What do you consider one of your greatest achievements in life?
Completing the 1985 Nationwide/Bank One Marathon in Columbus, Ohio stands above the rest. While my time of three hours, fifty minutes, and 22 seconds is nowhere close to being great, it put me at 177th place in the group of 509 men in the 30-34 age group, almost to the top third in the field.
The marathon is the only running event where I would stand at the starting line and wonder if I would complete the race today. The question at the beginning of half-marathons or shorter races was how long would it take me to finish. I attempted three marathons in my early thirties and only completed the 1985 start. The other two I stopped around seventeen miles due to physical problems. The first “failure” was due to improper running shorts causing a chafing issue. The other one was knee pain that was bad enough to make me worry if continuing to run would cause permanent damage. But in all three races, I was in great physical condition and had the super-low body-mass index of a marathoner. But a marathon, as I learned the tough way, is just as much a test of mental toughness as it is being in shape.
The 1985 race was ideal for me. The temperature began in the upper 60s and rose steadily to the upper 70s. While most people would like it at least ten degrees cooler, I’ve always liked the warmer weather. I think my muscles like being warm and staying loose. The race started out in the usual fashion, the singing of the national anthem, the single gunshot, and waiting until the pack in front started to move. First a walk, then a slow jog, and as the pack spread apart, into race pace. Like me, the other middle-of-the-pack runners knew we needed to “take it easy” for the first half of the race, and on this day, that was a pace of around 7:15 per mile, which at the halfway mark I knew was a mistake and that’s when the mental toughness had to take over. For the next seven miles, I had to run at a much-reduced pace, walk and drink a full cup of water at every opportunity. When I hit the 17-mile mark and the course turned east away from downtown Columbus, I had to push through the desire to call it quits. But at the 20-mile sign, when I realized that I had “only” 6.2 miles to go, the length of a 10K race, I knew I could make it and the doubts were lifted. While I continued to run cautiously, noting multiple runners pulling up with leg cramps from dehydration, I didn’t walk the rest of the way. Each mile crept by as I tried to run as smoothly as possible. Finally, the finish line was in sight. Unlike the shorter races, I had no final kick at the end. More than just wanting not to cramp up, I was out of gas. But as I crossed the finish line, and out of nowhere, I jumped as high as I could and pumped my fist in victory. As I was suspended in the air, I realized that this was probably the dumbest thing I could have done and prayed that my legs wouldn’t buckle or a hamstring pop on landing. As my feet made contact with the ground I felt muscles on the edge of failure, but they held. I felt like I had run my entire life and this was the first time I ever stopped. I also realized that “I did it” and that could never be taken away from me.
This achievement took it all. Many months of training, usually alone, with many runs of sixteen or more miles, in the cold of winter and the heat of summer. Overcoming the doubts, pushing through the countless exhausting training runs, and getting back out there the next day to do it again. That just gets you to the starting line. The battle has just begun. You have to give it everything, head to toe, to claim victory. I did that once. Can’t take it from me.