The Big Six

Okay, so who doesn’t contemplate running a half-marathon on the Saturday before Thanksgiving.  Clearly I had gone over the edge and was living in an alternative universe. 

Why else would I be standing in drizzling rain with a group of two hundred local runners in the sleepy village of Pinehurst, North Carolina, waiting for the race to start and watching technicians put the starting line electronics into place.  Eight minutes before the race and they still are arranging the black mats on the street.  I can see the wires from under the pads stretch to a white van parked along the curb.  Okay, so this arrangement either will track our times or electrocute us as we run across the starting line in the early morning rain.

Ten minutes earlier no one was on this street at all; cars were driving back and forth unimpeded, simply Pinehurst retirees beginning their Saturday, like every Saturday, driving to the drug store for their meds or to one of several golf courses encasing the town.  Except for runners milling about looking as mystified as me, I would have said I was in the wrong spot, wrong town, wrong sport altogether – that is, if the golf played around here by eighty-year-olds can be called a sport…

What the hell am I doing here?

Once again, my dastardly daughter Helen instigated my dire situation; she got me into this debacle back when I was at my most vulnerable…

It was about six weeks earlier in mid-October and we were in the celebration area of the Chicago Marathon, enjoying the post-race festivities in Grant Park: I was sitting on the grass recovering nicely from running 26.2 miles, drinking my first beer in weeks, and listening to a live rock band on the festival stage.  In truth, I was focusing my attention and remaining energy on taking off my shoes, peeling down my socks, and putting my sore feet into the soft, comfortable sandals my wife Karen brought from the hotel.

“Hey, Dad,” Helen said, standing beside me, pointing to the blue and white banner above the stage across the way.  “Look at that.  There’s the list of the six major marathons in the world.  Chicago is one of them.” 

“Very cool,” I responded, not looking up at the stage.

“Say, Dad, I was thinking… now that you have run the Chicago and your time qualifies you for Boston – why not run them all?” 

What?  Wait a minute… 

Did I mention, until then, I was focused serenely on my sore sixty-year-old feet and whether or not one of my toes was leaking my very life’s blood into my skanky socks?

With toe in hand, I squinted at the list of cities: Boston, Chicago, New York, Berlin, London, and Tokyo.   You have got to be kidding me…

“Why not, Dad!  Think about it!  After Boston, we can go with you to Berlin and Tokyo, and London would be great to see again too!  We could do them all!”    

Wait a minute, who said I was running the Boston Marathon?

Insanity.  There is a type of insanity known as “post-marathon euphoria.”  My wife Karen, the psychologist, says it’s a form of psychosis common to runners when they are at their weakest: after a race, resting their bloody toes in cool blades of grass, and drinking cold beers on empty stomachs; she says it’s especially known to hit sixty-year-old men suffering from years of dementia and the more recent phenomenon: exercise-related memory loss. 

Where am I anyway?  Why am I holding my toe, gasping in pain?

Helen was on her phone googling the other major races. 

“Look, Dad,” she said, “I swear, you can do the five remaining races over the next two years.  What a great goal and we can be with you!” 

Hmmm…  Isn’t she in college?  Clearly the gods of racing had passed me over to the gargoyles of insanity.

Okay, okay, so it turns out, ACTUALLY you CAN do these things, but you have to plan them CAREFULLY – spontaneity is NOT the operative word in running the six major marathons of the world. 

That night in the hotel room, looking further into this with Helen on her laptop, we discovered quickly how long it takes to participate in such races.  The application period for the Boston Marathon, for instance, was closed already for the upcoming race in April; no new applications were being accepted and, certainly, not as late as October.  If I wanted to run in Boston, it would have to be 18 months from now. 

However, as Helen pointed out, if it simply is a matter of applying sometime after April when the window opens and if it simply is a matter of paying the fee, and, of course, waiting to see if I am selected (as Boston has many more applicants than they can accommodate), well then, what the heck, no sweat.

That seemed easy enough; Helen was right.  If I didn’t get selected, not a problem, I never wanted to run the Boston Marathon anyway.  

But, wait, what if I did get selected?  Was I seriously thinking of running 26 miles in Boston a year and a half from now?  Were we all flying to Boston?  All of us?  Karen, Helen and me?  Our friends?  Were we really that crazy? 

Clearly this was a case of group-instigated, post-marathon eu-fucking-phoria.    

Even crazier was sitting with my daughter that October night contemplating what major races I ACTUALLY could run next year, given Boston was not available to me. 

Of the Big Six, all of the spring marathons were closed (London, Boston, Tokyo), leaving only the fall races (New York, Berlin and Chicago) to consider.  Turns out, looking into this further, Berlin, an early September race, was closed, too, for the year ahead.  This meant, next year, either I could repeat Chicago or focus, instead, on New York in November.

“New York could be fun,” Helen said perusing the New York site on her computer.  Karen added, lying across the bed reading a women’s magazine, “We could go Christmas shopping.”       

Jeez, I could see the cost climbing exponentially! 

Wait a minute… in reviewing the qualifying times for my age group, I realized in a wave of stomach-churning angst, my time earlier that day didn’t meet the minimum standard: I actually needed to complete the Chicago Marathon four minutes faster to qualify for New York!  Oh my god!  

“Not only that,” Helen said, pointing to the fine print, “but look, the window to qualify closes December 31st.”

Oh no. (Thank god, I thought, shoving my head under a pillow.)

“Dad,” Helen suggested, slowly, encouragingly, “Just find a local race and lower your time by four minutes.  That’s all.  That shouldn’t be too hard.  After all, races are scheduled all the time, and, once entered, you’ve got twenty-six miles to do it.” 

Helen paused, as she contemplated what that meant.  “Just cut fifteen seconds off each mile and you’ll lower your time six and a half minutes.  Perfect!”

I swear, there is something wrong with that girl.

I thought about the race earlier in the day and how hard it was to stay at the eight-minute-per-mile pace.  Now she was saying I should cut an additional fifteen seconds off of every mile for twenty-six miles?  Ack…  

The gargoyles of insanity had just passed me over to the Angel of Death. 

There’s got to be an easier way!  Maybe we could bribe someone?

Clearly, I needed to go to bed.  It had been a long day.  I was delusional.  Somehow I had fallen into a nightmare and was contemplating marathons all over the world. 

The one thought that kept occurring to me over and over later that night:  How the hell would I have enough time to recover from Chicago and still run a stellar twenty-six mile race to meet New York’s standards before the end of the year?  

A race that would require an all-time personal best…

Clearly, Helen was trying to kill me.  I had told her there was no inheritance in the vault; I had spent whatever I had on running shoes.  She obviously didn’t believe me.

Returning to North Carolina a day later, I sought my gym instructor at the Health and Fitness Center and explained my dilemma: either my daughter and wife were in collusion to get me out of the picture, or they wanted to go shopping in the six major cities of the world and were using this as an excuse to get me to tag along. 

Luckily, Hannah, the physiologist at the Center, was used to working with crazy old men and, she could tell, dementia was running rampant throughout my mind and body. 

She asked if I had ever heard of post-marathon euphoria…


Thank god, Hannah ran in college.  She agreed that a marathon at this late date was out of the question.  Thank god.  

But, wait, what was she saying:

“With so little time left to prepare,” she suggested with an innocent smile, “why not qualify with a half-marathon instead.”  

Oh no…

Slowly we walked over to her computer and pulled up New York’s requirements for runners qualifying with a half-marathon.  I peaked at the screen between my fingers.  

Oh no…

Turned out, this too was crazy:  for a half marathon, I would need to come in under 1:40 (one hour and forty minutes) – the half-marathon I had run earlier, back in the spring, I came in at 1:49. 

In other words, I would need to shave nine minutes off of my best time.

What did this mean essentially?

“Run faster,” Hannah advised earnestly.    

She thought for a second longer, “Oh and find a flat course.”

So here I am, standing with a bunch of local runners in Pinehurst, North Carolina, on the Saturday morning before Thanksgiving, watching race officials hide exposed wires under the starting mats.  If I didn’t trip over those wires, it would be a miracle. 

Am I crazy?  After weeks of deliberation, is this really the nationally sanctioned half-marathon I have chosen to qualify for New York? 

The weather is downright chilly and now a drizzly rain is falling.  Perfect.  Perfect for my demeanor: cold, cranky, and completely over it. 

What the hell am I doing here?  

To be clear, I needed to average a 7:30 per-mile-pace to come in under 1:40.  The previous half-marathon, back in the spring, I had run at an 8:16 pace; I would have to drop that time by forty-five seconds-per-mile to qualify for NYC.

To say I was a little concerned would be an understatement.  

In fact, a week earlier I drove down to Pinehurst and checked out the course.  In slowly driving over and assessing the entire 13.1 mile-layout, I nearly lost it: my stomach, once again, churning up a storm.  

It wasn’t long before I was slamming the car to a stop at a local gas station and sprinting to the bathroom: I had one bad case of diarrhea, along with a much larger case of foreboding.

The course I drove was much hillier than I ever in my wildest dreams imagined, and some of the hills were hills on top of hills, and some of the hills that were not hills on top of hills were hills that still entailed significant mountain climbing equipment.  This was not good.  Not good at all.  

This was not the flat course I had envisioned and definitely not the course for sixty-year-old men to qualify for New York.

What the hell was I doing here?    

I decided, right then and there, in that men’s bathroom with an open hole for a lock, right there in that greaser of a gas station selling boxes of ammunition like bubble gum, sitting there seeing symbolism in the old condom machine stuck on the men’s room wall with “this machine sucks” scratched on the front, I had had enough:  the six major marathons be damned.  

I could qualify for New York anytime next year and run it two years from now, along with Boston – if that was what the gods of racing wanted me to do, then so be it.  I yield completely to their desires.  Let them explain it to Helen.  

So, there remains just one question:  

Why, the hell, am I standing in the drizzling rain behind the starting line one week later in Pinehurst, North Carolina?

Clearly, I have fallen into an alternate universe.

A man, likely the race director, but maybe a good old boy coming in from the field, steps from the van and stands in front of us.  He yells something to the effect that his microphone isn’t working, but we should, “Listen up!” 

“Watch out for cars on the route,” he yells.  (Cars?)  He hopes we have a good run and, “don’t get hit.”  (Cars?) 

“Oh, and follow the signs,” he yells to everyone, “or, if that fails, follow the runner in front of you, hopefully that guy knows where he is going.”  

(Jeez, you’ve got to be kidding me.) 

Lemmings to the sea, I am thinking, here in the middle of nowhere in the Sand Hills of North Carolina…

It continues to drizzle as he raises an air horn above his head and presses down on the trigger, laughing and wincing at the loud blast piercing the thick air.  Fifteen or so people watching the start cheer, but I am back in the pack and I miss that magical moment.  

The spectators are quiet, holding their umbrellas and looking bored, when I run past.  

Luckily when I run across the starting line, I don’t catch on fire and burn to a crisp, so I decide this is a good sign.  Hopefully, the race officials, tucked away in the white van peering into their green-tinted screens, are now tracking me.  If I don’t get run-over by a F-150 truck or a golf cart, I actually might survive this half-a-marathon-racing-fiasco. 

Quickly I pass runners of all shapes and sizes and soon am running at a pace to have a chance at qualifying for New York.  I know from driving the course the week earlier that the first two miles are relatively flat, and, sure enough, after the second mile, my time is under fifteen minutes.  

The soft feminine voice on my running app confirms it.  “Keep it up, you fabulous hunk of man meat,” I think I hear her say.  (Updating that app sure made a difference!)

As I start up the first of several small climbs heading for the first significant mountain at Mile Five, I decide to see how long I can continue at this pace.  The runners in front of me have thinned out and no one is on the streets cheering us, which, I decide, would have been a distraction to the golfers; it is just a matter of staying motivated, picking off runners, and avoiding oncoming cars!  

By Mile Four, I am still on pace, and, a mile later begin climbing the first big hill of the race, passing runners who aren’t prepared for the steep climb.  One guy, in particular, I have been following for several miles; he looks like he is my age, maybe older.  Just like that, on the first big hill, I am past him.  (Take that you old geezer!) 

I join up with another runner, by chance, and we climb the steep part of the hill together, neither one of us getting in front of the other.  He looks to be in his mid-forties, Irish, and wearing a faded, dark green tee-shirt promoting Guinness Stout or some such.  He is a heavy-set fellow, and I can’t help but wonder how long he can maintain this pace.           

At Mile Six, I am surprised to see I am still on pace, and, even, my new Irish friend is hanging close by me: every time I push to get in front of him, he passes me right back.  (Who is this guy?)  Still, I focus on getting my breathing under control, especially for the second half of the race, when, for the next several miles, the hills will test us. 

The tough sequence of stiff hills between Miles Seven and Ten are too much, and my newly-found Irish friend falls back; soon I no longer hear him behind me.  Instead, I am tracking a younger guy in his mid-thirties several hundred yards ahead.  He appears to be a wild man, running with abandon, like this is a first race for him.  His arms seem to be everywhere at once.  No discipline in his form.  I focused on catching him.  

Climbing these hills is the hardest part of the race and my wild man and I are passing people who have slowed due to the difficulty.  Though I too am struggling, by Mile Nine we are side by side, my wild man and me, when suddenly, out of the blue, my former Irish friend, the guy with the Guinness shirt, races by us.

What the hell!  Where did he come from? 

He is putting distance between us, but there is nothing I can do about it here in this sequence, and I wonder how long it can last.  As my wild man and I climb the last major hill, slowly but surely we reel Mr. Guinness in and pass him for the final time.  (Nice try, oh Stout Warrior!  See you in the fields of green!) 

My thirty-year-old wild man, by this time, is now in front of me.  I decide, he hates to think a sixty-year-old man is keeping up with him and now is forcing himself to stay ahead.  I don’t see how that can last.  His feet are pounding the pavement way too hard; his arms and hands are like an orchestra conductor’s, all over the place, like he is leading a large symphony on an opening night; he is expending too much energy.       

Most amazingly, I realize, remembering my own goals, I am still under the overall time needed to complete the course.  

At this point, with three miles remaining and the route becoming flatter, it dawns on me: I ACTUALL HAVE A SHOT at this thing.  

I will kill myself – I mean, absolutely commit hari-kari – if I lose it now, here in the end after pushing through all those mean Appalachian Mountains.  

Mile Eleven and I am right behind my wild man, running on his heels; I know he knows I am there; he can hear me close by, feel my breath.  He wants to turn around and look at me (Who am I anyway?), but we are too close.  He can’t pull away. 

By the time we reached Mile Twelve, my watch indicates I have ten minutes to run the last 1.1 miles.  I know, though, up ahead on the course there is one last, large dip down a hill and a tough climb immediately on the other side to get to the final sprint.  My wild man moves out on the downward leg, using the slope to separate from me, but I catch him coming up the backside where he is sucking air.  My friend doesn’t have a chance.  I zoom past him and never look back.  (Good-bye, my young Leonard Bernstein, so full of talent, yet so much to learn!) 

Picking up the pace at the top of the hill and through the final half mile, it is like a pack of wild dogs are chasing me.  Ahhhhhhhhhh…. 

The same fifteen people who watched the start of the race are now at the finish, but none of them look at me.  I am like a ghost runner in their midst, or, perhaps, I am sprinting so fast, they only feel the breeze as I sweep past.  Yes, I am Flash and running faster than their heads can turn.  No one will pass me on this final straight-a-way: NO ONE!

My wife Karen sees me!  She came for the finish, and she takes my picture for Helen.  I know I look like a crazy man: I have on my “Indian death mask” face and am huffing and puffing, sending out wicked spells to ward off any last-minute sprinters.  With a wild-eye glint and a cock-sure resolve, I have conquered this course. 

At least, that’s what I think. 

Karen says, “You sure looked crazy.”  She is less certain about the Indian death mask. 

Luckily, for my family’s sake and mine, I cross the finish line at 1:38:32 and am a minute and a half under the qualifying time needed for New York, ten-and-a-half minutes faster than when I ran the half-marathon back in March.

Motherfucker!  Take that, you fucking course!

Karen and I don’t stick around for the post-race festivities taking place under a hospitality tent on a muddy field in the drizzling rain.  We have what I came for and will not be back.  Instead we spend the afternoon shopping in Pinehurst.  Thank god I am not a golfer. 

The window for the New York City Marathon opens the Monday after Thanksgiving.  My qualifying time will be substantiated on the Pinehurst website.  Of course, my application is bound to sink to the bottom of a large pool of approximately 80,000 runners from which 50,000 names will be drawn, which makes the selection process more of a miss than hit, so… 

Will Pudge Man, Jet Giles, the Man in Black, Thor, and, now, the man known as Flash run the Big Six?  Will he make his daughter and wife happy shopping in the most exotic cities of the world, or, more likely, die of old age and sore feet in some North Carolina town in the middle of nowhere?  Stay tuned.  The saga continues.



Categories: History of Running

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