The best thing about this marathon weekend is that I was accompanied by two first time marathoners. Even better, we had completely under trained. The first, whom I affectionately call the “Swamp Rocket” because of his Mississippi heritage, not because he’s fast, is an all around good guy. He is a “give you the shirt off his back” type of fellow. The second, the “Mudmeister”, because he will follow you anywhere on a trail, has similar great human traits. What they don’t have is the good sense to stay away from a senseless masochist ultramarathon runner like me. I didn’t immediately share the truth with them prior to the run, but really used the run as an experiment. How far can the body push when being willed by the mind? Doesn’t the, “I will finish no matter what!” generally result in a finish? This strategy may seem absurd, or even cruel, but I believe these two may be potential Slugs. And all ultramarathoners know that the 50-mile run, or longer, is both absurd and cruel. Maybe that’s what attracts us to it.
The starting line was jammed. When you’re counting starters by thousands the exact number no longer matters. We were bundled and gaggled at the steps of the mighty Art Museum. The same one made famous by none other than Rocky. You remember the raw egg and “Adriannnnnnn!” guy. As the mayor, or his representative, fired the starting weapon there was hardly a flinch back where we were. Most folks were still adjusting shorts or retying shoe laces. Then surely and steadily folks began to lurch forward, a push here, a shove there, we all know the drill. At two or three minutes of clock-time we came across the start line….and we were off.
It is hard to lay back early in the race, especially for the uninitiated. The first couple of miles doing tens seemed about right. In my head I believed sub-five was very realistic, even if they wanted to play a bit and take off. At two miles I jumped into the bushes for a main drain, and my slug trainees took off. I saw them briefly at five, but didn’t run them down until about nine or ten miles. By now the heat was coming, even in late November, and dehydration would become a factor. Upon catching them I again felt all was well. They still had that air of excitement though the reality of the distance had set in. Back by the Civil War arch, then the zoo, and along the Schuylkill we rolled headed back for the half by the Art Museum. During this time we were all just children at play, surrounded by dreamers and lovers of life.
That’s when reality took out the hammer and shared with them what they had gotten themselves into. The finish line is at the half as the course does a sweet little figure eight. Then and there before us and the entire world to see were the leaders coming in. I glanced at my watch….2:32 for the half. Not good. Still, in my head I can play games with my mind, often outwitting my hapless and helpless physical being. The inner voices start. A perfect half, nice and easy. We were right where we need to be. We’re going to run a negative split. And this time the voices spilled out. I heard myself lying to these fine young men. Inside I knew the truth. We were about to get squished. And it wouldn’t be pretty.
The Swamp Rocket was the first to lose it. He caught his second wind, and listened to it. At 16 miles he was off. Big, mega mistake. You know it, and I know it, but something inside me wouldn’t stop him. Sometimes I really do get sick out there…especially after three hours in the sun. I was close enough to the Mudmeister to reel him in, and share that we would stay back and catch up slowly. For an instant I really felt sorry for the guys. Then I smiled, “I know old, fat ladies are speed walking by us, but don’t worry. I am a professional.” We will catch our old bud the rocketman.
If you’ve never run Philly before you should. I know it’s the day after JFK every year, but the swollen, beat up body is worth the run through Manyunk. The course turns for home at 20 miles in this college, party part of Old Philly. I’m sure Ben Franklin would by perfectly at home at one of the little sidewalk cafes with a cold Black and Tan dancing the day away. Anyway, as we neared the turn we caught a glimpse of the Swamp Rocket. Having lived in Florida for 5 years I’d have to say I’ve seen healthier, happy looking beasts crawl out of the swamp. The rocketman had launched. He was done.
Fifteen minutes later we cruised in behind him. We were now doing the 22 mile shuffle. Now, not only old ladies, but jump-roping joggers, and psychos with ventriloquist-talking monkeys were flying by us. Surely we’d seen it all. Now I genuinely did feel sorry for the guys…but it was still funny. The Mudmeister seemed to plod through the stress-induced psychological imbalance just a bit dazed and confused, but in the Swamp Rockets own words it was, “off the chain.” Sounds like new Team Slug lingo.
Our wives were waiting for us at the finish line. It was a great privilege for me to place the marathon finisher medals around their necks. Both young men are in outstanding physical condition. In fact, out of the two-plus dozen folks I’ve trained for their first marathons, these two were the fittest. In the 12 weeks leading up to Philadelphia they averaged 15-20 miles per week. Our long effort was one run of 16 miles. And our times showed it. We stayed together, struggled, and barely got in before dark. But, we got in. And, in my heart I understand that is the bottom line for runners like us. Someday they will understand that too and someday they will forgive me. Indeed, there is glory in the finish.