On November 6, 1982, I attempted to run my first marathon, the Las Colonias Marathon in San Antonio, Texas. That was more than 30 years ago. This is how it went down.
I began my career as a fun runner in Hawaii in 1970. That was before country was country. That was before jogging became a national past time; before Nike became Nike; and a few years before the birth of the Honolulu Marathon.
I believe I got into jogging because I enjoyed the freedom of the run. Most other sports required teams or competitors or fixed locations. With running, I could go where I wanted; when I wanted, and at whatever speed I could achieve.
As a youngster, I had participated in many sports, but none gave me particular enjoyment. I was not really athletic. I participated in many sports because, as a young boy, that was what I was suppose to do. That’s what people told me and that’s what I did.
When I first started running, my three favorite, and perhaps, only jogging routes were Keolu Drive, Kailua Beach and Magic Island. All three were very flat courses. Keolu Drive was close to my home in Keolu Hills. It loops around Enchanted lake and is virtually an exact three mile route. Magic Island was close to my office, so I could go there right after work and not be inconvenienced by rush hour traffic. Kailua Beach is a marvelous stretch of ocean front where I preferred to run barefoot. Both Magic Island and Kailua Beach, due to their scenic beauty, are perhaps best described as Magic.
When I first heard that a group of runners in Honolulu was organizing something called a marathon that was more than eight times longer than I had ever run, my first thought was, “Those guys are crazy!” I blotted the idea out of my mind and did not give it much thought.
It wasn’t until ten years later, after relocating first to Tacoma, Washington and then to San Antonio, Texas that I gave any thought to actually running a marathon. During that decade, running had been steadily catching on around America. Various groups were organizing 5K and 10K races and I even participated in a few.
As a newcomer to San Antonio, I heard about a running group that met in McAllister Park on Sunday mornings I decided to check it out. When I attended and found out the group was based on a similar group that had been formed in Honolulu, the Honolulu Marathon Clinic, I sort of got hooked. I became a regular participant and made friends with other runners. As I ran more, I realized most of my new friends were running the Las Colonias Marathon. I said to myself, if they can do it, I can do it. The concept of running a marathon ceased being crazy and became a possibility. So, although I was a bit intimidated by the idea and knew I was not fleet of foot, I said to myself, I’ll do it.
A marathon race is 26 miles and 385 yards. For the Las Colonias de San Antonio Marathon, plain yellow signs with black numerals marked each of the 26 miles. A timer stood at each marker calling the minutes as the runners passed.
The fear of any novice marathoner is becoming too exhausted to finish the race. In jogger jargon, this is known as “hitting the Wall.” They say somewhere between 17 and 25 miles there is a Wall. To the first time marathoner, the Wall is a mythical creature that lurks in the distance waiting to devour the weak and approaching novice. Some say the Wall doesn’t exist but the novice knows this is not true. The hope is that the Wall won’t appear until after the finish line, but again the novice knows this is not probable. Like the bogyman in the dark closet, the Wall awaits. In this way, the novice runner is akin to the beginning scuba diver, who knows it is not a question as to whether sharks are out there, but rather when they will attack.
A description of the Wall is more elusive than its existence. Some say it hits with the force of a winter Norther’ across the Texas plains, unmercifully hitting every part of the body at once, draining muscle, brain and feeling, but most of all, will power. Others say it is a gradual creeping fog that slowly overtakes the runner. To the novice, the Wall can become an obsession. Darting from one veteran to another, the novice fires questions but the answers do not satisfy. Rather, they leave an emptiness and seem to increase the anxiety.
It was 20 minutes before the starting time, when we joined the pack of runners. The fanfare of the crowd, the photographs being taken and the well wishes of family and friends buoyed our enthusiasm. As the clock ticked down the final minutes, we bunched up and crowded closer to the starting line. Then a hush as the mayor raised the starting gun and counted the final 10 seconds. Total silence. Then “Bang.” A loud cheer. We all moved forward realizing we were now committed to the ordeal of the Marathon.
The mob of runners moved down Broadway in an almost party fashion, smiling, waving and calling out to friends. As I passed the yellow sign with the black 1, the timer’s call informed me I was 15 seconds ahead of schedule. I knew it was the excitement of the crowd that moved me. By now, my training partner had moved on head of me. She was a faster runner, so this didn’t surprise me.
By 3, the initial excitement had subsided and the individual runners were settling into their own paces.I settled into mine and kept moving with the flow.
At 9, a pain in my chest and seeing a participant walk made me think 17 miles was wrong. Maybe, the Wall could attack at 9 mile. My training partner had started to chide me about my trepidation. She cautioned that it was becoming psychosomatic. Realizing she was probably right I buried thoughts of the Wall from my consciousness and tried to think about minutes, speed and distance. I played mathematical exercises with them. Trying anything to keep my mind busy, I wanted to preclude thinking of any future negatives.
By 12, my pain and the Wall were forgotten. My time had improved. Passing others made me think my training had paid off. I thought of the carbo-load dinner two nights before. Looking at the lean shape of my competitors,I had laughed that carbo-loads were my specialty and I had a 20 year head start on the rest of them. Perhaps, my waistline would turn out to be my secret weapon.
At 13 miles, I spotted a curvaceous lass and thought of the CALLIPYGIAN THEORY for going the distance. Find a shapely one and stay 10 yards behind. It’s amazing how it makes the time fly.
It seemed to work. By 16, I was 5 minutes ahead of my game plan. I felt good but worried that, perhaps, later this would be my downfall.
At 17, these thoughts of my downfall started to grab hold. I passed my mentor, a conservative seasoned veteran who preached LSD-Long Slow Distance. He walked slowly. As I looked back in disbelief, he mumbled with head down, “I crashed.” Depression ebbed inside of me. Thoughts of the Wall flashed before me.
Then, a short distance ahead, some friends were waiting on the sidelines with cameras and cheers. Their shouts of “Looking Good!,” answered by my “Feeling Good!” perked me up. Then the prettiest one came out and joined me for an 1/8th of a mile. My spirit soared.
By 19, the South Texas sun loomed high. An empty water station sunk my spirits. “They’re not suppose to run out of water,” I moaned to myself. At 20 I was still one minute ahead of my time goal. However,the last hour had been run across the far side of Kelly Air Force Base, an open, arid, windy plain. I realized the Texas heat was taking a greater toll on me than I thought it would. There were many walkers now. Walkers seemed to hold the majority.
At 22 miles, I came upon my training partner, she had joined the walkers. As I approached she complained of her knee. I gave words of encouragement and she joined me. A 1/2 mile later she started to move out ahead of me. I realized I was slipping. Steadily slipping. Four miles to go. Would the Wall overcome me?
At 23, I knew I’d have to modify my game plan if I was to finish the race. There were pains in my calfs, pains in my thighs and pains in my feet. But, the real problem was my breathing. I had stopped breathing, and was now panting. Stumbling into a water stop I downed two cups. I knew my countenance was not fooling the spectators when one asked with concern, if I wanted a dousing. My head nodded up and down and then felt a cup of ice water go over it in return. A 1/4 mile later, I could barely trot. A friend on a bicycle got me going again. Probably, more out of embarrassment than will power, I moved on.
At 24, I realized my body was totally dry.A slight dizziness lingered and my skin was void of feeling. Another modification to my game plan was my only choice. By now, I had passed too many crumpled bodies. I thought, “What am I doing here? Why am I hear?” I reflected back to the 6 miles a day my partner and I had done in that July and August Texas heat. We must have done it for something; some reason. Now, the reason eluded me and I simply trudged on.
At 25, the crowd was growing, and a momentum started to build. A car horn greeted me and my spirits rose. A friend called out “Looking Good!” My lips moved to return the salute but no sound emitted. My breath had long ago left me, but in its place within me, a determination began to swell. I knew I had to; I must continue to run. No, I wasn’t passing any runners but I realized for the last half mile, none had passed me.
The sign said 26, as I started to round the bend. I could see the chutes. They were less than 385 yards away. I began to fully realize I not only should, but could and would go the distance. Fifty yards from the chutes I noted a FIGHTING IRISH Sweatshirt. With a thumbs up sign, I called to the owner, “This one is for the Gipper!” He cheered back, “Right on.” The clock read 4:06:15 as I crossed the finish line. Going through the chutes, I looked over at the Medical Tent and the beer truck. Satisfaction overcame me, for I knew which one was for me.
It tasted great.