by Dante Zappala
I’m running through the woods, and it appears I am winning the marathon. I’m surprised by this, but I go with it. The pace is solid, I feel great. Everything is going as expected. But suddenly, I get lost. The course opens into an empty field and it’s not clear which way I should go. I slow down. People start passing me, but I can’t follow them. It’s getting dark, and they are just disappearing in front of me.
My watch tells me that I could still squeak out a Boston Qualifier if this resolves itself soon, but hope is fading fast. I make a split second decision to stop to fuel up on steak and potatoes. This will help me finish the race, I tell myself. My father appears and says nothing – he just looks at me with dissatisfaction, likely because I am eating meat.
That’s the point in my nightmare where I woke up. I should actually find some confidence in the fact that my first anxiety dream about my pending marathon came less than two weeks out from the race. I might actually be prepared this time around.
It’s been three years since I ran the marathon. In 2011, I made two pitiful attempts to secure a qualifying time for Boston. The first was at the Steamtown Marathon in Scranton. I’d heard it was a fast course. We made a weekend out of it with some friends and did some fishing in the Poconos.
But what makes this course fast is that you run the first half of it downhill. This sounds like an advantage until you actually run the first half downhill. After 13 miles, my legs felt like someone had been pounding on them with a tenderizer. By 16, I was done.
You think I would have absorbed a profound message in those last 10 miles that somehow made them worthwhile in the long run. I could have learned about humility and my own limitations, or God and Old Testament punishment. But my big takeaway was to carry enough money with me during my next marathon so I could pay someone to shoot me should this happen again.
The only reason I kept walking, jogging, limping and whimpering on was because my kids were waiting at the finish line, and my stupid pride didn’t want to show up in the meat wagon. I crossed the line, but, needless to say, I completely blew it on getting the time I was after.
Six weeks later, I ran the Philadelphia Marathon, whose course must have been designed by a person with unresolved issues of neglect. For those of you not familiar with it, the first half is lovely enough. You tour Center City, South Philly and West Philly.
But you start the second half by coming tantalizingly close to the finish line. And you can even choose to hang it up right there, call it a day, and go home with a half-marathon finisher’s medal. Should you survive that temptation, your reward is an uninspiring route that goes to Manayunk and back on Kelly Drive. Except for two miles, you’re mostly cut off from spectators, particularly at the key points where despair sets in.
At mile 18, I was hanging on a few minutes in front of the pace balloons that represented my qualifying standard for Boston. I took a gel and I could not taste the sugar. I thought maybe someone played a trick on me and gave me Elmer’s Glue instead.
To this day, I can’t give a scientific explanation for not tasting the sugar, but I knew then rather immediately that it was a sign of impending disaster. Sure enough, by mile 20, as things were falling apart, the pace balloons passed me. My Boston qualifier was now bobbing away in front of me. The tide carried it to the horizon and then it was gone.
Fortunately for me, my neighbor was down on Kelly Drive with his bike to witness my demise. He started tossing me everything he had on him – pretzels, gummy bears, fruit roll-ups. I only wished he had a hatchet so I could have chopped off my right leg which was seizing and convulsing, rendering it completely useless.
In the intervening three years, I’ve discovered that the formula for a successful marathon is pretty simple. It lies right there in what I did wrong during those two. First, you have to build the musculoskeletal strength to last. It takes putting in the time and the miles to withstand the punishment. Your aerobic abilities will quickly increase to the point that you think you can hold a certain pace for 26 miles, but your ligaments and tendons won’t be strong enough to sustain it. There is no substitute for logging the honest training miles to truly prepare.
The second bit is making sure you have enough fuel for the race. Gradually increasing your macronutrient ratio to heavily favor carbs in the days before will help load up your glycogen stores. But even fully stocked, you are very likely to run into a deficit during the race. Your muscles can burn fat as fuel, sure, but your brain runs only on carbs. It carries all of the privilege and entitlement of the first born. When the low fuel light comes on, your brain will start shutting everything else down to spare what it can for itself.
As of this printing, I’m four days away from the race. I’ve run some fabulous miles this summer. And I’ve practiced my in-race feeding schedule with great success. I’m as ready as I can be. All I have to do is execute. This will be easy, I’m telling myself.
Or am I dreaming?