I am Pheidippides
Many people have heard the legend of Pheidippides, the Greek runner that announced to the people of Athens, “Victory is Ours!” after the Athenians defeated the Persians on the plains of Marathon in 490 B.C. Legend has it that after the outnumbered Athenians routed the Persians, they asked Pheidippides to run to Athens to let the people know about their success in battle. The story goes that Pheidippides ran the 26 miles, 385 yards from the plains of Marathon to the city of Athens, declared “Victory is Ours!” and then fell dead of exhaustion. I can relate to Pheidippides.
The history is somewhat muddled concerning this legend, and more than likely, it didn’t happen quite that way, but it does make for a great story. That distance is a long way to run. I know, because I did it once.
In January of 2000, I came home from work. My wife had a question for me. She said, “If I train you, will you run a marathon with me?” Now that is a loaded question. I was in decent shape at the time, I was jogging 2, 3, or even 4 miles, 3 or 4 days a week. I had entered a couple 5K’s and even ran in the Tulsa Run 10K the year before. My wife has been a runner for many years and has run in numerous marathons including the New York, Cowtown, and Dallas marathons. One of my greatest accomplishments as an athlete was outrunning her in a 5K by almost a minute. She seemed to think that her being 7 months pregnant should have reduced my somewhat over the top celebration of victory.
As I madly groped for an answer to the marathon question, I decided to give her a couple of conditions that I thought would be impossible for her to accomplish. I said that I could do it, but only under two conditions: 1. It had to be in early June, because our summer program ran from the middle of June through the first of August, and 2. It had to be cool weather. I thought I had found the perfect out. I can still remember coming home from work the next day and hearing the scariest words that a full-figured old football coach ever heard, “I’ve found us a marathon.”
It was called, “Grandma’s Marathon”, in Duluth, Minnesota. The date to run was on June 17, 2000. I immediately began to try to think of a good excuse not to run but, it was in June and it should be cool weather. I also liked the name, “Grandma’s Marathon”. I thought if it was a marathon for grandmothers, surely, I could finish it. I actually thought that maybe the 26 miles and 385 yards might be all downhill. After doing some checking around, I found that the marathon was not all downhill. It was named for the sponsor of the race, “Grandma’s Restaurant”.
I did not go out and run 26+ miles the next day.
We began a gradual, progressive program. I would run 3 to 4 miles twice a week. I also worked 30 minutes to 90 minutes on the stair-master three days a week, and began a progressive long-distance run on Saturdays. We began that Saturday with a 5 mile run and eventually, by the end of May, worked up to a 19 mile run. The goal was to finish a marathon, not set a world record. Overall, I knew that if I could run 19 miles on a Saturday morning, I could do the 26+ when it counted.
On June 12th, we loaded up the RV, hired a nanny, and began the trek to Duluth, Minnesota.
Duluth is a beautiful city, right along the shores of Lake Superior. The weather, at least in June, is beautiful. When the marathon started, the temperature was 41 degrees. There were over 7,000 runners signed up for the race. We met in downtown Duluth, loaded a bus, and were driven 26 miles along the shores of Lake Superior. Being a history teacher, I remembered the story of Mary Surratt, who was the first woman executed by our Federal government because of her involvement in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, being loaded on to a wagon and taken to the gallows.
They loaded us on a bus and drove for what seemed like three hours along Lake Superior to the starting line, 26 miles 385 yards from downtown Duluth. To say I was a bit nervous is an understatement. I looked around the bus at all the skinny people and told my wife, “I am the fattest person on this bus.” She looked around and responded, “You may be the fattest, but I did see a guy older that you”. I think that was supposed to make me feel better. It did not make me feel better. When we arrived at the starting line, I immediately went to the back of the line of over 7,000 people, all of them lined up on a narrow, two-lane road. My thought was that if I lined up last, no one would pass me, I would only be passing them. What I didn’t think about was that I would have to run 3/4 of a mile just to get to the starting line.
I was determined to finish the race in less than 5 hours and 30 minutes. Even more than that, I was just determined to FINISH. I had trained for over 5 months, logged a good bit of miles over those 5 months, and frankly, didn’t want to tell our football team that I had driven all the way to Duluth, Minnesota, just to quit before I finished the race. I knew that I wasn’t going to win the race. In fact, I knew that most of the 6,999 people in front of me would probably stay in front of me. I broke it down to three simple goals: 1. Finish the race 2. Don’t end up like Pheidippides, and 3. Outrun the guy in the blue tank top that was smoking a cigarette in the starting line in front of me.
At 9:00 am, I faintly heard the shotgun blast and began to waddle my way 26 miles and 385 yards back to the downtown of Duluth, Minnesota.
There is a myth that runners experience a “runner’s high” when running. I have yet to experience that high. If a runner’s high is experiencing searing pain through the lungs and jolts of a dull throbbing pain in the legs and feet, then, I guess you could say, I have experienced it.
It was a beautiful place to run. The weather was great. The course, while not all downhill, was not too bad, just one rolling hill after another along Lake Superior. When you set out to run for 5 hours or so, you have plenty of time to think. Here are a few things I thought about during that 5+ hours.
“The only way to go 16-0, is to go 1-0, 16 times.” Ben Watson-Tight End for the New England Patriots
I love that quote by Ben Watson. As most coaches do, we have always preached one game at a time. While we do have a year-long plan, the most important thing is to focus on the daily process that gets you to the last game. One play at a time, one practice at a time, one game at a time. During the race, my game plan was to run to the aid stations that were set up every two miles. At the aid stations, I would walk quickly while drinking water or Gatorade, and then run to the next aid station. I didn’t focus on running the whole 26+ miles. All I had to do was run 2 miles, 13 times. At the aid stations were huge blue and white balloons. I would get to one aid station, walk quickly, drink my water or Gatorade, and look for the next balloon. My only thought was to run to the next balloon. I learned that it is a lot easier to do big things if I focus on doing a lot of “little” things. Running 26+ miles is a very daunting task. It was a lot easier to focus on running just 2 miles and then running two more miles, over and over.
“The journey of a 1,000 miles begins with a single step.” Lao Tzu
The quote sums up what all coaches say over and over again, you play the game of football one play at a time. You try to make the next play your best play. The next play is the only play that you can do anything about. Any effort spent worrying about the next game or the last game is a poor use of time and effort. You don’t play week one while worrying about week two. A marathon is 26 miles, 385 yards, but it is really only one step, and then another, and then another, and so on. I didn’t focus on running 26 miles, I focused on just running the next step.
“You have to figure out if the pleasure is worth the pain.” Art Briles-former Baylor Head Football Coach
There were two times during the race that were especially tough. The first one occurred about seven miles into the run. As I have mentioned, the marathon route was set up along Lake Superior. For the first seven miles, we were running in the woods and couldn’t actually see the water. At about the seven mile mark, we rounded a turn and could see the water. Unfortunately, we could also see downtown Duluth, where the race was going to end, about 19 miles away. It looked like 100 miles from where I was. It was almost overwhelming. It was hard to imagine that I had already run 7 miles and would have to run all the way to downtown Duluth to finish the race. It was a lot easier when I focused on just running from balloon to balloon.
The other tough time was at about the 19 mile mark, I hit what marathoners call “the wall”. My legs just started to cramp up and shut down. My quads would cramp and I would stretch them out and then my hamstrings would cramp, and I would try to stretch them out without getting cramps back in my quads. The last 9 miles were not a lot of fun. I would walk, jog, and stretch, walk, jog, and stretch for the last 9 miles.
“Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however; it last forever.” Lance Armstrong
I have been told that only 1% of the American population has run a marathon. That sounds really high to me. I have a hard time thinking that one out of 100 Americans have run a marathon. That was however, one of my motivations for doing it. I thought it would be pretty cool to tell people at some future day, “Yeah, I’ve run a marathon.” Whether that puts me in the 1%, I cannot tell you for sure. I am proud to say I did it. I finished the race. I even beat my goal of 5 and 1/2 hours. I ran it in lightning quick, 5:05.37. It did get a little scary at the end because I had to dodge traffic. I guess the race organizers figured that if you couldn’t run a marathon in 5 hours or less, you didn’t deserve to live, because they opened up the roads to car traffic while I was still trying to finish the race.
In all, 6066 people finished the race. I placed an extremely competitive, 5413th. I can only imagine the humiliation felt by the 652 people that I actually outran. Hopefully, “Marlboro Man” was one of them. My trainer/wife finished the race, ate lunch, took a nap, and then brought the kids to the finish to cheer me on as I waddled across the line in all my glory.
It was a proud moment. I didn’t win the race, but I finished. We had trained for five months, we had a plan, and we stuck to it. I FINISHED!
After the race, we drove up to a beautiful little cabin right on Lake Superior. We were only about 35 miles from Thunder Bay, Ontario. It felt good to sit down and relax and know that the marathon was over.
The next morning was not good. I played football for 13 years, including 4 years of college. I know what it’s like to wake up sore in the morning after a game. This was different. It felt as if my insides had been pounded with a hammer for about 5 hours and 5 minutes. I had also bled down the front of my shirt for most of the race and those parts were on fire. Just ask a fat guy that has run a marathon for a full explanation of that one. The only time in my life that I have been more sore was when I decided to dismount off my Harley at about 40 miles per hour. But that is a story for another day.
We got up early, and went to a great little restaurant down the road to get some breakfast. As I hobbled to my seat, the waitress said, “Moving a little slow this morning?”
I replied, “Yes, ma'am. I am a little sore this morning, I ran the Grandma’s Marathon yesterday.”