Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Marathon

Probably one of the most defining events of my life is the marathon that I ran my senior year of high school. In those days running was a pretty big part of my identity. I began running not long after my ten-speed bike was stolen right out of our front yard. That was a pretty earth-shattering experience -- to think that the criminal element had penetrated our sheltered suburban bubble on the outskirts of Louisville. But in a way, having my bike stolen opened up a whole new world to me. I became a runner.

I still remember the first time I tried to run a mile. My lungs felt scorched, my muscles ached, my feet were on fire. Apparently running was not quite as easy as pedaling. My friend Mark Bush had challenged me to go out for the cross country team with him. The team held practices over the summer in preparation for the fall season. I was trying to get in shape so I could keep up with the team. I had a long way to go.

That summer Mark moved to Lexington, so when I reported to the first practice I didn't think I would know anyone. But as it turns out, one of my classmates, Lou Armstrong, was a longtime cross-country runner. He introduced me to some of the other guys. Gary Steier was another familiar face, I had met him through Mark. Another kid, named Tommy Pfau, became something of a running yoda to the rest of us. He was immersing himself in the art of distance running and would be one of the main advocates of training for the marathon the following year.

And then there was Ray. A transfer student from across town, Ray was kind of an enigma. During the early days of summer practice, Ray often seemed to be struggling at the back of the pack, clutching his glasses in one hand and complaining of "lactic acid" build-up in his massive thighs. Eventually, Ray would become one of my closest friends as well as a world-class athlete.

That year our team won the state championship, due to a stellar lineup of seniors who had been training together for years. Lou was also among the top runners. Ray, too, had made amazing 'strides' to break into the varsity squad his first season out. In cross country, a team of seven runners competes, but only the top five finishers actually score. Their place determines their individual score: first place scores one point, second place two, and so on. The top five scores are added together and the lowest team score wins.

Senior year, due to the loss of most of our best runners, I moved onto the varsity squad. Fortunately I had kept up my training and was fairly competitive by the beginning of the season. Much of that had to do with the influence of Tommy Pfau and his doctrine of distance.

Basically, according to Tommy, the best way to improve your running was to run, and to run a lot. Ten miles a day was our average, with several thirteen milers per week. Whereas during the season, we would be focusing on shorter, faster workouts, all summer long we went for distance, distance, distance. The culmination of our summer of distance was a twenty mile run that remains one of my most cherished memories, in part because it was so much fun. We were already gearing up for the marathon that was scheduled a few weeks after the end of cross-country season. But first we had a championship to defend.

The day of the state meet the weather was cold and rainy. About fifty yards from the starting line there was a huge puddle about a foot deep that covered the entire width of the course for a good 20-30 yards. It was quite a rude shock to have to splash through all that frigid water at the start of a race. Not the best way to stay loose and warmed-up.

We were favored to win the meet since we had defeated every team on our schedule that year, including our arch rivals Trinity and St. Xavier. Trinity and "X" were the two all-male Catholic schools in our area and had always been our toughest competition. But we had our share of talent, including returning champs Lou Armstrong and Dale Sirrine, the indefatigable Ray Sharp, distance guru Tom Pfau and newcomer Jim Brill. Jim was the younger brother of one of our departed seniors who in a very short time had become one of our top scorers. I had managed to carve out a place for myself in the top seven, which entitled me to compete in the state meet.

Talent, however, will only get you so far. After that you need experience. And experience was something we were lacking. The harsh conditions of the race took their toll on our young team. Unfamiliar terrain, slippery wet grass, driving rain and bitter wind threw us off our game. We struggled to do our best, but the boys from Trinity and "X" were made of sterner stuff.

As I came up the final hill to round the bend for the long sprint back through the giant puddle to the finish line, I found myself closing in on Jim Brill. I was confused. Jim was usually one of our top three scorers. There was no way I should be anywhere near him. But here he was, face twisted in a painful grimace, hand clutching his side, urging me to pass him. But I couldn't. He was way better than I was. It didn't make sense.

Our team finished third that year, not a terrible showing, but we really should have won. I don't know how much difference it would have made if I had been able to break out of my self-imposed paralysis and pass Jim at the end. I might have lowered our score. Maybe we could have taken second. Maybe not.

The disappointment of our poor performance in the state meet only lasted a couple of weeks, though, because we now had another goal ahead of us: the marathon.

In a way, the entire cross country season was only a prelude to the marathon. This was to be the first marathon held in Louisville and we were psyched. We had all competed in the annual Derby-week mini marathon, but this was the real deal. However, the cross country season had also served as a diversion from training for the marathon. At least it had for me. The team had been focusing on increasingly shorter workouts at faster paces as we neared the end of the season in order for us to "peak" at the state meet. And in fact, I had "peaked" at the state meet, running one of my fastest races ever, despite the bad conditions. I had no doubt that I could run the marathon, but I hadn't been doing the kind of training that would allow me to run my best race. Still, I'd put in a couple of weeks of long runs between the state meet and the marathon and I felt ready.

The day of the big race was cool and overcast, which was actually just what we wanted. It's easy to overheat when you run 26 miles. A nice cool day is ideal. I ran with Tommy. We had done a lot of miles together and our running styles were very compatible. Plus I knew that Tommy had a race plan and I figured I would just tag along and follow his lead. In a long race you have to have plan and the discipline to stick to it. The first half of the race, when you are feeling good, you will tend to run faster than you should. You need to hold back a little to save your strength for the second half. Likewise, in the second half, you will feel tired and will tend to slow down, so you have to make sure you run a little faster than you want to. I knew Tommy would keep me on pace.

What I didn't know was that, unlike the rest of us, Tommy had been training for the marathon right through cross country season. He had been going out on his own after our team practices and putting in additional distance work. On the day of the marathon he was in peak condition for the long race. And we were just flying along.

I didn't realize just how fast we were going until the halfway mark, when I heard the the times being read out loud as we went by the checkpoint. We had covered the first thirteen miles in about an hour and twenty minutes. That's faster than I had run the same distance in the mini-marathon the previous spring.

"Whoa," I said to Tommy, "aren't we going a little fast?"

He shook his head. "Nope, right on pace."

That's when I realized that Tommy had a plan all right. He was planning on setting the national record for his age-group. He was a year younger than I was and the record was somewhere around 2:45. And at this pace he was going to break it.

I had no intention of setting any records. All I wanted to do was finish the race and try and break the three hour barrier that separates the men from the boys in marathon racing. But I felt great so I kept going alongside Tommy for another four or five miles.

Then I hit the wall.

You hear a lot about "hitting the wall" in marathon racing. It's when you reach the point where you have completely used up every bit of energy you body has stored and you literally have nothing left to go on. But hearing about it and experiencing it are two very different things. First of all when you hit the wall, you immediately understand why they call it hitting the wall. It's as if you slammed into an invisible plane, on one side of which you are a normal healthy individual engaged in a fairly stressful, but tolerable activity. On the other side, however, there is only misery, pain, exhaustion, weakness, and insanity.

I hit the wall around mile eighteen, which is a fairly common point to do so. Apparently human bodies can handle just about anything for eighteen miles. But go one step further and WHAM! Pain City. It's like someone took a ball peen hammer and reduced every bit of your muscle fiber to useless shreds of meat. Then they inserted a spinal tap and drained you of all essential fluids and electrolytes. Without electrolytes, your brain is like a computer with zero RAM memory. You simply cannot function. Your joints have been surgically removed and replaced with jello. You lungs have been stuffed with sawdust. All you want to do is collapse and weep like a fool. But of course you cannot weep because you are completely dehydrated.

And you still have eight miles to go.

Quitting was just not an option. I had worked too hard to fulfill this dream. And what I lack in foresight, I make up for with sheer bull-headedness. I just kept running.

This was quite a lonely stretch of the race. People had gotten pretty spaced out by now and I was in a daze, running an endless loop. Occasionally I had to stop and walk, but not for too long. There were a few aid stations along the way where I gulped down water and Gatorade. But I knew all too well that these attempts at replenishment were futile. It was far too late for them to do me any good. You need to take aid at the beginning of the race for it to have any effect. Whatever I was drinking at this point would only sit in my stomach unprocessed until the race was over. But it still felt good to stop and drink something.

Meanwhile, in order to keep myself going, I had a secret weapon. Her name was Mary.

I'd had a crush on Mary since I saw her walk into English class the first day of sophomore year. But Mary was way out of my league. She was captain of the cheerleaders and dated the captain of the basketball team. I was just a nerdy cross country runner. But besides being beautiful and smart, Mary was also very cool. We eventually became buddies. I even took her to a dance once. It was one of the greatest nights of my life. She never made me feel awkward or stupid. She was the perfect woman.

As it turned out, Mary's father worked for a company that was sponsoring the marathon. Mary had said she would be working one of the aid stations along the race route. I hadn't seen her yet, so I knew she must still be up ahead. I couldn't let Mary see me hobbling along in agony and defeat, so anytime I rounded a bend I picked up my pace a little just in case she was there. Mary kept me going mile after mile. Call it pride or delusion or teenage lust, but Mary was my beacon. And I never stopped.

Nor did I ever see Mary. She never made it to the race. Something else had come up. Probably just as well, the thought of basking in the glow of her lovely smile as she handed me a cup of orange Gatorade is what kept me moving forward. Seeing her might have broken the spell.

I never did find out my official time in the marathon. My number got lost in the shuffle. My Dad was watching the clock, though, when I came across the finish and he said my time was 3:11. That's a pretty respectable time for a first marathon, but I didn't break the magic three hour barrier. If I had run a smarter race, I would have broken it easily. But it didn't matter. I had done it, I had finished. And I had overcome much greater difficulties than I could have possibly imagined. I knew a lot more about myself now. I knew that no matter how tough things get, I will never give up.

Tommy set the national record for his age group, beating the previous record by several minutes. He was on fire that day. We both ended up going to Wesleyan and running on the cross country team together. I never did run another marathon. At least not yet.

But the lesson of the marathon has always stayed with me. It has to do with believing in yourself no matter what happens. And persevering when you have a goal, despite the obstacles.

I haven't seen Mary for years. Ray and I visited her once when she was at UNC. She was as wonderful as ever. I spoke to her on the phone last year when I called my friend Gary at our high school reunion. She sounded great. That Louisville accent just melts me. I never did tell her what a big part she played in what has become one of my most important accomplishments. Maybe someday I will.

Pretty soon I will reach the ten year anniversary of my arrival in Hollywood. At times my dream of becoming a screenwriter seems a lot like running a marathon. Only with no end in sight. But I know I can keep going. And I know that I will reach my goal. Even if I hit the wall.

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