Flashes: Inside the Mind of a 3-Hour Marathoner
I wrote this story after running the Rotterdam Marathon in 2016, my twelfth marathon.
If you're a runner—but especially if you're not—this post will put you inside a marathoner's mind. For all 26.2 miles.
Relax. Focus. Saving energy begins now, with every move you make, every unnecessary move you avoid. I start De Mooiste Marathon (The Most Beautiful Marathon), a documentary about Michel Butter, the legendary young Dutch runner who missed the 2:11:00 Dutch Olympic qualifying time by 8 seconds. As I watch his story, I wonder whether I should be watching. He missed his goal. Will I hit mine?
Awake. The clock reads the same time I want to run: 3 hours. Preferably 1 second faster. As I walk to the toilet, I feel I'm walking the gauntlet, about to disappear into the deep. I am about to do one of the physically most demanding things a human being can do. And this of my own free will. As with the other eleven marathons I ran, I wonder if I'm mad.
The blender growls at 5:30am, mincing beets, apples, and kiwis into a bloody pulp. The beets are supposed to slightly boost my red blood cells' ability to hold oxygen. The apples and kiwis help boost my ability to swallow the mess. Delicious. Have I learned to like this?
Sweats out. Shirts out. Toenails clipped closely the night before. Numbers on, front and back. The struggle to get the compression sleeves over my calves begins, a struggle that will triple after the race. I chat with Hans, with Allard, with Lodewijk, but absently. I've been noticing for days that I participate only partially in conversations. My head is elsewhere, thirty-seven kilometers away, to be precise.
Walking the gauntlet
Hugs, high fives, and Allard and I are off for the start. We remind each other to enjoy each moment, that we worked for this, that it's already an achievement to be able to appear, in shape and ready, at any marathon. Most people don't realize the marathon begins before the marathon. Training is a battle field. Allard and I are two, but we carry our fallen third in our hearts and in our guts. Just a few weeks back, Rein got hit in the Achilles. Rein, with his chant of "stay healthy!" gets hit in the Achilles? Dear Universe, you have a nasty sense of humor. Regards, Allard and Doug.
Starting in corral "C", the frontmost pen for non-elite runners. Parallel to us, on the other lane of the street, are the Kenyans, the Ethiopians, the Koen Raymaekers of the world. I'm not an elite runner, I have no aspirations to be an elite runner, and this is as close to the top as I'll ever get. But it is good to be here. Four grueling months got me here. Two physiotherapists kept this body fit. One dietitian sliced seven kilos. A massage therapist rid the legs of waste. Nine years earlier, I stood at the back of this same staging zone, ready to run my first marathon, aiming for 3:45. But Rotterdam 2007 slapped, kicked, and humiliated me into my then-proper place in the universe: 4:37. I cried, crawled, and begged my way to that 4:37, understanding, finally, that words about what we're going to do in life are cheap. In running, talk is worthless. In running, you are your numbers.
Leap in the air ten times. Smack the quads, the hamstrings, the calves, to awaken the muscles. All men on deck. A hug to Allard that says so much: have a good journey and see you on the other side. Ready. Wait. The silence preceding the cannon expands, as though space were stretching, the way a turntable sounds as it gets slowed to a halt. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Suddenly, chest, legs, and ears shudder. With the cannon this close, you feel the starting gun. Go!
I know they're here. I can feel them. I scan, but there are too many, a sea of faces flying past me as I feel my way gingerly towards 4:16 min/km. 4:16, but not a second faster. I scan, but I can't discern. How to explain the concentration it takes to locate the right pace, to feel it, to hold it. And I don't want to trip and fall, so I switch to ears and listen. Maybe I'll hear my wife. My son. A friend. Someone. Is anyone there?
Erasmus hits early and feels steep. The legs aren't warm yet. I'm in the outside lane, and I see runners jumping over the middle tram divider to shortcut a few meters. Is it worth it? Too risky, and inconsistent with my mantra: Save energy. Save energy. Save energy.
I slide from runner to runner, hovering behind anybody I can draft off, if even for a few seconds. Every molecule of glycogen counts. Save. Save. Save. Clock says 22:10 at the first split. Quick mental calculation: I was 10 seconds off the starting line, meaning I ran 22 minutes over the first 5k. Should have run 21:20, meaning I'm forty seconds off. Don't panic: those were the first kilometers, I remind myself, when the pace was slow and I was jockeying. And we had the bridge too. I keep finding backs to draft off, saving a molecule of glycogen here, a molecule there.
There he is. "Hey, Hans!" I shout unnecessarily. A waste of energy; he'd seen me two hundred meters before I'd seen him, but I can't restrain myself. I've never had company on a marathon, much less strategic and tactical support from an entire team. Hans is the first of my three "rabbits," pacers who will keep me at the right tempo, out of the wind, well fed, and well sponged. My prefrontal cortex relaxes: I am not alone. Such reassurance saves energy. Hans floats behind me, feeling the pace, and then takes over, shielding the wind.
43:30 says the clock. Mental math again: 43:20 is my actual time, meaning I'm still 40 seconds off of the 42:40 pace I need for 3 hours. A light panic starts to enter. "Hans," I pant, "we have to speed up. 4:15, and not slower." He confirms. We notch it up, ever so slightly.
Up above on the bridge we see a sea of yellow, a banner with "HAAG ATHLETIEK". Fellow club members. I recognize Wim, and wave to the entire group. There's no place like home. There's no place like home. There's no place like home.
Friends for Three Hours
Hans and I are running in the midst of the first woman we've seen in this part of the field. Tough. Black Adidas running gear. Beautiful running form, like it's easy. She's shielded by two men, possibly pacers. Hans asks her what her goal is, and tells me she's aiming for 3 hours too. I invite her to team up, saying I've got three pacers to throw into the deal. Sure, she says. We both know it's purely opportunistic. The moment it doesn't work, I'll ditch her, or she'll ditch me. That's racing. That's fine.
2 Seconds Faster!
We hit Slinge, and the sea of faces that congeals around the only point on the marathon where runners can be seen four times in quick succession. There's Rein, with more bottles. "Two seconds faster! You guys have to pick it up two seconds faster!" Damn. I hear the urgency in his voice, and it matches the worry I already had: I'd gotten off too slowly. I didn't want to start too quickly, but I didn't want to have too big of a backlog either. Apparently I still hadn't done too much on my 40 second lag. Another wave of slight panic. I breathe it back into place.
There's my second pacer, Quint. Standing on the side of a deserted highway, with a start number pinned to his chest, as though it were the most normal place to be hanging out on a sunny Sunday afternoon. He smiles. We start to pass him. Is he going to join us, or just smile at us? In a single lithe second matching Quint's lithe spirit, he is beside me, bounding at 4:15 pace, like a gazelle freed from an enclosure. "4:15 and not slower," I tell the pacers. Deficit on 3hours needs to be brought down to 30s. If I'm having my day, I'll make that 30s up later in the race.
Adjusting for my start time, we cross at 1:25:50. Target time was 1:25:20, meaning my deficit's down to 30s. Good job guys. "We're back in the game!" I'm feeling strong.
1:30:30. Clock work. This was exactly the scenario I predicted: if I ever were to pull off a sub-3 marathon, I'd have to permit myself to take it as easy as possible in the first half, and achieve the goal with a strong second half. The first half had felt slightly harder than I'd wanted. Maybe that was the tension, the fact that Niels is in the hospital, the fact that he'll be operated on tomorrow. "Pap, you got this!" he had texted me this morning. I let the soles of my shoes repeat his words, like a mantra: "Pap-you-got-this-pap-you-got-this." Hans signs off, wishing us well. I march on, following Quint, the exuberant gazelle.
From here we cruise. The Adidas girl had ditched me long before, but now I see we're approaching her steadily. She's 20 meters ahead, and closing. The 5k split up to 25k looks promising: 21:11, nine seconds faster than targeted. My deficit is slowly closing, and I'm feeling strong. Patience. We pass the Adidas girl, and now we ditch her. Patience. The race starts only in 12km, at the 37km point, I remind myself.
The bridge feels lower the second time around. My short legs roll nicely, revealing, again, their advantage in the hills: Quint and I pass runner after runner, without necessarily trying. We roll down the backside, again into the heart of Rotterdam.
Whump! Boom! Whump! Boom! You feel the drum band's cadence cut straight through your body, just like the cannon had earlier. Every cell responds: We are here! Whump! Boom! We are here! We are here! The body wants to accelerate in response. The band's energy needs to be pocketed for later, not used now. Whump! Defeaning. Boom! Thrilling. Ronald waves in the distance. Rein stands ready with the next round of bottles. Gazelle Quint dances to the right to grab one for me, and I shoot my teammates a glance that says I'm here. And I got this.
And there he is, my third pacer. Sjoerd, ready for action, merges seamlessly with the flow, feeling the pace and taking over in one seamless action. We should call him "Clock," or "Timex": with this man, you dial in your pace, and that's what you get. 4:16, and it feels easy. I got this, I tell them, repeating my son's words. I'm feeling strong.
2:08:20. Twenty seconds off my target. In perfect striking distance for later, feeling strong, smooth, and steady. If only I can hold this feeling for seven more kilometers. Seven more little kilometers, and then cut me loose. I turn boldly to the left, and am hit by an image from nine years earlier when, in my first marathon, I had entered this stretch and cried out for mercy. Who in the hell ever thought of this! This distance is inhuman! I had been walking then, negotiating with myself that I'd go only to the next corner, and then drop out. Nine years later, I'm flying down the same stretch, clocking 4:12 on the last kilometer, feeling effortless. I am in the zone.
The Kralingse Bos. We're in the woods. Literally. The loneliest part of the marathon. Sjoerd waves me into position, meaning I need to draft more closely off him. Remember: save every molecule of glycogen you can. Nobody had needed to remind me to trail more closely until now. Am I hurting? I banish the thought. It is too early for pain. As long as you can possibly get away with it, "Run like it doesn't hurt" is the best way to manage marathon pain. Pain is inevitable, but allowing pain to appear in your form only makes matters worse, not better. I straighten my back, lean forward, breathe into my belly, and pretend the pain goes away.
A split of 21:25. Five seconds too slow, but still very solid. I can make up the change at the end, I remind myself. Two kilometers to go until the race begins. But the pain has become a companion I can no longer get to leave. My vision has started to tunnel; the water I drink comes out of my nose. I cough. Focus! We'll have plenty of time to think about the pain later.
3 Hour Angels
Like archangels with single wings, the 3-hour pacers pass me on both sides, each with one sweeping white fin trailing off their backs, a fin emblazoned with "3:00." The holy grail of marathon numbers, passing me by. "Do you want to go with them or stick to your own pace?" Sjoerd asks me. "My own," I say. My race starts at 37k, I remind him, and myself. But the 3-hour pacers slide slowly, steadily, relentlessly forwards. My dream. Is there. In front of me. Join them. There goes my dream? No! Run your race, and simply keep them in sight!
Hell's First Circle
We turn right, the Kralingse Plaslaan, and my negotiations with pain begin to falter. A dull agony presses upon me from the inside out, its epicenter in my quads, spreading like a sphere through me, around me, turning everything it touches into jelly. My body turns to jelly. The air around me, shimmering in the glaring sun, wags like jelly. The crowds mush into jelly. Through the jelly, I can make out Coach Lodewijk biking next to us. "Mrrf Grrf Brrrrf Drrrf" says the coach, his words reaching me but indecipherable through the jelly. He sounds like that slowing turntable I'd heard at the start. What did he say? I don't know. It doesn't matter. Focus! I can't. It hurts. I scream.
Hell's Second Circle
Left on the Boezemstraat. Never run a marathon? Imagine not one mosquito interrupting your sleep, but ten thousand, all buzzing around you, pricking, pricking, pricking. Marathons don't itch, but their pain, like a mosquito, doesn't relent. The marathon's jelly thickens, oozes, and becomes an oppressive blanket that you must, nonetheless, run through. To shed the pain, I scream again, this time louder, a primordial scream that comes from my spine. The runner to my right recoils, terrified, but I feel better. I am doing this, I remind myself. 4:09 on the last kilometer. Nice job. "Pap, you got this!" I hear Niels say, through the jelly. I am not Michel Butter, I remind myself. I am not Michel Butter! The 3 hour pacer is in range. I can get him.
Curbs That Bite
We turn towards Blaak, towards the Cubus houses. During marathons, I always ask myself how bad the pain is on a one-to-ten scale, and am pleasantly reassured when I can answer a "four" or a "five." This time I don't ask. I don't even think to ask. There's no room for thought. There's not even room for a slight irregularity in the road, like a curb, which leaps up at me as I pass and bites my right shoe, hurling me to the ground on my hands and face. Blood? No! Then get up and run! Sjoerd says something I can't hear. I have to run.
Saturated with acid, just as they'd be after a 400m at full pace, my legs no longer work. I compensate with my arms. Hurling. Heaving. I see Tijmen and hear him screaming, goading me on. I don't know what he is saying. I am trying. There is. Nothing. Left. And I. Am. Still. Running. When you go this deep—and even if you don't—the last portion of the marathon resides outside of thought and understanding. Words can't go here. Only runners can.
I hurl myself over the finish line, and am caught by Sjoerd and Sander. 3:00:26. Twenty-seven seconds short of the original goal. And I. Don't. Care. To get a 3:00 time, I had to go to the other side. I had. To cross. The line. Between living. And not. They carry me to Astra's arms, to Loek's face, and they carry me further, lowering me to the ground, elevating my legs, sliding dextrose tablets in my mouth. Astra looks at me with worry, with eyes that say what have you done? My teammates congratulate me through the fog, telling me I've done something amazing. Little by little, over the span of fifteen minutes, the darkness brightens, and I return to this world. My teammates raise me cautiously to my legs. I stand.
I am not Michel Butter. I am Douglas Ota. I am a 3 hour marathoner, and proud of it.