(This piece is for my book-in-progress titled See How We Run: Best Writings from 25 Years of Running Commentary. I am posting an excerpt here each week, this one from April 1999.)
You never know how a marathon will go. After about four dozen of these races, in four different decades, you’d think I would know. But I was no more comfortable facing the unknown this time than anytime before.
As I boarded the yellow school bus that would carry runners to the start of the Las Vegas Marathon, a tall Latino man of maybe 30 stood up and let me squeeze into the window seat. I could hear him worrying that his long legs would cramp, and he wanted to stretch them into the aisle. I got him to talking so he would fret less.
He introduced himself as Manuel and said, “I ran a 3:45 marathon in December and am shooting for 3:15 today.” No wonder he looked scared.
We arrived at the starting line two hours before race time. Manuel bolted from the bus, as did most of the other adrenaline-overdosed passengers.
Shadowy figures warmed up on the desert road. Lines formed at the porta-potty forest. I stayed on the bus, reading a book I’d carried just for this purpose. This didn’t mean I had no worries, only that I’d learned not to let the fear start me running two hours before race time.
Little was at stake for me here. I’d run this far dozens of times before, and had no time goal today. Still, I suffered from PMS – pre-marathon syndrome.
In the last week before the race every little twinge in my legs and tickle in my throat magnified. This defines PMS.
But my current problem started much earlier. A hip-groin injury popped up during my longest training run and almost crippled me late in those three hours. Otherwise I’d felt quite spunky in the long run.
I decided to enter the marathon despite the injury, hoping that three weeks of babying it would bring relief. They didn’t. Even while running nothing longer than an hour, and usually only half that long, my left side didn’t feel anywhere close to right.
Early sleep the night before the marathon didn’t come as hoped. At bedtime I called home for messages. Son Eric answered with news that our dog, my running partner Mingo, had disappeared and now had been gone for more than a day.
We guessed that he was now injured or worse. Sleep came grudgingly with Mingo’s fate added to the marathon uncertainties.
At 2:30, I came awake with a oddly comforting thought: Mingo is either alive or not, and it’s already decided. I can’t do anything about it now. (He would reappear later at the city pound, traumatized but otherwise okay.)
Same with my run. Whether I finished it or not was already determined by what I’d done to and for my hip and groin in the past few weeks. It was too late to change anything.
All I could do now was go out and learn what this day’s answers would be. This attitude adopted, I fell into my best sleep of the short night.
Worries came back with the predawn wakeup call, of course. But riding to the start with more-worried runners proved therapeutic. About two days later, or so it seemed, the race started. My worries soon ended. The hip-groin problem melted away in the first half-hour, leaving the normal challenges of a marathon that were tall enough.
Afterward I was left hoping no cure is ever found for pre-marathon syndrome. It’s a necessary part of the experience – the mind’s way of getting the body ready for what lies ahead.
UPDATE FROM 2014
The worries all came back full force before my latest marathon. Yakima River Canyon 2014 represented a set of firsts for me – first marathon since cancer treatment (in 2008), first one of my 70s and first attempt at walking most of this distance.
Walking is easier than running, of course. But walking a marathon isn’t easy because it takes so much longer. I worried my way to the start, which helped me finish.
[Hundreds of previous articles, dating back to 1998, can be found at joehenderson.com/archive/. Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in as many as three different formats: (1) in print from Amazon.com; (2) as e-books from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; (3) as PDFs for e-reader devices and apps, from Lulu.com. Latest released was Going Far. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]