I remember my first one… do you? It was October 2001 in Kelowna. The air was crisp that day, a balmy four degrees Celsius outside and I felt ready to get the job done. I was getting ready to run the Okanagan Marathon… my first foray into the distance.
Back in December of 2000 I had a corneal transplant on my left eye. This was the result of a condition in my eye called Keratoconus, which caused my cornea to swell, leaving me with the inability to keep a contact lens on my eye and also it constantly changed my vision, even with my glasses on. Once the surgery was completed, I was left with stitches in my eye for a year. With my eye healing and stitches in my eye, I could no longer play any contact sports, such as basketball, which I had played for many years to that point. My ophthalmologist told me I could start running or start swimming. Ugh. Swimming? Sorry for all you swimmers out there, but I was not a fan. So running it was. I recall having done a couple of fun races the previous summer including the Beat Beethoven 8k and a Fort Edmonton 5k. So I threw myself right in for 2001. I completed races of every distance including 5k, 10k, 15k, 21.1k and now I was staring down 42.2k. I had grown quite strong that year and like many people new to the sport, learned a lot. My confidence was high and I had followed my marathon training guide (for the most part) so I was fully confident that I would finish in under 3 hours and 30 minutes. I was 22 years old, overconfident and hadn’t put in the longest training runs or learned how to pace myself for this distance… it would be a memorable day.
The day before the Okanagan Marathon we did a course tour plus a winery visit. We had also gone for a walk around Kelowna later that day. I had wanted to pick up some new headphones from A & B Sound (remember them?) and recalled seeing a store just a few blocks from our hotel when we had drove in the day before. So we started walking and we walked and walked but never found the store. Eventually we ended up at a mall which was about five kilometres from the hotel. How did we miss it? So we walked back, finding that we had missed it by a block and now they were closed. Seriously? We had walked ten kilometres the day before my first marathon looking for headphones that I really didn’t even need. I shrugged it off, we had dinner and I noticed a vehicle outside on the street that looked an awful lot like my Dad’s truck. Sure enough, it was! My parents had driven down from Edmonton to surprise me for the race. What a treat! It would be good to see them on the course the next day and they would see me meet my goal… for certain!
So race day arrived and I got up early and took advantage of the empty streets by going for a warm up jog on them. I probably warmed up for longer than I had to, but in my head, I was doing what the top athletes all did. Of course, it probably wasn’t their first year of running several distances, particularly a marathon distance. As I did in the early days of running, I never ate anything before a run, always nervous that my stomach would become upset on my run. So… to take stock… as the race was about to begin, I had tired legs from the walk the day before and the excessive warmup that morning, I had zero nutrition in my system, and my girlfriend (now my wife) and my parents were here to cheer me on, not realizing that I was likely going to bonk HARD.
The race started and all was fine for the first thirty kilometres or so. I was on pace for about a 3:20 marathon and I found the fans great and the course fairly flat with the exception of one larger hill. I recall being disappointed that in those days, the course barely ran along the waterfront, but spent most of its time in neighbourhoods and then on the outskirts of the city running through pumpkin patches. Now remember, I had followed MOST of my training plan. What I didn’t follow well enough was getting the longest of long runs in. I did one thirty two kilometre run, up from a twenty six a week before, then never came back to the distance. In fact, I’m pretty sure I didn’t even long run for a couple weeks after. So… around thirty three kilometres I started faltering. My legs became incredibly heavy. I ran past a McDonalds, smelling the breakfast being made and all of a sudden I was starving. Then I started walking. And I walked a lot. People began passing me and I just couldn’t keep up with them. I walked and ran up to about the thirty nine kilometre mark before running the final three kilometres in. Everything hurt, I was tired, and I wanted to be done. It was a grey cloudy day that matched my mood for that last hour or so. I came across the finish line in 3:35 and was in tears because I had missed my goal by five minutes. But hey, at 22 years old, I had finished a marathon, and believe me, I had a LOT to learn from this experience.
For those of you that have followed my blog for awhile now, you will know that I shifted my focus more to trails and the ultra/relay circuit in around 2007. So I haven’t actually run many road marathons. Three in total – 2001 Okanagan, 2004 Edmonton and 2011 Red Deer. Okanagan was a learning experience, Edmonton was my fastest (3:27) and Red Deer was my most consistent pacing (1:44 first half, 1:45 second half) and the one I felt best about all around. I have thought of doing the Edmonton Marathon again, but I keep getting pulled to the trails and away from the road.
Fast forward to 2020, the year of the pandemic. Races are being cancelled or are going virtual everywhere. My seventeen year old son Eric has had a strong fall, winter and spring of training as part of his original plan to relay Sinister 7 this July and solo Canadian Death Race this August. Despite a frightening experience with hypothermia at an ultra in January and some nutrition issues when he re-attempted the course about a month later, he has put in a lot of solid miles. He has put in many, many thirty plus kilometre long runs, including two thirty five kilometre long runs in the last few weeks. He stretches, rolls, does yoga, gets out on his bike and all around eats well. His high school track season has been cancelled as well, so he was looking for goals to work towards. So I mentioned to him in April that he should attempt a marathon distance on the roads in early May, before moving most running back to trails for the summer. It would be a good goal for him to have in the spring, and I honestly felt that he was strong enough physically, and probably mentally now, to do it. So after a thirty five kilometre trail outing west of Edmonton a couple weeks ago, we nailed down the date for his marathon attempt. May 9th, 2020.
Now we thought about making a big deal of it and having family and friends come along the course he had created to cheer him on. But it is a funny time right now with physical distancing and all, plus Eric seemed to want to keep it low key, which is what we decided to do. The plan was for him to do two loops of a 21.1km road course that started and ended at our house. He would run the first 17 or so kms on his own and then I would join him for the last 24 or 25kms to pace him in when things could start to get tricky for him in the late 30kms range. We ordered some extra nutrition online ahead of time and he laid out a plan of what he would carry and what he would like at certain points along the second lap. My wife and youngest son would be the support crew along the course on lap two while I would be responsible for pulling him out of any mental challenges and filling any uncomfortable silence with a lot of annoying chatter to pass the time in those late kilometres of a marathon distance.
At 7:05am on Saturday May 9, 2020, Eric started his marathon run. His goal was simple and attainable, get in under four hours. Given the pace he had been running his 30+km runs in, I felt this was do-able and he could likely even be closer to 3:50. On lap one he ran solo and we met him at about 18kms so my wife could re-fill his water bottles and so I could join him on his last few kms of lap one. He came in ahead of schedule so I once again reminded him of pacing and that the last ten kilometres of this distance will be the hardest he may have ever done. At home after lap one we made a quick washroom break (note: there is a real lack of public washrooms currently due to the pandemic and closures in the community) and headed out for lap two. My job was pacing. I told him I wanted us to float between a 5:15 and a 5:25 per kilometre pace. He was taking nutrition every five kilometres so this would consist of a minute or so of walking at regular intervals.
The morning was lovely out, it was about plus six degrees celsius and sunny. A bit windy, but not cold. We hit 25kms feeling good. We hit 30kms at the high point of our run feeling good. Around 34kms though, I could tell he wasn’t feeling great. He said he felt like he was going to throw up and couldn’t stomach another gel when we stopped for his next nutrition break. We hit 35kms and walked for a couple of minutes. I stressed that this is where it gets hard and mentally and physically you may want to stop. If you can keep moving forward, you can drown out the voices in your head telling you to stop. So we ran up a 500 metre hill at 36kms. We walked at 38 and 40k and hydrated. At no point did I really think he was going to stop, but I knew he was struggling, and at that point you have to decide if what you are feeling is enough to make you stop, or if its just smoke and mirrors, keeping you from your ultimate goal. When we started running again with two kilometres to go, I told him firmly that we weren’t stopping again. I kept talking, trying to distract him, and he was still talking as well, which is a great sign at that point. Once we got to the field beside our house, he picked up the pace and with his Mom and brother cheering him on, completed his first marathon distance right in front of our house. I yelled out “you did it! First marathon!” and a man walking with a stroller stopped and clapped for him. That was pretty cool and unexpected!
In a time of much uncertainty and limitation, I am very proud of Eric for completing his first marathon distance. Although he met his time goal, that really is irrelevant. What is more important is that he was physical and mentally prepared to tackle this endeavor; something that I was not in October of 2001, the year of my first marathon (and eight months before Eric was even born). I thought I was ready, but I had not challenged myself enough prior to my first marathon to really know if I could get through it like I had hoped to.
Eric has been through a lot of adversity these past few months, starting with his hypothermic experience at Canadian River Valley Revenge in January, then getting into a car accident in February and most recently, finding out that he will not have a Grade 12 graduation ceremony due to the current pandemic. Even his 18th birthday in late June will look a lot different than it may have prior to all of this physical distancing. A lot of people, not just teenagers, would have backed off and changed direction, but Eric has found solace in running and he goes out almost every day still. It may be his one constant in a time where nothing is “normal” anymore. Aside from reminding him to stretch more, there really isn’t a lot of direction that needs to be given from me. All I try to do is share my past experiences with him so he can learn from them, try to emulate the things I did well and try to avoid making the same mistakes that I have. Really this is no different for any parent/child relationship. As a parent I want my children to succeed but also to learn from their mistakes.
I am confident that this is yet another step in what will be a great future for Eric. When he gets into the 35-40km mark at his first official road marathon sometime in the not so distant future, he will know what it feels like at that point, mentally and physically. I am confident that the energy created by the fans, the music and the other runners, will just power him to the finish line even faster than he expects. I am so grateful that I was able to run with him and celebrate with him… as I will continue to do with all he does and accomplishes, running related or not.