Great cross-country runners look great while running. Their feet barely touch the ground, sweat drips from their bodies in just the right way and their compact and efficient bodies glide over the earth with a long, graceful, beautiful stride.
Union runners are no different. Will Donelson, junior chemistry major, and his friends Bailey Bell, senior economics major, and Jake Whitney, junior cell and molecular biology major, all have great strides and make running look easy.
This Saturday, the three of them, some of their friends and myself participated in the Andrew Jackson Half Marathon. The goal for our group was to get some people to sponsor us so we could raise money for kids to go to summer camp for a local ministry.
It would also be a way for me to figure out just how out of shape I’ve become since high school when I ran cross-country and track. I wasn’t great, but I also wasn’t terrible.
But I haven’t run for exercise or training purposes in maybe six months, and I forgot about the race until two weeks before race day. I ran at most 20 miles in one of the weeks before the race. That wasn’t enough to make a substantial difference in my conditioning before the long run.
Donelson puts in more miles than most runners, sometimes running 100 miles in a week and has pushed himself to qualify for the national meet next season.
He plans on winning this race and running something like a 5:30 mile the whole way. I plan on finishing the race, and I would be elated to come in at or under two hours, which is a 9:10 mile the whole way.
Before the race we do all the normal pre-race things, but their warmup is too intense for me, so I go to the starting line and just wait for the race to start.
0:00: I think someone just yelled “go,” and now the pack is starting to move. Is that the start of the race? They didn’t quiet us down or do anything to make us know it was the start. I think I’m supposed to wait to start my watch until I reach the blue pad, but I can’t tell. The people on my team that said they would run at an 8:30 mile pace are gone. Donelson, Bell and Whitney started at a pace that looks like sprinting to get ahead of the pack.
2:00: I’m by the field house amidst a swarm of little kids, old people and one well-dressed couple that seems to actually know what they’re doing. They have all the running gear—dry fit shirts, those spandex compression sleeves on their calves, special running head phones that wrap around their whole ears and the really cool running sunglasses. They can barely hear each other because of their head phones so they’re yelling the whole time.
3:34: I just passed a woman wearing a cardigan. She’s walking and out of breath. I think this might be one of five people less prepared for this than me.
5:15: There are a lot of people around me, and I can’t figure out where we are going. A lot of people have passed me already and I’ve passed a good number of people too.
8:20: Wait. Was that the first mile? Did they just spray paint it on the ground where I could miss it or was that the first mile for the full marathon? Are they the same thing? I have no idea how fast I’m going, and that is a terrifying thing. I’ll probably burn out around mile five.
10:51: I’ve reached the first bathroom/liquid station. People I don’t know yell “Good job! You’re doing great!” “You want some water?” Of course I’m doing fine right now—we’re only 10 minutes into the race.
12:17: I’m right beside Well-Dressed Couple who, I think, are pacing for two hours or a little less like I want to. All I know is he just said something about slowing down to stay on pace, and I’m very interested.
13:03: An older guy (somewhere between 50 and 80 years old—it’s hard to tell because he’s in really good shape) just passed me. He’s wearing a singlet, has a large gut, cool running sunglasses and super hard, tanned arms and legs. He looks like he’s been running races like this for 40 years.
17:47: Two guys around the age of 40 are running in front of me and Well-Dressed Couple. We’ve turned into a neighborhood that consists of just one hill we have to run up for five minutes, and they’re just complaining about their kids the whole time. It’s really incredible because they’re talking like you would if you were sitting around instead of in the middle of a race, but also annoying because if I start talking like that while trying to run in this race I will pass out.
20:41: There’s a girl about 45 feet ahead of me that does this thing where her left hand has her thumb up like she’s trying to hitchhike out of the race. I understand you, Hitchhike Girl. I feel your pain.
24:56: I just passed Hitchhike Girl and the best friends. It’s a good feeling to finally pass some people.
27:08: I still don’t know how many miles I’ve gone, but it feels slow. I’m afraid if I let Well-Dressed Couple get in front of me I will never catch back up so I get in front of them. There’s only room for us to go two wide, and I will not be forced to be behind them.
30:20: Now that I’m in front of Well-Dressed Couple I have no idea what my pace is, and there’s a really tall skinny guy right on my tail. I can also see a little girl with pigtails running in front of me. Out of pride I pick up the pace.
35:00: That was the fourth mile mark, no question about it. Now I know I’m going at an 8:45 mile pace. Meanwhile, Donelson is close to the seven mile mark. Nonetheless, I’m feeling good, and I think I can maintain this pace for awhile and finish under two hours.
38:24: I’m passing the next aid station, and I realize that the Union men’s soccer team is in charge. My friend Morgan Goodman, is a very energetic and inspirational person and yells a lot. I understand about half of what he’s saying as I pass by. “Beautiful! Water? Powerade? Of course you don’t! You’re too good!” I just ran probably the fastest I’ve run all race to get out of the tunnel and around the corner.
40:47: I’m in vintage race mode now. It feels like I’m back in high school. My stride is back long again, I’m just moving slower. I don’t care too much about pace because I can drive myself to keep running faster by trying to pass the person in front of me.
43:57: I see exactly who I want to pass. He’s tall, kind of chubby and has a CamelBak pack on. Why do you need that for the half marathon? I will take him down during this race even if it kills me.
46:32: I’ve passed four people, and the pack’s thinned out now. The Camel is real close now, and I can hear his music playing. It’s actually really good music. I like The Camel now and I hope he does well. I also don’t know if I can pass him because my hamstrings are starting to get sore like I’ve already finished the race.
52:00: Six miles. That’s an 8:40 pace, but the last mile and a half have been too fast, and I’m slowing down. The Camel is further ahead and my goal is slipping away from me. My mind focuses more on the pain now instead of running, passing people or finishing. This is bad.
58:34: I don’t know where I am. I don’t recognize my surroundings, and I can barely pick my legs up. My hamstrings feel totally shot. I’m becoming less coherent and thoughtful as this run keeps going.
1:01: Just passed the seventh mile mark. That was a 9:22 mile, slower than my desired pace. I know I’m halfway done, but I don’t think I’m going to make it.
1:04: The best friends just passed me. That’s not good. They’re going a little faster now, but I can’t generate any power from my legs going up a slight incline for what feels like half a mile or more. The weakness and doubt has officially crept in.
1:07: Well-Dressed Couple just passed me, and they still look good. They’re still yelling to each other at random times. If I can just keep them in sight I’ll be okay.
1:10: I just got passed by a lady who looked like she hadn’t been running at all. Then she stopped to hang out with her kids who had signs for a minute. I just shuffled along. I wish I had someone waiting at random points with signs and laughter. In other news, Donelson just finished the race in first place. That’s a 5:20 mile for 13.1 miles.
1:12: The lady just passed me again and then another friend with a sign was there. The friend ran with her as they sped away from me. Out of my sight and out of my life hopefully. All that goodness just makes me sick.
1:18: My stomach is churning, and I can taste the granola bar I ate before the race. I don’t want to stop though because I think my muscles will all cramp up simultaneously, and I won’t be able to move for hours.
1:20: The vomit hits the grass with a sickening, splashing noise. My throat, tongue and stomach all burn as I try to gather myself. Luckily my legs don’t cramp. They’re just acting like it’s over, and I can’t get back going. Also, Bell and Whitney finished the race in second and third while I’m in mid-puke.
1:21: A nice old lady sees me throw up, and said I need something to help me not pass out. I declined her offers of candy or gum but she unwrapped something and shoved it into my mouth. I’m really confused, and I try to use the candy as a placebo to make me feel better and get back into a rhythm. But when you know something is a placebo, it doesn’t really work.
1:33: I don’t know what’s happening anymore. Why am I running? Why do I do anything? Maybe I can fall over and get someone to drive me to the finish line.
1:35: I’m starting to slip into delirium. I’ve started singing “Mad World” by Gary Jules in my head. This song is so depressing, and it’s a telltale sign that I’m becoming a nihilist because of this run.
1:40: I make another turn off a road thinking I was much closer to the finish line only to be told I still have a two to three miles left by some volunteer. I basically growled at her in response to her encouragement.
1:43: All around me are familiar places, worn out places, worn out faces.
1:47: I just got passed by a dude that looked like my dad. He yelled at me about not quitting because I was so close. I tried to say, “You too man” but it came out like “Yah-tofoo ah.”
2:00: Entering Union’s campus. As long as I can avoid the big hill on the backside of campus and just cut right by White Hall I’ll be okay.
2:01: I was wrong. I have to go up the hill.
2:02: My feet aren’t coming off the ground anymore. They’re just barely inching forward with each “step.”
2:02: Maaaad World.
2:03: The older lady behind me just yelled at me to not walk because I’m close. But I’m not walking. My run is that slow, and my stride is that pathetic right now. For all those people, myself included back in the day, who said running is good for your mind are wrong. I’ve never felt more pathetic than this moment.
2:05: I almost tripped on the curb because I’ve lost the ability to run in a straight line. I can barely see anything right now.
2:06: My friends Ross and Lydia and their two kids are waiting at the top of the hill to cheer me on. Lydia finished the race 30 minutes ago. She’s really fast. I just kind of weakly smile and give the most pathetic thumbs up as I shuffle on.
2:07: The lady behind me has grandchildren who have run up to her to help her run faster going into the very last stretch of the race. I can’t let her beat me, so I start picking up the pace a little bit, driven by fear of humiliation and what little pride I have left.
2:08: They’re gaining on me, so I go back into any energy I have left and “take off.” This is the most pathetic kick I’ve ever run in my life. I know I don’t have great top-end speed, but it feels like I’m going really fast even though I know I’m not.
2:09: I crossed the finish line. My roommates Andrew and Chris are there to support me, holding me upright and congratulating me on my finish. All of my leg and back muscles are on fire, then they tighten up. Everything is pain. I think a lady put a medal around my neck and gave me a water bottle. I can’t wait for all the free post-race food like PB&J sandwiches, bananas, orange slices, pizza and a free therapeutic massage.
I have never been more sore or in as much pain than I after the race when the soreness set in on my muscles and joints. The lack of preparation caused the race to totally ravage my body. I spent the rest of the day laying around and complaining about how much pain I was in.
The next day, I was at lunch with Donelson and Whitney. I could barely stand up without using something for support and they just ate, chatted and laughed about the day before like it was a game. I asked if they were sore and I got the same answers.
“I guess I’m a little sore, but not really. I like the pain in my quads.”
That’s the key to being a great distance runner. You have to love pain.