I turned the first corner of the Sedona Marathon, to the familiar voice of The Ramones singing “Blitzkrieg Bop”. At the corner of 89A and Dry Creek Road, Jennifer and Christa waved, cheered, and took pictures. Clad in my Punk Rock Racing shirt, with fresh legs, and great optimism, I responded to their cheers with a fist in the air and chanted along with Joey Ramone, “Hey Ho, Let’s Go”.
The time leading up to this moment had gone very well. It had been almost two years since my last marathon. In the fall of 2011 I sprained my ankle on an unfortunate piece of pavement and in April 2012 aggravated my achilles. In August 2012 I did my first sprint triathlon and that propelled me into five months of injury free training. Taking second place in the masters division of a 5K the week before the marathon helped my confidence.
Not only did I feel physically ready for the marathon, but emotionally and spiritually grounded. I didn’t come to this marathon alone, but with my running partners Scott Carver (also running the full) and Mary Ridgeway (more wisely running the half). We came with the support of our church, whose members pledged more than $2,000 to support the youth mission trip coming in July.For me, Sedona is where it all began. The home of my first marathon. Since running in Sedona 2010 I ran the Ghost Town 38.5 and the Run the Caldera mountain trail marathon. Looking back over my races and training, I knew I was in better shape and more experienced than three years ago.With all factors combined, I felt very good before the race. I trained to finish at 4 hours and 30 minutes and hoped to achieve a negative split.
For more than the first half of the race, I was well on pace to achieve this goal. The early miles seemed to fly by. As my watched beeped to indicate another minute passed, the times ranged from 10:20 to 10:30. The run became lonely after the half marathon turn around point. A race that began with a crowded field became sparse as those (wisely) running the shorter distances peeled off and the paved road gave way to a desolate jeep trail. The only mile that exceeded the 11 minute range happened when I walked through an aid station, ate an orange, and stopped to help a woman who fell on the trail.
At the halfway point of the marathon, I asked a race official what time it was. He said 11:20—which roughly put me at a 2:20 time. My legs still felt fresh and a negative split and 4:30 finish seemed easily within reach.
However, there were two factors I had not considered: the heat and the climb.
The last 13 miles of the race included more than 1,000 feet of elevation gain. Within itself, that would not be very different from training in Albuquerque. The factor I had not prepared for was the heat.
Over the last several months, the bulk of my long training runs started around 5:00am with temperatures often below freezing. At Sedona, I found myself running through a wilderness on a day that exceeded 70 degrees, completely exposed to the sun with no shade.At mile 15 the effects of the sun began to hit. My fingers tingled and I tried wiggling them to make the troublesomesensation go away… but it didn’t. I felt hotter and hotter. At aid stations I poured as much water over my head as I drank trying to cool myself. The damage was done.For several miles I went to a run a minute, walk a minute strategy. Even with a cloudy mind I knew that if I didn’t have some kind of plan in place, I would spend the rest of the day wandering in the desert. While this plan worked for awhile, the timing was often off. I found myself running up steep hills and walking down them. As I returned to the paved road, I decided to walk the uphills and run the downhills (there is nothing flat on this course). The problem with this plan is that four of the last five miles were uphill. My 10:20 miles seemed a distant memory as the beep of my watch slowed to 14 minute miles. The words of the Lambchop song, “Action Figure,” echoed in my head, “And there are people that I know who learn to live within their limits.”
Climbing hill after hill, I felt defeated. Up until this point, I had finished every race I ran with a smile on my face. I may not have hit every time goal, but I never regretted a race. This one beat me up: physically and emotionally. I began to think of the months of training, hours spent away from my family, and I wondered: for what? I wondered if it was time for me to retire from the marathon and find joy in shorter races.With my body physically exhausted and my mind emotionally spent, spiritual strength was the only thing that kept me going . For a short time I ran/walked with a detective from Los Angeles who reminded me, “It is going to take a miracle of God to get us to the finish line”. I don’t know if it was a miracle, but the spiritual strength was all that I had left and it carried me to the finish line.
In an act of pure brutality, the designer of this course made the last half mile of the marathon straight uphill. Wanting to finish with some semblance of pride, I attempted a run to the finish. Less than 50 yards from the finish, I pulled something in my upper left leg and could not even walk right. As Henry Rollins sang “Life will not break your heart, it will crush it” I stumbled over to Jennifer to give her a hug. People yelled for me to cross the finish line that was less than 10 steps away. With my time goal so far gone, I was in no hurry and did not notice my finish line or remember to turn off my watch. I broke down in tears like I had seen others do before but never experienced myself. Months of training seemed all for naught as I was incredibly humbled on a hot and difficult course.
With some additional time to reflect (and a blueberry pie shake from the Red Planet Diner in my belly), I am not ready to hang up the marathon shoes just yet. I don’t want to go out like this. Also, the four marathons I have run all included altitude and trail. I want to run one lower altitude, flat, city marathon (Green Bay 2014 with a lap around Lambeau Field?). Although the Sedona Marathon course is a beast, I finished wounded but not defeated. And yet, with the help of a loving family, great friends, and the prayers of a church, I finished.