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Marathon, Solo
by George Melochick

The finish line has a solitary person waiting. There are no crowds. There are no banners, no tapes across the finish line, no TV cameras, no sponsors, no competitors, no awards, t-shirts, or fees. Finishing 26.2 solo, that's what this was all about.

4:45 am - I excitedly step into the darkness outside the Florida house of my girlfriend, Vicky Cody. I'm dressed in my comfortable, nearly worn out running shoes, backpacking socks, loose running shorts and lucky cotton tee. I face down the still dark road, alone, ready to tackle my first marathon. No traffic, no early morning walkers, runners or bicyclists are out.

I am by nature, a solitary runner. Running in the Army, with seething masses of 100 or more convinced me that once I became a civilian that I would never run again. Despite this I did return to running in my early 30s. Running offered stress relief from a high-pressure job. My co-workers would comment that I was the only runner they knew who smoked a pack of cigarettes a day. I would have my wife drop me off at work with my backpack, change clothes at the end of the day, put my coat and tie in my pack and run the 3 miles home in the hot Florida sun. As time passed, so too did that particular job, the cigarettes and the wife. The running habit remained. I am, I think, an atypical runner in many ways. First, I am not some minimal body fat, lean, gazelle looking creature. I'm 44 years old, 6'4" and 255 pounds. Show me a real person in excess of 250 pounds running in one of those running magazines please.

I use running more to reflect and meditate. The steady pounding rhythm, the intake and exhalation of breath contribute to that meditation. On easy days, I can think on how to solve engineering problems. Some days are so hard I can think of nothing but my next step, my next breath.

5:00 am - It's still dark out. I'm running in the cool Florida night air. Now I'm worried about stepping on some of the local, possibly lethal wildlife still stirring at this time of the morning. Several times I hear movement in the nearby bushes off the bike trail. I flinch according to the closeness and the waiting creature's imagined vehemence. I'm dreading the heat that will come with the sun's rise over the horizon.

December of 1999 I knew I needed a new running goal. My running had been reduced to a few half hearted 5 milers every couple of weeks, sometimes no mileage for an entire week. This had gone on for two or three months. I had quit keeping a running log.

5:30 am - First light. Feeling pretty good. Have left the first wilderness area set between the enclaves of mini-malls and expensive houses that dot this area near the new urbanist mecca of Seaside. Air still cool.

I thought, "I can run marathon distances." My longest run up to beginning marathon training had been 2 hours. I knew I had to find some help from someone who understood where I was in my running and what my priorities were, injury prevention and finishing the race. I contacted local runners and several sites on the internet, all were helpful. I finally settled on Art Liberman as a long distance, internet trainer/coach whose site reflected what I thought was important. Art emphasized the basics, injury prevention and proven, successful techniques and didn't mind that I wasn't looking to make any particular time. His guidance was to prove invaluable. I was unprepared for the devastating physiological effects longer distance running could have for the unprepared.

6:00 am - I'm watching the construction workers arrive before the heat of the day to work on multi-million dollar homes. I however, am heating up. Thirst. Beginning to hope that my support team (Vicky and her blind dog Arriel) will remember to get out of bed. I'm looking very closely at the running lawn sprinklers.

When I first mentioned to people that I was training for a marathon their usual first question was "Which one?" I had decided, from nearly the beginning, that I would run my own marathon. Not for me the crowds. Several people suggested various marathons in different parts of the country. When I asked how many people ran in these, the numbers were usually between 500 and 5,000, too many by 4,999. Art went along with my idea though I could tell he was dubious. He mentioned several alternative marathons, some in enticingly cool locations.

6:30 am - Vicky arrives in her van and I stop to take on water and rehydration fluid. I'm not yet ready to use the carbohydrate gels that I spent 3 hours chasing down yesterday in an unfamiliar town. I think I look and sound pretty good. She says nothing and looks like she wants to go back to bed. I think I should have pre-positioned my supplies. I tell her I think I'll need water at about 30-minute intervals.

I have to apologize to all those people who tried to run with me. As much as I enjoyed their company (some I hadn't seen in years) most liked to talk as they ran. I like watching nature pass by at the beginning of a run. Later into a run, I'm too busy breathing, concentrating and avoiding thinking about various hurts to think reasonably well enough to carry on a conversation.

7:00 am - I've passed a series of lakes. One is named Alligator Lake. I envision alligators eyeing me thinking, "He's obviously one of the slower diseased or injured ones. We ought to grab him and drag him off for the good of the herd." The support team arrives. Now I take a carbohydrate gel pack and can feel the increase in energy almost immediately. The support team says they're going to the beach for a while.

I started off my marathon training in my company's small gym to avoid the worst of the winter weather. I guess I owe all those people an apology too. I'd hog the treadmill for an hour or more, slinging sweat over both machines and not talking more than I had to. I wasn't anti-social just pro-breathing. I would try and come in after everyone finished and reserve my longer runs for weekends. I assure you there is NOTHING more boring than running on a treadmill for an hour, watching yourself in a mirror. Finally, the weather improved to the point where outside runs were the norm. I never went back to the gym.

7:15 am - My turn around point at the Crazy Crab restaurant. I'm halfway there. I've added a few hundred yards to where the odometer says I should turn around to make sure I'm really going to make 26.2 miles.

7:30 am - The support team arrives, sans blind dog. Too hot for the dog, she wants back into the air-conditioned van and house. I want to be there with her. The cool air conditioning on my face as I open the van door feels wonderful. I tell Vicky that I think I'm going to need water every 20 minutes.

My worst training disaster and the one that probably taught me the most was my 16 miler. I felt pretty confident up to that point that I could make the marathon distance. Things were tough but, I felt that I could handle anything. My run on that particular Saturday was to shake my confidence and drain me entirely of energy. I went into that run with two problems. First, I hadn't carbohydrate loaded the night before, electing instead to sample my girlfriend's ribs. Secondly, I had no carbohydrates of any kind to get me through the run. I didn't have a clue as to the physiological consequences of these actions. At about mile 12, I ran out of ready energy. The closest thing I can equate this to is how you feel after a prolonged flu. Drained, poor concentration, imagining excuses to quit. I finally gave it up when I reached my car, 2 miles short of my goal. Because of the schedule Art and I had set up I was never able to go back and try that run again. I had to move on to 18 miles. I was better prepared physiologically for that run but because of the previous failure it had a much higher mental cost.

8:00 am - The folks I see running and bicycling in the more populous regions must think I make quite a sight. I wonder if any of them suspect I'm running 26.2 miles. I no longer care what I look like. Part of me would like to keep up with all those young, lean runners who pass me. Part of me would like to trip one or two of them. Perhaps a sacrifice at Alligator Lake would be appropriate. This thought heartens me for a moment.

Most of my friends and family are uninterested in the small triumphs and setbacks along the course of my training. I don't blame them, it is pretty boring. When I return to Vicky's house, near the endpoint of my long training runs I'm sweating, hurting, chugging down rehydration fluids, trying not to get sweat on any furniture, wondering whether or not I'll need to puke. Not too pretty a picture. She repeats a remark that I made to her when I started this, "It's self inflicted." I try not to bitch too much around her.

8:30 am - When I stop for a water break I sit on the van seat. Now I know heaven is an air-conditioned Plymouth van.

When I made my first 20 miler my toenails turned black and later started falling out. I learned that one of the pairs of shoes I normally ran in, while comfortable for a 5 miler, were short about a half size for a 20 mile run.

9:00 am - Now I'm beginning to count down the time to go. Estimating when I should be finished and this will all be over with. When I planned this I didn't count on the fact that I would be running back facing into the sun. A guy and his fat dog have passed me. I wonder what collie meat tastes like?
I put in an extra set of pads into my shoes, this seems to help quite a bit since there is quite a lot of heal wear by the time I'm ready for the big run.

9:30 am - Where the hell are all the nice cool sea breezes I've been counting on. Vicky is stopped at Anne's Crab house in her air-conditioned van reading a book. I hope she sees I'm dying out here. When she stops with water I sit down AND close the door of the van. I'm gulping down a half-quart of rehydration fluid and a half-quart of water or more at every stop. The thought of more carbohydrate gel makes me want to puke. I have no idea how many I've had.

I decided on a run away from my Alabama home, thinking that running in an unfamiliar location might add a bit of adrenaline that I could use. I measured off the distance in the van thinking at about the 9 mile mark that 26.2 miles is a long way to run. For most of the way it's a beautiful, wide bike trail with just a few miles of narrow road extension that is still quite nice.

10:00 am - I see a snake crossing the bike path. Snakes don't realize that exhausted runners have the right of way. I'm to the point where I run a few hundred yards and walk 50.

I wonder what my recently deceased father would think of all this. He used to mention that when he was younger that he would hold his breath between telephone poles to increase his wind. His knees gave out in his later years due to too much time in cold foxholes. When we would run together when I was a pre-teen he would always run with a painful limp.

10:30 am - My support team has been pulled over by the cops. They're are wondering why Vicky's pulled over on the side of the road with no one around. I take on my last water and rehydration fluid before the finish. There's only one more hill between me and the finish line.

I wonder if this is all related to some sort of mid-life crisis. I certainly don't have the urge for a flashy new red sports car. Maybe we all manifest our crises differently some with sports cars and some with torturing ourselves to reach a new goal.

10:42 am - I see Vicky with the video camera ahead. I feel a terrific surge of energy enough to turn my jog into a sprint. At 10:43, I cross the finish line. It's just the entrance into the subdivision. Workers across the street go on working. The world continues to turn. I've made a personal goal. What's next?

About George Melochick
George is a 44 year old Engineer working on Ballistic Missile Defense with Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC). Previously he was Program Manager, Intelligence Systems, with Harris Corporation in Melbourne, Florida and prior to that served six years as a Military Intelligence Officer. George has made extensive solo hikes through Denali, Alaska, the Grand Canyon and the Appalachian Trail. Currently he lives in Huntsville, Alabama with his cat, "Von Braun".

Thanks George, for a great marathon report. To get some pointers on organizing your very own solo-marathon or to just say "hello and congratulations", George can be contacted at GMelo@Aol.com.

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