On October 18, 2014 I ran the Indianapolis Marathon, officially finishing in 3:58:28, and after two weeks, I have had enough time to physically recover from my 1st marathon and mentally/emotionally process the experience.
HOW I GOT HERE
I ran track in high school, competing mostly in the 800 meter and 4×800 meter relay. I never ran further than about 7-8 miles at once, and like too many high school athletes I stopped working out when I went to college. Part of this was teenage laziness, but my health was the biggest factor. At that time I had already been entertaining the idea of running a marathon, but twelve years ago during the 1st semester of my freshman year at Lipscomb University, I became very sick with what was eventually diagnosed as Crohn’s Disease, which caused tremendous stomach pain every time I ate. With this auto-immune disease, which has no cure, there was long list of things the doctor told me I could no longer do. My diet was severely restricted, removing most of my favorite foods. I was taking 35 pills/day. While other freshman were gaining weight, I lost 25 lbs the month after my diagnosis simply because I hated eating. Finally on the list of ways my life was changed, there was one specific thing that I still remember very clearly. My doctor very bluntly said that I should not plan on ever running a marathon. He said long distance running was ill-advised and would basically be too difficult and cause too many complications.
So I walked away from a sport that I loved. This was not the 1st time I had been in this situation. In high school I had to walk away from the sport that was my 1st love, giving up soccer after I tore my ACL and and then my meniscus twice, having three knee surgeries in 18 months. That is the whole reason I joined the track team in the 1st place. Literally every time I stepped onto the soccer pitch I tore something in my knee the 1st day back. So I became a runner. My brother and sister had both been track stars. My sister Lauren held my high school’s record for the 300 hurdles, and my brother Ryan is the most talented runner in the family. He went to Murray State on a track and cross country scholarship, where he became an all-conference runner. I followed in their footsteps and joined the track team. With all the knee surgeries and recoveries, I never ran consistently enough to develop into a great high school runner, but I loved running.
Then in college, my health was my biggest concern, so I took the doctor’s words to be truth. As far as I was concerned, running a marathon or any significant distance was the least of my worries, and I pushed away any thoughts of doing so.
*Let me pause right here to say that while I am no doctor, I find it extremely disheartening that a doctor would tell an 18 year old that he CANNOT EVER for the rest of his life run a marathon. Humans are capable of so much more than we sometimes give ourselves credit for, and this is because we are designed, loved and lifted up by a God who is so much more intelligent and powerful than we can possibly understand. Plus, a quick Google search now reveals Crohn’s Disease message boards full of people who have managed to run marathons with this disease. I understand how serious this disease can be, but when advising patients, especially young patients coping with a chronic disease diagnosis, doctors should consider more than what the medical text books say. A better piece of advise from this doctor would have been something like this… “Long distance running for Crohn’s patients can be extremely difficult and complicated, and this type of exercise should only be considered after you have adjusted to living with the disease. Then it should only be approached carefully and with regular oversight from your doctor.”
With my new medical diagnosis, I was not doing any form of exercise. What happened next was the greatest surprise of my life, something that radically changed me forever. I will save the full story for another post, but basically God used my medical condition to bring me closer to Him. As I became more dependent on God and less so on my own abilities, my relationship with God grew deeper. The next semester I joined a men’s prayer group in my dorm, and for 5 months they prayed over me as I was dealing with an array of health issues. Most importantly they were bold enough to pray for healing. I went home for the summer, and my doctor was starting to notice some things that made him unsure about my original diagnosis. He advised that I get a 2nd opinion, and a new doctor poked and prodded me all over again with the full range of gastro tests. He found not a trace of Crohn’s Disease in my body.
BAD HABITS FORMED EASILY
I give full credit to God for making my sick body well again, through the prayers of good friends. Unfortunately while God had taken my spiritual life to a new place, I quickly formed bad physical habits. It started the day my new gastroenterologist told me that I did not have Crohn’s Disease. He said, “You should be the happiest person in the world today. Go celebrate and eat whatever you want!” For the next two years I did exactly that; I ate anything and everything I wanted, indulging myself in all the tasty things I had given up during my time with Crohn’s Disease. Running or exercising was no longer on my radar, and now I was finally free to eat however I wanted.
BINGE EATING + NO EXERCISE = EXTREME WEIGHT GAIN
Instead of the “freshman 15” I gained the “sophomore 50.” By the end of my junior year I was up 60 lbs (to over 210) and had only dabbled in running for a couple weeks here and there. The great gift that God had given me by healing my body had led me into great struggles with food, and while God had blessed me with a 2nd chance at a healthy life, I was squandering that opportunity. My regular doctor advised me that I was on a fast track to diabetes and a wide range of other health issues because of my weight gain, but at the time it felt rather hopeless.
WEIGHT LOSS JUMP-START
Then I went to Perth, Australia on a summer-long mission trip in 2005. Between Australia and another 3 weeks I spent camping, hiking and backpacking out West, I was so busy that summer that I lost 20 lbs without even trying. This motivated me to lose it all. So I started walking and doing the elliptical, which led to me running again, along with changing my diet. By the end of senior year in 2006, I had lost over 60 lbs. Soon after this, I met my future wife Jennifer. I stayed in shape for another year till we got married, and then a few months later we got pregnant with our 1st son Will.
LIFE GOT IN THE WAY
One might think that after I gained 60 lbs and then worked diligently to lose 60 lbs, I would be motivated to never gain weight like that again, but I let life get in the way of my health, allowing those bad habits to creep back in. I was working full-time, taking a heavy grad-school course load, learning how to be a husband and then how to be a father. I felt like I was too busy to workout, and my poor health decisions coincided with our poor financial decisions, which included eating out very fattening meals at least once a day. As Jennifer gained pregnancy weight, I gained more than my share of sympathy weight. It was downhill from there, and from 2008 to 2013, I did not take care of my body. Once again, I would dabble in walking or running every once in awhile for a week or a month, but nothing that lasted.
I FELT CONVICTED
By 2013 I was up to the heaviest weight of my life, over 220 lbs, and looking in the mirror it was hard to imagine that during two different periods of my life I was a 150 lb runner. At this point I felt convicted to take care of myself, not only for the sake of my own health, but especially because I was now a father of 3 kids. I wanted to play soccer in the backyard without quickly running out of breath; I wanted to teach them to live healthy, active lives; I wanted to be there when they graduate high school/graduate college/get married/have kids/etc. instead of being dead or crippled from heart attacks and preventable diseases. I felt convicted to honor God with every part of my life, including and especially my health. Read more about my decision to start running again in my 2 previous entries on this subject… “769 Miles From Obese to Healthy” and “1 Year as a Runner Reborn.” I began feeling this conviction around March 2013, and by August 2013 I acted on it, slowly but consistently jogging/walking and eventually running again. Looking back it is hard to believe that in 14 months, I went from being inactive and obese to running my 1st marathon, doing so in under 4 hours.
3RD TIME’S A CHARM
The 3rd time I became a runner was different. The motivation was not accidental or just based upon my physical appearance. After too many years of not taking care of my body, this time I had a deep yearning not to diet or lose some quick weight, but to make permanent lifestyle changes. A year ago, running a marathon still was not on my radar, as my biggest goal was to run 5K in under 30 minutes. The important thing is that I was following God’s call to live a better, healthier life.
After running almost daily for 11 months, I finally let a dream that had been dead for 12 years come back into my life. I knew from a slew of running articles that you should have a good year of consistent running under your belt before you start training for a marathon. I figured 11 months was close enough, but the real motivation came from my son Will, who was 5 at the time. He knew that running had become an important part of my identity, and in July 2014, he said, “Daddy, I cannot wait to see you run a marathon.” I had never mentioned to him that I had ever considered running a marathon. I did not think he had ever even heard of a marathon, but at this moment it was like a switch flipped in me.
A year ago I had never run 10 miles at once, and before July I had only done it a few times, with my longest being a half-marathon distance run that I ran in April just to see if I could. This day talking to my son, I felt a sense of peace knowing that what may seem impossible for man can be made possible with God. So I picked a marathon that sounded nice and decided, with only 3 months to prepare, that with God’s help I would push the limits of what my body could handle. I knew that breaking 4 hours seemed to be a big thing that many beginning marathoners hoped to accomplish, so I made that my goal. I prayed about this goal, even stating it publicly, and then went about the hard work to make it happen.
THE TRAINING IS THE REAL “MARATHON”
I had no idea how hard the work would be. I was used to running 6-7 miles about 5-6 days/week, and while this was a great foundation to start training for a longer distance, it did not guarantee an easy adjustment to weekly “long runs.” While I had only run 10+ miles a few times in my life, my 2 peak weeks of marathon training I ran 70 and 72 miles, averaging 10+ miles per day. One week I ran 13.1 miles Wednesday morning, 20 miles on Friday and another 10 miles on Saturday. Another week I ran 10 miles Tuesday, 11 miles Wednesday, 23 miles Friday and 9.5 miles Saturday, in addition to a few shorter runs. I honestly cannot believe that I was able to achieve weeks like this just 2 months after deciding to run a marathon. Surviving the training without serious injuries is the true test.
VERGE OF OVER-TRAINING
Looking back I think I rushed my marathon training a bit, and I felt like I was constantly walking a fine line between pushing myself further and over-training. Here are a few things I struggled with during my 3-month marathon training:
- plantar fasciitis
- strained groin
- muscle cramps / spasms
- knee pain
- Hip pain that was either hip bursitis, ITBS, sciatica or some combination.
- Pure exhaustion.
WHAT I LEARNED FROM TRAINING
When you look at the above list, you might say, “Why would you put yourself through that?!?” The truth is that it is not as bad as it sounds. Anyone who plays competitive sports gets a few aches, bruises and injuries throughout a season, and marathon training is no different. It is all about making adjustments and getting to know your own body better.
I learned a ton about nutrition, especially what to eat before, during and after hard workouts. For the 1st time I started carrying my own water and mid-run snacks to fuel myself through those 20-milers. I learned not to eat Cookie Crisp before a 20-mile run, but my body handles bananas, Cheez-Its and Gatorade extremely well before long runs. My go-to pre-race dinner is pizza (not pasta), and I love chocolate milk as a recovery drink.
I learned how to better take care of achy muscles and joints. I got my 1st foam roller, and it worked wonders when I had serious hip pain just 3 weeks before the marathon. For the 1st time, I took cold baths / ice baths after long runs. I cared for and eliminated plantar fasciitis by rolling tennis balls under my feet and stretching my calves consistently.
I learned how to run long distances on very tired legs, and I learned how quickly the human body can bounce back if you give it proper care. My 2nd 20-miler ended with such extreme calf and foot cramps that I was left laying on the ground 50 yards from my house unable to stand-up and walk home for 10 minutes. I gave my body the attention it needed the rest of the day, and I was able to do another 10 miles the next day. After that really rough weekend on my legs, I took 1 day of rest and then ran high mileage everyday for 17 straight days before my next day off. My body adjusted and got used to running in an extremely exhausted state.
Most importantly I learned how fragile I am without God providing me with strength, energy, endurance and the ability to recover and keep moving forward.
HOW FAR I RAN
Before I started the marathon training cycle, I ran 160 miles in April and 162 miles in May. I took it easy in June with some vacations and traveling, only running 78 miles, and then I made some pretty extreme jumps in mileage. In July I ran my 1st ever 200 mile month, followed by 236 miles in August and 255 miles in September. Considering how quickly I increased my mileage, I am not surprised that I was on the verge of over-training, and I feel blessed that God carried me through all of this. Next time I will have a longer training cycle, allowing myself to increase mileage more gradually.
It is not an understatement to say that the training is the real marathon. Running 26.2 miles at once sounds like a lot, but that number is minor compared to how much you have to run during marathon training.
My parents were in town, so my Dad got up and went to the race early with me. My Mom, Jennifer and the kids would all come later and be waiting for me at the finish line. It was great to have my Dad there with me before the race. After nursing all my injuries and learning how to eat and prepare for long runs, I felt GREAT on marathon day. I showed up with fresh legs and a body that was both carbo-loaded and well-hydrated. My race prep was as good as I could have possibly hoped for, and after hitting the port-o-potty 20 minutes before the race, I did not have to make a single potty break for the next 4 hours.
I felt so good when the race started that I fell to the temptation to go out too fast for the 1st half. My original goal was to break 4 hours, but as training progressed I thought I had a legitimate chance to break 3:50, maybe even 3:45 if the race went perfectly. After a few miles I mistakenly let myself think that I could even break 3:40. I was really loving this race. After running over 2,000 miles by myself in just over a year, it was fun to run with thousands of other people. The crowd energized me, and I loved passing other people (not so much getting passed by many of those same people toward the end of the race).
I went out so fast that I started the race with a half-marathon PR (1:48), and then I started running even faster. Through 15 miles, I was at a 3:35 marathon pace (8:12/mile). There had been a small voice in my head for a few miles that kept telling me that I could not keep this up or I would regret it, but the adrenaline and the excitement of the event had me ignoring the voice of reason. After the fastest 15 miles of my life, it all came crashing down. When both my calves started cramping, I knew I had made a major pacing mistake and that the next 11 miles were going to be tough, but I had no idea how tough.
I stopped and stretched my calves, reducing the pain from “I cannot move my legs with these spasms” to “This is painful, but I can run through this kind of pain.” I ran like this for 5 more miles, maintaining a solid pace. I hit 20 miles in 2:48, 7 minutes faster than my previous 20 mile best. At this point I told myself, “I can still break 3:50! All I have to do is average 10:00/mile for the final 10K, and I can do that no matter how tired I am.”
THE EXCRUCIATING PAIN OF THE LAST 6.2 MILES
It turned out I was lying to myself because my legs had a very different idea about the final 6.2 miles. In fact, my legs were telling me they did not want to go another 10K. They were done. At 20 miles my calf cramps spread to literally every muscle in both legs. Stretching did nothing. Water, Gatorade, bananas, and energy chews had no effect on the cramps. These were not going away, and the only way I was going to finish this marathon was in excruciating pain. Every step felt like daggers all over my legs.
The next hour+ was the worst pain I have ever felt in my life. This hurt worse than tearing my ACL or having a herniated disc. Those injuries immobilized me, and while they were incredibly painful, at least I did not continue to propel my body forward, multiplying the pain substantially.
THE LONG AWAITED FINISH LINE
I really do not know how I made it through that final 10K without just slow walking the entire distance, but I prayed continuously and was driven by pure determination. No matter how difficult it was, no matter how much it hurt, no matter how long it took me to recover from this race, I was going to finish this marathon, and I was going to do it in less than 4 hours. My more ambitious marathon goals were not going to happen this day, but I could still break 4:00, my original goal. I knew my family was waiting at the end, and I was not about to quit or even finish this race by slowly limping across the finish line. So I kept running through the pain (with lots of short walk breaks). Considering the pain, I am proud to say that my slowest mile was 11:22. It has been a long time since I have been excited to run a mile in 11 minutes, but I could not have gone any faster.
Then after 26 miles 285 yards, as I only had one football field left to run, I was able to experience that exciting moment where the pain went away (for about 30 seconds) because I was so excited to see my kids holding up their hand-made signs, bundled up in their cold weather clothes and yelling because their Daddy was finishing the race… in 3:58:28… under 4 hours.
I literally left everything I had on the beautiful race course at Fort Benjamin Harrison State Park that day. While I know I have the potential to run faster times in the future, and despite the pacing mistakes I made this day, I am very pleased with how I crossed the finish line of my 1st marathon. It was the culmination of a great deal of hard work and the results of trusting God every step of the way on a long journey that once seemed impossible.
Reflecting on the whole experience, I take comfort in the words from the Caedmon’s Call song “Lead of Love.” These words have somehow managed to continually define both every major struggle and every major accomplishment in my life.
Looking back at the road so far
The journey’s left its share of scars
Mostly from leaving the narrow and straight
Looking back it is clear to me that
A man is more than the sum of his deeds
And how You’ve made good of this mess I’ve made
Is a profound mystery
Looking back You know You had to bring me through
All that I was
So afraid of
Though I questioned the sky, now I see why
Had to walk the rocks to see the mountain view
Looking back I see the lead of love
Looking back I can finally see
How failures bring humility
Brings me to my knees
Helps me see my need for Thee
Looking back You know You had to bring me through
All that I was
So afraid of
Though I questioned the sky, now I see why
Had to walk the rocks to see the mountain view
Looking back I see the lead of love