Marathon Dreams

The start of the 2003 Chicago Marathon. (Phil Shoulberg photo)


There are three iconic big-city  marathons in the United States: New York, Chicago and, of course, Boston.

Chicago is annually one of the biggest marathons in the world, with something like 40,000-45,000 runners a year on its flat, fast course. World records have been set there in recent years.

The New York City Marathon, with probably close to that number of entrants, begins with a breathtaking mass start on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and winds through all five boroughs of the city before finishing in Central Park. It attracts an international field, and draws crowds along the route as diverse as the city itself.

And Boston, of course, is the granddaddy of them all; every marathoner wants to be a part of it. The race starts west of the city in Hopkinton and runs into downtown, a route that’s legendary to runners and non-runners alike — who hasn’t heard of Heartbreak Hill? — and brings with it a hundred years of running history.

All three races are enormously popular, and increasingly hard to get into. Chicago fills up months in advance, and in fact had reached its capacity in early spring of this year–for an October race. And both New York and Boston long ago instituted qualifying times to keep their events somewhat manageable. That means you have to run another marathon, under the qualifying time, just to enter Boston or New York. The qualifying times go up with the age groups, but they’re still stiff enough to keep the majority of runners out.

Feelin' good in the first 10 miles. (Phil Shoulberg photo)

I have attempted the marathon distance one time, at the Chicago Marathon in October 2003. I think of it as both the best and the worst experience of my running career. The “best” was the euphoria of running back into the Loop after finishing the northern portion of the course, between huge crowds of spectators on both sides, and still feeling strong despite having run about 12 miles. The “worst” began right at the 20-mile point, when the wheels really began to fall off, and the last 6.2 miles became an ordeal of mixed running, walking, limping and wondering where the #%*/$#@! that finish line was so I could lay down and die.

The death march to the finish. (Phil Shoulberg photo)

One might think I’d take the hint and not try another marathon, but in fact I entered the Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon a year or so later … but never ran it, because I was starting to have some serious knee issues that had really started to manifest themselves during the training for Chicago, and especially afterward. Although I had some encouraging shorter races over the next year or so, those knee problems eventually led me to give up running altogether for a couple of years.

Until the spring of 2009, when I was approaching my 50th birthday and decided I really needed to do something to get myself back into shape. I finally saw an orthopedic doctor, who led me to a physical therapist, who worked my legs through the summer. By Memorial Day I was taking some short, flat, tentative runs, and by Labor Day, I was feeling—and running—much better. I increased my mileage through the fall, but then tried to do too much, too soon, in a couple of races in November and December, setting my program back quite a bit. But since 2010 began, I was pretty successful in building things back up again, and thoughts of running another marathon began to push forward again.

Having already checked off Chicago, both New York and Boston are the long-term goals, of course. Besides the thrill of taking part in the biggest races on the planet, both events would provide opportunities for brief vacations wrapped around the races.

And I think the qualifying times are theoretically within reach for me, if I train right and run a smart qualifying race. But what race to run? A return trip to Chicago might be a good idea – the course is pancake-flat, which would help produce a faster time. But I’ve been there, done that with Chicago; it would be nice to spread out a little bit and try a different marathon.

This spring I was considering this question, and had pretty much narrowed down my 2010 marathon options to two: the Quad Cities Marathon in September or the Lewis & Clark Marathon in October. Quad Cities, based in Rock Island, Ill., would give me the the “vacation” feel, making a weekend out of the big race. Lewis & Clark, on the other hand, is (mostly) in St. Charles, Mo.; I could sleep in my own bed the night before and the night after. The routes of both marathons take them over bridges over major rivers: that’s not a requirement for me, but it is a nice bonus.

But the more I thought about it, the more I remembered those weekends of the long, long runs leading up to the Chicago Marathon. Most training plans have you build up to at least one, and often two or three, 20-mile runs in the weeks before.

Let me tell you: do an 18 or 20-miler on a weekend, and that becomes the only thing you do that weekend.

To train for a marathon is to commit almost your whole life to the event. You generally need to lay out a training plan about four months out, and then follow that religiously. You always know how many weeks — if not days –it is until race day. And I frankly am not ready to make that kind of commitment, not these days, not this year.

I ultimately convinced myself that if I don’t run a marathon in 2010, it won’t be the end of the world. (And man, would I feel guilty if the world DID end and it was my fault!) I set my sights lower: exactly 50 percent lower, in fact. There are two great half-marathons coming up in the St. Louis area this fall: one that’s in conjunction with the aforementioned Lewis & Clark Marathon, on October 3, and the St. Louis Track Club‘s annual half-marathon on November 7. I’ve run at least a half-dozen half-marathons over the years, and trust me, they’re a lot easier to train for than marathons. A half-marathon doesn’t take over your life for months the way a full marathon does.

And here’s the thing: the New York Marathon actually has what I consider a back-door way to qualify. Along with the marathon qualifying times, they have a set of qualifying times for half-marathons. For example, I would need to run a 3:30 marathon to get in … but I could also get in with a 1:40 half-marathon. I’ve run faster than that several times, in my younger days. I’m not sure I can do it now that I’m a geezer, but I guess we’ll find out on October 3 or November 7.

Even if I do manage to break 1:40 in either of those races, it’s not automatic that I’ll send in an entry for the 2011 NYC Marathon; I’m not sure I’ll be any more ready to commit to a 2011 marathon than I was this year. And it’s also possible the NYC Road Runners’ Club will change its procedures — or lower the qualifying times — before registration opens for that race. But it definitely gives me something to think about as I lace up the shoes this fall.

ETA: Update here.

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