Note: It’s been just over a week since I completed my epic 37-mile run and I’m finding new insights with every passing day. This will likely be the first post, of many, where I share the experience and what I learned along the way. Sorry if it’s a bit rough around the edges…it was either getting it perfect or getting it posted. I wanted to share this so perfection had to stay on the sideline. I hope you enjoy reading about it as much as I did experiencing it.
The goal was to run 37-miles on my 37th birthday, which for the record was December 31, 2011. I did it to prove to myself that I could, to push my personal boundaries and simply because I could. In the end, it was the best and worst experience of my life. It was the most awesome and – at times – the most painful thing I ever did. It made me hate life and love living. Most importantly it showed me that I have way more in me than I ever knew. It also showed me that I have a ton of family and friends that really care about me, support me, and would give-up their time to help me achieve something that was I felt was important.
Another important aspect was raising money for a charity that I chose based on a lot of research. I know them by E2C, but officially they are known as Endure to Cure. E2C is a pediatric cancer foundation that raises funds for very specific campaigns at organizations that research, treat, and/or provide support for pediatric cancer patients. They seek to rank in the top tier among all charities with an industry-high ratio of donations that go to the cause (85% or greater). I respect the professionalism and mission of the organization so I was happy to dedicate my miles to them and all of the kiddos that they are helping.
What Went Right
Almost everything! I had unconditional support from my wife and son for the whole crazy expedition. Never underestimate just how important having a strong support system, especially when most think you are crazy! Laura never once doubted my ability and provided a ton of support. Along for the entire adventure was my life-long friend, best-man, and Andrew’s godfather Kyle serving as support-rider, photographer, and communications chief. Along the way I’d meet up with my sister, Niki who brought me food and enthusiasm from Cementon through Allentown, Mike, who I’ve known for a while but never met in person, who ran with me from Allentown to Bethlehem and shared a ton of great stories and inspired me to run my best.
There were also a cast of other characters that all contributed to the effort. Tommy, my Dad, Kyle’s wife Lisa and their kids, were all there throughout and their support really inspired me.
As with any significant effort planning plays a big role. With the help of the folks at the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor I was able to plot a great route that would keep me off of busy roads (mostly) and prevent getting lost. The weather also played a big role. I had anticipated typical late-December weather (e.g. cold) but was treated to a relatively mild day, with no wind and plenty of sun. That made the run much easier, and more pleasant.
All-in-all I think all external factors came into alignment in my favor, so I feel like I was destined to achieve my objective.
What Went Wrong
I definitely underestimated the amount of time that it would take me to get ready on the day of the run. I had my gear ready, my clothing laid-out, etc. but everything took a lot longer to pull together. Maybe it was the time of day, maybe it was my lack of sleep, but it delayed our departure by over 50-minutes. Not that I had a time goal, but the start was inauspicious at best.
I also came out of the gate a bit ambitiously. I tackled the first 14-miles in a better time than my second best half marathon (1:58). I tried to hold back but the pace felt good and it was hard to slow things down. I don’t know that I would have changed anything based on what I knew at the time, but having done it I would have definitely gone slower from the start so I would have had more at the end.
Another unexpected issue was around mile 28, when we were diverted from the original course by the Bethlehem Police Department. Sand Island – in Bethlehem – was closed because they were setting-up fireworks for the New Years Eve celebration. The alternate route we were provided by the officer – who I’m sure was trying to be helpful – was totally off and that sent Kyle and I on a jungle expedition that ended in a dead-end which resulted in a 2.5 mile detour uphill and on the road and totally killed my spirit. By the time we were back on trail I was mentally ready to quit, but we pressed-on despite the huge set-back.
Another periodic set-back was unexpected terrain changes. I plotted the route based on memory and map. Had I pre-rode the route I would have found some alternative routes for some of the stuff that we encountered. Niki and I lost Kyle in Northampton when the trail got iffy. We encountered a huge hill in Allentown just before connecting back onto the D&L trail. The route into the finish line was fuzzy at best, largely because I didn’t do enough homework. I own those mistakes for not doing my due-dilligence.
The final set-back was in the last handful of miles the wheels came off of the cart – around mile 30 – and I couldn’t (note: not didn’t want to, I physically couldn’t) run any more, and had to resort to power-walking the last 7-miles, because I couldn’t let it go and knew that I was close to my goal!
Lesson learned? Running for distance is full of challenges, obstacles and unknowns. Nothing ever goes according to plan so just be mentally prepared, accept that something unexpected will probably happen and treat it as part of the adventure.
Hydration & Nutrition Strategy
The week prior to the event I was pretty diligent about my caloric intake. I didn’t overdo it, but I also gave myself some flexibility to consume extra calories. It didn’t hurt that I was out of town for much of the week so I had the opportunity to indulge in the holiday bounty. The night before I indulged in a reasonable, but hearty, pasta dinner. It worked for the half that I did a few weeks earlier, so I figured it couldn’t hurt. The morning of the run I didn’t want to eat – never do – but since we had a decent ride to the start I ate a banana and chunky (the best and only kind of) peanut butter and a cup of coffee. Unheard of in normal races but since I knew it was a long day I wanted to be caffeinated (at least a bit).
I carried a Nathan 2-liter hydration pack, which added weight to my load but gave me essential H20 and some space to haul some food. Being a half marathon guy, hydration and food are generally never an issue but I’ve learned enough to know I need water and some type of nutrition about every 4-miles, even if it’s only a nibble and a sip, so I made a concerted effort after mile 4 to eat and drink – generally every 2-miles or so. By the time I reached Cementon / Northampton I was down about a 3/4 of a liter. Not sure if that was too little – or too much – but I was able to refill when I met Niki for the next 10-miles.
On the run, I had grand delusions of filling my face full of food as I went – similar to stories that I’ve read by others who have done that sort of thing – but the reality was that I really wasn’t that interested in eating. Following my half marathon strategy I started popping Clif Shot Bloks every 4 miles after mile-4. I also took as much water as I could handle. Around mile-6 I cracked open a Gatorade G-Series Prime drink (I packed 3) and sipped from that for a mile or two. They recommend drinking it 15-minutes prior to starting, but I thought it would be a good source of hydration and nutrients regardless of where I was at.
I didn’t eat anything else through mile-18. At that point Niki strongly encouraged (aka forced) me to eat a whole wheat mini bagel with peanut butter which I reluctantly accepted but totally appreciated. As it turned out she packed an entire care pack with another bagel and PB, more Shot Bloks (she knows that I love them), a couple of bananas, and an assortment of other stuff. Little did I know I would really need all of it.
After our detour debacle, I ate the other peanut butter bagel, and drank a ton of water. That was really the last of the eating for the entire expedition.
Lesson learned? If you are planning to run any distance over 20-miles, have a hydration and nutrition plan. You may not think you’ll need it, but you probably will.
I’ll be honest here. I thought I had covered more ground than 15-miles in a single outing prior to this run but I didn’t. I also thought that I cleared over 40-miles in a week at least once before, but I missed that mark too. I was completely undertrained for what I took on, but it proved to me that achieving a distance is as much about having done it, as it is knowing you can. I felt like I could cover the distance, I knew I had the support in place to make it happen, all that I needed to do was make it happen.
Initially I said that “had I to do it over again I’d probably keep the same approach. Ignorance is bliss and by not fixating on how difficult what I was trying to do was, it made it not matter.” I’ve since reconsidered. I knew my running habits, abilities and mental toughness, but I also know, in hindsight, that I could have trained more so I was better prepared for the last 8-miles. It was tough and while mentally I was good to go, my body simply wasn’t. I’d probably add in a few more weeks with long-runs up to 22-24 miles.
And while I’ll still believe that we are being conditioned to over-think everything rather than just going for it, proper, prior planning prevents piss poor performance. I got away with it this time. I may not be as lucky the next. There are definitely smarter, more pragmatic ways of going about a run of this distance. I cannot deny that. When I do it again I’ll be a little smarter about my training.
Lesson learned? Never underestimate training – physical and mental – they are the foundation upon which all great things are built. That doesn’t mean you have to over-think it, just be smart and do the work. It will pay dividends in the end.
Here are the final stats:
Miles run: 37.38 miles
Time: 8 hours 15 minutes
Half Marathon time: 1:58:34
Marathon time: 4:22:58
Average pace: 13:13 / mile
Calories burned: ~6,505
Water consumed: 2.5 liters
Food consumed: 7 Clif Shot Blocks, 2 mini whole wheat bagels and peanut butter, 1/2 banana, 2 Peanut butter mini Clif bars, 2 8-ounce Gatorade G2 Prime drinks.
Injuries: 2 blisters (one on each big toe)
In the end, it was the greatest experience of my life – the most awesome and most painful thing I’ve ever done. It made me question my sanity and love living. Most importantly it showed me that I have way more potential in me than I ever dreamed possible. It also proved to me that I have a ton of family and friends that care about me, support me, and would give-up their time to help me achieve something that was important to me. Finally, it demonstrated the importance of setting a huge goal and going for it.
There is so much that I can, and will, say about this experience, but the most important aspect, to me, is the fact that an awesome feeling to set what seems to be an impossible goal and go for it. So often our brain tells us that what we want to do doesn’t make sense or is impossible. More often than not, it’s right. But every now and again it’s wrong and the only way you can enjoy the rewards of the accomplishment is by going for it. My 37-miles is one of those times and I’m really happy that I did. I hope your adventures lead you to the same conclusion!