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The Gettysburg Marathon

May 2, 2011
They gave me this just for crossing the finish line.

Me, as I crossed the finish line
Well, I ran the marathon. Twenty-four hours ago, I was on the streets of Gettysburg, pounding pavement . . . that pavement pounding is still with me, in the form of very sore legs, but, honestly, I’m feeling good. While I said that I just wanted to finish, that was a little bit of a lie. It’s true that I didn’t know the lay of the land very well, but I really wanted to break 5 hours. I finished with a time of 04:48:21 and I’m ecstatic. Details of the entire adventure after the jump.

The runner's tent, at sunriseI was much calmer entering this run than I was for the Harrisburg marathon. At the same time, I’ve been quite crazy lately, and there was a part of me that really feared that I wasn’t quite prepared for this. Still, though – I told myself that I would run, and, dammit, I was going to do just that.

The ultra-marathoner’s creed is “start out slow and then ease up,” and while this was “just a marathon,” I really wanted to take that lesson to heart. But, the most important lesson I could tell myself was – this was me against the course. It didn’t matter what happened on en route.

Everyone gathered minutes before the race started

Picture of the pack before it thinned outDealing with the pack early on, that previous little lesson was difficult to remember. During Harrisburg, if I was running slightly faster than a group of people in front of me, I’d accelerate a little bit, and then pass them, and then slow back down. That takes a lot more energy than you would like to admit, though. This time, if I couldn’t just run past the group in front of me, I’d just slow myself down further. I really only have one speed when running distance, but there are far worse things than slowing to something between a run & a walk for a little while.

I attract a lot of attention when I run. My right leg is heavily tattooed (though this fact was masked when I ran my first marathon, as I wore running tights). I’m rounder than most runners. I wear Vibram Five Fingers. This time, I’d chat up anybody who kind of looked at me twice, or if it appeared that I’d be seeing the person time & time again on the course. And, well, because I don’t look exactly like a marathoner, and I’m wearing, possibly, the silliest running shoes in the history of running shoes, I end up in a lot of conversations. Those conversations helped me keep pace, greatly.

First, there was Lynn, who was running the first leg for a relay team. Lynn’s pace was just slightly faster than mine, so she’d run right past me on the straight away, but she was getting cues from her watch to switch to walking. So, she’d run past me, I’d catch up, I’d pass her, she’d catch up, she’d pass me….until the 8.7 mile mark.

One of the flatter sectionsThen there was Alaska (I knew his real name on the course, but I use the “name storage” part of my mind to keep track of great boobs I’ve seen and lyrics to my favorite music from the 80’s), who was a bit of a civil war buff. He’d always wanted to see Gettysburg, but never made the trip from his home state, but he tried to run 3-4 marathons a year, and when he heard that there was a marathon around this battleground he always wanted to visit, he started saving his pennies. During the hills, he’d just chant “there’s beer in my hotel room, there’s beer in my hotel room.” Needless to say, I liked Alaska.

I ran a big portion of the race with two first-time marathoners from outside of Philly. Jim had a similar tale to me – he started running and just didn’t stop. Suddenly, he thought he’d be able to run a marathon, he signed up for Gettysburg, and violla he did it. The other, Chuck, was roped into the marathon by a friend who had claimed to be a runner. But, after months of barely hearing from his friend as Chuck trained his ass off (literally, he said that he lost 30 pounds since starting the marathon training), his friend bailed. Still, Chuck ran.

Horses along the pathI didn’t see any of the lead pack until I had nearly hit mile 11, running with Jim & Chuck.. This was pretty encouraging . . . I could just imagine my psyche if I saw somebody running back as I was hanging out at mile 6, knowing I still had 20 miles to go as they only had the 10k. The three of us started cheering on each runner as he ran past . . . but they were all super focused. And it’s really not fun to cheer on a runner who seems to be ignoring the cheers. So, we stopped – then another of the lead pack runners came out & started cheering us on. Nobody caught his bib number, but it really gave the three of us a bit of a boost, and I really hope this guy did well at the end.

There was somebody, I can’t say that I ever caught his name, who was the president of a runners club outside of Cleveland. He went on about how great it was to run an inaugural marathon, but he wanted to check back home. One of the runners in his club was running his first marathon that day, after losing over 200 pounds. Honestly, he sounded like a proud father when he talked about this mystery runner who was inspiring his running club, who in turn were inspiring him.

I hit the turnaround running by myself, but I could not believe how good I was feeling. Chatting up other people on the course and really allowing myself to take in my surroundings really kept me fresh.

After the turnaround, I was running alongside David for awhile – he was, also, from outside of Philly. He had run another marathon a few weeks prior (he told me which one, but, because the dropped bikini scene from Phoebe Cates in Fast Times at Ridgemont High is taking too much memory space in my mind, it went in one ear and out the other) and simply wanted to know if he could get his legs to run another one without a whole lot of downtime. He could, but he hated the hills.

Melissa, from the Lehigh Valley, passed me early on. It was her first marathon and to say that she was excited would be an understatement. Somehow, she forgot that she had a tattoo (I’ll get to “running dementia” in a little bit). When she passed me, she was going on and on about the scenery (seriously, we were running alongside an apple orchard, it was breathtaking). When I passed her around mile 22, she wasn’t so happy.

There were three women who were running in support of a fourth who was a marathoner who had died months previously from breast cancer. They were adorned, heavily, in pink, and were just an absolute pleasure to speak with. Much like Lynn from before, we passed each other a lot – they’d fly past me on the straightaways, and I’d somehow catch up to them on the hills.

Aside from conversations, I made myself walk through each & every relief station along the course. I did not want to finish the course dehydrated (though, to file something in the “too much information” category, when I forced myself to pee after the race, my urine was an interesting shade of tannish brown), so making myself properly drink water was necessary. On the way back, when I started to really feel the hills, I started adding some Gatorade. 10-20 seconds of walking after 20-30 minutes of running was really enough to get my legs back under me.

I swear, these hills looked a lot more ominous when not seen in picturesSpeaking of hills, there were a lot of them. When I’m biking, I like hills – sure, they’re pains in the ass to get up (and going uphill on a bike, I’d venture, is more a pain in the ass than on foot), but you don’t have to do a damn thing other than keep your eyes open to get back down them. Going uphill on foot tires you out, and going downhill is just as difficult. The entire course seemed to be moving uphill or downhill. It was brutal. The course description referenced “rolling hills,” but they just never stopped. The worst hill, I believe, was right around the turnaround (the course was a true “there and back again” course). It was a downhill leading to the 13.1 mile mark. A severe downhill. Of course, the return really wasn’t fun. But, I had just hit the halfway point, and that’s really all you need to get a second wind.

I was running with David when I hit mile marker 15 . . . he said “I have 11 miles left in these legs” and I realized that I did as well. I mean, I was truly feeling great. My music was playing, I was staying relaxed. I knew I had managed 26.2 miles previously, so it was just a matter of making it to the end.

At mile marker 17, Kurt, a 78 year old runner who had run over 100 marathons, was thinking about calling it quits. I slowed down for a little bit to run with him, but it was obvious that the hills had taken their toll. I ran with him until the next water station when he pulled off for a little bit. I didn’t see his bib number in the list of runners.

When I hit mile marker 20, I started got get a little more serious. I knew the hills we ran at the beginning were coming back. I knew that, if I was going to break down & start walking, this was the time. I knew I was on a pace that would have me back well before 5 hours, but if I let myself slip here, I wouldn’t stand a chance.

I locked myself down, zoning in on Samantha and Amber’s asses as they ran in front of me my running. I started passing all of the people who simply had no gas left as they walked to the finish line. Then, people started flying past me. “Remember, John, the people running the relay have fresh legs” I had to tell myself time & time again.

On one of the last hills, I’m afraid that I came off as a douche. I was powering over it – by this point, it was sheer force of will to keep my legs going, step after step. My music was in my ears, and I was just going. As I passed walkers or people who I was simply out-pacing on the hills (I think it’s my size, but hills don’t appear to slow me down nearly as much as they do other runners), it took me awhile to realize that just about everybody was encouraging me. “Good job, man” from one guy. “I don’t know how you’re still going” from a relay runner who ran out of gas 1/2 way into her leg, the last leg.

When I realized that people were encouraging me, I tried to say “thank you.” But? I couldn’t. I was able to process what they were saying, but I simply couldn’t create words back to them. For hours after the marathon, my brain was still fuzzy….and let me take that to this segue.

At about the 5 mile mark, a man passed me like he was shot out of a cannon. The first relay point, however, was around mile 6. By mile five, you really think most everything has shaken out. There will be the people who start out strong and finish weak (like me in the Harrisburg marathon). There will be the people who have something left in the tank toward the end. Most everybody is trying to keep a steady pace throughout, though. To get passed is to be anticipated, but to be passed like this, at this stage of the course is more-than-somewhat disheartening. The guy who passed me looked like he was carved from stone – about my height (6’3″), in his mid-30’s, blond, thin, sculpted. Picture Jaime Lannister from the Song of Ice & Fire if he were in a running getup and not golden armor. As he passed me, I spoke what words of encouragement I could – I figured that he got a late start & somehow missed his calling at the lead pack. I got nothing from him. I had to deal with the fact that there was a truly attractive man who was on the course who was ignoring me. This man ran out of steam by mile 9, as I crested a hill and saw him at the top of the next. I passed him by mile 10. I did not see his bib number of the list of finishers.

As I realized that I was completely unable to converse with anybody who was cheering me on, I thought back to the stone-carved man. Was he where I was, only really early in the race? I’m simply not sure.

Looking at the base of the last hill I had to climb, I very nearly walked it. Everybody ahead of me was walking, and I knew I was only about a mile out from the finish. It was likely that I’d break the five-hour mark whichever way I played things. But, I didn’t let myself. “Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot” was my mantra as I forced myself to keep going. My feet hurt, my left calf was screaming, my arms were numb. But, I wouldn’t let myself stop. Eminem was telling me how bad an idea it was to Forget about Dre, and I made it to the top.

I got to the top of the hill, saw the last turn. People were lined up. LL Cool J was telling me his mother told him to punch me. I was feeling great. I turned the corner just as the playlist ended. The crowd was cheering.

From somewhere, I found a burst of energy an sprinted1 to the finish line. I collected my medal, drank a lot of water, collected congratulations from any of the runners who recognized me on the course.

They gave me this just for crossing the finish line.

All in all, it was a truly magnificent day. Not all was perfect. Early on, there was a cop car who had stopped in between gaps in the main pack, and over the loud speaker he was quite forceful in telling all of the runners to run in the left lane. The problem was that cars were coming toward us in the left lane. I believe they had closed a single lane to traffic for the duration of the race, and something got messed up in traffic control, so that was a pain.

The hills were constant. It’s very difficult to get over this – as soon as you got through one, the next one was right there. However, it really seemed that, along the most strenuous climbs, people had congregated to cheer on the runners. And that tiny bit of adrenaline as somebody cheers you on really does a lot.

Once I stopped moving, I tried to take inventory of what my body was doing. My left calf was tight. Really, really tight. It felt like I’d been pierced in both hamstrings. I caught my breath, walked around a bit . . . when I started walking my way back to the tent to pick up my stuff, I know I had a noticeable limp2 because others asked me about it. When I got to grass, I had to take off my Vibrams, at which point I noticed a huge blood-blister along the inside of my right big toe. But, a single blister and some muscle soreness . . . maybe a few points of IQ3, are the only physical ailments from the run. I’m feeling really, really good about myself.

To summarize, these are the lessons I learned:

  • “Rolling hills” are bullshit.
  • When somebody runs past you as if you’re standing still, they’re likely a relay runner on fresh legs – but you shouldn’t have noticed them anyway.
  • Distance runners who aren’t out to win the race may be the most supportive group of people, ever.
  • To a man, especially one without shame, a marathon course is lined with port-a-potties. I did applaud, in my head, one woman who got irked at the line for the port-a-potties around mile marker 20 and ran off into the bushes.
  • The housing that is provided for migrant workers on orchards is not to be envied.
  • A successful marathon is simply “run until you can’t run any more, and then keep running” for 26.2 miles.
  • I really need to thank myself from before the first marathon – whenever I needed a change of pace, or a little bit of encouragement, the perfect song would come on to deliver it. I used the same playlist from the 2010 Harrisburg marathon, though I need some changes & include some Cake.
  • I’m really glad other runners can’t read my mind as I go about.

1 It should be said that, even those times that I haven’t just run 26+ miles, my “sprint” can best be categorized as “maybe a little faster than a jog”, but it’s the fact that I had something in the tank that I was proud of.

2 I still have a limp as I type this, but I’m much better. In fact, I’m able to walk stairs “normally” instead of the “step with one leg, and then step on that same step with the other” that I’ve been doing.

3 I was still “thinking fuzzy” several hours after the run – it was like the part of the brain that was used to form speech just didn’t want to work

  1. So jealous. I LOVE Gettysburg, the history and ghosts (I don’t believe in ghosts, but you know what I mean…)

    The “rolling hills” don’t sound great – but oh, to be out there running past all that history…

    I am so happy for you and your achievement; especially for your great attitude about it all.

    And I love that you included some of the people you met and their stories. Makes the whole experience more real and you already know you’ll be happy for the record of it.

    Smiling big for you out here in California this morning.

    • I know exactly what you mean about the ghosts – I’m totally taking my kids on a “ghost tour” of Gettysburg every year once they’re old enough to scare themselves.

      Thank you SO MUCH for the encouragement – parts of this post were actually harder to write than some of the climbs I had.

  2. Yay John!!! I am sooo pumped for you! I won’t say proud because I had no doubt you would complete this marathon – but yay for you for doing it UNDER your goal time! I took a 6 mile walk yesterday and my legs were so angry! I couldn’t imagine running it – and 20 miles more! πŸ™‚

    • It’s just one foot after the other, one foot after the other . . . until you’re at the end. But, I remember the early days of training. I honestly think my legs were at their ultimate “most sore” when I was about 2/3 of the way through the “Couch-to-5k” program, running for 20 minutes straight.

  3. YES!! love the recap – I look forward to writing a recap of something like this πŸ™‚

  4. Seriously…I can’t believe you ran a marathon in 5-Fingers. Congrats on breaking 5 hours! Eat whatever you want today! πŸ™‚

    • This is actually the second marathon that I’ve done in five-fingers, I honestly can’t run in anything but.

  5. I still can’t believe you tweeted during the marathon let alone had conversations with people. I don’t even like talking much during my training runs. I’m happy to check out the eye candy in spandex and let my mind wander. I looked at the course when you posted the link on Twitter yesterday and the hills on the course were not rolling! The mile 18 climb looked particularly daunting.

    I do know what you mean about trying not to set a goal, but having one anyway. I’ve been plagued with setback after setback during this marathon I’m training for in June. I have not trained like I should and my goal should be to just finish, but I know I’m going to be pissed if I don’t finish in under 5 hours. Every marathon I go in hoping to break 4 hours, and every time I’m disappointed when it slips away from me. This time, I know I won’t even come close……..Blogger’s butt be damned.

  6. Congrats my man! An incredible feat…. Keep up the awesome!!

    • Thanks, man – while I always told myself that I’d never really care about my times & such, I fear I’m becoming just that. The swimming part of a triathlon has cutoffs, so I need to finish in so long or they won’t let me continue, which sucks, but whatever. But, I really want to break a 4 hour marathon, too . . . damn addictions.

  7. Wow! Way to go! I’m so not a runner. Anyone who can run a marathon is impressive to me!

    • Thanks, Shell – though I’m not feeling all that impressive when I try to walk stairs right now…

  8. so. um. you run. like for fun. i’ll move on now.

    after saying CONGRATS!!!

    • Thanks, Momma – though rumor has it that you’ve run a 5k or two, and you might have enjoyed them, nevermind the 20 miles you’ll be walking one day. And then the next. And then the next.

  9. I love hills. I may be insane. Also, I’m curious about the five fingers…maybe a problem w/ my one webbed foot..

    Congrats John and, yes, LOVE that you included the stories of the people you met.

    • Oh, Momma – we already know you’re insane. It’s why we love you! (and why am I writing using the “royal we”?)

      I did not know about a webbed foot . . . but it sounds like you were made for triathlons.

      I typically like hills, too – you feel your muscles really working, and there’s the constant visual cue of how far you have to go. But these hills were just non-stop. Maybe I’m too much of a cyclist at heart, but I really longed for just a little bit of a breather. It wasn’t there.

  10. Lance Jamison permalink


    I work with your sister at NW, and she told me about your blog, and your running. Congrats on Gettysburg……I was there as well….loved reading about this as i truly got to relive the run (minus the specific people you met and all), but definitely summed up everything….and I agree, ‘rolling hills’ are bullshit! The out was ok, the back was brutal….My time was the slowest of the previous runs, and I think the hills were a big part of it.


    • Hey – glad to have you visit. I realized that there were downhills on the way out, but I don’t think I realized just how steep some of them were until I started running back. It was painful – but beautifully so.

      How many marathons have you run?

      • Lance Jamison permalink

        agreed….I had a friend running with me on the way out to the turn around….so I was distracted with what would inevitably kick my ass on the way back….I relished in the downhills, but was cursing them on the way back….Gettysburg was my third. I just started running them last year….if you get a chance, I definitely would reccommend Philly and Pittsburgh….great scenery, and a lot of people, and oh yes, hills are very very tame…

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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