Marathon & Beyond Monday: Not a PR, But Still Unforgettable

August 8, 2011
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On this episode of Marathon & Beyond Monday, we hear racewalker Lawrence Block’s entertaining story of an unforgettable marathon experience in New Orleans. For a a free PDF file of this story complete with color pictures, click here; or you can scroll down for the full text of the article. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.

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My Most Unforgettable Marathon

(And what I learned from it)

 

by Lawrence Block

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA, February 25, 2007—The forecast was rain
all day Sunday.
Marathons are like football games. Weather’s not enough to cause
their cancellation, unless it’s pretty dramatic. A hurricane will do it, but this
was February of 2007, the weekend after Mardi Gras, and hurricane season was
months away. So it would rain, and we would do what marathoners do when it
rains. We’d get wet.
I don’t mind getting wet. When I was a boy my mother assured me I wouldn’t
melt, and so far she’s been right about that. Though a year earlier I’d found myself
wondering.
That was in Houston, on the last weekend of February 2006, where I partici-
pated in a 24-hour race around a two-mile asphalt loop in Bear Creek Park. The
race got under way at seven in the morning, and within an hour it started rain-
ing, and it didn’t entirely quit for eight hours or so. Sometimes it was a drizzle
and sometimes it was a downpour, but the rain coming down was the least of it;
what drove us all mad was the rain after it had fallen. The course didn’t drain
properly, and great sections of our path were ankle deep in water. It slowed me
down and shortened my stride and messed up my feet and did nothing good for
my disposition, let me tell you. More to the point, it led me to retire from the
race after 18 hours or so, with 64.25 miles to my credit. That was enough to top
my one previous 24-hour race, but only by a mile. I don’t know how far I might
have gone in Houston on a dry surface, but I’m fairly sure I’d have managed a
few more circuits of the course.
So I really wasn’t looking forward to rain at the New Orleans race. But I’d
show up rain or shine. I wouldn’t melt.

A sidebar on grammar

My wife, Lynne, and I flew down to New Orleans on Friday.
(Note, if you will, the commas before and after her name. The sentence would
flow better without them, but they’re there for a reason. They indicate that Lynne’s
my only wife. If I didn’t use them for Lynne, you’d have every right to suspect me
of bigamy. Now this is one of those linguistic niceties like, say, the subjunctive,
that seem designed chiefly to make people who are aware of it feel good about
themselves. I’d love to leave out those commas, but I don’t want you thinking
I’ve got more than one wife. One’s plenty.)
Lynne doesn’t usually accompany me to marathons—she has a life, even if
I don’t—but New Orleans is her birthplace and remains very dear to her heart.
We’d come down for the Mardi Gras Marathon the previous year, and planned
a repeat, but with one notable difference: on Tuesday she’d return to New York,
while I’d stay put for a month and get a book written. It was a book I’d gotten
absolutely nowhere with for over a year, and I was dreading it, but nowhere near
as much as I was dreading the marathon.
Three weeks earlier I’d walked the Pacific Shoreline Marathon, in Huntington
Beach, California. It was held on a beautiful seaside course, and the weather was
splendid, and I was just cruising along, not pushing the pace, until somewhere
around the 16-mile point I got a sharp pain in the ball of my foot. It was bad
enough that I might have stopped but for the fact that this was an out-and-back
course and the only way to get back to my hotel was to keep walking. The pain
was really quite intense, but I was able to walk through it and maintain my pace,
and then after four or five miles, just like that it went away. I never knew why it
vanished, but then again I never knew why it appeared in the first place. I finished
the race, got my medal, ate eight or 10 oranges and anything else I could find,
and went to my room to shower and put my feet up.
And they weren’t in such great shape. My right foot, the one that had given
me trouble during the race, had nothing wrong with it where I’d had the pain, not
as far as I could determine. But the little toe had taken a beating, and the outer
layer of skin on it slipped off like a glove, taking the nail with it. It didn’t hurt all
that much, and I was confident I could get along without that layer of skin, and
without the nail as well.
Still, I’d had the thing for 68 years . . .

We can’t talk about what I’m not doing

A couple of days later I made a guest appearance on The Late Late Show. All I
wanted to talk about was walking, but Craig Ferguson kept dragging the conversa-
tion back to my books. He wanted to know what I was working on, and of course
I wasn’t working on anything.

That was the first weekend in February, and I spent the next three weeks back
in New York, doing precious little to prepare for New Orleans. In 2006 they held
the race the first weekend in February, before rather than after Mardi Gras, and
it had been the scene of my greatest triumph in the sport. I’d completed the race
in 5:17, the best time I’d ever recorded at that distance. (I’d gone faster back in
1981, when I’d done five marathons, but in three of them I ran part of the way. I
did walk the 1981 Jersey Shore Marathon in 4:53, but I was 43 at the time, and
I was 66 when I resumed racewalking in 2005. That 5:17 in New Orleans was
my best time since then.)
Not only did I post a personal record time, but I actually won something. New
Orleans is one of a handful of marathons with a judged racewalking division, and
in due course I received a plaque for having been the second male racewalker.
I’d done the same a month earlier in Mobile, but my triumph was somewhat
dimmed by the fact that there were only two of us. In New Orleans I was second
of seven or eight, and the young Floridian who took
top honors nosed me out by only 42 minutes.
But that was then, and this was now, and that 5:17
looked out of reach. Especially if it rained. And especially if that foot pain I’d
encountered in Huntington Beach—and had twinges
of during my infrequent training sessions—should happen to return.

The weather was all right on Saturday. The day’s highlight was a meeting with Glen Mizer,

whom I knew only from his posts on the Walking Site message board. At my suggestion he and
his wife, Carol, had booked a room at Fairchild House, where Lynne and I always
stay; it’s on Prytania Street in the Lower Garden District, and marathoners pass it
twice, at 15 and 24 miles. Glen came up to our apartment Saturday afternoon and
the two of us hit it off immediately. I didn’t have a tape recorder running, but later
I would post my best recollection of our conversation on the message board:
“Oh, I’m so out of shape it’ll take a miracle to get me to the starting line. I
haven’t been out walking since my last race.”
“You’re ahead of me, fellow. I didn’t even walk in my last race. Some old
boys picked me up and carried me across the finish line.”
“I did get out for a few minutes yesterday, but I had to use a cane.”
“I had me one of them aluminum walkers.”
“I was gonna use one this morning, but I lost my balance trying to get up out
of the wheelchair.”
“That chair of yours hand propelled or motorized?”
Glen’s also a racewalker, and younger and faster than I. Lately, however, he’d
found himself forced by some sort of indeterminate injury to alternate walking
with intervals of slow jogging—“slogging,” he termed it. Thus he would have to
compete as a runner, rather than enter the racewalking category. This news did
not break my heart.
We talked about the weather, too. The forecast had changed from rain all day
Sunday to rain starting Saturday night and ending an hour or so into the race.
We agreed that we’d be out there rain or shine—I suppose Glen’s mother had
tipped him off, too, that he wouldn’t melt—but that shine was better. And we
left it at that.
Lynne and I went out to dinner to a pizza joint a block away on St. Charles
Avenue. I had a bowl of pasta as a sop to tradition. I don’t know that anybody
pays a whole lot of attention to carboloading these days, and I’m not sure it makes
any sense for someone cruising at racewalking pace, but everybody just knows
you’re supposed to eat pasta before a marathon. And it’s not as though it amounts
to a great sacrifice. It’s pasta, after all, not spiders. What’s not to like?
Though if someone proved, or even strongly suggested, that a marathoner’s
performance would improve if he ate spiders the night before a race, well, you
can bet there’d be a whole lot of arachnids swimming in marinara sauce . . .

The rain gods skip town

It rained a little during the night, but not heavily, and it had stopped well before
dawn. I got up early, ate an energy bar for breakfast, got dressed, and pinned on
my two number bibs. (Racewalkers were issued an extra bib to wear on their back,
so that the judges could tell at a glance who was a walker.) Glen was waiting out
front and Lynne drove the two of us to the Superdome, where the race would
start and finish.
When it did start, Glen slogged off and disappeared into the distance. I took
it easy, cruising along at a gentle warm-up pace, and for the first three miles or
so everything was fine.
Then my foot started to hurt—the right foot, in the same spot that had both-
ered me in California. It was nowhere near that bad, it was pain I could live with
and in fact walk with, but I’d have been happier without it. I knew immediately
what I’d pretty much assumed anyway—that my time last year, 5:17, was way
out of reach. But that was OK, and I could still get through the race and finish
in decent time.
The race course is west, through the French Quarter and out to City Park,
where we turned around and followed the same route back to the Superdome.
At that point, the race would be over for the half-marathoners and half over for
the rest of us. Around mile eight or nine, I decided getting through 26 miles was
going to be more than I could stand. I decided what I ought to do was go through
the half-marathon finish at the 13.1-mile point and call it a day.
Now, thoughts of this sort are frequent for me. There’s often a point in the
course of a race when I decide the hell with it! and the phrase I’m too old for
this shit echoes like an old song. The thing is, see, that I never give in to it—or
at least I never have. Back in my early 40s, when I sometimes raced 40 times a
year, I never once quit short of the finish line. That record is more a testament to
determination than to good sense, as there were a couple of races I would have
been well advised to abandon, but so far I’ve always hung in there to the finish
line.
Still, just as thoughts of suicide will get a person through a bad night, so will
thoughts of dropping out keep a fellow on his feet. I told myself I’d quit at the
halfway point, and when it came time for the half-marathoners to zig left and
cross their finish line, I zagged to the right instead along with the rest of the full
marathoners.
The course would now head up through the Garden District and on to Audu-
bon Park, where it would make a circuit of the park before heading right back to
the Superdome. Prytania Street was the route’s main artery, and Fairchild House
was right there on our route, at the 15-mile mark and again around 24 miles. I’d
have to get back to Fairchild House even if I dropped out, so I decided to keep
going at least until I got there.

That’s what I’d do. Hang in until I got to Fairchild House, and then go to our
room and lie down, and skip the Anchorage Marathon in later June, and never do
another of these damned things for the rest of my life.
Lynne was waiting out front at Fairchild House. I told her I was hurting but said
I thought I’d stay with it a while more, as it wasn’t getting any worse. So I kept

going on Prytania, and I took the little out-and-back detour on Napoleon Avenue,
and I was back on Prytania at approximately 17.5 miles, when the little toe on my
right foot sent out a spasm of pain unlike anything I’d ever experienced. It hadn’t
really been bothering me enough to mention, its soreness was minor compared to
the ache in the ball of the foot, but now, with no warning, it felt as though a tank
had run over it. It was indescribable (although that doesn’t seem to have stopped
me from trying), and it flared up anew every time I took a step.
All of a sudden I couldn’t do better than a slow and rather pathetic limp. I just
stood there for a minute or two, trying to figure out what to do next. If this had
happened a half hour earlier, when I was at Fairchild House, the answer would
have been obvious. I’d have stopped there and then, no question. But now I was
two miles past Fairchild House, and both my choices involved walking; I could
walk back or walk on.

The pain: to stay or to go?

And there was the chance that the pain would vanish as abruptly as it had hap-
pened. So I limped on to give it the opportunity.
Didn’t happen. I was limping along when Glen showed up; he’d already
reached the turnaround in Audubon Park and was on his way back, and feeling
pretty lousy himself; he’d had some sort of sports drink that his stomach wasn’t
happy with. He asked me what I was going to do and said later that, if I’d said I
was going to quit, he’d have accompanied me to Fairchild House and quit himself.
But for some reason I said I’d push on for a little while, and I did.
It took me an hour to cover the next two miles. What kept me going was the
thought of how I’d feel if I started back before reaching the turnaround, only to
have the pain recede. I’d really have found that infuriating. So I kept on limping,
and tried to ignore the people who asked me if I was OK (No, idiot! If I were
OK, I’d be walking right.) and the helpful soul who wanted to know if I needed
electrolyte replacement tablets (Thanks, but what would they possibly do for my
toe?). By the time I reached Audubon Park and swung into the 1.5-mile loop
around it, I figured out my situation. I was in too much pain to go on and too
stupid to stop.
And that became my mantra. I can’t go on, I told myself. I’m too stupid to
quit, I replied. I can’t go on. I’m too stupid to quit. Can’t go on. Too stupid to
quit . . .
During the park loop, my foot pain lost intensity to the point that I could
walk without limping but still couldn’t manage more than a leisurely pace. That
picked up a little by the time I was out of the park and up to the 21-mile marker,
and it was then that I realized I was probably going to be able to finish the race.
The only question was whether I could reach the finish line before the seven-hour

mark, when they were scheduled to shut it down. I didn’t care if it took me every
minute of seven hours, didn’t care if I was the last person across the line, but I
really wanted to finish.
And the pain backed off. I honestly don’t know how that happened. Barring
the intervention of a Higher Power, and I have trouble envisioning one with noth-
ing better to do than enable an aging athlete to persist in his folly, the best I can
come up with is this: the protesting nerves decided I clearly wasn’t getting the
message, so why bother sending it? The fool’s best interests would be served by
stopping, they realized, but he really is too dumb to quit, just as he’s been mut-
tering to himself. So why waste our time on him?
The anthropomorphism aside, I’m not sure this isn’t how it works. Pain, like
everything else, exists for a purpose, and the purpose in this instance was to alert
the organism to the fact that he’d done damage to a portion of himself. The mes-
sage had been delivered, and with a vengeance; the message had been ignored;
there was accordingly no need to go on sending it, and the transmission ceased.
I tried this theory on a friend, and he shook his head and lectured me on
endorphins. My brain started producing endorphins, he told me, and they were
better than morphine at drowning pain. Well, OK, but what prompted the brain to
send out this tidal wave of endorphins? Exercise? I’d been exercising for hours,
and that was what had earned me the pain in the first place. I still like my theory,
and there’s room to stick endorphins into it. The mind, realizing that its message
was being ignored, ordered up a big batch of endorphins as a mechanism for
canceling the message. There!
With the pain gone, I could pick up my pace. I was racewalking at cruising
speed by the time I reached Fairchild House, and the last two miles saw me
moving at my regular racewalking pace, such as it is. I was going flat out when
the finish line came into view, and I sailed across it with a net time of 6:34:25.
That was an hour and 17 minutes longer than the same course took me a year
earlier, and my slowest marathon ever by a good half hour, and yet it felt like
my greatest triumph.
“I honestly don’t know what the hell kept me going,” I posted in my race
report, “outside of a deplorable stubborn streak, but whatever it was I’m grateful
for it.”

Assessing the damage

They hung a medal around my neck after I crossed the finish line, and at the top
of the stadium ramp there was still plenty of food and drink left. More to the
point, there was Lynne, who’d headed for the Superdome after I’d passed her at
the 24-mile point. She drove us back to Fairchild House, and in no time at all I
was in a chair with my feet up.

It took me a while, though, to take my socks off, because I was afraid of what
I would find. I was still surprisingly free of pain, but enough blood had leaked
through the sock to assure me that I hadn’t imagined the whole thing. I did peel
the sock off, finally, and the toe didn’t look good, but it didn’t look that bad, either,
and it was impossible to guess why it had hurt as severely as it had.
I put a bandage on it and got on with my life. We ate in that night. Lynne went
out and came home with a pizza, but the next day I was on my feet and walking
around, and the day after that, Tuesday, Lynne drove herself to the airport, turned
in our rental car, and flew home. And I set myself up at the desk, switched on my
laptop, and started work on the new book.

And what I learned from it

The first thing I learned consisted of unlearning something I’d long ac-
cepted as truth: that nothing can compare to the wisdom of the body, and
that you would do well at all times to listen to the body.

That may be true of some bodies, but mine is not one of them. Re-
gardless of circumstances, my body is very clear about what it wants to
do. It wants to eat, it wants to lie down, and, on increasingly infrequent
occasions, it wants to do something naughty with another body. It has
never wanted to cover 26 miles and change, except perhaps in a limou-
sine, so what the hell does it know about marathons?

I learned something about pain. I learned that sometimes it’s a sometime
thing, a manifestation of the body’s desire to eat and lie down, and that
it thus does not indicate that something is seriously wrong organically. I
learned that I can occasionally keep going, pain or no pain, and that if I
do, the pain may subside, vanishing as mysteriously as it first appeared.
I’ve been told that endorphins have something to do with it, but I’m not
sure about that part. What I think is the pain gets bored. I think the body
realizes that it’s not going to be allowed to eat or lie down, not until
the race is over, so it stops emitting pain signals. “He’s not listening,”
it says to itself, “so the hell with it.”

I learned that “I can’t go on; I’m too stupid to quit” is a surprisingly
serviceable mantra, and probably sustains me more effectively than
“I’m too old for this shit.” (Which may be equally true, but I’d rather
not think about it.)

I learned that a race’s value is not measured solely by the time on the
clock at the finish line. In 2006, I covered the New Orleans course in
5:17, an hour and 17 minutes faster than I managed a year later. That
first race was a PR, and a triumph, yet this is the race I’ve chosen to
write about.