I could on the subject; my favorite being the books about gamblers and the crazy bets they made. Perhaps it’s because I never really felt comfortable gambling that I got a thrill reading about others doing it.
One of those stories that always stuck with me was about Ted Forrest running a marathon. He bet $7000 that he could just go out and run a marathon with no training. As i sat in the Rio this summer that story crept back into my thoughts and I started to wonder if I could do it. Could I run a marathon? I hate running. I ran everyday in high school but that was 21 years ago. I’m in decent shape but I’m also 39 and again; hate running. Perhaps it’s the fact that I’m 39 and hate running that the idea wouldn’t vacate my thoughts. Perhaps this is the point in life where an aging, former pro athlete has something to prove.
I started passing the idea around with friends and they predictably thought I was crazy. Crazy or not I knew the seed was firmly planted. I also knew that I wanted money on the line or it would be too easy to give up. The word “Marathon” held a grandness in my mind that commanded reverence. What I’m trying to say is that I didn’t take this lightly. I didn’t think it would be easy. Evidently my friend Brandon didn’t think it would be easy either. After a skate session in Girdwood, we were all sitting around talking and I brought up the idea of the bet. The terms would be that I had to finish the marathon in 5.5 hrs or less and prior to the marathon I couldn’t run or go to the gym. I couldn’t train for the marathon. Basically all i could do is what I would normally do and I don’t normally run or go to the gym. I could walk, I could hike occasionally with my girlfriend, and I could eat right. Eating right would be tough considering pizza was part of my diet about twice a week and I love pepsi. So Brandon said he had a friend that ran marathons and he was going to ask him about the bet. The next day I got a text, from Brandon, saying that he would take the bet at 3 to 1 odds. I laughed and said he must have talked to his friend. He said he had and we agreed to put up $1000 at 3 to 1. That means if I win then I get $3000 and if i lose Brandon gets $1000.
As the time leading up to the marathon passed, I began to really cut out the sugar in my diet and cut back on the fats. I basically got healthy fast and shed some pounds. Kelly and I have taken walks all the time but I tried to walk a lot. I hiked maybe a total of 3 hours in the month leading up to the race. I wanted to run soooo bad. I wanted to run a mile to see how fast I could do it. I wanted to run on the downhills of the hiking. I just wanted to find out what i was capable of but a bet is a bet and my word only means something if I stay true to it.
The day of the race it was rainy which was a big advantage for me, or so I thought. I figured it was better that it was cooler but with the first steps of the race my legs never felt so tight and heavy but more about that in a minute. As the race was about to begin I was decked out and ready to run. I had a self made wrist band with the time I need to hit at each mile to finish on time. I had my interval timer (I read about a technique where runners run for an amount of time then walk an amount of time. In my case I would run 1 minute then walk 1 minute. The idea is to keep that up the entire race and the body will erase the fatigue during the walking portions). I had my gel packets for energy and my beats to keep me moving fast.
I got dropped off, near the starting line, about 10 minutes before the race started. I felt pretty excited and nervous. I was also anxious about not getting to see Kelly and my mom before the gun went off. As the announcer counted down the final seconds I resigned myself to not seeing my ladies until later in the race. Bang! And we’re off. I was warned to start slowly but all i wanted to do was run. I even missed the first two beeps on the interval timer because I was just soaking it in and feeling the run. Then, just as I started to get ready to turn the first corner, I spotted Kelly. She was holding a sign and it said, “I get 2 marry bib 141.” The strange part was that I was big 249. Haha just kidding. The truth is that tears welled up as I saw the sign. There are moments in life when you feel overwhelming love, when you really understand how special what you have is. This race brought me a couple of those moments.
Like I said before, my legs never felt so tight and heavy as when I first started running. Since I haven’t run in a couple decades I couldn’t tell if it was from the cold, damp weather or just nerves from the enormity of what I was embarking on. I also had to pull the reigns back a bit because I wanted to run too fast. I felt good though. I felt strong and light and excited about it.
The first thing I noticed was the different types of runners and different paces. Oh wait, rewind a bit. So the race starts downtown, with lots of spectators around the town square area, and wraps around a few blocks. When I got my nerves under control and decided I better heed the advice I was given, I got onto the interval program and began to walk for a minute. The problem was that the first minute I walked just happened to fall right as the course wrapped around in front of the big town square crowd. Great, now I look like the guy that’s winded after running one block. Haha, not an ego boost.
Back to the runners. As i ran then walked, I would notice that pace kept me even with a number of people and actually passing others. I even had one guy tell me that I walked faster than he ran. I noticed people pouring sweat after 3 miles and I noticed people pretty much out for a sunday stroll. I don’t really remember what mile marks I saw my friends at but i do remember that I began to feel my right knee hurting somewhere between mile 3 and mile 5. The pain in my knee was on the outside and felt like it was on the bone rather than the joint itself. Also around mile 5 my right arch started to hurt too.
The interesting part about a run like this is having nothing but time to think about everything. The time can be great if it’s used to work out social issues or a new tax platform that balances the needs of businesses and individuals. The time can be a little less constructive when every second is used to dwell on the pain shooting through a knee. My thoughts, at least in the first half of the marathon, weren’t completely dominated by what hurt. It’s funny to think about how much my thoughts changed as the run went on. In the early miles I felt like a pit bull on a short chain; I just wanted to break free and attack the course. I thought about how I would cross the finish line like Steve Prefontaine. I thought about what mile I would just break free and run the rest of the way; mile 22 seemed like the time I would strike. Needless to say my thoughts changed a little further down the course.
Around mile 10 I started to notice how much of a cushion I had built up. By mile 13 I was about half an hour ahead of schedule. I was having little dreams of breaking 4.5 hours and might even have entertained breaking 4 hours for a split second. Obviously these dreams of grandeur were crowding my mind on the intervals when I was walking because the pain was getting a lot worse when I was running. For a long time I felt no pain when I would walk and a lot when I would run. When my knee hurt I would just think about Danny Way (because I’m a skate nerd) and how when something hurts you just have to keep going because the real pain sets in once you stop. I also brushed a lot of the pain off, telling myself “It’s just pain, it’s just another feeling that’s part of the experience.” After a while the sharp pains were also joined by a weak, light feeling in the knee; almost a wobbliness. It was the feeling when something feels like it might give out.
I’m not sure what mile markers it happened at but my friend Christian was there, rooting me on, holding gear I might need, and just being positive at a number of spots along the course. About the third time I saw him I was super excited about how far ahead of schedule I was and he was telling me to slow it down. I thought that was odd. It wasn’t odd because I didn’t understand the logic or strategy behind it, it was odd because I don’t process the idea of not pushing myself very well. If I grasped that concept then I certainly wouldn’t be doing this in the first place. Prior to the race I approached things in a very logical and analytical fashion by breaking down my time/pace, planning my nutrition, planning my markers for hydration and refueling, and my gear. Once the race started and I felt the road under my feet, the dreamer took over. Once I got on the course the part of me that dreamed of being a pro snowboarder took over. I saw big things in my future even if that future was only 4.5 to 5.5 hours away. Christian saw the face of the dreamer up to this point. Around mile 20 he saw a completely different face. Through it all I’m just really grateful that he was there as a calming positive friend.
As I ran the early stages of the race I noticed that the 1 minute intervals passed so quickly. The longer the race went on the shorter the walking intervals seemed to get while the running intervals appeared to have stretched into half hour blocks. That was purely due to the knee pain but yet another interesting piece of data to analyze in this 5 hour study of my physical and mental resolve.
Mile 18. That was the point where I knew that if I ran any further that I would most likely not be able to finish the race. Both my knees were in excruciating pain. My legs weren’t heavy and my cardio was just fine. I had simply encountered a wall of pain that I couldn’t climb over. Mile 18 marked the beginning of the mind games. Mile 18 was when I knew I couldn’t run any further so I knew I wouldn’t gain any more ground on a faster time. I knew I was just in a race to finish rather than improve and for me that was gut wrenching.
Every mile slowed down considerably. I would come around a corner and expect to see a mile marker and it was not there. Mile 20 was the second turn around and as I got there I saw my mom and Kelly waiting for me. Suddenly my eyes welled up again. I was starting to get really emotional about it all. It was all happy emotion but none the less the tears came close to spilling a couple times. As I crossed the bridge I turned off my music and heard a number of people clapping and saying, “Come on Jason, you can do it!” I didn’t know most of them but they knew who I was because of Kelly’s sign that said, “Jason, you’re kind of a big deal.” Something that struck me was how positive everyone was during every part of the run. This experience gave me a peak into a world that I am not a part of and I was really impressed with the positivity. Everyone rooted everyone on. Kids from the high school x-country running and ski programs posted up all along the course and cheered just for the sake of being supportive (and they probably got some extra credit). There wasn’t any trash talking, no soccer/hockey moms, no negativity. It didn’t matter if you were first or hobbling in last, people were there to cheer you on. Perhaps there is so much positivity going on because people can sense how much darkness, doubt, struggle, and negativity can be going on inside the runners head. For anyone that pushes themselves a marathon will test you. There is simply too much time to think, too much time to question yourself, too much time alone with the truth. Most challenging events are over before you have time to realize if you left it all out there or held back, but not a marathon.
At the 20 mile turnaround I walked by and gave Kelly a kiss. She asked me if I was ok and I said no. I said no because of the pain and because I knew I couldn’t run anymore. Perhaps I should have given a more detailed description of my condition. A girlfriend (soon to be wife) doesn’t take the one word answer of “no” very well when her never running, no training guy is 20 miles into a marathon.
When I passed Christian again at mile 23 I still had half an hour cushion but my mind lingered on the pain. He was not seeing an excited energetic face. This was the point where I just wanted it to be over. I no longer had thoughts of dashing through the finish line with a thoroughbred’s stride. Now all I could think about was wanting to lay on the grass at the finish line. I just wanted to stop moving my legs, stop hammering nails into my knees. The thought of my legs just giving out became a serious fear. I started to plan out what I would do if that happened. I figured I had that half an hour to rest and try to work it out or I even thought that I could hop/limp in if I had to. One thing I never planned for was quitting. That was never an option.
As I came to the last uphill, about a quarter of a mile to go, I heard someone say, “that doesn’t look like running.” It was Beki Kelly and she was with Paul Kelly. Also along for the final push were Jason Moore and his daughter Lucy. Some of my snowboard friends had come to root the old guy on. They walked me to the corner of 6th ave and gave me the final push of encouragement to the finish line. I wanted to run the last block and a half straightaway and that’s what I attempted to do. I’m not sure you could call it running; more of a wounded shuffle. I started to feel and see my calves dimple in. The muscles were trying their best to cramp and lock up. I started to worry that I would be one of those people that collapses right before the finish line (only hours slower). I shuffled across the finish, standing up, and stopped the second my foot crossed the line. I walked a few steps and had to grab the rail to stretch out my calves so that I could keep moving. Then it was straight over to the grass in all its glorious refreshing coolness.
I did it! I finished with a time of 5:03:46. I won the bet and I proved to myself that I could do it. I know this blog is about riding boards in Alaska and you might think betting on running a marathon has nothing to do with that. You might even think it was kind of jock-ish. Well let me tell you how I think the event relates. Skating and snowboarding are activities that I am passionate about. They are also activities that push me. Every day I spend on a board I am faced with something I shouldn’t be able to do. Either I’m told I can’t do it or I question myself. I try and fail and fail and fail and fail. But I still get up and try again. I risk looking stupid and embarrassing myself. I deal with social stigmas. The point is that I DONT GIVE A FUCK about any of that stuff. The battle I face is within myself. The same way I pushed through the pain of this marathon is the same way I hang myself over a rail and push through to get a shot. The same way I want to quit running but won’t is the same way I want to quit trying a trick after the 100th try but I won’t. The same way people thought I was crazy for trying this run is the same way people (and sometimes myself) thought I was for trying to be a pro snowboarder. Everyday on a board is a test, a battle within yourself. Everyday on a board is a chance to quit. The choice is yours.
I just want to say thanks to all of those people that were so supportive. I really appreciate it. I’m really happy my mom was there to see this and I’m grateful that she has made sure to be there for so many of my events through the years. If I didn’t have such a great mom and family pushing me to follow my dreams then I never would have made it. Thanks to my wonderful bride to be for showing me every bit of how much love you have to give.