Running Stories

It’s A Marathon Not A Sprint

I was asked to join the board of Big Brothers Big Sisters in May of 2005. I agreed because I knew from my experience of growing up in a single parent home that adult mentors can really make the difference in the life of a child. I thought there would be ways I could assist the board WITHOUT actually having to fundraise. I grew up in a single parent household. The LAST thing I ever wanted to do was ask people for money. I could bring in Cherryland Electric Cooperative as a corporate sponsor, raise a few hundred through small “Bowl-For-Kids Sake” donors and write a few checks of my own. That’s exactly what I did for more than 4 years.

Then, in late June of 2009, after a school year of mentoring a little boy at Blair Elementary near my office in Grawn, Michigan, I found myself sitting on an airplane in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I was in the back, waiting for others to get on so we could take off for Seattle where I planned to run my 11th marathon. Suddenly, a group of 50 some runners from Minneapolis seemingly exploded onto the plane. They too were headed for Seattle but they had joined together for a cause that was part of something bigger than simply running a marathon. They were raising money for cancer research through the national Team-In-Training program.

Feeding off this positive energy, the idea of Marathon4Kids entered my mind for the very first time. I could combine my personal lifetime goal of running a marathon in each of the 50 states with the stories I was writing after each run. Would people be interested in following an average runner through a 10+ year quest? Instead of asking them for just a donation, I could give them something in return.

How? The logical answer was a website. I could post all my running stories and donors would get a password to access the site. A few years prior to this new idea, I had written a story about 2 fathers who lost their lives in an accident near where I grew up without a father. This story would be the centerpiece. It would create a link between the need for mentors and why I was running marathons. I liked the idea but would anyone else?

I let the idea fester. For 3 months, I shaped, massaged and contemplated the website. Finally, in October, I decided to toss the idea out to the executive committee of Big Brothers Big Sisters of NW Michigan. I handed out 2 stories to President Kevin Washburn, Treasurer Jim Masters and Secretary Bonnie Alfonso and explained my idea. They all nodded in encouragement and agreed to go home and read the stories.

Having “out-ed” myself, I went ahead with preparations. Laura Oblinger at the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce put me in touch with new chamber employee, Nate Jorgensen, who was developing websites on his own time after work. I verbally explained my idea for a logo to Bonnie Alfonso and in no time Alfie brought that idea to life. After a couple failed attempts at getting a local firm to put together the difficult password/payment piece of the site, Byte Communications was hired. By the first week of December 2009, www.marathon4kids.com was live on the World Wide Web.

The next step was to attract attention to the website. The first thing I did was to simply send an email to everyone in my address book. I had never “tweeted” nor did I really know what Facebook was at the time. With Nate’s help, I soon had a Twitter account and Facebook page. Nate successfully linked the twitter account to the Marathon4Kids website. The entire Big Brothers Board was invited to help promote the new fundraiser. After a Christmas Eve e-newsletter story by the TC Business News, the word was officially out. Donors began to trickle in.

The main question soon became, “Where is the next marathon?” This was answered in mid-December when traveling partner and good friend Kevin Krause suggested the Ocean Drive Marathon in New Jersey. We could run the Jersey coast from Cape May to Sea Isle City. All I could think of was Saturday Night Live skits using New Jersey as the punch line in degrading one-liners. However, it WAS one of the 50 states AND within 900 miles which meant we could drive there in reasonable time. I signed up and returned my attention to what I now called the M4K project.

Donors did not immediately pour in but continued to slowly find the website. Steve Rawlings with DTE Energy surprised me one December day with a check for $2500 and some very kind words of encouragement. Cherry Bay Orchards called with a $1,000 offer plus some cherry juice concentrate to help in my training. Some 30 or 40 individuals found the website in the first month. While very happy with the start and humbled by some who were touched by the core message of the site like Steve, I verbally expressed some concern at a Bigs meeting that it was not moving along as fast as I had hoped. During this time of self pity, fellow board members, Allison Beers and Bonnie Alfonso, who had much more fundraising experience than I, were quick to coin the phrase, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” Patience (not a strong suit of mine at times) would be needed to keep this idea growing.

One of my “great ideas” with M4K was the fact that I could raise money and never have to actually talk to people. I love to write and M4K was all about the writing or so I thought. Seeing a TC Track Club e-newsletter, I quickly contacted Track Club board member Karen Wells about getting a mention for my project in the next newsletter. She did me one better. She invited me to speak at the annual January kickoff to the Traverse City running season. I could have 5 minutes to explain M4K to 80-100 area runners before the main presentation. The speaker to follow me would be none other than David McGillivray, Race Director for the Boston Marathon. To say I was a bit intimidated is an understatement. This was NOT part of the master plan of my “great idea”.

With a long sigh of resignation, I knew I couldn’t turn down the opportunity. There was no way to tell where such exposure could lead. If I believed in my story, Bigs and M4K, it was time to step out of my comfort zone. I had taken some public speaking classes from local speech coach Onlee Bowden so I wasn’t totally unprepared. Fellow Bigs Board member, Karyn Hertel, and I greeted the crowd with M4K information as people filed in NOT to hear me (I definitely wasn’t part of the promotion for the event!). Following Onlee’s simple plan and supported by running partners Jim Carpenter and Dean Bott in the audience, I stepped to the microphone at the Hagerty Center in Traverse City on January 15, 2010 shortly after 7 p.m.

McGillivray was in the front row and the room was filled with just over 100 people. I covered the two hobbies (writing and running), the website and the mission of Big Brothers Big Sisters. I choked up a little when verbalizing my story and the loss of my father. Practicing, this part was never hard but looking out across a sea of strangers I somehow became a child once again that just missed his dad. Throughout the speech, I lightheartedly kidded McGillivray about my lack of athletic talent that prevented me from qualifying for Boston, marathon after marathon. Finally, he shouted, “You’re in!!” The crowd roared. I assumed he was joking. The speech finished with a very humbling standing ovation. The best part was that my daughter Collette was there running the video camera and generally helping out for community service hours at school. As a father and daughter finding their way through the daughter’s teenage years, her smile of approval meant more than anything to me that night. The night ended with McGillivray calling me up and officially giving me a spot in the Boston Marathon to another roar of the crowd. I was simply stunned. I had opened my story to the world and felt like I was receiving much more than I was giving.
A couple months later on March 20th, I was invited to speak about Marathon4Kids at a Wolverine Power Cooperative spring employee event. Wolverine, Cherryland Electric Cooperative and Touchstone Energy were all current sponsors from the cooperative family as they helped with the start up costs. I didn’t really expect anything more. Wolverine CEO Eric Baker and his assistant Dawn Coon had other ideas. They held internal “jean day” fundraisers leading up to the March event. The night of the event attended by more than 100 employees and spouses, a raffle and silent auction was held. I told my story to that group about growing up without a father, the Big Brothers program and how a child’s future can really change when others care, listen and believe. Once again, I was humbled with a standing ovation, hugs, handshakes and many kind words. When it was all accounted for, the employees at Wolverine donated a total of $9,700 to the cause.

The 6th corporate donor came on around this time as well. Safety Net, a local provider of information technology services in Traverse City and owned by Kevin and Beth Bozung, generously offered to write a check for $262 for each marathon ran going forward. With a great group of corporate donors and almost 70 individuals, the fundraising total was near the $16,000 mark. Now, I had an opposite worry as I felt like money was coming in at a “sprint” and I didn’t know how long this pace would last!

Amongst all this fundraising startup activity, I still had to find time to get on a marathon training schedule. I cranked this up in January some 12 weeks out from the Ocean Drive Marathon in New Jersey. All I had to do was adjust the dates from the schedule of the Georgia marathon where I set a personal record and hope for good weather over the heart of a Michigan winter. January went well. I alternated days on the treadmill with days outside to compensate for the colder temperatures. I actually managed to run or lift weights each of the 31 days.

The February schedule called for picking up the pace once or twice a week. On February 3rd, I met Jim Carpenter, Dean Bott and Kevin Krause at the civic center track in Traverse City. It is a mile long oval with good protection from winter winds and no cars to worry about. We did the 2 mile warm up like every other training run, laughing and talking about the day’s events. When it came time for the first mile sprint, I made it about a half mile on the slippery snow covered track and something pulled in my left hamstring. I stopped and tried to “walk it off”. When I tried to run again, it felt like I had a knife sticking into the muscle. I walked to the car and went home hoping it would be a short lived problem.

My hopes were not fulfilled. When I couldn’t jog from the bedroom to the kitchen the next day, I knew it was not going to be an easy fix. I used a stationary bike for a couple of workouts. I could also get in a good workout on the elliptical machine in the exercise room at the office. February 9th, I managed a very, very slow 2.5 miles on the treadmill. Staying on the treadmill, the next 2 days were 8 miles then 9 miles. The hamstring was nowhere near 100% but I was at least running again.

Having missed the previous Sunday’s long run, I was desperate to get in a long run on Sunday, February 13th. I was in Atlanta, Georgia for the National Rural Electric Cooperative annual meeting. It was cold and miserable outside and I didn’t want to start and stop every block. I grabbed my ear phones and headed to the hotel fitness center where each treadmill had a TV. It was the longest 3 hours, 2 minutes and 30 seconds of my running career. The room was full of mid-afternoon runners when I started but it was empty when I stepped off after 18 miles. It was ugly and tedious but at least I could watch the winter Olympics. I estimated the hamstring to be around 90%. Back on track, I altered the plan a bit and did NOT attempt any more speed work on snow covered terrain.

On March 3rd, after a good 10 mile run, I noticed a small ache in the front of my left shin. When I got out of the shower, my left lower leg was stiff and swollen. My diagnosis was that I had been putting too much pressure on my left leg while compensating for the bad right hamstring. Internet research indicated either shin splints or a stress fracture. I took it easy the next couple days because there was a 22 mile run on the calendar for Sunday. I had missed too many workouts in February. I just “had” to get this long run in.

Sunday came like it always does. Still slightly swollen and stiff, I met Kevin in Kingsley. I have always been one who didn’t really care to run hills but on this run the shin pain was actually reduced going uphill. The run was longer and slower than any previous such run. At the 20 mile mark, I decided to walk the remaining 2 miles into town. The time was at 3 hours and 34 minutes and the last 6 miles were all over 11 minutes. I am not a fast runner but this was a pathetic and distressing time for being only 22 days from the marathon start. When I got home and took my socks off, I was shocked at what I saw. My ankle and lower left leg were swollen to almost twice the normal size. I cussed myself over and over on the inside. I got the last long run in but at what cost?

Three days later (no running at all), I was meeting with massage therapist Dan Zemper who had been recommended by friend and fellow runner, David Ford. I had had a few massages before with mixed results. Yes, they felt good but I wasn’t really sold on the idea that they could fix anything very quickly. Dan Zemper is the track and cross country coach for TC West High School. He did a great job getting deep into the muscle tissue of that nasty looking left shin. The next day it looked almost normal!

I managed 1 treadmill run, 2 elliptical workouts and a water running session the following week. I followed up the initial massage with 2 other sessions with Zemper. He focused on both the right shin and the nagging left hamstring. Both got better and better. I am now a believer in the quick recovery benefits of massage therapy and Coach “Z” (that’s what his track kids and parents call him!).

At the end of the training cycle, I was happy to be running again in a relatively healthy fashion. I didn’t get in the road miles that I felt were necessary to have strong legs over the course of a full marathon but I did feel like I had maintained my cardio with many hard sessions on the elliptical. My patience had been tested in a completely different way than the fundraising. My heart wanted to run and my body was saying, “Not quite yet”. Countless times during this frustrating period, I had to take a deep breath and quietly think, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” I also got a mental boost when I totaled my training miles. I managed 158 in January, 150 in February and 104 in March. Blended into this were 18 miles on the stationery bike and 60 miles on the elliptical. Patience plus variety would have to carry the day in New Jersey.

On March 26th, the alarm sounded at 4 a.m. With the rental car packed with Nilla Wafers and Animal Crackers (my snacks of choice), I picked up Dean Bott who lives just a mile from me and then Kevin Krause in Kingsley. The same trio that had conquered a Colorado Pikes Peak trip in 2008 was on the road once again. We alternated the driving in 2 hour shifts with the goal of making it one long day. While it was 880 miles, it was a simple route, south in Michigan, left in Ohio and then an angled easterly route across Pennsylvania on the turnpike. Ohio was flat and plain like other Midwest agricultural states. The rolling hills and small mountains of Pennsylvania were a great change of scenery and left me wanting to see more of that state in the future. The only trouble of the day was hitting Philadelphia at the 5 p.m. rush hour. With the sun setting, we arrived in New Jersey.

We had a little bit of fun finding our hotel in Sea Isle City, New Jersey. There was a bridge out due to flooding plus our GPS took us to a spot where there was NOT an EconoLodge. While we were men, we were so tired of driving that it was a quick decision to simply call the hotel and ask for directions. Kevin handled the call and quickly got the proprietor on the line. He turned out to be a foreigner with a strong Indian accent. Kevin, having much difficulty in understanding him, eventually asked what other businesses were close as the town was small and we felt like we were in the neighborhood. The response on the other end of the line was, “Left just past WaWa.” Well, none of us could fathom what WaWa could mean in India. We headed off in what we thought was the general direction. Sure enough, there was WaWa. It turned out to be a chain of New Jersey gas stations! A quick check-in, some local mom and pop pizza, a little NCAA basketball and it was lights out before 10 p.m.

The next day, everyone was up before 7 a.m. ready to check out the area a bit. After breakfast, we drove down to Cape May State Park and Lighthouse on the southern tip of the state. The temperature was 33 degrees with the wind howling off the Atlantic Ocean. We then went into the town of Cape May for a brief walking tour of the shopping district which was very much like the front street district in Traverse City. A shop owner told us that in a month, dolphins and whales could be spotted off the shore of the state park we had just visited. If someone had asked me before the trip, I would have said New Jersey would be the last state where you could see any whales let alone dolphins.

We then decided to drive the marathon route. The low lying coastal communities were full of condos and hotels. We were well ahead of tourist season so there wasn’t much activity. Regardless, I clearly found myself liking the area. If I ever wanted to relax, sit on the beach and write or read a book, this would a good place to do it. There were running and biking paths along the shore so one could easily escape any tourist season traffic to quietly enjoy the ocean view.

Next, we decided to check out Atlantic City which was only 20 miles to the north of our hotel. We were greeted by a few wind turbines and the skyline of the city. There were the customary casinos like Trump Plaza and Caesar’s Palace. The biggest surprise was how small it really was. It was like a mini Las Vegas. The areas surrounding the casinos were not impressive at all. As much as southern New Jersey was a comforting surprise, Atlantic City was as you would expect 3 non-gamblers staying in a $45 per night EconoLodge would find it. Almost in unison, we decided there was nothing to get out of the car for, looped around town, and headed back to the hotel.

We stopped at Wendy’s for a late lunch so I could have my traditional pre-race baked potato. After more NCAA basketball and a short nap, we got all our gear together in preparation for the race. This was followed by even more lying around the hotel and calls to home. Dinner was pasta at Applebee’s. As we were planning to drive home after the marathon, it was lights out shortly after 9 p.m.

All through the trip, I had been posting periodic updates to the Facebook and Twitter pages for Marathon4Kids. It was all trivial stuff like location, temperature and what we were looking at. When I left home, there were 77 Facebook fans. Each time I checked the page the fan count would be higher. I checked out some of the names signing on and got a suspicion of what had happened. (Later back at home, my suspicion was proven true as Bigs Board member Bonnie Alfonso admitted to putting “the word out on her Facebook page.) By the time the lights went out on the eve of the race, the count was well past 100. It was kind of cool to know that others were watching. This was a big piece of the whole Marathon4Kids project. Get people watching and then get them interested in the work of Big Brothers Big Sisters. Awareness was growing at marathon pace. I would be in good company on race day!

The wind had died down a bit on race morning which meant it was down to 10+ mph from the previous day’s 30+. The temperature was a cool 40 degrees when we boarded the shuttle bus from the finish line to the start just past 7 a.m. I was committed to running in shorts while Dean and Kevin chose pants thinking they could shed them later if necessary. I chose to go heavy on top with a stocking hat, tank top, long sleeve technical shirt, my new M4K powder blue race shirt and yet another long sleeve shirt over that! Obviously, it is always easier to take something off rather than put it on and I wanted plenty of options.

Part of the whole marathon experience is meeting new people at each race. Because of the bridge closings necessary for the race, the shuttle bus had us at the starting line more than an hour before the start. This provided ample time to visit with other runners. There was a guy from Kalamazoo who had flown into Atlantic City. He only smiled when we offered him a ride home. Another gentleman was from Minneapolis. He, too, was a “50 Stater”. This was marathon 25 for him. We excitedly exchanged our opinions of various states and races past and future. As it turns out, his brother in-law is a Musselman from Interlochen which is only 10 miles from my house. Yet, another was Vern a detective from Philadelphia just an hour down the road. He told us about his $15,000 per year property taxes on a 4,000 square foot home. He was paying more in property taxes each month than he was to his mortgage company. Suddenly, I had a better appreciation for Grand Traverse County and Mayfield Township. Finally, there was a quick starting line chat with a woman from Virginia who was wearing a Bayshore Marathon coat.

I tossed the outer shirt I had purchased at Goodwill for pre-start warmth into a nearby trashcan and nudged toward the starting line with Kevin and Dean. I always look forward to the national anthem. A trumpeter gave it a good effort but it was shaky to say the least. With everyone waiting for the traditional “ready, set, go”, there was only a loud “GO” to start us off. Strange but effective.

Dean was off quickly as he hoped to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I didn’t see him the rest of the day (as usual). Kevin and I settled into our goal pace of something near 9 minutes per mile. My hope/goal/dream has always been to run a marathon in under 4 hours. This requires doing each mile as close to 9 minutes as possible for 26.2 miles. My hamstring and shin were reminding me that as fresh as I felt, they were not yet 100%. I also worried about the number of training sessions I had missed or substituted the elliptical machine for. After 3 miles, I was on pace. I let Kevin drift ahead while I chatted more with the detective from Philly and we crossed the first bridge.

Except for an occasional bridge, the course was pancake flat. The two biggest issues of the day would be the wind and the course that took many twists and turns through the victorian style coastal villages. At mile 6, we neared the village of Wildwood Crest. Feeling good, I parted company with the detective and started to attempt to close the gap on Kevin. The slowest mile at that point was a 9:07.

Kevin had a bright orange shirt on and I slowly tried to reel it in. My hamstring seemed to be tightening at mile 6 but it either went away or I forgot about it as I focused on the orange shirt gliding out ahead. Miles 7 through 9 were 8:45, 8:48 and 8:36 respectively. Early in mile 9 with the temperature somewhere over 50 degrees, I took off my long sleeve shirt and tossed it in dumpster. By the end of mile 9, I had caught back up to Kevin on the boardwalk in the village of Wildwood.

Kevin’s goal each marathon is to make a new “lady friend” (I have another name for it but that will remain unknown until the book is released somewhere in my retirement! He is single!). True to his word, he had made yet another “friend”. We talked and ran with her through North Wildwood. She drifted back before mile 12 as we knocked off another 3 miles at a pace slightly below 9 minutes.

One by one, I counted the miles 13, 14, 15, 16 and then 17 just before entering Stone Harbor. We had crossed over 2 additional bridges, past more condos and vast views of the Atlantic. The wind coming off the ocean was a constant nuisance but we managed to still keep the pace just below 9 minutes. This is where I began to think a sub-4 hour marathon maybe could happen but I knew I was tiring if ever so slightly. So, I decided to let Kevin go and try to conserve some energy for the final 9 miles.

The next 3 miles were relatively straight and still flat. Tiring, I still managed to average 9:07 over that stretch. In the past, I have hit the wall somewhere between 17 and 21 miles. At mile 21, I didn’t feel the wall. I just couldn’t get the legs to move any quicker. I think this was a direct result of missing too many sessions out on the road. The elliptical is good for maintaining cardio and the smooth glide is great for healing what ails you but it does nothing to get the legs and hips ready for the pounding of a full marathon. Mile 21 ended up at 9:37. Entering the village of Avalon, mile 22 was a 9:52. Then, I trudged to three consecutive miles at a 10:06 average. I now need to run at an 8 minute pace for the remaining 1.2 miles. My brain said, “No way in hell.” My legs replied, “Damn straight jack, remember this is a marathon, not a sprint!”

Mentally deflated, the proverbial marathon wall came crashing down on me over that last 1.2. It took a pedestrian 13:26 to cross the finish line in Sea Isle City. I didn’t have to hang my head to get the finisher’s medal on. It was already in the down position. I wrapped myself in the tinfoil blanket and looked for a place to sit down. I felt sicker than I ever had at the finish of a marathon. My head was tingling, my fingers were numb and all I wanted to do was vomit. Mercifully, the car was close and I waddled on over to find Dean and Kevin.

I finished 259th out of 607. Dean was 98th and Kevin 202nd. All 3 of us were in the same 45-50 year old division with 118 other middle aged men. I was 66, Kevin was 52 and Dean was 25. Our official times were 4:03:57, 3:56:21 and 3:35:59 respectively. Dean qualified for the Boston Marathon in 2011 with 1 second to spare! It’s a good thing he didn’t stop to take off his pants!

In the backseat of the car, I was writhing in pain and cussing like a Quentin Tarantino film. In hindsight, I am somewhat embarrassed but at the time, I felt like crap and stringing together expletives was the only “manly” offering I could produce. Back at the hotel, I wrapped in some blankets and elevated my feet while the others took their showers. Getting warm and horizontal reduced the numbness and tingling greatly. I felt much better by the time it was my turn in the shower.

With the car headed towards home, I sipped on a cold can of Coke in the backseat. This always helps with the post race nausea. A couple hours down the road after a meal of chocolate milk, mushroom pizza and an ice cream sandwich, I was almost a new man again. When we all got out of the car waddling, limping and simply walking very stiffly, it created a good laugh as we imagined what people watching might be wondering!

We were able to maintain the 2 hour shift rotation on the way home. We decided the passenger up front would also be responsible for keeping the driver awake. So, we rotated in and out of the designated sleeping spot in the back seat as well. Although tired, it was hard to sleep until after the midnight hour. Tired and beat down, one would think sleep would be easy. For some reason, it never is after a marathon. I think it is the body saying, “You did this to me, now stay awake and suffer through the recovery!” With 3 hours of rain the only difficulty on the return trip, I slipped into bed at home around 5 a.m. After 1800 miles in the car and 73 hours away, I made it back to where I started.

Tired, happy and relaxed, I silently reflected back on the past few months. What will Marathon4Kids grow into? How can I keep the fundraising pace going? Is the hamstring truly better? Will it hold up over the next marathon? Can we keep attracting quality board members to Big Brothers? Will the yoga and stretching keep the shin splints at bay? What do I do with a growing Facebook fan base? Are people really going to be interested in following along in the years to come? Will they make the connection from the marathon chase to the mentoring mission of Big Brothers? There are so many questions to answer and so many issues I can’t yet resolve.

I kiss my wife good morning/good night and I fade off to sleep thinking, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”