A week ago last Friday I had the privilege of running the 2014 Samsung Tel Aviv Marathon on Israel’s Mediterranean shore. By the time I was made aware of the race in early January, and our unit gave those interested the approval to go, I only had about eight weeks to train and had not ran marathon distance in nearly 10 months. Thankfully I had been participating in most of the physical activities South Camp had to offer to that point, to include the Spur Ride, the Army 10-Miler, and the Norwegian Road March (18.65 miles with a 25-pound ruck and weapon), so I was confident I would be able to finish the race but had little idea how long it would take me.
Training for a marathon when confined to a military post with only a two mile circumference is downright boring, to say the least. There are only so many laps one can make around the perimeter until they are tired of seeing the same scenery and the same faces conducting tower guard, not to mention the dirt track here is hardly flat and even less enjoyable to run. Because of these factors the longest training runs I completed throughout were about 10 miles long. During my previous marathon training I battled a fair amount of knee pain, especially as the long runs became more frequent, and without the same level of training resources at my disposal I decided to go easy on my training and simply supplement my normal Army PT with 8-10 mile runs a couple times each week up until race day. This plan would afford me some conditioning without the risk of injury.
Last April I ran the inaugural Army Marathon in 4:39:47, a time I was pleased with if only because I actually finished while having no idea how to pace myself for that distance. Now I have never claimed to be a fast runner because I am not one, but I did have a couple of goals regarding my second attempt at a marathon. My baseline goal was to beat my previous time and my high end goal was to break 4:30:00. I figured, if nothing else, I could replicate my performance in The Army Marathon. But in order to reach my high end goal I would attempt to run with the 4:30:00 pace group for the duration and, in doing so, would finish much faster than I had before (even if I failed to come in in the 4:20s). A plan that seemed simple enough in theory but posed to be a bit more complicated in execution.
Pace groups are made up of a bunch of paying customers following one semi-professional runner who essentially guarantees he/she will cross the finish line almost exactly at the time printed on the back of their jersey. This is quite the impressive feat by my standards if only because my interpretation of time is a bit loose — when I tell you that “I am 15 minutes away” that could mean 5 minutes or it could mean 50 minutes, just ask most of my friends. What is funny about these pace groups is their resemblance to the running scenes from Forrest Gump. One guy trudges on rather uneventfully, and really appears as if he could run right on to the other side of the country once he crosses the finish line, while several less-graceful runners crowd around or closely follow behind, mimicking the pacer’s every move. He drinks, they drink. He takes a gel pack, they take a gel pack. The pacer, much like Forrest, says very little and sweats even less. It is all actually quite entertaining when taken out of context but I figured being a follower in this instance was an easy way to accomplish my goals. Considering the 4:30:00 pacer also happened to be a senior citizen was both a shot to my pride and clear motivation that I could do it.
As it turns out, I could not. My official time at the tape was 4:39:27, a mere 20 seconds faster than my previous marathon. While I was happy that I succeeded in accomplishing my baseline goal of improving my time, I was disappointed that I did not get discernibly closer to my ultimate goal of breaking 4:30:00 and beyond. I was able to hang with the pace group until right around the 20-mile mark when a bout of self-inflicted cramps attacked my left leg, forcing me to stop and stretch and lose sight of the pacer, a set back I never would overcome. An unfortunate outcome to an otherwise entertaining story.
Just prior to completing 20 miles I noticed that a tall, lanky hippie, who bore a stark resemblance to Jesus, had jumped out of the crowd and began leading our pace group. Barefoot. And in skinny jeans. I really appreciated his enthusiasm and sense of adventure and figured I needed to have a picture. In the midst of fumbling with my iPhone and trying a dead sprint to catch up with the runaway hippie, I pulled up lame as if I had just been shot in the ass like Private Gump. I think every major muscle in my leg seized simultaneously, as if in one collective voice they were reminding me that I had just finished 20 miles and was in no shape to be sprinting on any day, let alone that one. I was never able to catch back up to the pace group and was forced to be content with grinding out the remainder of the race a bit sore, which no doubt hurt my time. The real travesty, though, was that I never did get that picture. I wonder what hipster Jesus is up to today.
Aside from actually running it, one unforeseen difficulty to completing a marathon overseas — especially once I had lost my pace group — is that the distance is calculated in kilometers instead of miles, meaning a marathon goes from 26.2 mi to 42.2 km in a hurry. When fatigue sets in towards the end, one kilometer might as well be one mile and it feels like it takes a helluva lot longer to reach 42 than it does to get to 26. My mind was not prepared to pace myself when the route was calculated in mileage back in the States, it certainly was not ready to first convert kilometers to miles then figure out my pace all on the fly. This is, by no means, an excuse for my showing, but it is another unique facet to running events in far off lands, an experience I am eternally grateful for having had nonetheless.
While I did not finish in the time that I had hoped, I did not particularly train well enough to deserve a 4:30 flat either. With that in mind, along with the barefoot hippie debacle, I have myself to blame. Considering my limited training, and all of the circumstances involving our presence over here to begin with, I am just thankful for having been given the opportunity to participate in and complete a marathon overseas — a likely once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. It is certainly one of those events I can add to and check off my bucket list in one fell swoop.
And at least now whenever I see people with the oval 26.2 stickers on their cars I can be that guy with the smug 42.2 sticker instead.