On a wonderfully cool day recently, people on lunch break enjoyed the fresh air of the Walnut Street Bridge, the Susquehanna River meandering below them.
As I stood at the end of the bridge, just short of City Island, I was brought back to five years earlier when 2,000 fellow runners started a 26.2-mile race. Back then, the Harrisburg Marathon finished on the Walnut Street Bridge, and I was standing near the spot where I once collapsed into a wheelchair.
I’d started to run, casually at first, at the age of 40.
Running, like some other things in life, can cascade, and it soon became my addiction. I’m still not sure why it felt so good, but it might have had something to do with creeping middle age, endorphins and a little hole developing in my soul after 15 years in middle management.
The first marathon I entered was a pancake-flat race in York, which proved catastrophic. I trained for it in earnest, pretty much doing everything wrong, heeding no advice and training too fast and too short. My longest training run was 16 miles. In the race I “bonked” (hit the wall) at, you guessed it, mile 16. I heard a spectator say, “I didn’t know people walked these.”
My lower back had started hurting by then, sometimes bad enough that it was tough getting out of bed. After therapy, I started running again. I read an article in Runner’s World about a growing obsession, among some, to qualify for what might be the greatest race, the Boston Marathon.
I increased mileage gradually, my back held, and, in April 2012, I decided to train, a day at a time, for Harrisburg, which had gained a reputation as a well-organized, small-town race. I studied running websites, talked to local track coaches, stretched after runs, ordered chia seeds online, and religiously followed a training program. I stopped short of high altitude training in Colorado, but considered it. By November 2012, I felt like I could run forever.
Nov. 11, 2012, the date of the race, started cold and clear. By 3 a.m., I couldn’t sleep, and I walked my dog down the farm lane. The air from Canada was bracing; a meteor shot against the sky in front of us, too rare to believe.
I reached the parking lot on City Island around 5 a.m. I sat in my car, queasy but encouraged that others also saw fit to arrive so early. I walked around and picked up my packet inside a building. Everything was organized well, and the people were friendly, talking quietly in small groups. I really had nothing to say except for an inner monologue, and I walked back through the parking lot, telling myself I’m not nervous, and why should I be when I’ve put in the miles. A marathon is two races, someone had told me—the first 20 or so, and then the rest.
Before I returned to my car, I saw another man, maybe 30, in his car eating a thick hamburger. Red meat on race day? First the meteor, then this.
Are You OK?
It was finally nearing race time, and we lined up on the Market Street Bridge, which was choked with runners. Super Storm Sandy had hit several weeks before, wiping out the New York Marathon, and the overflow was hitting smaller races. Pace groups distinguished themselves with raised signs, and I went to the fastest group I saw: 3:25 (three hours, 25 minutes).
I’ll run with the group, I said to myself, and then take off, maybe at mile 18. Standing on the bridge facing the city, the sun was up, sweats were off, and it felt good. Announcements were made, and I wanted to run so badly. Two days ago, during my taper, my boss had said, “I bet it’s painful not to be able to run today.” Yes, boss, thanks.
A blond woman in our group, maybe 10 years my junior, said something to me. She was from Australia, living in northern Jersey, very pretty and outgoing. Absently, I pictured myself cheering her on at the finish.
The gun sounded—or maybe it was a horn. I don’t remember. I do remember feeling strong, curbing the temptation to abandon the group. I talked to the pacer as we ran, a friendly, helpful man in his early 30s named Jamie, sporting a hydration pack and yellow shirt. His personal record was 2:53, and he’d done Boston seven times.
Every two miles, there was a table with small water cups. I slowed down at each, took two cups and drank. The group pulled ahead each time, and I scampered after them, probably catching up too quickly. At mile six, I said something to Jamie about feeling so good and asked if it was too early to take off. We still had about 40 or so people in our group, and others heard me and must have thought I was obnoxious.
At mile 18, I said to Jamie, “If I still feel good by now, I have this, right?
Soon afterwards, we hit three short, but sharp hills. A man staggered down one, and Jamie said, “You got this! Stay with us!” But he pulled to the side and stopped, head down. I was still standing and chose this moment to inch ahead. A half-mile later, in an instant, I felt weak, a little sick. Jamie and a group of about 10 came up on me. He said, “Are you OK?”
Under my breath, I said, “Yes, it will be OK.” He offered a gel, strawberry banana. It made me nauseous and worried. I knew how quickly pace can slow, double, even go to stop, and I knew we were just 60 seconds ahead of a 3:25 finish.
We hit the last stretch, a winding path along the Susquehanna back to our bridge. The sun was up in the sky now, piercing in the dry atmosphere. Jamie announced that we had three miles to go, and a bit after, said, “There’s our bridge!” This was the bike section of the Catfish Triathlon that I’d done just a few months earlier, and I knew where I was. The next bridge, now close to us, was the Harvey Taylor, decidedly not Walnut Street. I hated that fact but was glad to know it as we continued past.
By now, I was finished, as if a virulent flu had taken hold. In any circumstance outside of a dire emergency, or, it turned out, a Boston Marathon qualifier, I would collapse and not move for hours. The human body can hold about 2,000 calories of glycogen, and a marathon, on average, requires much more energy than that. It is unbending math, and if you don’t heed it, you’ll bonk. I had ingested gallons of water and pounds of carbs in the days leading up, but intra-race nutrition was the one crucial item I’d left out of race day.
My mind went back to the catastrophe in York, two years before, but my eyes were fixed on Jamie’s yellow shirt, and, for the life of me, I wouldn’t let it recede. We continued, now four of us, along the path’s too-warm cement.
The last hill on this course was the path up to the Walnut Street Bridge. I braced for it, mentally preparing for the effort as a weight lifter might for a deadlift. On top, we saw the finish beyond the edge of the bridge, and Jamie stepped aside, cheering us on. “Mark, go, go. That’s the finish! You got this!”
I wondered how he could be so confident, because every step felt like my last. I lurched over the finish line, and a woman, a smiling volunteer, an angel, pulled up a wheelchair and pushed me to the medical tent. “Someone died at this last year,” she said.
As I looked around the tent from under my blanket, a nurse took my pulse and pushed Gatorade. I saw others in varying states of disrepair. A fit man in his early 30s was on his stomach next to me, a massage therapist teasing out lactic acid. He smiled at me. I grinned drowsily back and said, “I almost didn’t finish,” and he nodded, knowing what I meant.
The 2017 Enders Harrisburg Marathon is scheduled for Nov. 12. The course changed in 2015 and now finishes in downtown Harrisburg. The new finish, according to Tom Gifford, the race director, “allows more spectators, cheering and excitement.” For more information, visit www.ymcarun.com.