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26.2 Miles of the Runs

For years, I’d been telling people I had run the Dallas White Rock Marathon. But really it was either the 13.1-mile half-marathon or the five-person relay. Last year, I did the full 26.2 miles. I would become a real marathoner—or die trying. Turns out, thse are not mutually exclusive outcomes.  
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Hallucinations and other hazards from my very first White Rock Marathon.

For years, I’d been telling people I had run the Dallas White Rock Marathon. And it wasn’t exactly a lie. Many a time I had been among those 12,000-plus masochists who get up before dawn on the second Sunday in December to run the race. Like any self-respecting fetishists (or exotic dancers, now that I think of it), we had our form-fitting costumes and ridiculously expensive shoes. We gathered downtown at American Airlines Center, shivering in the morning cold and waiting for the starter gun.

But the part I always left out was that I had run either the 13.1-mile half-marathon or, worse, the five-person relay, aka the Shoney’s Big Boy alternative. Oh, not that I was claiming glory that wasn’t mine (okay, I was), but I didn’t feel responsible if people mistook my off-hand remark. I don’t feel responsible for what I do half the time, so how can I bear anyone else’s burden?

Then I had an epiphany last year. Or, as my wife put it, a “seizure of narcissistic stupidity.” I was fast approaching the 40th mile marker in life’s marathon, and I felt that just once I had to go the full 26.2 miles. I had to become a real, live marathoner. Or die trying.

These are not, I would learn later, mutually exclusive outcomes.

So I began a strictly regimented training schedule of daily runs and strength training. It lasted about, oh, two weeks. What? It was July, for God’s sake. Are you nuts? And I figured really, how hard could this be? I’m in good shape. Svelte. Wiry even. I’d done the half-marathon with less than two months of training. A full marathon would only be twice as hard, right? I give you now my journal from that day. You decide.

Race Day—December 11, 2005
I’m up before the sun, stretched, spandexed, carb loaded, and nipple guarded. (Don’t ask.) I’m wearing my red Dri-fit shirt with the hand-sewn lightening bolt logo of the Flash emblazoned across the chest. That’s me, baby. The Scarlet Speedster himself. My “first time marathoner” bib is pinned to my shorts. My iPod Nano is charged. RFID timer chip secured to my foot. I’m ready to be carried on the wings of Mercury and Nike himself. I won’t start with the elites—those amazing runners from countries where they learn to run long distances because of the various wildlife that eats them. But who can say? I may finish among them.

At the Starting Line
I huddle with thousands of others a good hundred yards behind the starting line at Victory Arena. I’m giddy. It might be the energy bars. I see a kindly, old white-haired man. I flash him a smile and a thumbs-up. I hope he finishes, and like so many other runners here, I know he’ll finish long after I do. Flash, remember? The gun sounds. We’re off. As we pass the timer line, five guys dressed in hokey Halloween devil costumes taunt us. “We’ll see you at mile 23!” they jeer.

Miles 1 through 4
The first couple of miles go by easily. I’m so busy fighting for space and hoping not to trip over another runner or one of downtown’s homeless that I don’t even notice the miles tick away. This is going to be a breeze. I’m the Flash, baby.

Miles 5 and 6
Now here’s the thing. I’ve made my way out of downtown and up Turtle Creek, and the crowd has thinned enough that I can set my own pace. It takes me about this long to catch my second wind, and I’m feeling good. But now all that water I hydrated with this morning is weighing on my bladder. Time to break the seal. I’m amused by how easy it is for us guys to pull over and whiz in the bushes. The ladies, not so much. It’s good to be a man. (I’ll regret this smugness within precisely 16.3 miles.) Focus on your pace. Is that the kindly old guy from the start? Huh. Good for him. A cop directing traffic sees my shirt and gives me a thumbs-up “Hey, Flash.” I give him a sharp, jaunty salute. This is so my day.

Miles 7 through 10
We’re cruising. Taking advantage of our water stops. Okay, so fine, my pace is off, but I blame everyone else out here. They’re slowing me down and sucking up all the good oxygen. No. Don’t get angry. Focus. Focus on the positive. The kids holding up signs that say things like “You Can Do It!” (damn right I can) and “17 More Miles to Glory!” (17? are you s—-ing me?). Time for energy. I break out a Gu pack. It’s an energy gel that comes in dozens of flavors that all taste like a camel’s sphincter. This is another of my many, many mistakes this day, and not the last.

Miles 11 through 16
One foot in front of the other. Don’t remember the half-marathon being this hard. The crowds have thinned out. I’m only midway around the lake, and something in my right knee is trying to bore its way out. No. I’m going to be fine. I can do this. The white-haired old man passes on my left. I smile and it resolves into a sneer. Fine. More Gu. The water stations that came too often before are too far between now. It’s okay. My pace is strong. Some kid at the water station on the south side of the lake yells, “Go, Flash!” I give him a cursory salute. I press on. Must make up for lost time.

Miles 17 and 18
Every part of my body is getting numb. Except my calves, which are on fire. And there’s a sharp pain in my chest. Oh, God! Is this a heart attack? No, it’s just my nipples. They’re bleeding. Lovely. I paid money to do this to myself. And something is wrong with my intestines. More Gu.

Mile 19 and 20
Something strange has come over me. The pain is all gone, and I’m feeling more alive than ever. I’m smelling colors. I taste the sounds in the air. A remote part of my brain—the logical part that has retreated into a corner and is curled up like a fetus because it wants no part of this—says it’s synesthesia. Runner’s acid trip. Surely a first. Some lady yells, “Flash!” I give her a half-hearted salute.

Mile 21
I have no memory of mile 21.

Mile 22
I learned later that too much Gu can have a softening effect on one’s stool. I experience this not once, but four times during the 22nd mile. Every woman in the world has her revenge on my smugness a lifetime ago at mile 5.

Mile 23
If I could scream, I would, because I see the dark lord Satan and his minions, all 8 feet tall. Flames. Perdition. Hell is a great endless marathon. With no porta-potties.

Mile 24
I find myself stopped at a light pole, stretching out swollen, sweaty legs that feel like they’ve been shot full of Novocaine. Can’t give up. No matter how far behind, I must finish. Some wag in a lawn chair yells, “Go, Flash!” I give him the finger.

Mile 25
A sense of calm has come over me. I’m going to die out here, and I’m okay with that. That white-haired old man passes me again. Bastard.

Mile 26
I’m going to finish this standing up, under my own power. There are banners. Cheers. Music. I’m almost there. I see my wife and daughter. This is good. I should get to see them before I die. I close on the finish line. Ahead, already wearing his medal, the old white-haired man is kicked back with a water bottle. My pace picks up. I’m finishing with dignity. I cross, my head held high.

The Finish Line
Here I throw up.

I spent two days at home, hardly moving from my bed. Somehow, I recovered, despite my pleas for euthanasia. I vowed never to do anything so stupid again.

On December 10 of this year, thousands of full marathoners will be running the Rock once again. As I write this in early September, I can’t believe I will be among them. But I will. This time, I have a sure-fire plan. A better training schedule. Experience.

And a Superman shirt.

Who’s stupid now?

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