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Back in 2010, I decided in the Spring that I would run a marathon that year. I looked up a training plan, but that’s about as far as it went.
I do the events and adventures that I do for my own enjoyment, not to impress anyone or prove anything to anyone. But I have to admit, I’d always wanted to run a marathon just so I could check that item off the list, and whenever the subject comes up, I could just sit back, breathe in pensively, and casually say, “Yeah, I’ve done that.”
Running is something I’ve done on and off over the years, just to mix it up and try to do some cross-training outside cycling. Getting back into running after getting away from it gets harder every time. The first few times I run, I think, “This sucks; this is why I don’t do this.” Then, I eventually get my running legs back, and start to enjoy it again, and the thoughts start churning again of, “Y’know, I bet I could do a marathon if I put my mind to it.”
In mid May of 2017, my girlfriend and I signed up for the 10K run in the Cleveland Marathon. Following the race, as we sat in the beer garden and enjoyed a post-race refreshment, I watched as some half-marathon runners arrived, and later some full marathoners. The thought hit me again, “I want to do that.”
The Towpath Marathon is the perennial first-timers marathon. It’s on the mostly unpaved and flat Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, practically in my backyard. It’s held the first Sunday in October. I made up my mind in early June and registered. So, I had roughly four months to train.
I Googled “four month marathon training plan” and came across something that looked reasonable. I printed it out, hand-wrote the dates for each week, and stuck it up on the refrigerator.
The plan involved five days of running per week. Fridays were rest days; cross-training with a different type of activity was suggested on Mondays. The longest run of each week was on Saturdays, with short to medium runs the remaining days. The length of the runs reached their peak during the 13th week, then tapered back down during the final three weeks leading up to the race.
I didn’t want to give up my cycling that much, so I figured I’d plan on running three or four days a week. Working retail, it usually wasn’t practical to do the longest run on Saturdays, so I’d typically do it on my mid-week day off, usually Wednesday or Thursday. I’d do a short run early in the week, and a medium run late in the week, and sometimes squeeze in and extra short or long run on one of the remaining days.
Most of the time, I ran on the Towpath, but sometimes on the streets in my neighborhood, or on some private trails in a housing development adjacent to my neighborhood. Once in a while, I ran on the Buckeye Trail near Peninsula. I like trail running; the non-paved surface does feel easier on my joints, plus it kinda has the same vibe as mountain biking.
The Towpath Trail provided the ideal terrain for training. I have been biking on it for fifteen years, and ride some part of it at least once a week, either as part of my commute to and from work, or just for fun. Name any two points on the trail, and I can tell you the mileage between them. This would help in planning my training runs. A coworker suggested that the Columbus Marathon would be a better “first” marathon. The Towpath has limited access for spectators, so much of the time, you’re running on your own. The Columbus course is also very flat, and being in the city, there are crowds to cheer you on every step of the way. The crowd support is not a big deal to me, and I never get tired of the Towpath scenery.
I still biked a couple days a week; not as much as in a typical year, but enough that I still felt like I was getting my fix. My girlfriend and I signed up to do RAGBRAI, so she was actually riding a lot more than I, often getting in long rides on her own. We rode our only century of the year on July 9, to Massillon and back on the Towpath.
Immediately after returning home from RAGBRAI week, I flew out to Nevada for a work event, so there was basically two weeks of ignoring the training plan, although riding about 60 miles a day for seven days straight across Iowa kept me in good cardio shape. I worked back into the plan somehow without falling too far behind.
Some people register for a half-marathon and train for it. My first half-marathon was just another inauspicious check-mark on the training calendar, and it came on August 17. It was a cool day for August, with a light misty rain. I actually felt the worst that I had ever felt on a training run; I think mainly because I underestimated the water and snacks that I’d need. I ran from home, with the plan to being to meet my girlfriend at the Rockside Road trailhead on the Towpath. I ran through a couple of the local neighborhoods, then hooked up with the Sagamore Creek Trail, which was more overgrown with weeds than I expected, so the required bushwhacking slowed me down a bit. I got on the Towpath at the Frazee House Trailhead. When I got to Rockside Road, I was still a bit short of the needed miles, so I continued north on the Towpath. I’ve biked that stretch dozens of times, and it seems to go in the blink of an eye, but running it for my last mile seemed to take forever, all the while as I was doing the mental calculations for when I needed to turn around to get exactly 13.1 miles. The upward slope of the first of the trail’s suspension bridges loomed before me, but fortunately, I reached my turn-around point just before I got to the base of the bridge. Back at the parking lot, it was 13.1 miles exactly when I reached my girlfriend waiting with her car.
In the later weeks of training, the medium-length runs were starting to get long enough that I’d have to get up extra early to do them before work. It was still dark in a couple of cases, although never enough that I had to resort to running on the Towpath with a headlamp.
I believe I hit my physical peak on the day of my training mileage peak. On September 13, I did a 20-mile run on the Towpath, and felt fantastic. I even toyed with the idea of just running an extra 6.2 miles and getting it over with.
My food and drink plan for training runs was pretty simple. For any run over five miles, I’d bring a water bottle with a hand holster. I’d eat a packet of GU every 5 miles. Running on the Towpath afforded places to refill the water bottle, usually at the Boston Store Visitor Center and the Hunt Farm Visitor Center. Post-run, I’d recover using protein powder mixed in milk with some Hershey’s chocolate syrup to make it more palatable. I tracked my runs using Strava on an Apple Watch 2. I found that I only had any chafing issues on runs of about 8 miles or more. So, on those runs, I started using Body Glide. My shoes were a pair of New Balance 481 trail running shoes. I had a pair of Pearl Izumi eMotion Road M3 shoes for street running.
I wasn’t training for speed; I just wanted to get the miles in. Occasionally, though, I would do some interval work by sprinting for about 50 yards every mile or two. My goal for the race was to beat five hours.
The final week prescribed the last training run of two miles, three days before the event, followed by two days of rest. I ran those two miles in the early evening on Thursday, October 5, and ironically, it was probably my second-hardest training run, after the half-marathon run. I picked up my packet and race bib number without incident on Saturday at Boston Mills Ski Resort.
Race morning was the typical routine. Wake up before the crack of dawn, eat some yogurt and granola for breakfast, get dressed and get in the car to head to the race. My girlfriend signed up for the 10K race, and fortunately, the start and finish for both the marathon and 10K were close to Boston Mills, so we didn’t have to deal with any funny business of drop one another off, or taking a shuttle before or after the race. We got there in time to park at Boston Mills, took our last-minute bathroom breaks, and walked a bit up Riverview Road to the starting area.
While waiting for the start, I had an interesting conversation with a pace runner. I don’t remember what pace the guy was setting, but he said he had run the Towpath Marathon a few times before, and this was his first time being a pacer. I asked him how he kept a consistent pace. He said that he set his GPS watch to show his pace as one of the data fields on the screen, and just keeps an eye on it to stay within range. He also said, though, that some experienced runners just have a natural ability to keep a chosen pace. He had a trainer that he worked with in the past, and she had this ability. She would say, for example, “Okay, today we’re doing eight-minute miles,” and she did not use any technological aids. Sure enough, following the training run, his GPS report would indicate that’s what he did, within a couple of seconds.
At the starting horn, we ran south on Riverview Road, turned left onto Boston Mills Road, then made a right onto the Towpath Trail. As I headed south, it seemed like the other runners around me were so serious and quiet, so as we went through the railroad tunnel about a mile north of Peninsula, I let out a bit “Whoop-whoop!” and a few other people chuckled and joined in.
The turnaround point was just a bit south of Ira Road. Along the way, I used the rest stops to top off my water bottle, and grab a GU, banana, or peanut butter and jelly sandwich. A couple miles south of Peninsula on the return, I hit the half-marathon mark and was still feeling pretty good (and that ended up being a personal best for a half-marathon).
I distinctly remember the point where I started to hit a wall. It was between the Ohio Turnpike overpass and the Boston Store Visitor Center, around the 16-mile mark. My legs started feeling tired; my feet started feeling heavy. I just thought, “10 miles sounds like a lot, but you can push through it.”
The northern turnaround was the trail loop under the State Route 82 bridge. As I approached the Station Road intersection just before that, I was happy to see my girlfriend there cheering me on. After her 10K, she had time to go home, shower, eat lunch, and get back to the course to see me.
Following the turnaround, it was about five miles to go to the finish. My pace had slowed considerably, but other than snack and bathroom breaks, I kept running the whole time. During the last stretch between Highland Road and Boston Mills Road, my “running” was barely a trot. I came upon a woman who appeared to be in her 70s, who was alternating between running and walking, but I couldn’t keep up with her.
I finally arrived in the parking lot of the Boston Store Visitor Center and crossed the finish line, making my five-hour goal with about 3 minutes to spare. My girlfriend was there and managed to get a cell phone snapshot.
The finish was followed up by some recovery snacks and a celebratory beer, then a celebratory cake at home (my favorite, Boston Creme).
The next day for work, I decided that yes, I would “be that guy” and wear the race t-shirt the day after the race.
So, yes, I learned that if I put my mind to it, I CAN run a marathon. Of course, I also learned that “putting your mind to it” is the real trick in the process. Running a marathon is easy; it’s training for a marathon that’s hard.