(To mark twin 50th anniversaries in 2017, as a fulltime running journalist and as a marathoner, I am posting a piece for each of those years. This one comes from 2009.)
IT’S NEVER too late to have a new experience. I had one in my post-prostate marathon, and it taught me that even when this experience starts badly, it can end well.
In more than four decades of running marathons (and distances beyond) I had experienced almost everything possible. I’d gone much faster than expected and also far slower, I’d run dramatically negative splits and equally drastic positives (an odd term for a decidedly negative experience), and I’d finished without proper training and had dropped out after training properly.
I had been injured while training and abandoned the program long before its end, and had finished after the early miles magically healed an injury. I had walked unavoidably and had taken walk breaks intentionally. I had dropped out of a few marathons and, to my eternal regret, most of my ultras.
But at least in all those cases I had shown up at the starting line. “Ninety percent of winning,” or 95 or 98 percent, depending on whose quote you cite, “is showing up.” My experience is that if you get that far, you’re almost certain to push on to the finish.
I had never pulled out of a marathon right before its start, so there was no reason to think that would happen this time. Another recent “marathon” had gone smoothly, so I’d expected the same at Napa Valley 2009.
This race was to be my graduation celebration from a “marathon” of daily radiation treatments for prostate cancer. They’d stretched from Halloween to the first workday of the new year. In January we (and I say “we” because any cancer involves more than the individual) still didn’t know how well this therapy had worked.
The odds were favorable, according to my radiologist. “Nationally the success rate with this type of treatment for your stage of the disease is close to 90 percent,” he said. “My numbers are even higher.”
While weighing the treatment options, I talked with Elaine Reese. Her late husband Paul had chosen radiation and lived actively and cancer-free for nearly two more decades.
“It went well for him,” said Elaine. “He never missed a run during those daily sessions.”
Paul’s story convinced me to choose radiation, which had improved vastly since Paul’s diagnosis in 1988. Running each of my 45 treatment days was one of several goals (or at least my hopes).
The others were: no medical appointment unkept, no coaching session unattended, no writing deadline unmet, no diary page unfilled. I checked off every goal.
This wasn’t heroic, or foolish. If pushing on had been a struggle, I would have cut back immediately.
Life went on as before because it could. The radiation was minimally invasive to both body and normal routines.
My running during treatment wasn’t the same as before. It was better. Marathon training passed without a hitch (a rarity at my age), and it included my longest day ever (in time, not distance).
I reserved number 45 to wear on race day. This was nod to the count of treatments that had all gone so smoothly.
I looked forward to running for the first time with (well behind, anyway) the marathon training team that I coached. Before, I’d always stood and watched these runners from first to last. Now I would be the last, and hoped without asking that many of them would stick around after their finish to watch mine.
ONLY DURING the taper did these plans unravel. For many runners this is the worst part of the program.
It’s too late to gain more from training, but not too late to blow it all with an ill-timed medical mishap. Every little symptom expands in the mind to threaten your marathon.
The scratchiness in your throat is surely strep. The ache in your ankle must be a stress fracture.
I’ve had every possible symptom before marathons. Some were imaginary, all were exaggerated in the worried mind.
I’d always started a marathon with something wrong, but never had it kept me from starting. The healing power of a starter’s gun had always amazed me.
An injury struck two weeks before that 2009 Napa Valley Marathon, right on schedule during the taper. I made a dumb mistake by lifting too much (ironically it was the training team’s loaded drink cooler), with bad form (too much arms, not enough legs) and without help (offered but waved off). My lower back instantly let me know the errors of my ways.
The pain was real. But I assumed that it wasn’t as serious as it seemed to my pre-marathon mind. It was.
Two days before Napa Valley, after hurting every step in a run just one-tenth the race distance, I made a hard decision: Don’t risk it. This is no way to start a marathon, let alone try to finish one.
George Sheehan was my favorite quote-meister (as well my ghost-doctor who ordered me to check early and often for signs of prostate cancer, which he didn’t do soon enough). George wrote, “Winning is never having to say I quit.”
By quitting this marathon before it started, I lost my race – but gained something else by doing so. My lesson from Napa was that no injury – or dropout – is all bad. This new experience of late withdrawal let me watch the finish of all 18 runners I had coached that winter and had talked into trying Napa Valley.
There would be another marathon for me, but never a second chance to see each of these teammates finish this one. Missing them there would have been a bigger loss than my quitting before the race started.
Photo: The 2009 Napa Valley Marathon proceeded nicely (if wetly) without me.
[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.]