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Taking on the marathon (Part 3)

…I apply the medication and decide also to go to a physiotherapist. They give me additional exercise. I interrupt the running training and switch to a bike for a while. It seems to help. And I manage to finish my preparations according to my schedule…more or less.

With the progressing training our ambitions grow. At first we just want to finish in the time limit. It means running the marathon in 6 hours. Then we think we could be able to run it in 5 hours. Finally we set the goal for 4h30.

The big day can come.

There is one thing you should know about running a marathon. It is a question of energy. The amount of energy stored in your blood system is enough for more or less 20-25km depending on your running economy. That’s why most marathonis have their crisis between 20-25km, they encounter the so-called “wall”, when they often feel knocked down and unable to continue. But you have to run over 42km in order to finish a marathon. So either a miracle happens or you will have to somehow supply the missing energy to your muscles. How? There are two ways to do it. Either you take it with food during the race or your organism will provide it from your stored energy in your body fat.

For the first method there is some habituation necessary. You need to eat and drink during you run and you can train it. Usually there are food stations every 5km on a marathon course, but you have to plan carefully where you will eat what and where you gonna drink. You also should take some energy gels, bananas and power bars with you.

For the second method you must train your body to extract energy from your body reserves, meaning burning enough fat for your high energy consumption during the run. How can you do it? Long runs will do it and even better are long runs with empty stomach, for example before breakfast. It isn’t always pleasant but it works. Your body just gets accustomed to processing your body fat.

So, there is a lot of logistics to think about running a marathon, but there are also several limits you have to cross: both physical and mental. First of all you need to be able imagining yourself running such a distance. Then you will have to be willing to absolve the heavy and systematic several months long training. Then you will have to overcome one or more injuries you will encounter during the training due to the overload, continue nevertheless and believe you can still run 42km in several weeks despite of the pain you feel right now and not being able to run at all. Then there is the energy limit I wrote about you need to break through. And then there are the crises you have to get through during the run. Not to give up during the first kilometers overwhelmed by the long, long distance you still have to go, when you first feel the fatigue. Then one or several walls, where you need to have iron will and continue despite of feeling not to be able to. Then the view of  people at the street side giving up due to fatigue, injury or just lying and being helped by the medical personnel. But one more limit, you need to cross, the ultimate limit I will write about later.

We join a group of experienced marathonis going to Athen for the race and sightseeing. Talking to them learn us respect and modesty. We are bloody beginners. They have several marathons in their legs. The leader of the group even won some marathons, with his best time 2:14. Most of the people have been running for years, also in winter. Constantly 70km a week and more, much more than we ever did. But there are some other originals. Among them a truck driver, who doesn’t train at all. He just goes for a marathon from time to time to get really tired. Once, he tells us, he run a marathon having hangover from a drinking party the night before. All this seems unimaginable for us.

I start to feel worried if we are able to finish the marathon at all. If all the people running it are like those guys, then we definitely aren’t. I asked an older couple how they judge my chances. And I get comforted by the woman with the words: “I am sure you will finish. I would say 4h30.” This is exactly what I wanted to hear. Now I can go to sleep, early, since we get up at 5:30 in order to get transported to the starting line in the town of Marathon on time and get all the logistics organized.

Read about the day of the marathon in the next post…

Taking on the Marathon (Part 2)

…and in fact I get an automatic registration confirmation asking me to transfer the payment to the organiser’s bank account.

I transfer the money and meanwhile ask around on different marathon forums if somebody is taking part in the Athens Classic Marathon and if they got another, manual confirmation (meaning I am not really registered) or is the one I got the only confirmation I am about to get (meaning I may be lucky). I depict my situation and the fact that I have managed to send out my registration in spite of the registration being over for 4 months already. The forum users are really outraged about it and bawl me out: “What kind of a sick mind would do something like this? Do you really think you will succeed with this? etc.”

But lo and behold, after two weeks I get a confirmation of my money transfer together with the official starting numbers for me and my friend. Now I am pretty sure we are really registered and the preparations can go on. Of course I don’t post anything about it on any forum. I don’t want to scandalize people there.

Six weeks before the marathon, midway through the preparation, we are going to run the Warsaw Marathon. Or more precisely, we are going ro run in the Warsaw Marathon, but go off the race after running a half marathon, i.e. 21km. Jack just run such a distance a week before for the first time in his life. I tell him we are going to run this half marathon course under 2 hours. He goes: “No way, last week I had 2:30. I can’t see how you imagine me running 21 kilometers under 2 hours”. My best time up to now is 2:10 but a lawyer friend of mine, a half marathon runner, has told me if I can run 2:10 on myself I will for sure run below 2:00 at the competition. I tell Jack there are several reasons why we are going to manage this goal. First of all we are going to run under race conditions, i.e. be under influence of adrenaline driving us to more speed. Then there will be people around us keeping a constant tempo. And we can and will run behind a designated pacer, which gives us a guarantee of the specified time if we can keep his pace.

On the day of the Warsaw Marathon we are in best shape up to then. But after ten kilometers Jack tells me his pulse is 95% of his maximum. That usually means he will need to pay a visit to emergency room if he runs for 5 more minutes under this physical load. But we have at least 60 minutes to go and we can’t slow down if we want to stay under 2 hours. I ask him if it is ok if we continue with this pace. He says he will tell me as soon as he can’t any more. So we continue and eventually manage to reach the 21km landmark and stay under 2 hours. Jack definitely crossed his physical limits but thank to his mental strength he manages to keep this high pace.

After the race he tells me it wasn’t due to the adrenaline, it was due to pheromones. I am pretty astonished by this statement. He says he was following the pheromones of a girl running in front of him and this stimulated him to this extraordinary performance in spite of the pulsimeter indicating his critical state.

But the preparation is far from easy. For the first time in my life I am running such distances and on top of it with such an intensity. I do stretch, I do additional exercise but my body begins to protest to this training regime. I suffer more and more pain in my shin bone. As it gets unbearable and I can’t do my training any more I decide to go to the orthopedist. He informs me I can forget about running a marathon in this state. There is no way I could do it in 4 weeks and I should focus on getting back to health now instead of wasting time with this futile endeavour. I have to accept the reality, he tells me. I get some medication and exercises to apply.

So I am in a pretty precarious situation. Four weeks before marathon with a terrible pain in my legs while walking, making me limp and with a doctor telling me no way I can run this marathon.

What to do?

More in the next part of this story…

Taking on the Marathon (Part 1)

It is end of July 2010. While procrastinating on a weekend, I am watching the European Championships in marathon taking place in Barcelona. Not really an exciting competition. Two hours of dull watching others running. Never actually watched a full marathon on tv before. I remember thinking “some day I will run my marathon”. I have been telling this to myself for several years already, moving this challenge from year to year and again, like many do. Someday.

Yes, I go for jogging from time to time, but marathon…you need to prepare for this at least a year. Well, maybe 3 months would do, if you are in shape and prepare really intensively, but who would take such a burden?

Suddenly the reporter says: “This year we have the 2500 anniversary of the marathon run”. I think to myself: “2500 anniversary? Bullshit! How can he know?”. But…wait a second. There was this ancient battle of Marathon. I scan through my scattered, holey, incomplete school knowledge and I believe to remember it took place 490 BC. As the legend says: After the battle was won by the Greek, a messenger run from the battlefield to Athens to inform the king about the glorious victory. He arrived, said “we have won!” and fall to death due to exhaustion. So 490 plus 2010 would in fact make 2500.

Isn’t it the best year to run my first marathon? Would there be a better opportunity in my life time? Wouldn’t it be great to run the first marathon on the original course from the town of Marathon to Athens?

But…you need at least 3 months of preparation if you start with the level I am on to manage the time limit. And the marathons take place in spring, summer and early fall, so it’s surely not enough time for the preparation. Let’s check the website of the Athens Classic Marathon. This year the classic marathon takes place on October 31st, in exactly… 3 months! What a good fortune! It is enough time for the shortest preparation program if I start right now.

I feel the wave of excitement and resoluteness like I have never felt before in respect to running a marathon. I find myself thinking: “This time I should really do it”. All the circumstances seem perfect. And I may convince my best friend Jack to take this challenge with me. And we can connect it with an interesting travel to Athens. Yes, this seems the right thing to do now.

I am calling Jack and saying: “We will be running the marathon in Athens this year” and I explain him all the details.

He goes: “Are you crazy? I have run maybe 500 meters in my life altogether”.

I was a little bit surprised. He really looks good, much better than me: six-pack and so on. He has a body of Adonis. I thought he was in a good shape, but apparently running and working out are completely different things.

I remind him of the last challenge I invited him to and he gave up on, later regretting it. Then tell him about the 3 months preparation program, which he could use and manage to run the marathon in spite of his inexperience.

He says: “Alex, you will kill me some day, but I will see what I can do. Let me gather some data”.

Later that day he calls back and informs me there is a stamina test you have to pass in order to physically be able to use the 3 months preparation program. You need to be able to run one hour straight with the speed of 8 min/km or quicker. He promises he will do the test tomorrow in the fitness club and let me know if he passes or not.

Next day I ask him: “And? Did you pass?”

He: “Yeah! But it was a ‘massacre’! I could run maybe 5 minutes with the power of my body and the remaining 55 minutes I run only with the power of my will. I was tired to death!”

I: “So, you passed the test?”

He: “You can say so, but…”

I: “Ok. I will register us for this marathon.”

The very same evening I go to the website of this event and try to find the registration form. It is end of July. The only information I can find is the information dated March 20th saying the registrations are closed and all the starting slots are already allocated. No space for more participants.

In my first reaction I feel surprised and helpless, somehow defeated. Apparently I am not the only person having the great idea of running the 2500 year marathon in the original location.

But the word “impossible” is missing in my dictionary. I know the registration form must be there, but is not linked in the menu. And in fact, after several trials I find it through a URL manipulation.

I register both of us, hoping they will accept this registration despite the registration period being over for 4 months already. This time I count on the greek chaos.

More in the next part of this story…

3 seconds of total madness

We were climbing all day on this rocky, steep, dry mountain. It is some commercial expedition for the amateurs of strong experiences. All the way long, the guides were making us hot for a surprise waiting for us at the end.

Completely wasted we finally reach the peak. And…we are buffed by the view: there is no land behind the rock, just blue sky, and endless abyss, and at the bottom dark sea stretches to the very horizon. As if the rock has split in half and the other half has fallen into the ocean. I am surprised at the sea in the first place. There was no indication for this fact before. No wind, no scent, no seagulls. The ridge is very sharp, and there is no space to stand on top. We are hanging with our arms over the ridge, our feet fixated to the steep wall below, overwhelmed with emotions, trying to keep the balance. Looking to the bottom of the cliff at the waves crushing against the rock makes me dizzy. We are certainly 1500-2000 feet over the sea level, maybe more.

I look to the right and see one of the guides standing on the ridge. The very view of him balancing on the top makes me tremble with fear. “Hopefully they won’t make us do this” – crosses my mind. Somebody to the left asks: “How long will it take us to get down now?”. The guide answers immediately: “Just 3 seconds”. I feel reminded of a movie with a similar situation and the same line. But before I can recall which movie it was and realize the meaning of these words, he suddenly takes a swing and jumps down the cliff with a swift, nimble acrobatic turn.

It is crazy. It is outrageous. It is mindblowing.

I am probably not the only participant fighting for a breath in this moment. My mind is shouting: “What!!! What the hell! Is this guy crazy?” We are observing him flying down for couple of seconds and taking a smooth dive at the bottom of the cliff. Then coming out at some rock close to the wall waving at us happily. I can’t believe it! What is happening here?

Still speechless I can see to the left the second guide balancing on the ridge. Smiling, he states: “Well, you can do it too…”

We (the participants) are looking at each other with disbelief. What is this guy talking about? He continues: “Of course I won’t force anybody to do the acrobatic figures, a simple head dive will do!” We are terrified. Is this guy really expecting us to do this? He sais: “Don’t worry. None of our customers got hurt until now. It is just the question of proper preparation. You can learn to do it and then you will do it with ease.”

I think to have heard of the forces acting on your head comparable to hitting on concrete when cliff diving from 100 feet, but here we are at least ten times higher than this. In my head I have pictures of water melons exploding at the very contact with the water surface when fallen from a small cliff. And…I can’t even take a simple header!

I remember myself starting to think about it and trying to figure out how to learn to take a head dive. Trying to somehow picture myself doing it and observing how I feel thinking this.

Time leap. I find myself in a swimming pool. Apparently I came here with the idea to ask the pool attendant to show me how to do take a head dive. What a surprise: I see the guys from my expedition in a row, hands put together in preparation for the jump, moving forward one after another and taking headers into the pool. In my exaltation I have probably missed the announcement of a group dive course given by the guides.

The alarm clock rings. Time to get up. I am so excited to prepare for the challenges I have put in front of me.