Run for your life

Susan
Susan Flanagan
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There’s nothing like a punishing marathon to make you feel alive

There are five World Marathon Majors (WMM) and Paul Lahey has done them all. Boston, New York, Chicago, London and Berlin. That’s quite an accomplishment.

Not many can say they’ve run all five Majors. In fact, when Lahey completed his final World Major late last year, he was only the second Canadian to do so and the 28th in the world. The list has grown since then. And as of Nov. 3, Tokyo Marathon has been added to the list, bringing the number of World Major Marathons to six. Tokyo Marathon, which will be the first World Major based in Asia, is set for Feb. 24, 2013.

Lahey doesn’t rule out adding it to his list (he did Boston in 2006 and ’07, N.Y. in ’08, Chicago in ’09, and his wife Rosemary ran with him in London in ’10 and Berlin in ’11 ) but admits that although being a marathon tourist is a great way to see the world, it does take a toll on the pocket change — and can be challenging to one’s marital bliss.

“If I win the lottery, I plan to hire a physiotherapist, a trainer and a full-time massage therapist and do a big marathon every month,” he says, adding he’ll have to convince his wife that it’s a good idea.

Of the World Marathon Majors, I have completed exactly none. I love to run. I even love to run for fairly long distances first thing in the morning. But 26 miles is brutal on the body. Preparing for a marathon takes me a decade. For that reason I have run one marathon every

10  years for the past 30 years.

Twenty-odd years ago, I ran/dragged myself through my first marathon in Katsuta, Japan about an hour and 10 minutes northeast of that Johnny-come-lately WMM in Tokyo. Back then I was not a marathon tourist. I was not even a runner. I was teaching English in Japan and thought I’d give this marathon thing a whirl. As a token foreigner, I was presented with a 10-kilogram box of dried sweet potatoes and a polyester track suit which I have to this day. Not the potatoes. We ate our way through as many as we could, but finally returned them to the ground from whence they had come.

My husband, also a non-runner at the time, finished Katsuta the following year. He also won the 10-kg sweet potato gaijin prize. Like eels, dried sweet potatoes are supposed to increase stamina. I have learned a heck of a lot about running and nutrition in the interim, but dried sweet potatoes have never appeared in the literature. Personally, I think the stamina blurb was invented by farmers who wanted to clear out their crop.

Ten years ago, when my husband turned 40 and we counted 10 years since our Japan wedding, we decided to celebrate by running 26 miles through Dublin with 6,500 other people. As I headed up the hill into Phoenix Park at mile 20, seven people stood side by side each holding a letter of the alphabet. B-E-L-I-E-V-E. When my depleted mental sensors figured out what it spelled, I thought, I believe I’ll just lay down here and take a long rest. But on I plugged.

It wasn’t until several hours later, over a drink and some greasy fries in the hotel bar, that I realized the people in the park were holding up a message from a marathon sponsor. “Believe,” written on the coaster below my husband’s pint glass, was a message from Guinness, which contributed greatly to the marathon and my husband’s recovery.

Even the second time around we were not too diligent about training, fluid and nutrition intake. As a result we suffered. In fact, I’m pretty sure that for nine straight years we both said never again. But it’s funny how memory fades.

This year my husband turned 50. To honour that landmark and our 20th wedding anniversary, he signed us up for the Rimrock Marathon in western Colorado. The marathon takes place at the Colorado National Monument, which looks a little like the Grand Canyon, except you go up then down, instead of down then up. I mentioned in a previous column what vacationing at altitude does to your brain, but I haven’t told you what it does to the rest of your body.

If you have ever wondered what it is like to be old and creaky, I suggest you travel somewhere that is at least a mile above sea level. Then go for a run or walk that takes you higher. My 50-year-old husband felt like he was 70. My hip felt like it did pre-cortisone shot. My trigger finger got stuck every time I tried to unwrap it from around a door or cup handle. Both of us had trouble keeping our extremities and the surface of our skin warm. It was as if no blood was getting to them.

Our friend’s father, a doctor, warned us that day three at altitude is the worst. Your body is so worn out trying to create red blood cells that you become depleted and crash. Day 3 I ran for an hour in the morning, had breakfast and then hiked in the Flat Iron hills behind Boulder. I barely made it home to our friends’ house, and when I did coax my aching joints back, I collapsed into a coma for 3 1/2 hours. The only reason I woke up was because my husband was locked out and was beating down the door.

Day 3 caused us to question our sanity in signing up for a marathon at an even higher altitude in just a few days. Tactical planning was in order. Serious athletes train at altitude and compete at sea level so they can whip their competition. We were doing the exact opposite — training at sea level to compete at 6,600 feet. We knew we would not whip our competition, but that’s not what this thing was about. It was more about celebrating health and happiness and the ability to get outside and move our limbs.

Still, we decided it couldn’t hurt to spend two nights at 8,200 feet, in beautiful off-season Vail, a ski resort in central Colorado. Once the headaches subsided and the bones stopped aching, we hiked even higher to 10,000 feet, not really that high, but to sea-level lubbers like us, it was more than enough.

My husband, not having learned anything from my Day 3 bonk, attempted a five-kilometre post-hike run and it almost killed him. He crawled back to the hotel, head in hands, wondering how he would ever get over the mountain in two-days’ time.

Finally the eve of the marathon menaced. Talk of the winter’s first storm was on everyone’s tongue. Storms have a habit of hitting on or before marathon days. The thousands of runners who flew to New York earlier this month just in time to hear the marathon had been cancelled know only too well. Regardless we packed up and headed west.

The storm hit at suppertime when we were trying to find pasta in the town of Fruita, home of the marathon’s official hotel. The sky blackened and the wind whipped as we drove the 10 miles back to Grand Junction where they had restaurants that served spaghetti.

We had been in Grand Junction earlier in the day. It is the location of the start of the race, and once there we paid $10 to drive the marathon route, terrifying ourselves as our rent-a-car barely made it up the 16 or so switchbacks to get to the top of the mountain. We made it back in one piece to the hotel, where we met a fellow runner from Aspen who was hawking magnificently packaged sea water as a fountain of eternal youth. A few months of consuming it was guaranteed to knock 20 minutes off our marathon time, he professed. He gave us each a sample and told us once we experienced its benefits, we should get in touch to order more.

I tried mine. It tasted like salted bog water. My husband used his to brush his teeth when he couldn’t find the toothpaste.

We both fell asleep very well with no real pre-race jitters. We were both awakened during the night, however, by the wind, which threatened to rip the hotel from its foundation. As a result, the morning of the marathon we awoke feeling as if we had been dragged behind a beer truck for 20 miles down the highway.

I opened my contact lens case to find them dried to the top. Luckily I had brought others. My husband was not so lucky.

Thankfully, the storm had passed and our hotel remained where it had sat the night before. We took the bus to the start, praying the temperature would rise a bit and the wind would not blow us off the rim into the abyss. It was so cold at the start that I wore mittens, a balaclava over my ear warmers and three layers under my winter running jacket. My husband was shaking from the cold, though he claims it was merely fear.

We didn’t have long to wait before we were off like rabbits up the mountain. I plugged up the switchbacks with little baby steps, relieved that I could actually breathe. I saw my husband fiddling with his no-snore nose strip as he disappeared around a corner. By the second water station I had shed my jacket and mittens. That does not mean it was warm. Au contraire. Sometimes I’d turn a corner into the shade and the wind would drive me backwards. I would hunker down like I have for the Not-So Hilly Half Marathon in Donovan’s and run like a bull.

By nine miles we had reached the summit of the mountain, a 2,040-foot elevation gain to about 6,700 feet. I was so thrilled I kissed the high elevation sign. Thick burgundy blood poured out of my nose. It wasn’t quite smooth sailing yet. We still had to run up and down about 10 miles across the rim before we got to go downhill.

The snow, which had been a few flakes up to this point, picked up and obliterated the radio towers I was focused on.

But then all that St. John’s sea-level training kicked in. I run in town and I love the downhills. My body must be drawn to sea level like a fish to Friday’s supper table, because it pounded down the mountain past runners who had passed me at elevation. I finished feeling I still had some gas in the tank.

I crouched down in the shelter of a shed and drank the hot soup that was proffered. Hours later, after a rub-down at our hotel, I pondered 10 years from now when my husband turns 60. Maybe we’ll join Paul and Rosemary Lahey and run Tokyo.

Susan Flanagan tips her hat to Doot James who started marathons in 2003 and has since completed nine including Boston, N.Y. and Chicago. She turned 72 this year and is registered for Berlin next year and hopefully London afterwards. Send any comments to susan@48degrees.ca.

Mount Cashel feedback

Karen writes: “Thanks for this story! I have fond memories of the Mount Cashel raffle! I remember Dad taking myself and my brothers to the raffle on winter evenings, what a time we’d have! I’m hoping I’ll get a chance to run in with my kids this year, while we’re waiting for the parade to start. I’d like for them to have that experience too, and of course, the Autism Society is certainly a worthy cause.”

Organizations: Tokyo Marathon, Guinness, Autism Society

Geographic location: New York, Boston, Chicago London Berlin Japan Katsuta Asia Tokyo Colorado Dublin Phoenix Park Grand Canyon Grand Junction Flat Iron Fruita Aspen

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