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.
Feeling like a second-class marathon citizen, I went straight to the back of the yellow school bus that would carry runners to the start of the 1999 Las Vegas Marathon. Sitting in the last seat was a tall Latino man of maybe 30. He 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.
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.
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.
My worries ended soon after the race started. 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.
BARBARA AND I aren’t Vegas types, being too cheap to gamble hard and too straight to drink heavily. But the February timing of the race was right, and the desert vacation afterward was appealing to us soggy and chilled Oregonians.
Anyone knowing my history of marathon times and counts might wonder, Why bother? Why repeat what I’ve done dozens of times before, and now take an extra hour or two to finish? Why not just skip the race and go right into the vacation?
I didn’t ask myself any of this, and here’s why. Days like this are too rare to miss. In 15,000 days of my running life to date, marathons had only occupied fewer than 50 of them – or 0.3 percent of the total. These few days helped fuel the many others, by giving higher goals and supplying greater memories.
I’ll spare you a mile-by-mile account of my leisurely, walk-punctuated Sunday morning on the old desert highway, leading toward the high-rises of the Las Vegas Strip. It’s enough to say that the day brought all the effort and elation, familiarity and surprises that marathon days always provide – and few others ever do.
Which meant that the marathon was well worth my time. All 4:25 of it. This time confers no bragging rights. It’s nearly double that of the race’s leader, someone I never saw and whose name I’m not moved to look up.
We ran the same course but in different worlds that day. The time was my second slowest, but slower no longer means lesser. Each marathon has its own struggles and rewards.
Now I owned a shirt from the Las Vegas Marathon. I wore it proudly, on special occasions only, while looking forward to the next day like this.
Photo: That year’s Las Vegas Marathon began far out in the desert, then ran toward the Strip.
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]