To Run My Best Marathon at Age 44, I Had to Outrun My Past
In the days after my father died, I wrote a letter to my own children about him. It stretched to roughly the length of this essay. I’ll give it to them when they’re older. I want them to understand a man they knew only in his frail, harum-scarum last stages of life. I also wrote it for myself, of course. As the people I love the most know, I’ve spent my life both following my father and trying to avoid becoming him. I share his genes for running, and large parts of his personality. But genes that make one susceptible to alcoholism are inherited too. As for the King Lear madness at the end? It was nature, nurture, and circumstance. I’m approaching the age when it began for him.
I sent an early version of this essay to my older sister, who saw something clearly that I hadn’t identified yet. “Running solved nothing for [Dad]. You’ve had a longer journey with it, and used it in ways that are much more productive. But I have this nagging sense that your story of needing to follow footsteps (the schools, the running) and needing so much not to follow footsteps (the overindulgence, the flameout, the irresponsibility and failure) are more complexly interwoven.”
The morning of the 2019 Chicago Marathon, I drowned myself in beet juice and, lacking utensils, used the knife on a hotel corkscrew to spread peanut butter on a bagel. I hydrated with water, dehydrated with coffee, and hydrated again. Then I made my way to the start. Finley came, and he, my oldest son, and my younger sister and her kids positioned themselves on the course to strategically hand me water and energy gels. I spent some of the time before the race obsessing about the fact that I had brought two socks of slightly different sizes, but mostly I felt confident. If the day was perfect, 2:30 was possible.
Then the gun went off and everything went haywire. The skyscrapers of Chicago intoxicated my GPS, and my heart-rate monitor was in its cups too. Finley wanted me to run the first half at 5:45 per mile. I wanted my heart rate to be under 140. But about three-quarters of a mile in, my watch said I was running a 4:40 pace and my heart rate was 169. I passed the first mile, adrift without my technological crutches—a zoo animal dropped back into the wild. But then I saw the clock at the first mile marker: 5:45 on the nose. For the next 3 miles, my pace stayed the same. My watch was drunk, but I was holding steady. At times, as in all races, I felt exhausted, confused, and wanted to puke or drop out. But mostly I just tried to breathe, relax, and think about as little as possible.
I passed the half in 1:14:59 and then picked up the pace a touch. By mile 22, part of my brain was celebrating that I would likely beat 2:30, and the other half was delineating all the things that could yet go wrong. Then, at mile 25, I tried to accelerate and suddenly felt as if I were running in boots made of concrete.
I felt momentary panic, the kind you get when your car first starts to skid on ice. But then I steadied myself and tried to concentrate on my breathing and a meditative pattern I sometimes use while running—counting out patterns of three as my feet hit the pavement. One, two, three. Right foot, left foot, right foot. One, two, three. Left, right, left. I thought about posture and trying to keep relaxed from the base of my skull to my heel, and from my cheekbones to my toes. I reminded myself that it didn’t matter if I ended in a sprint, as long as I didn’t end in a crawl.